A couple of months ago a friend told me about the ‘Shut up and Write’ movement in San Francisco. The idea is quite simple; a group of writers converge on a location, presumably one with good coffee. After 15 minutes of chit chat they, well – just shut up and write. They write solidly for an hour, then take a break for coffee and more chats before they leave.

I tend to think of writing as a solitary activity which needs a closed door and the phone/email/twitter off the hook. The idea of being with other people to write sounded so illogical I was naturally  keen to give it a try. In fact…

I’m doing it right now.

As I write this post I’m sitting in one of my favourite cafés on campus, opposite my friend Jonathan who has recently set up “The Research Whisperer” blog. We met up about 20 minutes ago, read a bit of the paper, had a coffee, checked our email and gossiped just a little bit. Then I set up my phone to count us down a 25 min window of time with my pomodroido app and here we are – shutting up and writing.

[21:18 minutes to go]

It’s a curious thing, but Jonathan’s relentless key tapping reminds me that I should be writing, so my fingers keep moving. All the hub bub in the café doesn’t bother me – in fact it feels comforting. I’m reminded that I am not alone… but surely this isn’t the only reason for the enduring success of the ‘shut up and write’ movement?

As I look at Jonathan I notice he has stopped typing furiously and is now using his mouse pad and it occurs to me: this mode of writing is a bit like doing an aerobics class at the gym. Although my fingers are feeling a little bit tired already, and this bench I am sitting at is ever so slightly too high for comfortable typing, I keep going. I don’t want to look like the fat, unfit person up the back of the class who isn’t keeping up. This is peer pressure of the best kind!

This method of writing is part of a suite of productivity techniques which are collectively termed ‘time boxing’. The idea of time boxing is that the best way to tackle any big job is to break it down into a set of small, discrete tasks then limit the time you have available to do them.  Once you have decided on a mini goal you set a timer and off you go.

For instance, I decided to write a blog post on the ‘shut up and write’ concept while doing a shut up and write session, which is… kind of meta, but a doable goal. The key to making the technique work is to create bite sized chunks of work – which is not always easy on a big job like a thesis.

[14:20 minutes to go]

If you think of the whole thesis as one task it’s likely you will feel a sense of panic, which can manifest in ‘jumping’ from task to task rather than finishing one thing and moving on. For instance, as you are reading the vague sense of panic starts an internal dialogue which goes something like this:

“hmmm, that’s an interesting point the author is making. Clearly I need to know more about that area of literature. Should I keep reading this, or find out more about that area of literature? Maybe I will just download a couple of things…”

Time boxing encourages you to stick with one thing and finish it as much as you can. For example, you might pick a subheading or small amount of data to analyse for 25 minutes.

Jonathan is staring into space now… I wonder what he is thinking? Maybe he is stuck. I’m going to keep my eyes on my keyboard and keep ripping the words out. Maybe that will help him get focused. I find myself looking forward to the end of this 8 minutes so that I can chat with him some more because I’m getting tired of writing now…

[I did some editing for about 4 minutes here. Now I feel a sense of excitement. I want to get this last idea out in the remaining 4:07 minutes]

The other thing that time boxing is said to help with is perfectionism. I must admit, I am too much of an impatient person to be a real perfectionist, but I have found myself falling victim to the 2 steps forward one step back syndrome. I will open a piece of writing in the morning with every intention of finishing it, but find myself doing  ‘just a little bit of editing’ in the first paragraph. Maybe checking up on that reference  or two to make sure I have every nuance of the quoted author correct. By the time I get to paragraph two it’s time for lunch. Time boxing can help me get over this problem by setting a tangible goal for each session of writing.

[1.01 mins remaining…]

Well it seems that the ‘shut up and write’ method works for me – at least to produce this blog post. The rest of the café faded away and all I could hear and see was my fingers, and Jonathan’s, typing. There was a sense of urgency, of moving towards a goal, which really helped me get this post finished. I think we should do this next Friday too! Who wants to join us?

Editor’s note: this idea worked so well that we now have a regular ‘Shut up and Write’ group meeting on the the RMIT University city campus every Friday morning. If you are interested in joining us you will find us at the bench table, Pearson and Murphy’s cafe at 9:30am

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