When are you most productive? Whenever I ask this question of my colleagues, the most frequent response is: "I'm most productive right before I leave for vacation." Or the "last few hours before leaving for a long weekend" or "before leaving for a conference."
Why would this be anyone's most productive time? Jack Groppel, author of The Corporate Athlete, says it's because you have a deadline. You must be out the door, on a train, or at the airport by a specific time. And you also know exactly what you must do, your top priorities, for the limited amount of time before departure.
What would happen if you worked like this every day? What if you made a list of priorities and then set a deadline for getting them done? Could these short sprints make you more productive?
Few projects are truly open-ended, but they may feel like they are. Write a dissertation. Write a book. Write a chapter of 200 pages. Write an article of 30 pages. We know we can't accomplish that in a day. So we write as if we had a week or month or year to finish (which we do).
Let me emphasize: I am not suggesting that you create pressure or anxiety...not more than you already experience. And although some people say they work better under pressure, this pressure and anxiety is not what produces the best writing. You might produce decent writing and you might get the work done. But it's not the pressure that contributes to good writing. It's highly likely that your work would be even better without the pressure and anxiety. When people say they work better under pressure, what they really mean is that they work better with a deadline.
So when you set your daily goals, set your own deadline. "By the end of the day I will have written 500 words." "I will draft five pages before noon." "I will write the first section of chapter one in an hour." Then set your pace by the available time you have to write and meet your goal and deadline. This method works especially well when producing your first draft of any section.
Does writing with a goal and deadline each day (rather than an open-ended 90-minute writing session) work for you? It may help you to reduce procrastination, avoid excessive writing or editing, and help you get the first draft, or the last draft, out the door.
Have you written yet today?
Jan Allen, Associate Dean
Academic and Student Affairs
Cornell Graduate School