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On discipline, focus and writing every day in academic writing: My 2013 goals

When I set out to write my Research Plan for 2013 and my Research Trajectory for 2013-2016, I decided to write down one word that would establish my goals for the year. This year, the word was FOCUS. I decided that, no matter how many obstacles I face and regardless of how many different scholarly topics interest me, I was going to focus on what I had set out in my 2013 Research Plan.


Photo credit: crypto on Flickr

One of the biggest challenges I often face is to be disciplined and focused in my academic writing. Because I have so many (and broad) scholarly interests, and given my extroverted and vivacious personality (a factor that I think is often overlooked when writing about productivity in academic settings), it’s often challenging to remain focused on what I need to achieve. I get excited about so many things. Admittedly, I work really hard and I’m very fast at what I do. But still, academic writing requires reflection and in-depth thinking. So I vowed this year to be more disciplined and focused.

Three productivity tips I’m implementing this year in full force (I’ve been working at them for the last little while, but this year they are the top priority) are:

1) writing every day
2) doing more distributed work
3) maintaining focus

Writing every day

Academic writing (working from home)

I regularly read 3 academic productivity blogs, each of them written by Tanya Golash-Boza, Jo Van Every and Karen Kelsky. Because so much of my academic life and success has hinged on being productive, I enjoy their productivity tips. Tanya suggests that you can be productive by writing 2 hours a day, and I can certainly attest to the truth of that suggestion. I don’t write for 2 hours straight, however. As Jo indicates, you should write the way it suits you, not the way everyone tells you to. Karen suggests that you should channel your inner rage and motivate you (in this case, to write).

So here is what I do: I wake up every morning, and before doing anything else, I prepare a pot of coffee and I start writing. I have daily meetings with my writing (I book time that nobody else has access to, where I just sit down and write). Because nobody has asked me (YET) to meet at 5:45am, usually my writing comes out at around this time. I spend anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours doing what is called “generative writing” (putting ideas down on paper/word processing file, drafting new sections of a paper, revising sections, reformatting and adding ideas, editing sentences, etc.) Anything that makes me feel that I am advancing my own research.

If I can’t write for 2 hours straight, I set out to write for at least 4 blocks of 30 minutes each EVERY DAY. No day goes by when I don’t write for at least 4 blocks of 30 minutes each. If I have to be at my office at CIDE in the morning, I book 4 slots where I just write without interruption. No email, no phone calls, nothing. I used to have an open-door policy, which I no longer have. I have found that closing the door, while everyone knows I’m inside my office, makes people realize that I might be busy writing or doing research, so they think twice before knocking. If I’m travelling, I usually wake up 2 hours earlier so that I can devote time to writing.

Doing more distributed work


Photo credit: David King on Flickr

This is a topic that merits its own blog post, but in general, my goal here is to do more work remotely and to distribute workloads effectively. On the topic of distributed (as in, remote) work: I love coming into my office every day, that’s how I get to engage in excellent discussions with my colleagues, my research assistants and my students. But ever since I discovered the distributed work features of Mendeley and Dropbox, I’m more inclined to spend time away from the office doing work. I have a lovely home office at my parents’ place and one at my own house in Aguascalientes, so I can always work from home whenever I want.

On the other hand (distributed work as in allocating workloads), I also have been empowering my research assistants to take the initiative and push their own boundaries of comfort. I think the world of my students and my research assistants, and I’m not a micro-manager. I set out to tell my RAs what needs to happen and I give them the freedom to pursue avenues and strategies that allow them to accomplish what I need accomplished. I think this is part of distributed work (distributing workloads in such a way that I don’t micromanage but I get things done). Also, hiring the best people always helps.



Photo credit: Mark Hunter on Flickr

Most people would look at my scholarly interests and think that I write about and research a very broad variety of topics and that this would be counter-intuitive if I’m trying to maintain focus. I’d respond that this is not the case. By maintaining focus, I mean that I just do what I am supposed to do, instead of adding things to my pile continuously. I can’t even begin to tell you how many calls for papers, invitations to submit to edited volumes, etc. I receive on an every day basis. I look at them longingly and I think “wow, this would be a really neat project“. And then I file them in my “Cool Things I Would Love To Research Whenever I Have Time (Which Is Pretty Much Never)”.

I’ve survived the siren-like lure of engaging in scholarship on water use in agriculture. I just can’t deviate from my line of research. I’ve been invited to do more research on climate policy. I have been told that I should analyze airshed governance. And my response is “sorry, but I already have a research trajectory and none of those topics are within my plans for the next 6 years“.

Any invitation I’ve accepted (or extended) to engage in new scholarly pursuits is perfectly aligned with my research trajectory for the next 6 years. Yes, I’m going to start doing more work on water conflict. But I’ve already studied conflicts for water in transboundary water governance, so doing it at the sub-national scale is a natural extension of my work. Admittedly, I’m going to do some work on environmental injustice and global geographies of e-waste. But I’m already doing work on informal recycling, therefore e-waste is a natural extension. Sure, I suggested a colleague that we should look at work on policy diffusion. But I’ve already done extensive work on policy transfer and policy learning in North America. This new project would be a natural extension of what I already do.

By focus I mean, I am not going to deviate from my scholarly goals and my research trajectory, even if the topic is interesting.

So this is my plan for 2013, and I’m writing it on my blog to keep me accountable.

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5 Responses

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  1. Carmen Amato says

    Love that you have a theme for your year, was just reading another book that promulgated the same concept of having an annual theme. Will be coming up for one for myself. Good luck and see you on Twitter.

  2. Izabel says

    your tips help me a lot, I’m a PhD cadidate here in Brazil and I really love reading you!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. My Top 10 academic productivity tips, or how I submitted 5 pieces in 3 weeks – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on April 13, 2013

    […] I have been writing every day for at least 2 hours (although I have calculated that in the past 2 weeks I’ve clocked about 60 hours of writing). The first thing I do when I wake up is make a pot of coffee, make my bed, start my computer and begin writing (you can read my Top 10 Tips for Academic Writing here). But being productive and having done the research and only writing it up is not enough. I needed to start feeling like I was achieving something. […]

  2. On working from home as an academic: Having the best possible setup as a home office – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on May 10, 2013

    […] that I’ve been focusing this year on being disciplined and writing EVERY SINGLE DAY (something I had to stop doing for 2 weeks while JT was here visiting me from Vancouver), and that […]

  3. 301 Moved Permanently linked to this post on May 21, 2015

    […] every day, even just a little bit, as an academic. For more specific detail on this topic, see here, here, and here. The logic here is fairly simple. Writing often sharpens and maintains skills. It […]

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