Jerry Seinfield and Scholarly Productivity

As any academic will tell you, "finding time to write" is one the great existential crises of the modern era.  Whatever the traditional time allocation of 40%/40%/20% (teaching, scholarship, service to the academic and broader community) might dictate, the middle 40% feels the squeeze.  The explanation is simple: if you don't prep your courses, you risk serious embarrassment.  It's pretty easy to over-invest in an area where you run the risk of being reduced to a deer caught in the headlights.  As for service to the community, well, not everyone comes close to 20%, but if you do dip your toe into really pulling the oars on administering an academic unit, there is never enough time.

So if you're like me, you're always looking for ways to squeeze in scholarship.  And if you're like me, you vacillate between years of decent productivity, and years that I'll call, um, "fallow periods".  In an effort to forever more stave off the fallow years, I have a couple of principles I have started applying that are a tad unconventional. 

For one thing, I am fairly religious in applying a "return on investment" (ROI) analysis to my scholarly activities.  That is, how much "return" is associated with the expenditure of a given "resource", usually time but often energy.  So applying my ROI policy, I turn down a lot of conference invitations, especially those that require travel.  I think the ROI on conferences is very low.  Setting aside the agony of modern air travel, the jet lag, the inevitable head cold, the email backlog, the bad food, the interruptions in family life (a big deal when you have young kids) and a regular exercise routine, I just don't see the point of swelling my carbon footprint for, usually, a 20 min talk.  Just filling out the endless reimbursement forms for travel and organizing my receipts leaves me weary. 

Sure, the "between the sessions" conversations and catching up with colleagues is fun (and is actually what it's all about), but that's what Skype is for.  Yes, I do feel a quiver of doubt watching colleagues jet here, there and everywhere.  There is a status associated with conference invites, with the status directly related to the distance travelled.  But I've been there and done it, and airports and stuffy conference rooms are never as exotic as the cities in which they are located.  Plus, I'm anti-social anyway. 

I know that others strongly disagree with me on my anti-conference animus, but I'll commit to my opinion. (And in truth, I do go to -- and do organize -- conferences -- but I cap them and try to be really strict in looking at each from the ROI perspective.)

In comparison, on an ROI basis, my blogs are a much better investment than any conference I've attended.  Well, maybe not this one.  But my substantive blogs have sparked more opportunities, more follow up and more useful attention that any academic conference I've attended. That may mean I haven't been going to the right conferences, but I don't think so. 

But still, there remains the above-noted existential crisis.  Whether its blogs, books or articles, I still struggle to "find the time", even when my ROI philosophy is firing on all cylinders.  Binge writing is rarely possible for me -- for the last few years, I've been pulled in so many directions that the idea of setting aside a solid chunk of time for writing, and nothing but writing, hasn't often been realistic.  And when I have had the time, I find my concentration span is now approximately 15 minutes.  I get board, read the Globe and Mail website, see what's happening on Twitter, have long conversations with my dog etc.

So what to do (above and beyond pining for the next sabbatical where I will clearly miraculously reach heretofore superhuman levels of productivity)? 

This is where Jerry Seinfield meets How to Write a Lot (by Paul Silvia).  Professor Silvia observes that it's never about finding time and always about allotting time.  "The secret," he says, "is the regularity not the number of days or the number hours" (Ch 2, in the kindle version).  As the fortune cookie might say: even the largest stalagmite is formed by the cumulative effect of drops of water. 

Jerry Seinfield, for his part, is credited with the "don't break the chain" anti-procrastination tool.  To wit: Pick a task that you will do each day, and create a wall calendar.  Mark an X in the calendar for every day in which you perform the task. Explained (reportedly) Mr Seinfield: "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

Now, this being the 21st century, there is an app for that.  I chose "Good Habits" for iOS.  And as my task, I have imposed "500 words of writing every week day".  (I have also included: "15 minutes of house cleaning every day", which is a real crowd pleaser at home.  It's amazing how much you can dust in 15 minutes each day.)

Now, I'm not particular about what the writing is (although emails don't count).  Just writing.  Do the math.  A law review article might be, say 12,000 words.  At 500 words per day, that's an article every 24 working days.  Yes, I know I exaggerate -- there will be raw research days in there, and editing and re-editing.  After all, it would be nice if the article were good. But still, the drops of water add up.

So why does this work?  It works for me because I am totally obsessive about not breaking the chain.  It becomes a challenge where I am always competing against my prior personal best.  And I can never turn down a challenge.  (Disclaimer: I also enjoy ridiculous endurance sporting events.)  Really, it's a personality defect. But since the "break the chain" movement seems to have a real internet presence, it's a defect in common with a lot of people, and maybe it'll work for you!

More than that, in the Good Habits app, a little red number appears above the app icon, just as it does when there is mail in your mail app.  The number represents the tasks left to accomplish that day.  Personally, I can't stand letting little red numbers accumulate.  I have to clear them.  (If Pavlov didn't have his dog, he could have studied me).

So to summarize: allot modest -- emphasis on modest, not heroic -- time regularly and do so in a manner that makes a "game" of meeting that daily objective, deploying every ounce of anal retentiveness to your advantage.  It'll be interesting to see how long I can keep this up.  But what's really important is that this blog entry in now 1170 words.  I wonder if I can count it as covering off two days?