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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers January 2007

vol. 3, no. 1

Happy new year!

It is traditional at the beginning of the new year to make self-improvement resolutions. Some resolve to stop smoking, others to eat less, still others to exercise more. Most scholars think about committing to writing more or better but wonder if any such resolution will stick. After all, we have seen more resolutions fail than succeed. Indeed, we tend to make resolutions in areas where we have persistently failed. Is it all an exercise in futility?

Years ago, a study on smoking cessation found that anyone who had ever quit smoking temporarily had a higher chance of quitting smoking permanently than someone who had never quit. In other words, smokers who had failed to quit smoking did better than those who had never tried. This means that our failures are part of our success. How many times would you be willing to fail if you knew that eventually you would succeed? When it comes to writing, perhaps we should be trying to increase our failure rate. Maybe we need more resolutions, not less.

So, if our goal is to write more, or more consistently, or with greater rigor, what can we do to increase our chances of success this time?

Make It Concrete

Vague statements like “finish my dissertation/book by June” or “write more” don’t work very well as resolutions. They are fine goals, but they are not concrete resolutions. It is better to resolve to write a certain number of paragraphs a day or at a certain time every day. I know some students who have had success simply resolving to be at their writing spot every day at a certain time. If they didn’t want to write, they didn’t have to, but they had to sit in that spot for that fifteen or thirty minutes. They committed to creating the conditions for attainment, without focusing on attainment. This takes the pressure off.

Set Up Cues

Most resolutions don’t die, they simply fade away. A week or two later we suddenly realize that our resolution has fallen by the wayside and we give up in disgust. So, how can you make your resolution stay present? Create cues for yourself, whether it is a handwritten sign on the inside of your front door or an email from a reminder service. I have an email that arrives every other Friday in my Inbox reminding me to contact a mentor and report on my recent progress. It is crazy how often I don’t even recognize the email until I open it and how many times I respond by swearing and thinking “already?!” Reminders help. Another excellent cue is letting others know about your resolution. Supportive friends are best, although some swear by 43 Things or Joe’s Goals. (Procrastination prophylactics or aids? You decide). It is more difficult to forget when others know.

Reward Yourself

Most of us respond better to rewards than punishments. But coming up with rewards that don’t violate other resolutions is difficult. I recently asked students to name rewards they would give themselves for accomplishing writing goals and the list included alcohol, chocolate, and massages. Which is great, unless you are currently trying to drink less, eat less, or spend less. I think the answer may lie in a recent, much-cited Wired article on “The Perfect Human,” an athlete named Dean Karnazes who scarfs cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate éclairs, and large Hawaiian pizzas when he is running a marathon. He carries a cell phone so that the pizza delivery guy is ready with the box as Karnazes sprints by. As a result, he looks forward to racing, since it is the only time he eats processed sugars and fried foods. I am not sure why I keep thinking about this example, but I think it is because Karnazes has somehow been able to reframe what I would see as a punishment (no pizza most of the time) into a reward (lots of pizza some of the time). The plain fact is that he doesn’t need 9,000 calories to get through a regular day, but he does when he is racing. Getting the reward and the benefit to align, that is the real trick. I try to think about television like this. Television or other visual entertainment can only be something one does after writing, never before. It is a way of relaxing and therefore can only be done when one is in need of relaxing, after working. What's your example?

Recognize the Problem

Whatever is most important to us is often the toughest thing to get done. That’s because the costs of failure are high. Important life goals take up a lot of time and energy and involve making big decisions and enduring wrenching changes. No wonder what’s important makes us feel conflicted and afraid. But striving for what’s important also make us feel most alive. So, don't feel guilty about not attaining your goals--just focus on striving for them.

In 2007, I wish you risk and change, not safety and comfort. And, oh yes, that you get lots of writing done!

Quote Unquote

WUT= k exp(TL): “the warm-up time necessary to return to a problem increases exponentially with the time that has lapsed since you last worked on it.” Equation by mathematician Paul Humke, quoted in Tomorrow’s Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering by Richard M. Reis (1997, p. 250).

Readers Write In

Flourish reader Kathleen Sheldon writes that the American Historical Association newsletter Perspectives has a column by Liena Vayzman titled Practical Advice for Writing Your Dissertation, Book, or Article.

Another Flourish reader wrote that she had reviewed her course load and decided to reduce it. “I would rather be a happy and successful graduate student than a sleepy, cranky, absurdly busy graduate student. There is always more time to learn; I don't have to do it all now.” Yes!


A lot is going on in electronic publishing, including debates over copyright and the distribution of authors’ work. The Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography presents over 2,830 articles, books, and other printed and electronic sources that are useful in understanding scholarly electronic publishing efforts on the Internet.

News from the Editor

The year 2007 promises to be a year of enormous changes for me. I have two big book projects to complete and some major employment shifts. Look for my big announcement in the next newsletter, when I will be celebrating two years of publishing Flourish!