Summer: that glorious time when everything seems possible. Freed from the pressures of daily teaching and endless committee meetings, I can travel to archives, visit family, and finish the article I’ve dreamt of all spring term.
Yet more often than not, summer disappoints. Like many people with young children, I work extremely well when I have very little time to get things done. I am efficient by necessity, because I never know when I’ll have another free half hour. Moreover, I cannot guarantee that by 9 pm when the children are asleep, I will be sentient enough to speak, let alone write a sentence. But when faced with summer’s empty schedule, my productivity often lags. Too much time can be as debilitating as too little. Here are some strategies I have found for conquering summer:
1. Legitimate rest. Apparently our brains need downtime. As cartoonist Scott Adams notes in “The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do,” boredom is key to creativity and innovation. Scheduling substantial time to rest at the start of your summer will produce better scholarship.
2. Join a support group or make your own. Writing groups make you accountable to others, help you set deadlines, and give you a place to brainstorm about how to get past roadblocks. For those who are willing to pay for extra accountability, there are online groups like Academic Ladder and the Professor is in. Alternatively you can create your own group by asking motivated colleagues to join forces. Want to connect with people at other institutions? Go To Meeting and Skype work well for connecting with big and small groups respectively.
3. Structure the void. One quick fix is Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. Using her schedule of weekly tasks, I can map out my work for the summer in a systematic way. Since I usually have more than twelve weeks off, I can schedule downtime for family vacations. If I have an unproductive day, I use the Pomodoro technique to make sure I take breaks and stay on track.
4. Set yourself up to succeed. I used to spend much of August beating myself up for what I hadn’t accomplished that summer. In retrospect, I realize no human being could actually have done as much as I expected. Set realistic goals and reward yourself when you meet them.
5. Don’t fetishize writing. Doing more informal writing and presenting throughout the year can help you write more quickly and efficiently when summer arrives. I find writing a monthly post for a group blog and taking part in weekly Toastmasters meetings has upped my creativity and productivity in other arenas.
6. Learn to say no, or at least “well maybe.” Do you self sabotage by trying to please others or by taking on irrelevant projects? Give yourself at least twenty-four hours to consider whether how much time the request will take and if it is actually worth it. In the meantime, send the person a note thanking them for the opportunity and let them know when you will get back to them.
This summer I am filled with optimism. I am enjoying connecting with like-minded people, I am working on a project I love, and I am trying to use--not fill--my time. The people in my writing group lift up my spirits and inspire me to think harder. I hope to accomplish big things, one small thing at a time.
Adams, Scott. “The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do” Wall Street Journal. August 6, 2011.
Belcher, Wendy. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009.
Laura Leibman is professor of English and Humanities at Reed College.