Wednesday, January 04, 2012

 

Writing in the Office


I’m working on the executive summary for an annual report on a major grant.  Much of the report involves importing budget numbers from wherever, and I have help with that, but the summary part is my own.

Which means I have to write in the office.

Intersession is the right time to do that, if it must be done.  The interruptions-per-hour are fewer, and with fewer classes running come fewer emergencies.  But it’s still difficult.

Some people deal with that by coming in on weekends, or staying into the wee hours of the evening.  But with my childcare obligations, that really isn’t an option.  (Besides, if I’m around, I’m found.)  Some people take extended writing assignments home, but between family time, any errands, the blog, and the book, I just don’t have much left in the tank by the time I finally get to it.

So I play distraction slalom, swerving from this distraction to that one without falling down.  Ideally.

Office writing lends itself well to emails, since they’re brief and usually either reactive or pro forma.  (“The meeting has been moved to room 240” isn’t terribly taxing.)  If I get interrupted in the middle of composing a three-sentence email, it usually isn’t too hard to reconstruct what I was doing.  (Exception: the dreaded “drafts” folder.  It serves the same function as the vegetable rotter drawer in the fridge.)  But if it’s an extended and detailed piece with serious money hanging in the balance, I can’t just write it on the corner of my mind.

The same thing held true in my faculty days.  I had always assumed that the office would be the perfect place to write, but it really wasn’t; there was just too much going on.  Students would drop by, colleagues would drop by, hallway conversations would linger...

In a real pinch, I could always just shut the door and keep everyone out for a while.  But I’m not wild about the message that sends, especially if I’m alone in there.  I’ll close the door if I’m discussing a sensitive topic with someone, but closing the door when it’s just me just feels self-indulgent.  I try to save that for the most extreme cases.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found tricks to make extended office writing easier?  

Comments:
Since I became a program director a few years ago, I've had to embrace the closed door in order to get any real work done. I never used to close my door, but I have small kids at home (so working there really isn't an option). So the only way I get anything done is to close my door and focus.
 
A colleague at a former employer would schedule meetings with themselves and would use the time to accomplish the data analysis that was part of their job.

If there is a conference room that is available, perhaps you could hide there with a closed door? I've sometimes found that hiding is crucial for getting this kind of work done on campus.
 
I think you're just going to have to embrace the fact that shutting the door is sometimes necessary! Writing is as important as a disciplinary matter...
 
Absolutely agree with the other posters here, you need to close the door. When I was dept chair, if I had a really big task like that to do, I'd tell close colleagues what I was doing so they knew why I was locking myself away, then close the door and put a 'please do not disturb' sign on it. I don't think there's a problem with people being able to see that you're in there by yourself, especially if they can also see that you're surrounded by reams of paper and hunched over the computer. Given that everyone has to do this from time to time, everyone understands the need for uninterupted peace! Good luck with the report, they're dreadful things.
 
"I could always just shut the door and keep everyone out for a while. But I’m not wild about the message that sends, especially if I’m alone in there."

Say what? Then put in a window!

My dean has an appointment calendar, and he also has an open door policy -- when the door is open. We know to ask one of the other staff if he is available in the cases when his door is closed.

As a prof, I put a sign up that says I am grading (or writing a test) but students are welcome. That keeps other faculty out and the work gets done.
 
My uni has several regional locations, within 30 minutes of each other (or so) and faculty and staff often come to my campus to escape and get some work done. People can't "find them" here. If you can't do that, Starbucks or your public library would be a good option.
 
A few thoughts:

You may be doing your underlings a favor by modeling behavior, ie closing the door when you need uninterrupted work time. It should be okay for everybody who has that option to use it once in a while.

My current (non-academic) boss works part of the time at a satellite office, and says that he prefers to write from there. If there's an alternate location, you may want to try that. (Conference room & library have already been mentioned.)

Personally, I'm a big fan of coffeeshop writing. Other people's conversations usually serve as decent white noise, and I like writing with a laptop in a comfy chair.

For any of those venues, the idea of a formal meeting on the calendar should help. Not just to keep the time from being overrun, and to let others know what you're up to, but also for a nag to yourself. I do that with my afternoon walk!
 
Close the door, or block out time and be elsewhere to write.

I agree with this:

"You may be doing your underlings a favor by modeling behavior, ie closing the door when you need uninterrupted work time. It should be okay for everybody who has that option to use it once in a while."

The message it sends is that real work includes thinking and writing, not just meetings and being publicly visible for drop-ins.
 
Used in a limited fashion (a few hours a week), closing the door is a smart option. Use it when needed and don't apologize. Let your gatekeepers know that the door can open for emergencies and urgent cases only, then rely on them to do that job!
 
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