Finding Time for Scholarly Writing (Part II)

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

One of the most oft-repeated statements in the academy is “I really should be writing.” It has even evolved into a number of humorous memes that you shouldn’t search for (since you should be writing). Despite the ubiquity of frustrations over self-sabotage of the writing process, there are a number of productive scholars who successfully produce a robust body of scholarly work. Even if you take away the superhuman, John Grisham-esq scholars, you still have many of our colleagues who are amazingly productive despite having numerous responsibilities and, dare I say, happy lives outside of work.

In this two-part series, I discuss one barrier and one solution to getting your writing completed. In “Part I,” I covered “Time Sucks,” which are things that keep you from writing or that harm your scholarly productivity. In “Part II,” I outline a number of ways to “Seek Efficiency” and maximize the precious time you protect in your day.

Seeking Efficiency

Recently, I was returning from a work trip to St. Louis, Missouri, and enjoying a well-earned beverage at a bar in the local airport. The bartender serving me, I learned in the process of waiting 45 minutes for my sandwich, had recently “retired.” As I watched the gentleman work, it became obvious that he was new to the bartending business, not because he didn’t know how to make a drink, pour a beer, or operate the computer. He was clearly functional in these tasks; he was just amazingly inefficient. He would close out an order in the computer only to realize he neglected to do something, necessitating that he log back in. He made drinks in a mechanical manner, like I do when I prepare a recipe for the first time that I’ve pinned to Pinterest. He would do something in one section of the bar, move to another, only to realize that he needed an item located at his original location. You probably get the point. While the bartender may have been inexperienced, efficiency isn’t something that is automatically gained with familiarity and experience. It is something that should be sought, learned, practiced, and refined. Here are a few strategies that might help you find your optimal level of efficiency:

  • Automate anything that can be automated – I’m not suggesting you build a robot or clone yourself (although if you do, I’m interested in both technologies). But if you’re like me, there are a number of tasks that you engage in repeatedly. Many of these are time-consuming and formulaic. For example, do you send a version of the same email repeatedly? If so, you might consider a productivity app such as TextExpander, which allows you to save snippets of text and boilerplate forms to easily paste into most desktop applications. For example, if you get 20 emails per week requesting information about your master’s program, you can save the entire body of an email that can be “pasted” when you type “MPHprospect” or whatever you assign to it. Similarly, you can save account numbers you might normally have to dig for since you’re infrequently asked for them. If you have forms to fill out regularly (eg, travel request forms), a low-tech solution is to simply fill as much out as possible on the form and save a local copy, thus minimizing the time per step. These might seem like minor time savings, but they can add up to hours per week. (TextExpander actually compiles your savings and reports back).
  • Think of tasks as blocks of time – Many of us think linearly (ie, do this, then that) even when a series of tasks doesn’t require the previous one to be completed before proceeding to the next. Similarly, we often prioritize based upon importance or due date. While I’m not suggesting that some tasks are not more important than others, you often have a group of tasks that are due at approximately the same time but require different time commitments. My suggestion is to tier tasks by due date. Outlook can be used for this, as can OneNote and Evernote, but programs such as Asana are better at it. Then attack the tasks by the amount of time you have available. For example, if you finish a task with 20 minutes to spare until your next meeting, look at your list and see if you have something you can do in 20 minutes. Fill out a boilerplate letter of support for a colleague’s grant application rather than start work on that manuscript when you only have time to restart and stop. This will allow you to cross something off your list and avoid losing time by starting, shutting down, figuring out where you left off, starting again, and/or checking Twitter for 20 minutes, time that you’ll never get back.
  • Reuse/Recycle – Much of our writing is redundant, but that redundancy can be used to our advantage. While it’s essential to avoid plagiarism, including duplicate publication in manuscripts, there are a number of strategies we can employ to make writing more efficient. If you regularly write grant applications, there are likely a number of sections that you routinely include, such as measurement or other methods sections. These can be reused in other grants and serve as the foundation for similar sections of manuscripts (albeit tailored for each journal). If you have scales, techniques, etc. that you regularly use, keep a document of these that you update and refresh as needed. For example, I regularly measure physical activity via accelerometer, so I keep a paragraph in a central location that I can tailor for a new application instead of digging through old applications trying to find it. Related, there are a number of parts of grant applications, re-accreditation documents, annual reports, and other “non-published” documents that can and should be recycled. In a standard NIH R01 grant application, you may submit 100+ pages, but after you develop them once, many can be reused or large portions recycled (eg, equipment, resources, human subjects protections).
  • Work smarter – There is an increasing number of tools out there than can make many labor-intensive processes considerably easier. For example, citation software such as EndNote or Zotero can save hours of time reformatting references. You can set up an account in My NCBI, and use it to automate searches in PubMed or compile your NIH Biosketch (or at least get it started). You can organize teams of people with apps like Asana, and share files with apps like Box, DropBox, and OneDrive. Finally, if you find that you are your worst enemy when it comes to staying focused, try using Stayfocused or RescueTime to monitor your habits and/or block time-wasting sites such as Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Pinterest or whatever is your personal “time poison.”

In the end, improving efficiency starts with recognizing inefficiency and identifying ways to attack it. I would encourage you to make a diary of your daily tasks with attention to your most time-consuming tasks, and see if you can attack them in a different order or a different way. With a few minor changes, you’ll find that you can save hours per week that can be used to get more done, or (gasp) to relax.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

Read previous posts by this author: