Saturday, May 28, 2016
from binge to snack: why Parking 60 has changed my writing life
A year ago, I attended a Thinkwell seminar, on academic writing. It was two hours that flipped my approach to writing on its head. As part of the seminar, Thinkwell talked about the contrast between binge writing and snack writing. Binge writing involves large slabs of time, often when faced by a deadline. Snack writing is regular, limited, daily.
Prior to the seminar, I had been a binge writer. I am motivated by deadlines. I told myself I needed good time to get into the headspace I needed to write. Since that time rarely came along, the binges – faced with an academic conference looming – would at times get pretty intense.
Thinkwell encouraged writing between 45 to 120 minutes a day, five days a week, first thing. Writing is writing. It is not reading or editing. It is putting words on a page. I decided to give it a go.
A year ago, I hung a “Shh. Research in progress” sign over my desk at home. I turned off the internet. I cleared the desk of everything but my research. I placed the photo on my cellphone as a reminder. I began to try and not make appointments before 9:30 am.
That was 29 May, 2015.
This week, 26 May, 2016, I took a second photo. “Parking 60.” It captures my current work habit. I do the school run, then head for a cafe (less likely to be disturbed). I write for 60 minutes. I “park” – writing a few notes to myself about what I need to do next. I return to work and have about 15 minutes to clear immediate email, before heading for staff morning tea and into my meetings. I do that three to four times a week.
In the year in between these two photos, in my snack writing, I have written 75,000 words. This involves one book (Built for Change), three journal articles (draft, not yet submitted) and one international conference presentation.
I have continued to find small fragments of time at meet urgent deadlines at other times of the day. This is not in the 75,000 words tally, but has included eleven monthly 500 word film reviews, eight conference abstracts, two 700 word articles aimed at my industry partner and the publication of one conference proceedings.
The encouragement by Thinkwell to snack writing is based on psychological and educational research into productivity in research.
- First, writing is hard work. It is 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. Humans tend to do all they can to avoid hard work.
- Second, the brain makes its best decisions when fresh. Hence the brain is more likely to remain on task, focused on the hard work of writing if you write first in your day.
- Third, the brain subconsciously processes while you go about other tasks. Snack writing is more likely to draw on this subconscious processes. When a thought comes during the day, I make a quick note, and have something to spark when when I return the next morning.
- Fourth, the brain remembers what you felt like as you last finished something. If you binge write, you are more likely to finish exhausted. The brain remembers this and the next time you want to write, your brain recalls how hard it was and encourages you to find an easier task. If you snack write, you are likely to stop while you are in a good flow. The brain remembers this. The next time you want to write, the brain recalls how energised you were in the midst of the flow.
- Fifth, this is helped by “parking.” At the end of 60 minutes, I make a note of what I was about to do. I label this clearly in yellow on my Word document. I also make a note in Evernote using a tag “the next most important thing.” I update my work count, to give a sense of progress. This means when I sit to write, it is easier to pick up the task. I don’t have to work out what do, because it is already there in my to do list .
Over the year, I have noticed some changes. I tend now to think in sections. Rather than look at an entire piece of work that needs to be around 6,000 words for a journal article or 8,000 words for a book chapter, I find I am using headings to break the project up. With only an hour, I find myself focused on completing a section, rather than the entire project. I used to think I needed a sabbatical or at least a whole day to work on a book. Now I am much more comfortable in 60 minute bursts. I also tend to be better organised. I have a cloth bag in which my books for different projects live, which gets taken to the cafe. If I need a book to complete the next section, I find myself fitting the task of acquiring the book into the day, rather than needing to first find the book before I can start writing.
I have moved jobs during the year. The output is roughly similar. I wrote around 25,000 in the four months of being Principal of Uniting College and have written 55,000 in the eight months of being Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. In the current job, I have less breakfast meetings. However, I am flying more, which provides a different set of challenges.
By claiming 60 minutes, what have I lost? My partner reckons I don’t come home from work any later. I am blogging less. (I have averaged 9 blog posts per month in the last 12 months; 12 blog posts per month in the 12 months prior). In other words, blogging was my previous “snack writing.” I am probably a bit slower with some email. But I am also more energised. It feels great arriving to my tasks knowing I have already given good, solid, time, to something I value.
I am not sure my writing is any better, although I suspect it is. But one year on, snack writing has changed my writing life and certainly increased my output.
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