Crush It

Main Ideas

  • Numerous preparatory steps need to happen before your brain will be ready to generate sentences about your topic.
  • Your brain won’t always be functioning at a level where it can generate text. If you’re having an intense day or are underslept, you’ll have trouble focusing enough to generate text.
  • It’s important to adjust your expectations for a writing session to the state of your writing brain.
  • Breaking down the tasks that prepare you to generate text into smaller and smaller components will enable you to be productive even on days when you’re struggling with focus.

When you sit down at your computer for a writing session, your brain isn’t always ready to generate text. If you haven’t done the preparatory steps of taking notes and organizing your thoughts, for example, you’ll have a heck of a time generating sentences about your topic. Your knowledge will emerge from your sources–from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Another reason your brain might not be ready is that you’re having an intense day with several important issues competing for your attention. Achieving enough mental focus to write will be difficult on those days. Or perhaps you’re short on sleep; you’ll also find focusing very difficult on those days.

All is not lost. You can still use your writing time productively. Many things need to happen before the moment when you generate sentences. Think of it as scaffolding that supports your final product. And some of those tasks are quite time consuming. When I really want to write but haven’t done these preparatory steps, I find myself feeling very impatient about the time it takes to complete them. So getting these jobs done on days when your brain isn’t ready for writing is an excellent way to use your time.

Here’s a partial list of the tasks that prepare your brain to think analytically about your topic and see lots of connections in the information you’re processing for your writing project:

  • Identifying possible sources
  • Selecting sources from the pool you’ve identified
  • Skim-reading sources you’ve selected for relevant content
  • Selecting potential quotes from your sources
  • Installing the full citations to your sources in your working file
  • Taking notes on your sources
  • Highlighting the key ideas in your notes
  • Making notes for yourself about how key ideas from sources connect with your own thinking and the thinking of other scholars
  • Looking for patterns in the content in your notes
  • Making a road map for yourself for the next section of your chapter or article based on all of the previous activities
  • Making a list of the next tasks
  • Putting PDFs in folders based on categories you’ve created
  • Bookmarking relevant websites based on categories you’ve created

All of these activities will move you forward on low-energy days.

I find that I have three levels of expectations about the work I can do in a writing session. Matching my expectations to my level of brain functioning helps me use writing time productively almost every day.

Bouldular Level

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Bouldular-level thinking involves thinking about a whole article or chapter (or even a whole book) at once. This level of thought is a potential pitfall because you can easily get overwhelmed or scared or discouraged. There are only two good times for bouldular-level thought:

  • When you’re in the beginning stages of thinking about your project and you’re formulating a research question. During these early days, you’re thinking about the overall scope of your project and about how your book or chapter or article will engage with colleagues who have written about your topic.
  • When you have a polished draft of the book or chapter or article and you’re writing the introduction and/or the conclusion. Now you know what the scope of your project is and you know what you argued. So it’s easy to write an overview of your work and draw some conclusions.


Pebbular Level

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You’ll have lots of days when you’re well rested, your belly is full of protein, you’ve got a full bottle of water to keep you hydrated, and you have a period of time when you’re not likely to be interrupted. But you’re not sure you’re not ready to write text yet because you still have to process a lot of information that’s new to you. These are the days to approach your work session with a pebbular set of expectations.

For example, your goal for a work session on a day like this might be to take notes on six articles and decide which quotes (if any) will work well in a specific section of your chapter.

Another pebbular goal might be to revise what you wrote the day before, type in notes to yourself about where you’ll be going next in this section of the chapter, and list the sources you’ll be drawing on in your next work session. If you have any gas left in your tank after that, you might look for a few sources to support a point that’s new to the chapter or article (i.e., one that wasn’t in your original plan but came up as you did the metacognitive work of deciding what you’ll be saying). Any work you do to set yourself up to generate text in the next writing session is progress.

As you’re doing these preparatory tasks, you may be surprised to find that ideas about what to write start popping up. You may find that suddenly you feel ready to write. In this first session of generating text about this part of your outline, you might not be able to write complete sentences. That’s okay. Write phrases. Write notes to yourself. Write down questions that come to mind. Any writing you do will be a platform for your next text-generating session.

Keep in mind that generating text shouldn’t be about word count. Success in writing isn’t about word count. Successful writing is based on good thinking, and that requires many preparatory steps. If you’re working at the pebbular level and your goal is to generate text, think in terms of covering one particular, small part of your outline.

You may find that you’re not able to cover all of the aspects of that topic in one session. Don’t get freaked out–that’s actually a very good thing. Your brain is hard at work feeding you knowledge and insights. When this happens, be confident that when you return for another session, you’ll have plenty to say and you may even see new angles of analysis. Don’t get hung up on word count. The number of words means nothing. It’s the content of what the words say that’s important to focus on.

If you end a work session with some notes with good insights that provide a road map for your next writing session instead of the 2 pages of text you were hoping for, realize that you’ve done well. You’re working at a high level because you’re investing time and effort in the kind of thinking that leads to higher-quality writing.

A pebbular work day is a very good day. Give yourself extra stars for every pebbular writing session you have–not just for your success but because these sessions are evidence that you’re being a good partner to your writing brain. You’re going through all the steps to give it what it needs to produce for you.

A word about setting goals for days when you can write: Make your goals very specific. Don’t set a goal that says “cover point B in my outline.” Instead, make your goal something like “write three paragraphs about what authors X and Y say about topic Z,” where “topic Z” is clearly related to the argument you’re making in that chapter or article. Set a goal that you know you can reach. That gives your brain a hit of dopamine, which supports the hard work it’s doing to make connections and see patterns. Plus it makes you feel good. You’re a winner!

