We’ve all heard the research productivity mantras floating around in academics: Write daily, even if you only have 15 minutes. Make sure you have projects running at multiple stages of your research pipeline. And don’t forget to participate in an accountability writing group.
These strategies work well for many academics, and for good reason: They are tried-and-true ways to participate in the ongoing and systematic production of scholarship. But what about those of us whose working lives are less, shall we say, systemic? As we struggle to balance the complex burdens of teaching, serving, administering, or serving as caregivers of others, it is unlikely that we will be able to engage in the practice of daily writing or make time for an accountability group.
We both have tried for years—and failed—to reproduce the writing and accountability processes we’ve read about. Then at a workshop on research productivity, writing coach Kathleen Vasek invited us to reflect on how we can dip our toes into the accountability relationship. Did we have time for more meetings or support several writers in a group? No. But can we send some emails? Yes, this we can manage.
Therefore, for over a year, we have been communicating about our research goals through weekly email. At the beginning of each week, Sarah emails Ann about her goals for the week, and Ann replies with her own. At the end of the week, Ann emails a summary of what she’s accomplished, and Sarah responds in turn. Each semester, we start a new email thread. Keeping our goals modest, focusing on gains and allowing for change has made our operation successful – and that’s what we’ve learned.
be realistic. We each had big, long-term goals for the year—book chapters and articles to write, conference presentations to give, a book to edit for one, new data to collect for the other. But from week to week, we set manageable goals to increase the likelihood that we will reach them.
We followed Kathy Mazak’s advice by dividing projects into one-hour tasks to ensure that you avoid vague plans like “the termination essay.” In some weeks, our goals were measured in time: spend two hours researching or touching on a project in three separate afternoons. In other weeks, goals were measured in output: sending important research emails, ordering library resources or changing the citation style of a manuscript.
Modest weekly goals mean we regularly score small wins; They also helped us plan for the future. When our weekly calendars were particularly full of meetings and teaching commitments, we set smaller goals rather than pretend we had more time to research, only to be disappointed later.
Be flexible and honest. When we began our accountability process, we expected to achieve what we considered manageable goals. But we soon discovered that this wouldn’t always be the case. If working with students has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions, so sometimes we need flexible deadlines and changeable priorities.
We also found that we became responsible for not achieving our goals as we did to achieve them. We sometimes find the value of honesty and friendship. In the group writing with acquaintances, we may be tempted to impress colleagues or be reluctant to acknowledge what we perceive as a failure. But being friends made it easy to be honest with each other when we couldn’t or couldn’t achieve our goals.
This acceptance invited the other of us to offer encouragement—which could provide a window to achieving the goal the following week instead. Being candid about goals not being met also allowed us to watch next week’s goals with a real understanding of our priorities.
Stay positive. Being just as responsible for unaccomplished goals as we were for achieving goals has proven to be valuable, as each of us has experienced periods of time when we did not achieve our goals due to work or personal challenges. During those weeks, we tended – often successfully – to get frustrated with failure. We reminded each other that failure to reach goals is part of the accountability process and that the period of time a scholarship takes a back seat to administrative or educational responsibilities is temporary. It will pass, and we will soon return to the search.
We focused on the positive: goals we already achieved during a semester or school year, not goals we didn’t achieve in a given week. This strategy allowed us to see the accountability process evolve from summaries that only indicated what we accomplished in a week to acknowledgment of circumstances or situations that challenged us. Positivity also provided the opportunity to lift each other up with encouragement and continue to move forward in our commitment to ourselves and each other.
Learn about unexpected benefits. We thought our accountability process would be a checklist of tasks completed, but we ended up helping out and learning from each other’s research and writing. When Anne turned down the manuscript office, Sarah helped analyze the editor’s notes and decide how to review them before sending them back—the support Sarah could provide as she had followed the project since Anne began collecting data. Conversely, when Sarah was invited to suggest an editorial book, Anne helped brainstorm the group—the support Anne could provide because she was aware of Sarah’s previous scholarship that led to the invitation.
We advised each other about research methods and passed articles related to each other’s work. We also provided professional advice on department and teaching policies as those contexts formed and began to impose on our research work. Ultimately, supporting each other’s operations helped us deepen our own. We no longer write in the void, unsure whether other scientists have faced the same hurdles we have. We had real-time evidence of how someone else faced and navigated these obstacles, and we could draw on each other’s strategies to advance our work.
Create a community. Interested in starting your own email accountability process? First, find a partner who shares your goals and priorities. It doesn’t matter if your areas of research overlap. What matters is that you share a vision of what you hope to achieve from the accountability process.
Second, find out if your institution has an account with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. If so, sign up for Monday Motivator emails and check out the center’s webinars on productivity writing for small doses of helpful advice you can access at any time.
Like many academics, we can’t reasonably write every day or participate in a group that takes too long. However, in Mazak’s view, accountability is not the issue. She argues that what we really need is community: the support of others as we navigate the process of holding ourselves accountable for writing and research excellence. Indeed, it is not the fear of having to report failures in our email chain that drives us to enroll in our scholarship. It’s the encouragement in our friendship – the fact that we each have a research leader who supports us no matter how much we accomplish – that keeps us moving forward.