Time Management

How 750 Words Can Help Your Productivity

Sometimes, you just want to write. But it’s not always that easy.

You sit down with the best intentions, but it’s so intimidating when you start a potential masterpiece.

Your internal editor chips away at your confidence before you have even touched the keyboard.

You have no sense of the goal you’re aiming to achieve.

And that’s where 750words comes in.

For a while now, I’ve heard some academic peeps raving about 750words.com as a fantastic way to write without distraction and other concerns. These are academic peeps I trust. So I’ve given the service a go.

And I give it a thumbs up.

When you want something a little more inviting than an empty document and a flashing cursor, 750words may be the trick. It doesn’t offer much more than a blank page and it still features a flashing cursor —Hey, stick with me!— However, there are other reasons why the service may help you write more than other methods:

  1. Free-writing: Instead of carefully thinking about what you have to say, you may prefer to riff and find your voice by bashing out a load of words. Even if you find 95% of the words come out as irrelevant rubbish, the remaining 35โ€“40 words may be exactly what you wanted. That may not sound like much, but it could be enough to spark something amazing.
  2. Challenges: 750words gives you the option to sign up to a monthly writing challenge, where you promise to write 750 words every single day in the month. If you do, you make the Hall of Fame. If you don’t, you make the Hall of Shame. If you thrive on that type of thing, the monthly challenge is for you!
  3. A blank page: Distractions aren’t welcome. If you want a blank screen, free from other goodies, you’ve come to the right place. 750words is pretty limited in terms of features. All on offer is a place to type some plain text. No fancy fonts, no bold and italics, no special layout features. Just type away until you reach the magical number of words required.
  4. No need to check word counts: Just keep on writing until you get to 750 words. When you do, you’re congratulated. And if you’re on a roll, great! Just keep writing until you’re done. You can see how many words you’ve written by looking at the bottom of the screen. No procrastination or interruption necessary by checking the ‘Word Count’ option. It’s all there for you already.
  5. Statistics: Want to know how long it takes you to write those words? 750words will tell you. Concerned about how many times you’ve moved away from your writing with other distractions on the computer? 750words will tell you. Wondering what types of words you tend to use most? 750words will tell you.

I’ve tried the service for over a week now and I enjoy the simplicity of the service. I’m not bothered about writing a particular number of words every day and I doubt I’ll sign up for the monthly challenges any time soon. I’ve already missed a day on purpose.

Still, there is certainly something satisfying about writing until you reach the number of words allotted. You cannot change the number of words set in the challenge, but nobody is forcing you to stick to that specific number of words. You can write a single sentence and stop, or you can keep going until you’ve written a whole book in a day. It’s up to you.

The user average each day is just over 900 words. I think 750 is a pretty good number to work with for most situations, though. That works out as a pretty good length for a blog post, and it’s half a 1500-word essay. You’re being challenged, but not made to bust a gut.

Here’s one more thing for you to consider: This post was written using 750words on one of my days. It took about 12 minutes to write. And I spent about ten minutes editing after that; so the post wasn’t originally a complete mess, even though I blasted it out quickly.

Remember, even if you have no use for 95% of what you write, the 5% of awesome you can use is worthwhile. And, in the case of this blog post, I only took out a few words. More like 95% used, 5% chucked out. Win!

Next time you want to get your write on, give 750words a whirl. Take up the challenge. You may just surprise yourself!

Last-minute Essays: Should you REALLY be pulling an all-nighter?

In the early days of TheUniversityBlog, I wrote a popular piece about pulling all-nighters and writing essays at the last possible minute. And I wasn’t very complimentary about the process.

To see my friends in a fiddle and my peers in a panic was frustrating, because some of them clearly didn’t respond well to this regular ritual.

The one time I didn’t focus enough until it was too late…was my dissertation. Yes, I know, it annoyed me at the time too. Even worse, I’d been enjoying the research and writing at first and then simply stopped doing enough to make the project as scholarly (and awesome) as I could have done. Sucked to be me. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So I knew that the last-minute wasn’t for me. By all means get close, but never get TOO close.

But can the all-nighter essay work for some students? Is it really the best way to get the right words flowing?

Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing, says this:

“What I’ve learned about writing and intellectual work is that there’s no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it’s effective for you…If the products are coming out in ways that you’re not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But…if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There’s no “right” way.”

My personal preference is to use the time given and aim to finish with time to spare if necessary. More often than not, it’s not necessary. I’ll set my own deadline in advance of the actual requirement, so I’m not tempted to run over for some reason.

I do it this way because I prefer to work when it suits me, often in small doses. It depends what I’m working on, but I generally feel comfortable, so see no reason to change.

And that’s the big deal. I see no reason to change.

Just as Rachel Toor explains, pulling an all-nighter is fine if that’s what makes you tick.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that it’s not what makes many last-minuters tick. It’s just what they’ve got used to.

I recommend you to do a little experiment to find out whether or not there’s another way for you. A better way. Take the time to work on a few assignments earlier than usual. Mix things up and see what happens when you spend more time on an essay.

