Blocking Time

July 1, 2006

As an aging academic, I am beset with scholarship sclerosis, that is a clog in the smooth flow of writing output. All academics face these problems. We write more and more about less meaningful things, and yearn for a return to the days of Assistant Professorship, when no one knew of our existence and left us alone to enjoy the great freedom of time to think and write well.

Writing today comprises responding to numerous unproductive emails, administrative work, editorial and referee work, reports on our own work, creating syllabuses and slides, giving presentations, etc. Much of this has been brought on by the computer. Were it not around, there would be no emails, no slides, much fewer reports, and in general better writing (and better handwriting too!).

But the big problem seems to be that we have become multi-taskers, resulting in a loss of the ability to spend large blocks of time on specific deep-involvement production. And, I am convinced that this leads to lower output quantity (despite all the stated virtues of multitasking), to compound the problem of the drop off in quality.

Here is how this happens. Many, if not all of us academics, need blocks of time in which we can sit down and attend to the serious business of writing a good academic paper. We are unable to begin the process of writing unless that chunk of time becomes available. Hence, the absence of a block of time turns into writer’s block. With the greater arrival of distractions, like emails, web events, etc., there are shrinkages in the blocks of time, resulting in fewer episodes where we feel ready to sit down and write. Hence, we write less of what matters, and write more of what does not.

The antidote to all this is to just sit down and write, without thinking about completion. In fact, it is recommended that we sit down with the idea of writing for a fixed amount of time, and then we should stop, whether done or not. It is said that Oscar Wilde wrote four hours a day and then always stopped, even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Knowing that you have a fixed, limited time for something actually helps avoid distractions, since it implicitly raises the cost of being distracted.

Another thing I have noticed is that we tend to overestimate the effort and time to complete a task. Often I assume a writing task will take two hours and then do not begin if I have but a half hour available. If I do start to do it, I find that it has only taken 20 minutes and I am actually done with time to spare. I do not believe there is any way to avoid the time overestimation problem, which seems to me to be pretty much hardwired in our brains. So, the only way to deal with it is to just start the task. The Nike people got this all figured out I guess – we just need to do it.

There are people who just cannot gain from regular writing for a fixed period of time. I know some of them. They go for days doing nothing, and then in one day, can accomplish what I usually need two weeks for. But then, such folks do not need to worry about blocks and so on. All they need to do is manage their guilt for the time they sit around waiting for their burst of output. For the rest of us monkeys, we better sit and pound on our keyboards, even when we don’t know what we are doing.