Writing daily FAQ: “How do you know how long projects will take?”

Continuing my academic writing habits series this week with a common question I get about writing every day: How do you know how long it will take to finish a project or journal submission? Let me introduce you to: time tracking!

A few thoughts about estimating time projects will take: It’s normal to be pretty inaccurate about this. When I first started creating semester syllabi, I had no clue how long it took me to write a literature review, or a dissertation chapter, or whatever else.

  1. Make your best guess: My first piece of advice is to start guessing. As you make your plans for the week, for example, break down projects into small, manageable sub-tasks and put one on each day of your calendar.
  2. Assess: At the end of the day, ask yourself if you completed that writing goal. And if you did, how realistic was it? Did it take 30-60 minutes? That’s a good sized daily goal. Did it take half a day? That’s a good way to create burnout that makes me avoid writing the next day.

The main thing I’ve learned from assessing: literature reviews take me way longer than I think. Data analysis takes way longer than I think. Actually writing up data results, conclusions, and introductions takes less time than I think. It’s ok to learn and improve upon your estimations!

Also: Usually my to-do list needs to be shorter and more focused versus longer and more ambitious. I now follow the “rule of 3,” where I pick about 3 tasks to do a day and try to just get those done. Otherwise I have a bad habit of doing 12 things on Monday, 4 things on Tuesday, 1 thing on Wednesday, half a thing on Thursday…you get the idea. It’s better for me to work at a sustainable pace!

Another way you can get better at budgeting time is time tracking. Time tracking can be done through a variety of apps, a spreadsheet, or a bullet journal. The simplest way I have found is to work in 30 minute increments (with the timer on) and then track how much time I spent doing each task in a bigger word document. So I’ll keep a running amount of time I spent writing a literature review, for example, and then in the future I’ll know exactly how long it took to read all those articles and summarize them.

Time tracking is also useful to start in graduate school because when you complete your annual reviews as a professor you’ll be asked how long it took to do things–my annual review always asks how many hours I spent advising graduate schools or on certain committees, for example. The first year I had no idea. Now I know because I keep running documents of cumulative time spent on those tasks each semester. And let me tell you, that number can be eye opening!

So, there you have it. It’s normal not to know how long a project will take, and it takes some reflection to have a better estimate of how much time a writing project will take. And that’s ok! But knowledge has been power for me. Now, my semester goals are usually manageable (but not over the top!). Happy writing!

Want more? Here’s how I know what to write everyday and my original switch to writing daily.

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