Monday, March 25, 2013

I am, and will always be...

A few days ago, an anonymous poster made a post that I promised I would respond to. If the post was not made anonymously, I would most certainly ask for permission before I responded more publicly and re-posted it here. However, since it was anonymous, and I think I can take the opportunity  to address an important issue, I will take the liberty to do so. Here is the post:

"I am just too stuck in my ways at the moment to attempt even a small change. The idea of forcing myself to write 500+ words a day is just not me. I am not that disciplined. The other problem is that while I understand what you are saying with regards to looking up references etc later and just write, I can't do that, I absolutely hate if I have something down on paper and I know the reference may be somewhere in a big pile of papers in another room, I just have to get it and make sure I have it and re-read it again etc. Seems like some form of OCD."

Read this passage carefully. What you will find are several statements where the author assures us that "this is the way I am," and both implicitly and explicitly says, "and I will never change."  The author conflates behaviors with essential, fundamental aspects of the self. While the author recognizes that he or she is stuck, he or she also states that the idea of forcing him/herself to do something is "just not me." These behaviors are so fundamentally part of  his or her self that her/she could never change, and if he/she did, than somehow it would be a very assault to the self, or a very assault on the individuals essence.

These absolutist or essentialist views are a big part of what is keeping the author stuck! As long as she or he holds tightly to this notion that this is the way she or he is, she will not do things differently. And  the truth is, these are merely behaviors and habits, which can be changed. People often change behaviors that they have engaged in for decades. Of course, it take a great deal of hard work, and in the case above, the author would have to challenge forcefully and continually challenge these essentialist beliefs about who they are. I found a one minute audio on this from Dr. Mitchell Perry. It might feel a bit harsh, but it puts it out there! 

This is an example of what I call a psychosocial barrier to writing. In my coaching practice, I have discovered that there are at least five key domains that I help people with. Writing productivity, journal article writing methods and skills, the rules and norms of the academe, the ins and outs of peer review, and psychosocial barriers. Too often, the psychosocial barriers are what hold people back from performing in the other domains. They KNOW what they need to do, but hold tightly to beliefs and behaviors that get in their way.

Change is hard, and change is often painful. Yet, if you wish to have different results and outcomes, sometimes you have to change your tools. In the case of the scholar/writing, the tool is the self.

For what it is worth, and I hope I did not offend the original poster.


  1. I agree with you when you say that we have to change our tools in order to get different results. However I find that changing our beliefs and internal speech is not enough. The development of some basic skills and habits is also crucial - and it may be difficult to achieve if we aren't surrounded by researchers with efficient workflows .
    Recently,  I finally understood the main reason for my procrastination problem: I don't have an efficient way (a system?) to read,  annotate and manage those annotations. Instead of a daily reading habit,  I need to force myself to read. I write my comments and notes sometimes in the pdfs, others in a doc file, others in the software I am currently trying...
    I've been struggling to find the *right* tool to read and the *right* way to manage my annotations.  I tried different solutions but none seems to "feel right" or give an adequate response.  Probably,  this is just another type of procrastination and I should commit to one tool and just use it on a regular basis.
    Could you please share the solution (workflow+tools)  you follow when it comes to read and annotate papers and to tackle the prewriting stage of writing?

  2. When I wrote about changing one's tools, I was being metaphorical. The "tool" is the writer, in the above post. Yes, you must have a sent of basic skills. Improving our publishing rates comes down to skill in several domains:writing productivity, knowledge of journals and the peer review process, methodological sophistication, substantive knowledge, and psychosocial factors that inhibit the other factors.

    I will write a post soon that addresses your question in depth. For now, let me say that my experience is that many people spend far too much time relaying on their literature, and too little time writing and trusting what they already know. Perhaps I am not clear what you mean by "annotate"- this may have a different connotation for you, depending upon what country you are from and your academic tradition. In general, I think it is best to find a way of working that includes writing as early on in the process as possible, and seeing out the architecture for your article as early as you can.

    Of course, I will end with two very American expressions. Your Milage May Vary and In My Humble Opinion (YMMV and IMHO).

  3. Dear Rich,

    I am the original anonymous poster of the post and no offence taken at all (I will sign my posts with Frag now so we can discern other anonymous posters). I will have to take some time to digest what you wrote as I am in a rush but just one more thing: when I say I can't change and never will, I think this is mostly due to laziness. It's really nothing else, just the thought of having to sit down and puting something together from material that I clearly have available as raw data, it stalls me and I find other things to occupy my mind or my attention.

    The day ends and I am sometimes relieved but also feel frustrated a bit because I haven't done anything on that paper I wanted to do and sometimes this process just goes on for a couple of months until I feel "energetic" enough to actually want to write it.

    Don't get me wrong the reward is there and I want it (i.e. to see the piece published) and it's really like a drug, probably means more to me than anything else in the job, because I am not an academic but have a support role yet publish academic papers in the natural sciences. For me, the publication is the only way to feel that I am doing something that is valid and useful. While my support work does this in a way as well it is in no way as mentally and academically challenging as writing research papers and case reviews etc.

    Thanks to you and a previous anonymous contributor for replying to my thoughts. Oh, and I'm male (just for ease of replying).


  4. I can identify both with the struggle write to the best of one's ability ( or even at all) within a chosen forum and to the laziness!
    I am a blogger, have a few articles published in magazines and websites relating to my hobbies and yet battle desperately with my academic writing.
    I know I am skilled, I know where to locate and how to utilise the appropriate references for research and citations - but the actual writing of the essay/article feels horribly forced and sometimes hopelessly difficult.
    I am a Masters student of Psychology working within Clinical Research - I really need to find a way to combat this and tackle my idleness, which I think is what this somehow boils down to. Writing for fun is easy and it's mine, unregulated and un-moderated. Writing for academia must go by rules and that seems too big a barrier, sometimes.