Finding time for “deep work”

After a bit of conversation with colleagues on a recent Tuesday morning, I simply stated, “Okay, I’m setting the timer for 25 minutes. Go!” And that’s how our monthly writing group began. Over the next two hours, each of us worked intensely in 25-minute blocks on our individual writing tasks, including manuscript revisions, conference presentations, and final reports. After each block of work, we took short breaks for more coffee and conversation before setting the timer again. When we had finished, we each expressed a sense of accomplishment and excitement about the next session.

The writing group was inspired by previous groups in which I have participated that have used the Pomodoro Technique and are based on the concept of Shut Up and Write. While individually we might block off time in our calendars for writing, sometimes all we end up with are good intentions. Well, at least that sometimes happens to me. But there’s something about the camaraderie of the group that reinforces the goal, breaks down barriers to getting started, and takes some of the sting out of a task some find onerous. And there’s strength in numbers. Given that the group had worked so well at my previous institution, I was keen to get one started at my new academic home. So, this year we’ll be meeting for two hours in the morning on the second Tuesday of each month to write.

When chatting about the group with my fellow members of the IFNA Communications Committee, co-chair Janice Bell described the group as a way of finding time for “deep work.” I really liked this idea because, at the end of the day, this method of time management would work for any kind of task and it really is about focused, deep work. Following our conversation, Janice shared a few links to resources describing techniques for time management and setting aside time for this deep work.

Personally, I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique very useful for increasing my productivity. For example, this past May, two of my colleagues and I met in Boston for a writing workshop weekend. Over the course of two and a half days, we submitted two manuscripts, revised several others, and drafted a few more. This was accomplished with 45-minute blocks of time interspersed with a good amount of fun exploring the city and plenty of great conversation over good food. I think that’s one of my favorite aspects of this technique. I know that I will get to interact with my colleagues and friends after an intense period of deep work. It’s almost like a double reward—I get good work done and I get to spend time with interesting people. Win!

And there are virtual ways of doing this! Thanks to the magic of Twitter and social media, you can join a virtual writing or work group from wherever you are. I know I’ll be tweeting about the work of our group every month, and many folks tweet about their writing using #acwri (academic writing).

So, set those timers!


Joel G. Anderson, PhD, CHTP, is an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Nursing and a member of the IFNA Communications Committee. His research focuses on support of family caregivers and persons with dementia. He uses social media as one way of examining the family caregiving experience. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoelAndersonPhD.