By Catherine Needham (Professor of Public Policy and Public Management, HSMC)


I’m a sucker for books on productivity, and one of the most helpful I’ve read recently is Deep Work by Cal Newport.  He defines deep work as ‘the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task’, and highlights how difficult it is to find such focus, even in a job such as academia where it is central to the role. Reading it left me reflecting on how little time there is for writing in academia, even though it’s ostensibly such an important part of academic life, being the key way in which we communicate our research findings.

I wasn’t wholly sold on Newport’s remedies, some of which seem to involve a retreat from collegiality and leaving others to pick up the slack of committee meetings and student supervisions. But it did lead me to rethink my work week a bit and to try to put time aside on Fridays for writing rather than other things. My attempts to do this on my own were of limited success: after a week of rushing through internal meetings, external events, emails, teaching and supervisions, Friday can be a difficult day to muster up the energy that ‘deep work’ requires. There’s always scrappy admin to be done instead which can feel like real work but leaves the unfinished academic article just as unfinished.

What’s worked for me is a Friday writers group with colleagues, where a few people come together and work in companionable silence throughout the day, with regular breaks and chats about what’s going well and not so well in the writing. This helps to give a focus to Fridays and to find the concentration that can be hard to generate on your own. It’s also heartening to have the lunchtime chat with colleagues and remember that everyone has the same struggles: everyone has that article that came back with a revise and resubmit but you can’t bear to look at. Or the article that’s been rejected twice and needs either abandoning or repositioning for another journal.

Group remedies like this to bring concentration back and get writing deadlines met are one thing, but it’s also worth questioning why time for writing is so hard to find in institutions like universities which should be dedicated to helping staff to do the deep work and writing that pushes knowledge forwards. The competing demands to teach, research, engage, have impact, do administration and be collegial can make everything feel like a priority, and writing rarely has the urgency to get to the top of the pile. There is a gendered element to this as women perform more of the ‘service’ work within universities leaving them less time for research and writing.

As individuals we can do some rebalancing of our working time, but institutions also need to rethink the demands they place on academics (and how these are distributed between colleagues) so that deep work becomes the norm rather than the exception.