How to Track Your Time to Meet Your Writing Goals

Happy July, readers!

I have found myself having the inevitable gripey conversation with colleagues and friends about how summer has already shockingly FLOWN by. Why is it that time always speeds up when we have more time and flexibility to get our work done?

I hope my prior post on the How to Write a Lot book encouraged at least one person out there to inspect their writing habits like the grad school detective I know you are!

Despite this jump in the speed of time, my writing this summer has been going good-er than most summers of my graduate career. I attribute a lot of this to the habits that were kickstarted by the on-campus writing retreat I attended in early May that helped me to reflect on my behaviors, thoughts, and emotions (hey-o #CBTinreallife) related to writing. I attended this same retreat last summer but at that point my writing habits were pretty inconsistent and fraught with feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and confusion. Now, let’s not get it twisted – I still have plenty of messiness all tied up in my writing habits, but I’ve gotten a lot better!

One part of the How to Write a Lot book that has kept me on track with writing is consistently tracking my writing. At first read, Silvi’s description of keeping an excel DATABASE with his writing session “data” made me internally eye roll HARD. But, of course, the thing that sounded the dumbest/most ridiculous ended up being the most important tool for me (UGH LIFE WHY YOU GOTTA BE SO RUDE?).

Thus, I want to spend today talking about
WRITING TRACKERS.

Before we jump in, a little background on why keeping a record of my writing sessions has been so crucial for me:

1. They reveal point-blank that my inner narratives about writing are mostly false. At any given moment, I guarantee that I’m telling myself all sorts of stories about how introspective I am and how I know myself very well. (E.g., I don’t need to track my writing, I know it in my gut when I’m on track and when I’m not.; Tracking my writing is too uptight and will backfire – it will make me want to write even less; It’s ridiculous to add another task to writing, I’ll end up only spending time tracking and no writing) – spoiler these are all false stories.
2. They hold me accountable without room for excuses. I am pretty good at the whole work-life balance thing in general but sometimes I get super caught up in the life side of that balance. In my first few years of grad school I would sit down to write and be SHOCKED that I had no idea where to start or where I left off because 1) it felt like I had written last week when really it was sometime last month and 2) I had no notes on what I did the last time I wrote something. When I look at my trackers I easily see that wow, I said I’d write 5 times this week or 20 times this month and I haven’t touched a writing project in 10 days, OR helps me to see when I am on track which is naturally reinforcing.
3. To re-iterate a prior point, the trackers SAVE TIME. I no longer spend one hour digging through the most recent draft of a paper to figure out where I left off. I spend less time fucking off (since my pomodoro tracker reveals even further how much/little I can get done in 25 minute increments) and can easily see in numbers when I’m wasting time. When I sit down to write, I mostly spend that time writing.
4. Best of all, the trackers decrease my anxiety around writing. Not feeling like a flounder each time I start writing helps me to feel like I have a little more of an idea of what I’m doing. Even better, seeing when I AM on track helps me to counter the impostor syndrome that I will never be a real researcher.

So what does this writing tracking business look like?

I use three different documents to track my writing:
1. Writing Tracker Word Document
2. Writing Excel Database
3. Pomodoro Block Tracker

Each time I sit down to write, I open up all three of these documents to set up my session. Here’s how I use each one.

First up: The Writing Tracker Word Doc.

Image of my Online Writing Tracker Word Document

I use this (extremely large and lengthy) word document as my virtual notebook for writing sessions. Each session I create a new section of the document and note:

1. Date
2. Total minutes (to be filled in at the end of the session)
3. Goals for today

In the goals for today session I usually list the different writing projects I’m working on that day. Underneath each project I make a short list of tasks I would like to tackle. These serve as a to-do list but also serve as my place for making comments on what comes up while writing.

This is my most important writing document. It has saved me so many times when I don’t remember what approach I took to writing a section, where I left off, or what the hell I was thinking when I decided to take a certain direction in a paper. Since it is a running document, I can look back at any prior writing session to see what I was doing/thinking.

Last thing about this document: I keep this in my Dropbox and edit it exclusively online using the Microsoft Word Online feature so that I never have to download/re-upload,etc. and risk not having something saved in there. I often work from different offices, work stations, and computers so this has been essential for me.

Next: The Writing Excel Database.

Image of my online writing excel database

I use this file to simply track the “data” from my writing sessions. I don’t keep notes in here, only track the where/when/what/how much information inside (the location column is hidden in this snapshot, but I also note where I am writing each session). This file is my ULTIMATE accountability partner. As you can see from this snap shot, I can EASILY see when months are totally lacking in writing sessions and when others are looking pretty good. I’ve also used this file to examine my writing habits during certain times of the year, month, and week as well as which locations I tend to frequent. (More on examining your writing habits using experiments soon!) This snapshot is the first tab of the database.

The snapshot below shows the second tab of the database.

Image of my online excel writing database

I added this second tab as a way of summarizing my number of writing times per month last year (2018). Based on my writing days last year, I set a 2019 goal for writing days and this is how I keep track of my progress. I also try to challenge myself to do better than the prior years’ performance which helps to motivate me. If you recall from my prior post on The Four Tendencies applied to writing, I don’t respond well to inner or outer expectations very well so this is a sort-of-external but not-actual-person source of accountability for me and it works beautifully.

Last up: The Pomodoro Block Tracker.

I just added this document to my writing routine during the writing retreat I attended in May. I know, I know, THREE documents to use as trackers seems like a lot. And it might be too much for you! I truly think that part of tackling your writing is figuring out what works for you (which I’m going to cover more in my next post). If one of these documents (or zero) is enough to help you meet your goals, rad!

The Pomodoro Block Tracker fit a hole in my writing routine I didn’t know existed until I started using it. This document was distributed to everyone who attended the writing retreat (I did not invent this method), so I decided to try it out. Basically, the document has you identify a “big abstract” goal you want to meet. Then, it’s broken into several sections, each one representing one Pomodoro round (25 minute work block) and a break block following (I typically do 5-10 minutes for the break). The left column has you outline what you want to accomplish in the Pomodoro block, while in the right column you note what you actually spent your time doing during that 25 minute block.

This technique showed me how much time I was wasting in a 25 minute period. Seeing that motivated me to stay focused during the next 25 minute block. Again, another external-ish accountability strategy that helped keep me in check. The Pomodoro tracker has also helped me to see over time which tasks tend to take a long time and which ones can actually go pretty quickly (since my internal gauge of this gets pretty wonky).

Right now I have created an electronic version of this piece of paper and keep a running version like I do with the other trackers. I just create a new page for each writing session and start tracking!

Aaaaannd, that’s it on my writing trackers! What strategies and techniques do you use to stay on track? Any questions about the ones I shared? Ask away below and I’ll be happy to answer!

Happy Writing, y’all!

-J

P.S. If you’re wanting to learn more about the Pomodoro technique, here are some links to check out!

http://getalifephd.blogspot.com/2011/10/how-to-enhance-your-writing.html
https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

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