If the slow approach doesn’t work for you, I have another thought. Pull an all-nighter and finish your assignment the way you normally would. But do it a week or two before the real deadline. Treat it seriously and do it as if there will be no more time left after this night. That may be hard to believe, but give it a go.

Because once you’ve got your last-minute attempt, you’ll still have time to revisit it in a couple of days and see if you truly think it’s the best darn paper you could possibly hand in.

Make an effort to explore new ways, rather than doing it once and not bothering again. Toor suggests three months of working differently, but you may be comfortable with something else. Just so long as you take it seriously, otherwise it’s not worth trying in the first place.

After that, if you’re still not convinced, maybe the all-nighter approach is the best way for you after all. The stress, the adrenalin, the pressure…I doubt it works for all the people that experience it, but a few will still find it’s the only way to greatness. In Toor’s words:

“See if it makes your life better. If it doesn’t, then I would say there isn’t a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there’s a better, easier way is just silly.”

The difference will be that you tried and you understood. For others, the difference will be that they tried and they realised the wonders of a somewhat calmer approach. What works for you?

No matter which direction you take, at least you can now be certain!

Take a Different Approach to New Year Resolutions

I’m not a fan of New Year Resolutions. I don’t make them.

The start of another year doesn’t automatically make for a great starting point to change your life. I’ve heard countless people say they want to start the new year as they mean to go on. Unfortunately, they usually start the year with a sore head and a desire to ignore the world around them until their hangover has disappeared…

photo by Charlie P Barker

photo by Charlie P Barker

Instead of a New Year Resolution that you’re more likely than not to break, would you be willing to try something new and/or limiting to push you further and help you discover things you may not have found otherwise?

This year, I’m trying out something that’s more a cross between a resolution and an information diet.

While an information diet is usually about reassessing the content you read and view, I want to do something similar that focuses on the music I listen to.

Music is one of my weaknesses. I listen so much of the stuff that I don’t have enough time to listen to it all. My Spotify playlists grow, I continue to go oldskool and buy CDs, and I even buy high-quality FLAC files for some classical music.

If I didn’t listen to so many different genres, the situation may not be so difficult. But my range is too eclectic for my own good and I’m always on the lookout for more, not less. In terms of keeping an open mind, musical diversity is great. In terms of my attention and my time, it’s not so wonderful.

So I’m going to try something new with my listening this year. Like an information diet, I’ll limit and prioritise my intake of music to assess where I can save time while appreciating the music even more.

The big difference is that I’ll listen only to music that is released in 2012. That way, I intend to get more out of my listening rather than face an overwhelming mass of stuff that I can’t properly appreciate.

There will still be plenty of time for older music, because music is everywhere. My friends and family listen to all sorts when I’m around, I hear it on the radio, it’s played at pubs and clubs, people send me recommendations (old and new) that I’ll still happily spend time on.

And the variation of older music needn’t stop there. What about bands releasing ‘best of’ albums in 2012? That counts. And there’s no end to the classical music releases every month. Take Beethoven, for instance. When I searched Spotify on January 4th 2012 for Beethoven CDs released in the first few days of the new year, I wasn’t left wanting. Already available are recordings of most of Beethoven’s symphonies, his late piano works, some earlier piano sonatas, a violin concerto, and a selection of cello works. That’s around 10 hours of Beethoven in the first few days of the new year. I’m unlikely to get bored through lack of choice…

I’ve already earmarked over 30 hours of music on Spotify to check out. Some, perhaps most of it, will get removed from my Spotify playlists. But there will be some keepers. And as the year moves on, I should have a more reasonable stock to work from, yet still not feel any type of overwhelm.

More importantly, I won’t end up spending too much time working through gargantuan amounts of music instead of spending my time more fruitfully elsewhere.

Music is for enjoyment, but I don’t want to end up enjoying it too much and forget about my responsibilities and the rest of the world around me. Adapting the way I listen to music and limiting the content to music released in 2012 may well add to my enjoyment, rather than take enjoyment away.

And if I am desperate to listen to a specific track for sentimental reasons…well, I won’t deny myself. After all, I’m trying to enhance my experience, not punish myself and force unhappiness. Information diets and other limitation exercises are meant to free you and give you greater scope.

Like I say, this isn’t a New Year Resolution. I’m not pledging to ignore all other music outside the 2012 publication period. That would be nuts. However, it is a reasonable boundary to focus on.

I have no set date to finish the exercise. I may find it works amazingly well if I’m disciplined enough about it and I could continue indefinitely. Alternatively, I may learn a few time-saving tricks here and there, but quickly change plans to something more agreeable.

Have you made any resolutions for 2012? Or will you be taking a different approach? Have you found a better time to make particular resolutions?

photo by jaxxon

photo by jaxxon

10 Ways to Give Procrastination a Bypass

Forget fear. Toss out time constraints. When you put things off, it’s rarely about these things.

You’re much more likely to procrastinate when your assignment isn’t interesting, when it’s limited in scope, and when you don’t have clear instructions.

