Academic Editing ConcentrationI edit for psychologists, but I’m not one of them. I’m also not a productivity guru. But lately I’ve realized that I do have my own tricks for staying on task and getting things done.

Let me address the big picture. I’m pretty in touch with the fact that I have a life of some luxury. I may not have monetary wealth, but I’m overeducated and a member of the creative class. Most of my clients and colleagues are in similar situations. This means that, by and large, I work on projects that I enjoy on some level. I decide what work I do and when I do it.

With that freedom come the known dangers of derailment and avoidance, and I’m not above either. Media—all kinds, but especially the at-my-fingertips, online variety—is what tempts me. We talk about our media-saturated culture; I’m a media-saturated citizen. My curious, sponge-like spirit is the same that led me to pursue a life in scholarship and research, so I expect many of you academics reading this share the propensity to seek out and consume news, culture, and even asinine Internet babble.

Search it out though I have, effective anti-procrastination advice is hard to find. Realistically, I suppose, not all productivity devices work for everyone, and the trick is to find the ones that fit my particular personality and circumstances.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the concrete methods that I use to keep on task and stay happy. As a result, I’m pretty darn productive. The following tactics work for me, but I make no bones about my idiosyncrasies.

Prioritize Two Very Different Projects

For the duration of any working period, I like to have two assignments, tasks, or activities already prioritized. That way, when one becomes too repetitive or loses my interest, I have another important undertaking already set up and ready to go. In the professional life I’ve crafted for myself, the following project pairs could be effective:

With the exception of cleaning the bathroom, all of those activities further my professional goals, tackle current editing projects, or both. The pairings are different enough, however, that they complement one another and exercise my brain in refreshing ways.

As an aside, I’ll confess that housekeeping is enough of a life challenge for me that it qualifies as serious work. I sometimes use housework as a carrot during particularly difficult professional projects. For example, if I copyedit ten dense pages, I can go scrub the tub. This motivates me in a few ways: (a) when compared to manual labor, thorny manuscripts seem inviting; (b) activities such as mopping the floor give me a sense of accomplishment, and I bring that victorious spirit back to the computer; and (c) sometimes physical, nontextual work shakes loose some great ideas and leads to conceptual breakthroughs.

Predetermine Some Diversions

By diversions, I mean leisurely sidetracks. When I tire of the project in front of me, I often find an excuse to visit the Web. The initial reason for browsing may be professionally legitimate: What does Brian Garner advise regarding this use of jargon? Is Cold War really capitalized?

Too often, though, I end up scrolling through the bottomless pit that is my RSS reader. One way to avoid such time-sucking sites is the Firefox extension LeechBlock. I recommend it.

In addition to that automated restriction, keeping hard-copy reading material nearby proves helpful. This tactic works best if I determine in advance the distraction to which I’ll resort. One day, it might be this week’s (or, more likely, last month’s) New Yorker. Another time, it’s the novel I’m trying to finish. Maybe it’s a catalog or tabloid—I read those, too.

Regardless, reading printed text on paper gives me focus and, again, a sense of accomplishment. I truly have stacks of newspapers and magazines waiting to be read and discarded. Making a dent in said piles is a welcome achievement.

It’s also a good thing for writers and editors—especially for us academic types—to read widely and often. I don’t want to wade too deeply into the controversies surrounding electronic text’s predominance these days, but I do sing the praises of print material, at least in the context of productivity and concentration. Please forgive the forced metaphor, but if I don’t feed my mind with un-hyperlinked text once in a while, my work starves.

My Overarching, Undergirding System

Actually, I’ll tell you about that in the next post. (A preview: I call it REP.) For now, I’ll sign off and hope that these two tips have been eye opening and useful to you. I’ve fought for the self-awareness that led to these strategies. May you not have to fight so hard or so much.

What are your hard-won concentration procedures?

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