The shortest summer in the history of academia has just ended.
If you’re like me, less got done than usual and what did get done is less finished and less polished than you had hoped.
In our current, unpredictable pandemic environment, it’s likely that the year ahead will provide even fewer opportunities for sustained research and writing, while added distractions and stress are practically guaranteed.
For me, this anxious end-of-summer feeling long pre-dated COVID. I would overcommit and underdeliver on summer writing and research every year, in part because I would spend half of every summer redoing the research I had done during the previous one.
Every year, I stubbornly believed that this summer would be different—this time I would actually get everything done that I said I would, if only I worked a little harder and a little longer.
I finally realized that those expectations were detrimental to my physical and mental health. Summer is not the time to work harder.
In that spirit, I developed a simple end-of-summer self-assessment that also makes fall and winter writing much easier. This self-assessment allows you to assess your summer writing and research honestly and turn the unfinished bits into discrete, doable tasks that you can complete in 1–2 hour blocks during the fall and winter months.
Review your summer writing and research
At the end of the summer, schedule time on your calendar to go through each of your projects and make some lists.
If you prefer a digital option, you can use a tool like Trello, Todoist, Evernote, or iOS Reminders. If you prefer an analog option, you can use a paper planner or even sticky notes. If you have a project that is in the writing draft stage, you can also use the Track Changes in Microsoft Word or Google Docs to call out and define steps forward.
Get out all the written drafts, outlines, and project notes you have accumulated over the course of the summer and group them into their respective projects. For each project, note the key steps in the research or writing process that remain to be completed. Initially, these tasks may be quite broad (e.g., “research the history of X,” “rethink book organization,” or “find sources on Y”).
Keep each project’s broad list somewhere accessible—say, at the top of the project’s main draft. I keep mine as the top note in that project’s Scrivener folder, titled in all caps so I can’t miss it.
Break broad steps into discrete tasks
Once you have a general list of steps needing completion for each of your summer writing projects, break those broad steps down into their individual component tasks. Your goal here is to create small tasks that can be completed in 1 to 2 hours.
For example, your “find sources on Y” step could include a task of ”find a quotation from Author A’s book” or “run a JSTOR search for Z.” Other tasks might involve locating a statistic, contacting a publisher about permissions, or emailing an archive about accessing a collection of letters.
The idea is to create a list of tasks that you can complete without needing to have your whole summer writing project in the forefront of your mind.
Embed the instructions in the task
In each task description, include all the information you need to be able to jump into the work. Include the link to the article or call number of the book you need to consult, the email address of the librarian you need to contact, or the question you need to find an answer to.
Be as clear and explicit as possible so that you avoid having to re-read your draft or your notes to figure out how to complete the task. You might consider color coding these tasks so that you can find them quickly among all of your materials (this is particularly helpful if you’ve embedded the tasks as notes or comments in your documents).
Knowing that you will be devoting time to these small tasks during the academic year can help you work more efficiently during the summer writing process because you can set aside potentially distracting activities like contacting an archive or looking up a citation for later.
Head into fall with a plan
Once you have defined the individual, doable tasks for each of your projects, gleaned from your summer writing and research, you’re all set up to tackle them in the fall with a flexible plan.
If you are in a regular writing group (as so many of us are these days), at your next meeting you can simply open a document and start working on one of the tasks you identified from your summer writing.
Using this method, I have been able to complete conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters throughout the teaching months. I have also found that this method allows me keep my head in the game during the academic year, preventing the kind of research atrophy that previously could take up to a month or two every summer to recoup.
The key to this method is keeping tasks discrete and small. Frequently, our research and writing to-do lists become sources of stress rather than aids to completion because the tasks are simply too large to complete when we only have an hour here or there to devote.
Doing even one or two hours of research-related work per week during the academic year can be a welcome reminder of the excitement in discovery that brought you to academia in the first place. It can also be a welcome break from the class preparation, academic service, and grading that consumes so much of the academic year.
Finally, it is profoundly satisfying to check off completed tasks every week and know you are moving forward in a sustainable way.