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“Shut up and Write”


No, I’m not being rude, but drawing attention to a strategy that is helping many researchers overcome writing block. You know how it is. You sit down at your desk, switch computer on and have loads of good intentions about what you are going to write. But first, check the email, Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, Google+ and whatever other social networks are an essential part of life. Then recheck, just in case anything essential has appeared while you were checking all the others. Time for a coffee, perhaps re-check the social media, and half the morning has gone.

Or alternatively, you start off well. Actually write a couple of paragraphs, and then the thought occurs that you need an essential reference, so a happy hour or two is spent in the digital library, by which time you have forgotten both why you needed the reference and what you were writing about in the first place.

“Shut up and write” is an antidote to procrastination. @thesiswhisperer and @researchwhisper have both blogged their experience of the process. Essentially you arrange to meet up with a few colleagues, preferably where there is some decent coffee available, chat briefly and then end conversation and write for a predetermined period of time. It sounds weird, but those who have used it, advocate the approach and continue to do it, so there probably is something in it.

Sarah R-H and I were bemoaning the difficulty of writing during an exchange of tweets, when we wondered whether it would be possible to adapt this to the online world. We agreed that one of us would take responsibility for initiating and timing a 30 minute writing session and that we would both switch off all online contact for that period of time. A text message signalled the end. You can read Sarah’s experience below, but suffice it to say, it worked well enough for us to do it again.

To start with, I wasn’t sure about ‘Shut up and Write’ – I had doubts that I could keep my bum in the chair and my mouth shut for any sensible length of time. And the idea of turning off social networks left me feeling nervous, but I was ready to try anything. I’d had a couple of not-so-good days, was slipping on my deadline, and the anxiety was leading me into bad habits: checking #phdchat on Twitter, tinkering with the TOC, searching for the ‘perfect’ reading app for my phone… procrastination hell. And as all procrastinators know, it’s a self-perpetuating situation: anxiety feeds procrastination, feeds anxiety.

Liz suggested Shut up and Write, and the thought of having to leave the house stirred up a rising panic. So we went digital. It worked. Firstly, it meant I was making a commitment to 30 minutes of purposefully distraction-free work. Secondly, and I think more importantly, I was making a pact with someone else, and a friend at that. Thirty minutes was long enough for me to get focussed on one piece of writing, yet short enough that I felt I could mentally put aside faffing / Twitter / digital library tasks – postpone them whilst I got it done. We did two sessions, and after the second I felt unblocked and a great deal more relaxed. And I have learned that I can live perfectly adequately without having social media minimised and at-the-ready. Who knew? This tactic is definitely a keeper.

So next time you find yourself procrastinating, team up with a colleague or two. If you can meet, all the better, you get the incentive of seeing somebody else working to encourage you, but if you can’t meet, find a willing online friend and support each other in getting past the writer’s block and procrastination hurdle. It worked for us!


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