Downsides of writing harder: musings on the need to pace myself

When I was thinking about whether to try to be more social about how I write, I thought about how I can run harder and further and faster and without it seeming so hard if I run with a friend. That was one of the things that led me to start a writing accountability group with some friends and to set up a write-on-site session once a week, as I described in Monday’s blog post. I think these changes have led me to write more. That’s a good thing, right?

In the weeks since adopting these new approaches, I’ve started to wonder about possible downsides. To go back to my running analogy: I can run further and faster and harder with a friend – but might end up getting hurt in the process if I push myself too much. Last week, I ran with a friend and was so distracted by our conversation that I didn’t notice that I had forgotten to put on a brace that I’m supposed to wear while I run. My back noticed, though, and that night it let me know that I had overdone it. I had to take a few days off from running afterwards to recover.

Clearly pushing myself harder while running can backfire – could the same be true of writing?

I think it’s possible. I had been happy with my summer plans, but then learning about my friends’ plans made me add some more summer goals. And then some new opportunities came along that I’ve decided to jump on. I did a little adjusting of other goals and responsibilities, but not nearly enough to offset the new ones. So far, I’ve managed to keep up with the new, higher pace, but sometimes I also feel like I’m squeezing every last drop from the proverbial stone.

This all got me wondering: am I doing sabbatical wrong?

As I reflected on that, I immediately came up with a bunch of reasons why I really need to work hard in the next three weeks. But I also know that in July I’ll have another, equally compelling set of reasons why I really need to push myself. And the same will be true in August and September and…well, you get the idea.

Part of why I’ve been thinking about this is because I spent a lot of time last year feeling pretty burnt out. I’ve come to realize that one sign of burn out for me is spending a lot of time thinking about retirement. I am nowhere near retirement age. My mental health wasn’t great last winter and, while there were probably multiple factors that contributed to that, a big one was probably the strain of going full tilt for the preceding summer and fall.

I don’t want to feel like I’m sprinting for the next 30 years. More importantly, I know that I can’t sprint for the next 30 years.

I have a really wonderful opportunity in the next year while I’m on sabbatical – I can focus on projects that I’ve wanted to do but haven’t had time for. That led me to set a lot of goals for the year, including ones related to writing. But another important part of sabbatical is getting a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate, and turning the knob to 11 on writing might not be the best way to do that.

I am incredibly fortunate that, for the most part, my sprint pace is self-imposed – which should mean that I can also slow things down. The challenge, of course, is that for myself and so many others, that’s easier said than done. Part of that is because working hard is an important part of my self-identity – I bristled when someone recently suggested I might only work part time because I’m on sabbatical – but prioritizing health is important, too.

All of which is to say: yes, adding social habits to my writing has increased my productivity and is helping me get more done. But I also need to make sure I focus on sustainability and health. Having people who help me prioritize writing and who support me as a writer is wonderful. But, as with running, I need to pay attention to my pace and whether it’s one I can sustain long term.

I think the key is to pay more attention to indications that I’m overdoing it and to be more mindful of those signals. On a run, I pay attention to how I’m breathing, how my legs feel, and whether my back hurts, allowing me to ease up before I overdo it to the point of getting hurt. What are the analogous signals my body sends me to warn of overwork? I’m not entirely sure yet but have some ideas. As with running, I need to pay more attention to those warning signals and make sure I don’t ignore them when I’m pushing myself with friends.

I’d be really interested to hear from readers about how you pace yourselves and what signals you use as signs that you’re trying to sprint a marathon!

8 thoughts on “Downsides of writing harder: musings on the need to pace myself

  1. As a former x-country runner, I approve this post. 🙂

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who’s started dreaming of retirement way too early. In my case, it’s in part because I feel like that’s the only way I’ll get to focus on writing my book (I just had my sabbatical, won’t have another for years). I need time to read, write, and think. And in part for the same reason as you: these last few months have just been a massive amount of work. My wife’s also been insanely busy with a new job this past year, so we’re both burned out, which doesn’t help either.

    I wanted to highlight something you touched on: nobody always knows what the Right Thing To Do is in their own professional lives; everybody is uncertain or doubtful sometimes. You aren’t sure how best to spend your sabbatical–even though you’re an experienced prof who’s exceptionally good at her job. I’m not sure if I spent my sabbatical as effectively as I could’ve (might’ve focused too much on a paper and not enough on my book). I’m not sure if I’ve devoted enough time to paper writing the past couple of years (which is why I’m trying to bang out a bunch of papers this summer). I’ve actually become less confident over the years in my decisions as to what journals would be the best fit for my papers, what to do with rejected papers, and whether I should keep aiming to produce a small number of high-quality papers. Even though, like you, I’m an experienced prof. You’d think I’d have this stuff down cold by now. And maybe some people do, or think they do, but I bet those people are pretty rare.

    So, to students: I hope it’s reassuring rather than depressing or scary to learn that there’s never going to come a point where you feel like you Know It All. That you’ve won the game of Academic Life. Once you beat one level of the game, there’s always another. So if sometimes you’re not sure if you’re Doing It Right, well, welcome to the club! Nobody *knows* they’re Doing It Right. Everybody just does the best they can, which is all anyone can do.

  2. Megan,

    We are on the same journey. Here are some thoughts. My opinions only obviously.

    Striving for self-improvement is baked into our personalities, as ecologists (tradeoffs are interesting!, how do we maximize fitness?), as academics (competing to get our papers out, our students good jobs), and as Americans (the ethos of the “self-made” person). Early in our career, when we are learning the craft, this is useful goad for us to get better. But some time in mid-career, ya gotta ask yourself, how much better at the fundamentals am I going to get?

