the (x) habits of highly productive philosophers…

so i’m not really sure this is a methodology question, but…

i’ve been suffering from some serious jetlag, which has got me waking up at 3am. i’ve been finding, though, that 5am to 7am is a fantastic time for me to write. however, for various reasons, i suspect this schedule will prove untenable in the long run.

this got me wondering about other people’s writing habits (both good and bad), and, more generally, any tips or advice other people might have about how to increase one’s productivity, get more writing done and increase the quality of said writing, spend less time writing random blog posts when one should be finishing papers, etc etc.

example: i’m pretty good at starting papers, but i suck at finishing them. as a result i have like ten drafts of papers that are about 70% done. but that always seems to be the point at which i decide that the original idea is junk, or untenable, or uninteresting. how can i become more of a ‘closer’?

in sum: what are your best (and maybe worst) work habits? how can a grad student, who is typically balancing teaching and coursework and more personal projects, maximize his or her productivity? what sorts of habits (besides the obvious: drinking) undermine one’s productivity?

input is greatly appreciated by me, and, i suspect, other readers of this blog.


4 Responses to the (x) habits of highly productive philosophers…

  1. Kate says:

    Discipline is gained through habit. One way to get habits is to set very low goals and stick to them. E.g. Set a goal of writing *something* of your papers each day. Start with an extremely low expectation, i.e. 10 minutes. Use a stop-watch program if that helps (e.g. Timeleft). During this time, ban yourself from doing *anything* else. You must finish 10 full minutes without interruption of any kind. Then, feel good about it. Just like jogging, the mind gets better at concentration through practise. The hardest step is getting your momentum up.

    What is included in time that I consider working

    – Actively reading philosophy relevant to writing papers.
    – Writing notes
    – Writing papers
    – Checking the dictionary for clarification of a specific word/concept.
    – Sipping a drink
    – Seated yoga to help my arms, fingers, wrists, shoulder, back and neck continue studying.

    What isn’t included in time that I consider working (i.e. when I pause the stopwatch)

    – Reading philosophy passively. This is like reading a novel and usually philosophy that has no obvious connection to work I need to do. If I find something that would be useful, I can switch to ‘active reading’ mode and get time credit.
    – Using the bathroom
    – Any internet distraction.
    – Answering the phone.
    – Playing with cats.
    – Yoga for increased energy or relaxation
    – Getting a drink
    – Getting food
    – Talking or answering questions
    – Travel to or from study location.
    – Any email or blogging
    – Changing the music
    – Arranging my desk, books or environment.
    – Organizing files or folders on my computer.
    – Backing up files or dealing with devices.
    – Shopping for books on the internet.
    – Checking the library for the availability of books.
    – Leisurely exploration of topics using the Philosopher’s Index
    – Reading articles & making notes for teaching
    – Grading
    – Teaching classes

    Difficult cases

    – Using the philosopher’s index for a particular paper topic. This can count, but if I get even slightly distracted then it shouldn’t be. If I can get in and get back to writing fast, then okay.
    – Photocopying or printing articles. This is busy work and although necessary, it can be an excuse for not actually doing philosophy.

    Probably the easiest way for me to do proper work is to get away from the distractions of a) home b) office and c) internet. E.g. working at a public library.

    The biggest obstacle to productivity is without a doubt the internet. You may need to do some drastic things. E.g. turn off your modem when you go to bed. Only allow yourself to turn it on after finishing your writing in the morning (e.g. after 1/2 hour or 1 hour etc…). The internet-as-reward works *really* well for me.

    In terms of closing papers, you probably need more submission deadlines. Your supervisors, friends, lovers etc… can help with this. Tell people your due dates and ask them to help you focus on them. Promise yourself you can get something you want after you finish.

  2. Erica says:

    The only thing I’d add to Kate’s advice is to figure out when your best time of day to work is. Sounds like at the time you posted it was 5-7 a.m. For me, it’s the first two hours after I get up after a good night’s sleep. For my sister, it’s 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Everybody is different. But whatever it is, you have to dedicate it as “sacred” time at least a few days a week.

  3. Patrick says:

    I also have the “closing” problem, though I do have some methods of attacking it that work in about half of cases:

    *Recognize that every idea goes through phases. At first it seems ridiculous, then revolutionary, then trivial. It’s only near the end of the process of development that it really takes on its true form (in most cases interesting, but a relatively minor expansion of a pre-existing paradigm).

    *Remind yourself that you are not the only being in the universe. This is very important: we tend to criticize our own work far more thoroughly than anyone else will ever criticize it, and our sheer closeness to the ideas often renders us unable to evaluate it objectively. No idea is perfect, but yours is probably better than you think it is, simply because most people haven’t thought of it yet.

  4. Julia B. says:

    A quick commentary, from a nosy applicant to the Michigan Ph.D. program:

    When I was 3, my dad got a job offer to co-author a chemistry textbook. He taught at Ohio State during the day and had chief care of me in the evening, and he would generally catnap from 8 or 9 to 1 or 2, and then write from about 2 to 6 in the morning every day. The only time the manuscripts saw the light of day was on the weekend, and even then it was rare.

    I find it encouraging to know that professors can be very good at their jobs and still maintain college-student-esque sleeping schedules. I intend not to grow out of such habits any time soon.

    On another note, although my Buckeye background is cringing as I tip my hat to something from Wolverine country, “Go Grue” is by far the best philosophy blog name I have ever seen. It gives me hope for Ann Arbor.

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