In Part 1 of “Rethinking Academic Work,” I shared a practical approach I use to make sure my priorities are balanced. As academics, we tend to focus on everything else but ourselves and our well-being. Note to yourself: if you’re checking academic sources more than your mental and physical health, something’s not right.

We often to think of self-care as something we do separately from academic work – taking walks, visiting friends, or cooking a nice meal. I believe this assumption places limits on self-care, and how and where it is practiced. Self-care can be present in all aspects of our lives but it does require a rethinking of how we do academic work.

When I was in my Master’s program, I felt rushed. I was in a rigorous academic environment, and I was consuming ideas at a such a rapid pace that I couldn’t step outside of my work. I had tunnel vision. Writing was intense. I spent hours in front of my computer, so immersed I forgot to eat. Writing in the PhD program was different because it offered a type of slowness that I wish was present during my MA. I had more time to let ideas percolate in my mind. I also had more time to write. Yet, I felt a lot of anxiety towards writing my thesis. At the time, the self-care I was practicing was limited because it only distracted me from the anxiety, not lessened it. I needed to find a way to practice self-care in the writing itself. Enter the “unit” method.


The “Unit” Method of Writing

One of the most beneficial things to keep me on track with my writing is the “unit” method by Alexis Shotwell. This approach gives me the structure I need to get writing done without neglecting the other aspects of my life. I also feel committed to my academic work and enjoy it more because it no longer feels like an arduous task.

A “unit” is a chunk of time allotted to serious, uninterrupted writing. I set my timed units at 45 minutes because it gives me enough time to get into a writing flow. There are similar methods like the Pomodoro Technique that uses 25 minutes, but I personally think this technique is better suited for smaller tasks like email correspondence. I get situated at my desk and turn off all distractions including email/text notifications, Facebook, and Twitter.  I make sure I have all my research notes with me so I don’t lose focus and waste time. With a hot cup of tea in hand, I turn my timer to 45 minutes and go. I start by looking over my work from the previous day to refresh my memory. Once I have some direction, I write. The beauty of 45-minute sessions is that they are long enough to be productive, but short enough that I don’t get bored.

When the timer goes off, I stop writing (with the exception of finishing an incomplete sentence). By this time, I usually have ideas flowing and want to continue writing, but I stop. You may be thinking, why not keep going? I end the unit because it means I have the motivation I need to return to writing. How often do we find ourselves stuck with the inability to start the first sentence? By honouring the time limit of my unit, I’m able to reflect on what I’ve written and have the inspiration I need to get back into my work. I take a 15 minute break and do non-academic things. I might make myself a fresh cup of tea and start laundry. Or I might take a short walk outside with my pooch. When my break is up, I reset my timer and start again.

I do 3 writing sessions a day. Some days I’m ambitious and do more, but I make sure to commit to doing at least 3. Prior to using this method, I used to set aside full days to write. Several hours into the day, I’d be frustrated at my lack of progress. Now, writing is an important part of my daily routine. While 3 small writing sessions may not seem like much, I’m always amazed at what I can get done in this time. The method allows me to work towards my thesis every day while also doing other things, like start a new job and attend community events. Self-care is no longer a practice reserved for my life outside of work. It is an integral part of being an academic that honours the slowness of ideas and the attention writing deserves.

Photo by Green Chameleon.