    I’m reminded of the optimism fallacy: things always take longer than you think they will. And the solution to the optimism fallacy is to look backward, figure out how long on average different tasks require, and use those as benchmarks for setting realistic goals.

    I think one benefit of mid-career is the self-knowledge and intuition that allows us to exploit opportunities as they come along, using the intellectual toolkit that we have built over our lifetime. We don’t have the sheer energy of our youth, but we have an agility that doesn’t require powering through problems. It takes us fewer hours to write the first draft than it did when we were grad students, post docs, assistant professors. But writing is still hard work, and we have garnered other responsibilities along the way. Why should we expect to indefinitely turn our increases in writing agility, into more and more first-authored papers? (Especially, as a tangent, when there is a growing paper glut?).

    I am unbelievably lucky to have the life I have. I am thoroughly, intensely grateful for the opportunities that have resulted. Sabbatical is one such opportunity to academics. I don’t think its sole purpose is to be more productive. For my next one, I intend to spend more time enjoying it*.



    *PS: And it was all I could do not to append “Because I will come out of it refreshed, and better able to do more work!”. That is the kind of mental programming we have to begin to dismantle.

  3. Meg, I love your writing posts! I feel that fluid writing is so important and everyone needs to write often and thoughtfully, as you do. I just turned 65 so I have a very different perspective on retirement since it is possible. I am not interested. I feel as great as ever, am probably in better shape from all the exercise. What would I retire from? My students? My questions? My colleagues? I don’t see anything I want to put in the place of a really fulfilling job. I have been a professor since I was 27, in 1980 and I still love it. I have reinvented myself a number of times. I switched from wasps to amoebae. I switched from Rice to Wash U. I spent a year in the lab doing DNA and library work (1991) with no writing. There are other more subtle changes. One of the best for me in keeping balance is counting helping others as work time. Whether it is mentoring colleagues, meeting with undergrads, planning our Farmer’s Market presentation at Ferguson MO, or nominating others for recognition, this counts. Am I personally less productive? Of course. And that is all right. So your last point of what else is on the schedule for the week is a very important one. I hope to write more next year in Berlin at the Wissenschaftskolleg, but when I don’t write enough, I understand why, and think of the students and colleagues I help as so fulfilling. So write, but don’t tear yourself up if you also spend time giving to others in other ways.

  4. ” But another important part of sabbatical is getting a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate”

    I completely agree with the theme of this stuff is difficult to figure out and there is no “right” way. And I doubt anybody has it figured out.

    When I went on sabbatical I set three goals:
    1) Refresh myself
    2) Connect more with my family
    3) Be productive writing two books

    The eye opener for me was how mutually compatible those three goals were. All your posts about how working longer doesn’t equate to producing more come to mind. I struggled how to hold on to that slower paced, more productive lifestyle when sabbatical was over and utterly failed (half of it for reasons not directly related to me like my kids lives also becoming busier etc, half of it because real worklife intervened). But I at least have this vision of what is possible …

  5. Interesting post. I’m coming at it as someone who is in the process of getting ready to retire. I have reduced my ‘official’ work time to 60% and am using that as a ‘sabbatical’ by taking the 40% in big chunks away from campus, and trying to get my books written, i.e.e to do some professing 🙂

    I have, despite 38 years service as an academic, had a sabbatical. The system at Imperial where I was before requited you to get a grant to cover your sabbatical and I was too busy (I had a huge teaching load on top of running a research group) to apply for one. My last six years at my current post, Harper Adams, where my teaching load has been much reduced have allowed me to get grants and increase my paper output. At the same time, I have also taken on more external duties, to fill what my ‘brain’ feels are gaps in my work load, which has not necessarily been a good thing. i am now trying hard to get the balance right.

    So in reference to Joan’s comment about not retiring, I agree, I might be ‘retiring’ from some aspects of my current position, but I am not, and even when I fully retire, I will still be working, doing what I love, writing about entomology 🙂

  6. Thanks for this post. I think many people feel like this.
    What helps me is reading the ‘work’ chapter from Alain de Botton’s Book Of Life. Some texts in may apply to your post.

    For me, these texts are helpful because they put things in a broader perspective, and I find reading them very consoling too. Plus, the texts are written in a beautiful English that – on me – have a tranquillising effect.

  7. Meghan, thank you once again for an incredibly human post. If can often feel like the work never ends when you are working in research in an increasingly fast-paced world, so it is refreshing when you get a chance to read something that makes you stop and get a little mindful.

    When I’m overworking, the worst of my symptoms is forgetting to eat or not eating due to lack of appetite. When I was an undergrad the nights leading up to tough finals or compiling lab reports were often spent without dinner and I would end up more tired and stressed as well as dizzy and dehydrated. I also know that I tend to be less kind and gentle to my loved ones, which just leads to arguments and (surprise!) even more stress. When you’re teetering on your personal mental edge, it can be hard to remember to not release that overworked, negative energy on the people who are trying to help us or asking for a moment of our time.

    My favorite new strategies (still in development!) for pacing myself mainly revolve around setting time goals and only allotting myself a certain amount of time to handle some of my more rigorous tasks that I may try to go full-perfectionist on and over dedicate myself to something that isn’t necessarily a priority. I also try to finish my work day (whenever that ends) by writing down my biggest priorities (limiting myself to 2-3) for the next day and a list of who I need to get in touch with or get back to, usually by email, in order to have a “productive” day. I also like to mix up tasks so that I’m not spending 3 days in a row on the same thing so that by the time I get back to a particular task (typically a writing/analyzing-type of task that takes an unknown, hard-to-predict amount of time) I feel more refreshed and willing to work a little more efficiently on it.

    I’d love to hear about any other methods that folks have, especially those in the early career/grad school stages of life!

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