Today I want to talk about my writing system. Whether you realize it or not, we all have systems—that is, habits, tools, and strategies— to get work done. Many of us have been conditioned to work a certain way. We have been conditioned to become morning people, to work at least 40 hours a week, to work in isolation, or to take on more projects and commitments each year. For some, that works. But for others, like me, it can be harmful. This is why I would like to encourage you to take a minute to think through what your work system and/or writing system looks like right now. What’s working? What isn’t working?
In my case, it’s taken me many years of trial and error to figure out what works for me. Right now, my most energized and productive hours where I experience the fewest chronic illness symptoms are in the afternoon so I dedicate high priority tasks to those hours. I also no longer work a typical 40 hour work week or a back to back 8 hour day. Instead, I pace myself and work throughout the day, including some weekends, with many breaks in between. And I do not always work in isolation. I have co-working buddies and people I check in with for accountability. Another thing I do much more than before is that I say no to a lot of opportunities. I used to feel so guilty about this and thought that if I did this it would mean that the opportunities would stop coming to me in the future. But that’s not the case. If you do good work, others notice and it’s up to you to decide if you have the capacity to take on new projects. If you don’t, that’s okay. For me, saying no to things allows me to say yes to myself, to my health, to my family, and to my current high priority commitments.
One of those high priority commitments this past year has been drafting my book, Grad School Femtoring Guide: Successfully Navigating Graduate School Applications (UC Press, Spring 2024). I don’t think that I intentionally thought about my writing system when I was writing my dissertation but I definitely did while drafting this book. When I tell people that my co-author, Dr. Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, and I went from idea to fully drafted 300+ page book in six months they are in disbelief. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But the reality of it is that I’ve been informally drafting this book for years, at least since 2019 when I started recording my Grad School Femtoring Podcast.
When working on our writing process, we created a book outline, then set up a timeline, then pulled from existing content that I had recorded in my podcasts and did the additional research we needed to supplement any gaps. Having a co-author has been huge for me because she has served as both a femtor and as an accountability buddy. I hope we can normalize collaboration more in the future because some of the most beautiful projects I’ve been involved in have been collaborative, like the bestselling Chicana M(other)work Anthology I co-edited back in 2019. Hopefully by me sharing this behind-the-scenes info you can start to get a sense of my writing system.
But in case you need a clearer explanation—I know I always appreciate clarity—here is how I have systematized my writing process to remain consistent in making progress towards my writing goals, which involves setting up a writing system or writing TRAP (Timeline, Reframing, Accountability, and Prioritization).
I create a writing timeline where I reverse engineer the end goal (e.g. publish a book in 3 years). Reverse engineering is the act of dismantling something to see how it works and in this case it means working backwards from your desired goal and completion date to identify the necessary steps to get to that goal.
I redefine what modes and forms of writing count and integrate this “writing” into my daily habits. Writing for me includes both multimodal writing (recording voice memos, drawing thought bubbles) and alphabetic writing (jotting down ideas, scribbling notes on paper, journaling about the process). For those of us that are neurodivergent, multimodal writing can provide more accessible options for us to write and express ourselves.
I have others hold me accountable. This can mean co-working with a friend. It can also refer to engaging in collaborative writing projects. And also, it can mean meeting with a mentor, a coach, and even a therapist who can help us check in on our goals. I will say this over and over and over for the people in the back to hear, it’s okay to need help! It’s okay to get help!
Lastly, I prioritize my writing. It’s so easy for a writing project to get pushed to the back of your to-do list. But if you realize that it’s time for you to change that then you’ll need to have a strong reason and a strong sense of urgency too. I prioritize my writing by adding it to my calendar within a designated time block the way I add time for my paid work, even if my writing currently doesn’t pay my bills. Eventually it will though!
So that’s my current writing system. It may or may not change in the future. I’m constantly curious and learning new ways to work that aligns with my ever-changing circumstances. But I hope that by sharing this, you might consider shifting your habits, tools, and strategies too, to help you more sustainably meet your writing and productivity goals.
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this, share it with a friend so that they can sign up for my newsletter where I share similar insights related to grad school, sustainable productivity, and personal development. You also might enjoy listening to episode 180 of my podcast where I discuss strategies to overcome dissertation writing anxiety.