Even group work changes your attitude. You’re more likely to stall for time over collaborative tasks compared with working on your own.

photo by mar.al

photo by mar.al

Procrastination isn’t a simple beast. There are many reasons behind it. Even when you know you’re doing it, the way to recover from procrastination isn’t always obvious.

But don’t panic, there is hope! Check out these ten tips to turn procrastination into productivity. Don’t take any more risks, act now!

  1. Find an angle to suit you – There were times when I was trudging through the most boring texts, so I tried to find ways to make it more exciting. True, that can be difficult at times and I didn’t always manage it. But when I did, I was much happier putting the work in. If you can pull something out the bag, do it and watch everything fall into place more easily.
  2. Beat the bore – When you simply can’t find an interesting angle, move past the yawn by forcing yourself to work for a really short time.
    Promise yourself 10 – 15 minutes. Just get started and see where it takes you. When you begin, it’s easier to keep going. You never know, you may even find something that takes your interest by then!
  3. Don’t look at what is necessary. Look at what is possible! – Working out the bare minimum you can get away with is actually a recipe for procrastination. The moment you artificially restrict yourself, you’re telling yourself to work less. No wonder it feels easier to put things off.
    Instead of closing down your options, stretch yourself further. By framing the task this way, you’ll do yourself a massive favour.
  4. Keep trying to understand the task until you really do – We’ve all had that moment of doom when we don’t have a clue what’s expected of us. The temptation to put it off is strong, because it’s easier to bury your head in the sand than to attempt what you don’t understand.
    Better than either tactic, however, is to ask for clarification. If nobody on your course is sure (or you don’t understand/trust their explanations), explain to your tutor what you’re struggling with. Don’t leave it at “I don’t understand what you want”, but try to explain what you think is expected and ask them to clarify where you’re uncertain. The sooner you know where you’re headed, the sooner you’re likely to move in that direction.
  5. Clear your head – With too much going on around you, it’s not the best environment to work in. Even locked in your own room, a smart phone is a gateway to the world and untold treasures. An Internet connection takes you wherever you want. Music can consume you.
    Sometimes you just need to breathe.
    Short bursts of meditation can help you work on tasks with more focus and clarity of mind. If you set aside an hour to work and find the hour slips away with nothing done, schedule another hour and meditate for 20 minutes first. Work for the remaining 40 minutes. Do this meditation two or three times a week. A smart phone may be a gateway to the world, but meditation may be a gateway to your mind.
  6. Clear your social calendar – Some deadlines may feel reasonable, but they are very rarely unworkable. If time is strapped to the point that you even cannot schedule time to study, you’re doing too much. This isn’t procrastination (unless you deliberately over-scheduled!). This is trying to do too many things.
    You’re at uni for many reasons. One of those reasons is to complete your degree. If you’re not in the right position to do that, you may have to change your position and give up on some of your other commitments.
  7. Be wary of ‘unequal’ task setting in long-term assignmentsO’Donoghue and Rabin argue:
    “When the costs of completing different stages [of a project] are more unequal, procrastination is more likely, and it is when later stages are more costly that people start but don’t finish projects.”
    Dissertations have unequal elements, because some areas will require more time than others. However, by boxing those elements as if they are a ‘task’ to complete, you may dread the time when longer ‘tasks’ arrive. Instead, set time out differently.
    Break things down further. Find an equality to the tasks you are dishing out within the overall project. You may need to write Chapter 3, but it’s not helpful putting ‘Write Chapter 3’ on your to-do list. Keep breaking it down until you can visualise the tasks at hand and have a grasp on what you need to do to complete them.
  8. See the difference between team assignments and individual projects – Gafni and Geri studied 160 MBA students and found that individual deadlines were more likely to be less problematic than group deadlines. Even when an individual task was voluntary, students were punctual. With group deadlines, tasks were more likely to be left until much nearer the last minute. If the group task was voluntary, it was often not completed at all.
    Is collective procrastination easier to fall into? Next time you’re faced with a group assignment, take individual responsibility. Make it about you first and make it about the group once you get into gear.
  9. Set your own deadlines – Your assignment may not be due for a couple of months. The procrastinator in you may tell you, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to do that. Forget about it. Even when there’s just a fortnight left, you’ll have enough time. Go on, you already have enough on your plate”.
    Simply leaving everything until later is not best practice for effective work. And you can manage your time far better than that.
    Keep a rough schedule diary for the semester/term at the very least. Then give yourself your own deadlines for work, much earlier than that official date.
  10. Ask “Why am I doing this?” – When the work becomes a blur of pointlessness, you’re likely to procrastinate just the same as when you’re bored. Find a reference point to help you hold on to why you’re working on this assignment. It may be a long-term reason, it may be a short-term reason, but whatever you make of it, your aim is to give clear reason behind your study.
    “If the process isnโ€™t getting you the outcome you want, you need to change the process.” – Mike Reeves-McMillan

Want to look a bit further into combating procrastination? Here are a couple more related links: