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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How Can We Do It?

Yesterday, I wondered about the sorts of schedules that allow for superhuman productivity.  The comments to that post focused upon the joys of having a tremendously devoted and supportive spouse, which would explain a great deal.  But perhaps not everything: I'm still very curious to know how the Elizabeth Warrens and Noah Feldmans of the academic world manage to churn out their books while still fetching the dry cleaning.  When does the reading happen?  The administrative meetings?  The commuting?

  (Please note that I'm not suggesting Professors Warren and Feldman don't have supportive spouses.  From what very little I've read, though, their spouses -- respectively, Bruce Mann and Jeannie Suk -- appear to hold impressive and demanding jobs of their own as professors at Harvard Law School.)

  For my own part, I blame the internets and their mystical power over us.  My advice to new professors would be to ration your time on email and the web to the absolute minimum, perhaps even to the point of spending most of your day on an unconnected computer.  I found email, in particular, a tremendous way to fritter away days of my life.  First, I never quite managed to deal with all my new messages -- I had a sort of Xeno's inbox, in which I was never able to reply to more than half of the backlog.  Second, the great challenge was that, like many new professors, I spent a good deal of time carefully writing and researching responses to questions from students . . . in anticipation of litigation.  (Anything you write can and will be used against you, or on an exam, which amounts to much the same thing.)

  This difficulty is an example of two broader phenomena: first, as a professor, you are never off duty.  You could always be preparing more for class, reading one more article, or writing another piece.  Second, no one is going to offer you much sympathy for this situation.  Nor, frankly, should they.  After all, these tasks redound not to the benefit of an anonymous firm but to your own scholarly identity.  Of course, when it comes to grading exams, you should feel free to demand sympathy -- and a salary.

Posted by William Birdthistle on May 30, 2007 at 08:08 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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For me personally, I always know it's a bad idea to check my email first thing in the morning--because I could easily be answering email for the next hour and a half. Unfortunately, it's very seductive. You get to communicate with your friends and colleagues. You get the illusion of accomplishing something, since you actually have little discernible chunks of progress you can point to, which is not always true when you've spent ninety minutes working on your next article.

Sometimes I go to a coffee shop first thing in the morning (it has wifi, but I try to resist the temptation to connect for an hour or so). Sometimes I take my laptop and my draft (and nothing else) into an empty conference room or classroom. For me, I get a lot more done in a day if I start writing first thing.

Posted by: Fred Tung | May 31, 2007 2:10:01 PM

Re: the "free-write," Bryan Garner recommends the same thing for briefs. For the initial draft, obviously, not the final product.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 31, 2007 12:18:26 PM

On the frivolous side of things, a friend happened to be at a Cambridge grocery store on a Saturday afternoon, and saw Elizabeth Warren come in, then run into Dean Kagan. They had a brief conversation about how busy the store was, until Warren said "Wait a minute, we have flexible schedules; why don't we just come back on a weekday?" Then they left.

So, I suppose, (a) Warren does manage to do her own grocery shopping, at least, and (b) take advantage of downtimes?

Posted by: anon | May 30, 2007 8:04:45 PM

I tend to think everyone is pretty different, so it's hard to come up with hard and fast rules about things like that. I guess my (possibly useless) advice would be to just try all of the above and see what works best.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 30, 2007 5:38:51 PM

What a great array of recommendations -- thank you, in particular, Heidi, Dan, and Orin. The tenor of this general conversation as well as Dan's specific suggestion about "pre-commitment devices" points out just how dire the internet addiction can become!

On this topic of cutting out distractions, does anyone have any wisdom about getting up early to beat the arrival of emails (but see the need for sleep), heading to a coffee shop to eliminate household temptations (but see the need to show one's self at the office), or how to resolve the dilemma of whether to start the day with writing (but see turning to it only after ministerial tasks are complete)?

Posted by: William Birdthistle | May 30, 2007 5:00:51 PM

These are great questions. Different people work differently, but I agree with Heidi's 11:27 post about the "free write." Better to think of writing as a familiar habit than an anxiety-inducing performance.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 30, 2007 3:08:50 PM

FWIW, here are a few things that have helped me on the productivity front:

1) Only using the internet as a reward, after getting something substantive done;
2) Set daily reading *and* writing goals (i.e., two law reviews, one paragraph written);
3) Set up a detailed schedule, and ask someone (colleague, spouse, friend, etc) to firmly follow up;
4) Lower your standards a bit on house-cleaning, errands, exercise (it's good enough!); and
5) Accept that some days will not be productive, no matter how hard you try. We all don't have to be Posners to make a contribution!

Posted by: NewProf | May 30, 2007 2:09:04 PM

The password serves as my speedbump. I might not have been clear before -- I have configured my Windows not to jump on wireless without asking me first, and then it needs a password (I don't have it pre-stored as I used to). This just creates a little step before I get online and that is helpful to enforce discipline. But not perfect by any means!

Posted by: Another newbie | May 30, 2007 12:16:22 PM

Sidenote, but I think someone should start a blawg (I nominate William?) dedicated to this kind of professor-therapy. I visit this blawg regularly in order to read posts of this nature, not so much the substantive stuff (no 'fense). I envision a kind of virtual thirtysomething for the prawf set.

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 11:47:26 AM

On the speedbumps: I have a couple. My laptop is capable of getting wifi but for some reason it doesn't and I can't fix it and I have refrained from giving it to the tech people at school to fix it, so far. Maybe you can have someone play with your laptop for a while behind your back so you can't figure it out either...pre-commitment devices are everything these days. I even bought the blackberry with the smaller keyboard so i won't be tempted to write (longer) emails on it.

Posted by: Dan Markel | May 30, 2007 11:32:11 AM

Anon., here's one more thought that might help deal more directly with the fear of bad output. Over the years, I've been advised by many wise folks to force myself to sit down, once I have a decent idea of what I want to say, and do at least a "free-write." Meaning you just sit down and type out your thoughts in free-form, not worrying about whether the thoughts will be publishable, coherent, etc. You can do the fine-tuning later. But sometimes the best way to get past the fear of writing something crappy is to just sit down and start writing. First drafts or initial outlines or free-form notes often ARE crappy ... but you've got to let yourself write them to get through to the better stuff. Rodin probably shaped many ugly mounds of clay before churning out The Thinker. :)

Posted by: Heidi Kitrosser | May 30, 2007 11:27:39 AM

Another newbie,
What is an example of such a speedbump? Is it something that can be downloaded from a site for which you could provide a link? Thank you.

Thank you for your comments. I don't know whether reading what others have written will *work* for me, because, it seems, each time I read something that someone else has written, I convince myself that I will never be able to write something as coherent or sensible. But I appreciate your thoughts, and comment only to probe further, from you or others, what strategies might help overcome the special sort of paralysis that comes from putting too much of one's self into one's writing.

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 11:20:19 AM

More power to the superproductive, but I don't think everyone has that kind of single-minded focus - I'm pretty sure I don't. Right now, I'm just shooting for slow, steady progress, though that's enough of a challenge some days.

On another note, the no-Internet thing hasn't worked for me because it's hard to wean myself off Westlaw when I'm writing.

Posted by: newprof | May 30, 2007 11:10:15 AM

In these days of ubiquitous WiFi there is almost no such thing as an unconnected computer. (I am writing from a coffee shop right now...)

But I have experimented, with *some* success, using a simple speedbump for getting online. I have to enter passwords to get into my browser or my e-mail program. When I want to try to hunker down, I just don't open them. For research I just need Word and some cases and articles I've downloaded or printed. The passwords help; they ensure it's more than just a couple of mouse clicks to get in.

I still find myself wanting to switch over to the browser a lot ("oh, what's the wording of that statute again? Let me just check..."). But when I am being good, I just put in a placeholder for that point and keep writing. It's like being on a diet or an exercise regimen. No magic solution, lots of common sense and willpower.

Posted by: Another newbie | May 30, 2007 11:08:05 AM

Re. anonymous #3: I agree that the paralysis problem is significant, and I suspect that most if not all of us suffer from it from time to time. What I’ve found most helpful over the years, though, is to remind myself as much as possible that in a sense this really isn’t about me at all – it’s about the set of issues that I care about and with respect to which I hope to make some contribution. Nothing snaps me out of paralysis more than to read a book or a set of newspaper articles that remind me of why any of this matters in the first place.

As for anonymous #2 – I have no good advice to offer on internet addiction, as evidenced by the fact that I’m reading & posting to this blawg instead of researching or writing at the moment!! I too need much, much help in this respect …

Posted by: Heidi Kitrosser | May 30, 2007 11:07:43 AM

I suppose this comment responds to one of your two "broader phenomena," namely that our work as academics is *our* work. It's not a partner's, or a client's, or anyone else's but our own. I think that this phenomenon may paralyze some of us (myself included), because we think of everything we do as a reflection of our selves. Has anyone out there overcome this paralysis, and if so, would they care to share with the group?

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 10:50:56 AM

I'd love to hear people talk about exactly how they stick to a schedule of no-internet. I feel like I cannot stop.

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 10:47:20 AM

This series of posts speaks to me. Please write more, William!

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 9:25:06 AM

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