An Olympic-inspired Writing Post

It’s summer. The weather is glorious and the beer is cold. The Rio Olympics are in full swing; I’m watching in my free time. Lots of amazing things have happened, particularly the spectacular achievements of Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. (And I guess Michael Phelps did okay, too.) I’m disappointed with the USWNT futból loss, but that’s another story. (On the other hand, felicidades Honduras!)

The great achievements of the Olympians reflect years of those athletes working towards big goals and dreams by taking small daily steps.  I’m pretty intimidated by big goals, so I started thinking about how we accomplish big writing goals and dreams. Working on our big writing projects is sort of like training for the Olympics. (I’ll grant that there are some big differences, but let’s go with the analogy, shall we?) Big writing projects are mental marathons, a test of endurance, strength, and skill. We work for years to produce a dissertation, book, or even a steady stream of academic articles.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most of us aren’t training or planning anywhere near as carefully as the Olympians. (I know I’m not.) We (by which I mean me) somehow seem to think that through the application of sheer willpower, we’ll produce something great. We train (write) in sporadic bursts of binge writing that make us hate ourselves.

We could take some lessons from these Olympians. They’re training and planning consistently for a long-term event that they know will take years.

In the writing world, novel writers are often classified as “plotters” or “pantsers.” “Pantsers,” for the uninitiated, refers to those people who write novels by the seat of their pants with no forethought. I think most academics would be horrified to think of themselves as “pantsers,” but I further suspect that many of us approach academic writing in exactly this way. We’re sure that inspiration will strike and catapult us to greatness. Until it doesn’t.

Planning to meet big goals requires breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. We should not approach writing like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park. If you recall, the Gnomes were going to start a business with the stolen underpants. Their corporate business plan looked like this:

Step 1: Steal Underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Profit

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their corporate empire of stolen underpants never materialized, just like so many of our writing projects.

Use a bullet journal. Use fancy project tracking software. Use an Excel spreadsheet. Use a bar napkin. But let’s make a pact, shall we? Repeat after me: When undertaking a large writing project, I will have a plan. (I’ll be in the corner repeating these words a few hundred times if you need me.)

I’ll write more soon on actually making a writing plan that’s slightly more sophisticated than the Underparts Gnomes’ business plan. In the meantime, here’s the second part of this post:

The other thing that I realized while watching the Olympics was the Olympians train according to a plan to maximize what their bodies are able to do. However, part of their training plan also includes knowing when the body needs to rest.  Writing in crazed binges without a plan prevents us from taking care of ourselves physically. We seem to think that because our work is that of the mind, we get to ignore our bodies in the quest to push ourselves toward ever-greater writing productivity.

There’s productivity advice all over the internet. Some of it is good and some is utter crap. People are trying to figure out how to do more stuff in less time so that they can do more and more stuff, as if life were an unwinnable rat race of endless doing. Fewer people talk about the importance of rest and sleep. I write a lot about caring for ourselves emotionally, but it seems to me that to be operating at peak performance, we’ve got to be taking care of our bodies too.

Writing, as it turns out, is often terrible for our health. Maybe you’re one of those lucky people with a standing desk. Most of us, however, are sitting in chairs that don’t fit us very well, slouched over tiny laptop screens, for too many hours a day. Lots of people work this way until the point of exhaustion.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from academics is that they’re tired all the time. They have reason to be. They’re often working way over forty hours a week and juggling classes, teaching, research, and crunching their writing time into a few stolen minutes here and there. Our exhaustion training starts early in graduate school.  We’re crushed under a huge reading load, impossible deadlines, and the prospect of writing a dissertation on the side in all of our spare time. Small wonder that academics have trouble maintaining life/work boundaries.  As one graduate school colleague told me, “You just get used to being really tired all the time.”

 Living life exhausted is neither normal nor desirable. Exhaustion is not a badge to be worn with pride.

Some academics feel guilty if they’re not working all the time or writing during any and all spare minutes. I get that some people need to work way over 40 hours a week. Some people have to work that much because they’re working towards tenure or busting ass just making ends meet and buy groceries. But is there anywhere in life you can say no? Are their things in your life that you could eliminate or minimize?

One of the best changes I’ve made in my life the last year is incorporating more exercise into my life. I’m trying to walk for at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week. On days when I have time, I like to walk more than that. One of the things that fell apart with my massive life transition was my commitment to strength training. I’m trying to schedule (like on a calendar) time to do strength training. The benefits of consistent exercise have been enormous: better sleep, focus, energy, lower stress, better health, maintaining a good weight. I need to make my physical health a priority, even above writing.

Without rest, sleep, and physical nourishment, there’s no way that we can be thinking lofty dissertation thoughts. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchies of needs. Physiological needs always come first. And yet somehow we seems to think that even when (especially when?) we’re not meeting those needs, we’ll still be able to engage in highly creative and analytical work. We’re not getting to self-actualization without sleep, people.

In conclusion, planning and physical care are often overlooked, but critical parts of writing.

With that said, VAMOS, HONDURAS, VAMOS!

Photo: Denver Capitol Building, July 2016.