I have long procrastinated through detailed, thorough, and color-coordinated organization schemes. They make me feel like I’m “doing something” while I’m watching TV (thanks, Grey’s Anatomy!). When I need a break from the sound of my own writing voice, they help me transform my writing goals into tiny, gentle, sunset-colored reminders on a robust publishing pipeline (thanks, triple Pisces self!).
These productive procrastination strategies have seen me through drafting my dissertation in graduate school, turning my dissertation into a book while on the academic job market, and finalizing my manuscript revisions as a junior faculty member settling into a new institution.
Digital calendars and time blocking
When I began writing my dissertation, the first tool that helped me organize my days was Tanya Golash-Boza’s “Start the Semester off Right: Make a Weekly Template.” She describes how to prioritize your weekly writing alongside your other teaching and service demands. In Golash-Boza’s model, she uses a digital calendar with red blocks for writing, green blocks for administrative duties, orange blocks for teaching, and purple blocks for self-care.
In this, I found the structure to get me through the daily demands of a tumultuous final two years of graduate school that included the sudden loss of a childhood best friend and beloved grandparent; a terrifying medical diagnosis of my closest family member; the challenges of being part of a queer couple in a conservative small Pennsylvania town (where my partner’s first job was); sharing an office with three other adjuncts; the uncertainty of the academic job market and our impending “two-body problem”; and the difficulties of writing my dissertation remotely alongside the other standard-issue challenges of isolation and exhaustion.
I drafted my own analog version, printed it out, and, as each semester began, pinned it on the wall above my computer, reminding me how to organize my time in order to effectively “Write On!,” as my dear (and disciplining) dissertation co-chair Barbara Harlow used to demand. My template was detailed and it served as a model (not a mandate) on how to organize my day. When I wasn’t teaching, it included time for meals, chapter-drafting, neighborhood runs, preparing academic job market materials, farmer’s market Wednesdays, and time off. When I was teaching, it also included time for syllabus construction, reading, class prep, and grading.
My Mondays through Fridays (on a non-teaching semester), for example, included time for a smoothie and a morning run followed by two hours of dissertation writing, a lunch break, three hours of job market prep, and evenings off with my partner. I scheduled in the farmer’s market (small town perks) and we instituted New Recipe Wednesdays to cultivate joy when it was sometimes sparing. This often was not possible (especially during teaching semesters), but I worked hard to prioritize it and it gave me a formula for what I knew I needed to feel calm during seasons of uncertainty.
Staying flexible with writing plans
This practice taught me to be flexible for the impossible things and for the wins. During my first year of dissertation writing, I took months off after the loss of my friend; I wrapped myself in things that belonged to her and abandoned work entirely. For my second dissertation year, I had planned on five dissertation chapters but only ended up writing four when I found out in mid-February that I got a postdoctoral fellowship for the following year and thus had to prepare for an earlier dissertation defense.
Throughout, having a weekly template reminded me, daily, how to write as a practice: how to tackle each section of each chapter, bird by bird, in small manageable bites each week over the course of months (and years) at a time.
Because most of my time on first year of my first postdoc was eclipsed by the academic job market, I used the time in between applications to work on publications. Through my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, I had institutional access to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. I used their free two-week writing challenges to draft and revise a journal article and finish a short piece on methods.
After job market season on my second year of the postdoc, I began strategizing how to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. I spent the remainder of my research funds on the NCFDD’s Faculty Success Program to kickstart my book writing and learned the importance of a solid writing group and a system to log daily writing. My writing group that began as four strangers in spring of 2016 still checks in every Friday afternoon. It’s become a part of my week that is equal parts accountability and support that has made my publishing pipeline possible.
The weekly plan
During those first years post-grad school, I also came across my real life partner: the Passion Planner. (Apologies to my actual partner, but she knows how serious I am about planning.) As a Passion Planner evangelist (you can try it for free here), I found a home for not only my weekly plan, which I studiously created every Sunday, but also for my bigger, more long-term publishing plans as well my goals beyond work.
Since those early years, my weekly plans have gotten much more elaborate. My color-coded days include meal planning (blue); yoga, spin, or other self-care things like novel reading (turquoise); social time (purple and minimal because I’m peak introvert); research and writing (red); and teaching and service (green). This week’s plan, for example, looks like this.
(*Not pictured: unplanned contingencies of self-quarantining in response to COVID-19.)
I’m not teaching this quarter, so here I include faculty meetings and meetings with friends, colleagues, and mentees, but not hours spent class-prepping or grading. I also include all the other things that I have to remind myself to prioritize: long walks, computer breaks, water, vitamins, probiotics, novel reading, and evenings off (I rarely succeed at that last one).
The semester plan
I’ve also made a home in my planner for my other favorite productive procrastination pastime: the semester plan. This is a fifteen-week plan (modeled on the Every Semester Needs a Plan webinar) with goals and tasks for teaching, service, research, and mind/body caretaking that are aligned with my publishing plans.
Each semester, I create an Excel sheet with categories, print it out, tape it into the blank pages in the back of my planner, and use it as a flexible guide for the term. I rarely stay 100 percent on track, but it works as an aspirational reminder to keep my long-term goals on my weekly radar.
Weekly and monthly planning like this helps me instrumentalize my publishing pipeline. I was first introduced to the publishing pipeline through Erin Furtak’s four-week webinar Building a Publishing Pipeline and her accompanying article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed: “My Writing Productivity Pipeline.”
Over the years, I have amended this model, drafting a pipeline that includes the following categories: new ideas, outline, collecting data, analyzing data, first draft, polished draft, send to reader, address feedback, final edits, under review, in revision, revision under review, accepted, in press, and published.
I use pink Post-its for peer-reviewed journal articles, yellow for book reviews, orange for public scholarship pieces, and turquoise for book manuscript(s). (Pro tip: use a ruler, do a first draft in pencil, cut the Post-its into tiny squares, and use only the fully sticky part!)
The really useful thing about a publishing pipeline is that, if an article is not accepted (and as someone who works on Palestine, this happens to me A LOT, which is material for another article altogether), those Post-its can easily be moved around. I have repeatedly moved pink squares from under review back to first draft or send to reader, or, sometimes, when I submit a rejected piece to another journal with no additional edits, it just stays under review. This last strategy—immediate resubmission and refusal to move the Post-it—takes the sting out of politicized rejections and incentivizes moving forward.
My publishing pipeline has also given me the flexibility to include new collaborative projects and fill out the grid a little more than I have been able to in the past. Overall, it reminds me that my work is important, that I do enough, and that I have ideas worth putting out in the world.
I hope this post is useful in sharing my own versions of these writing strategies for graduate students, postdocs, faculty on and off the tenure track, and independent scholars. I also hope it’s useful as a reminder that it’s an act of self-care and collective care to take the time out, individually and collaboratively, to think about what you want to write, how you want to write it, with whom, and on what schedule.
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About the author
Jennifer Lynn Kelly is an assistant professor of feminist studies and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research engages settler colonialism, US empire, and the fraught politics of tourism and solidarity. She is completing her first book, Invited to Witness: Solidarity Tourism Across Occupied Palestine, a multi-sited ethnographic study of solidarity tourism in Palestine.