Gravular Level (aka Crushing It into Your Comfort Zone)

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Invariably, when I make a list of writing goals first thing in the morning I’m way too optimistic. My brain is functioning at pebbular level at 5 a.m., but by the time I actually get to 11 a.m., when I have time to write, I’m not there anymore. I’m at gravular level. This is normal for me. I’m a lark on the far end of the spectrum. I’m at my peak performing times from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Instead of beating myself up because I can’t accomplish the lovely and desirable goals I set for myself, I immediately move to crush-it mode, by which I mean that I break my goals into smaller and smaller components until I’m confident that I have a list I can work with. On many, many days, my list changes to accommodate the state of my brain.

Here’s an example:

A pebbular list item for me might say “Draft 1/2 of Long-Term Memory essay.” Woo-hoo! It would be so great if I could do that in one session! And on some days, that would be entirely possible. But, I’m out of my wheelhouse when I’m writing about neuroscience. I don’t have a lot of domain knowledge to draw on. So writing about long-term memory is a more laborious process for me. I’ll need to refer to the literature more often to make sure I’m not using terms or concepts incorrectly and I’ll have to keep looking for new sources as I realize I don’t know things. Even though I have detailed notes from the sources I’ve already processed, my writing process will be stop and start because I lack domain knowledge.

Now if I’m in peak writing mode (well rested, free of distractions, proteined up and hydrated), I maybe could produce half of a draft of a six-page essay in one session. The key would be my ability to stay focused. It would be possible.

But most days I’m not in that mode by the time I’ve done half a day’s work of paid labor. So by 11 o’clock in the morning, I’m often not in pebbular mode anymore. I’m in gravular mode.

What to do? I need to keep generating essays. I can’t just lose a day’s work session. So I move into crush-it mode. Instead of plunging right in, I take 15 minutes or so to break “Draft 1/2 of Long-Term Memory essay” into a list of small, discrete tasks that will prepare me to generate text on another day.

Here’s a typical crush-it list for me:

Make a table of full citations of sources
Color-code the table (one color for source is processed and I have notes, another for source is processed and I have notes and have selected quotes, another for source isn’t processed yet)
Make a list of topics I need sources for
Find sources for those topics
Add these citations to the color-coded table
Take notes on two new sources

I might even assign time budgets to each list item:

Task Minutes
Make a table of full citations of sources 20
Color-code the table 5
Make a list of topics I need sources for 15
Find sources for those topics 40
Add these citations to the color-coded table 10
Take notes on two new sources 30

Boom! There’s a work session of 2 hours. That’s just about the limit for any writing session, regardless of what mode your brain is in. That’s a very respectable session.

This may look like a lot of busywork, but actually in this session I’ll be doing some valuable activities that support a writing brain.

  • When I create a table of full citations, I’m removing a potential distraction from working memory. Now my working memory doesn’t need to constantly be running a loop that says “don’t forget the citations, don’t forget the citations, don’t forget the citations.” That frees up space in working memory to plan and strategize and draw on vocabulary and all those other good things that prepare writers to generate text. Removing a distraction also improves my ability to focus.
  • Color-coding the table of citations does three things for my writing brain. It gives me an instant visual overview of where I am in my project. This is a powerful weapon against my archenemy: feeling overwhelmed. I can see that I’m making good, steady progress as I process my sources. I even consolidate the colors, so the section that’s color coded for “haven’t started with this one yet” keeps getting smaller and smaller. Seeing a clear visual marker of my progress as the list of articles I haven’t processed dwindles changes my inner narrative. Now my inner narrative is “I’m almost done processing the articles” instead of “I haven’t even processed all the articles yet.” Changing the color of a list item as I complete it is a reward for my brain. Color makes me very happy and makes my brain sing. When I change a list item to from an “in progress” color to a “completed” color, my brain gets very happy. This releases dopamine in my brain, a neurotransmitter that helps me stay focused and motivated.
  • Generating a list of topics I need sources for is part of a continual process of monitoring for lack of domain knowledge. It’s crucial for writers to know what they don’t know and have good strategies for compensating for lack of knowledge. As I look at the notes I’ve taken in the field of neuroscience, I invariably see terms and concepts that are new to me. It’s my job to know what they mean so I have an accurate understanding of what an author is saying. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve a lengthy Google session or deeper dips into literature that isn’t in my field. Almost always there will be a short overview of a field of knowledge that’s written in language that nonspecialists can understand.
  • Taking notes on a few new sources adds to my knowledge base and increases the raw material I have for drafting new text.

A crush-it work session is actually very productive. Breaking down the steps that are preparation for writing into smaller and smaller tasks generates a list that’s doable even if you’re not having a peak day mentally. It gives your writing brain plenty to process, and that good partner will deliver for you the next time you sit down to work. These types of work sessions are excellent supports for metacognition, for drafting new text, and for generating analysis about your topic.

And a crush-it list is seductive for the whiny part of my brain that says “I just can’t do it today!” My brain sees the crush-it list and says, “Well, maybe I could do that one thing. That one doesn’t look so bad.” And once I start, I’m in it. I’m working.

Gravular mode is where all the good stuff happens that supports the generation of text and analysis. So don’t feel disappointed when you realize you’re having a gravular day. Those are the days when you’re doing valuable work to support your writing brain. Those are the days when you’re crushing it.


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