Pro Tips for Busy Writers: David DeSilva

David DeSilva headshotTo the series “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome David DeSilva.

David is the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

David has published or in press more than 15 academic books and another 13 for popular audiences. Beyond this, he has contributed upwards of 50 articles and essays to journals and edited volumes.

For more about David, see his personal website.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

I’m personally not very good at this, but the key is, first, to say “no” to conference papers, invitations to contribute essays, and especially to book reviews (and usually invitations to respond to questionnaires that aren’t about one of my projects!).

[Given this principle, my special thanks to David for his decision not to say “no” to participating in this interview! 🙂 ]

I think I’ve done five book reviews in the last decade. When I do think about conference papers or essay invitations, I try to make sure they are in line with my current (or anticipated) project so that my head keeps swimming in the same pool.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

To be honest, I don’t really work on projects concurrently. If necessary, I set the one aside and get the other done, then return to the first one.

I find immersion to be the best way for me to make progress on something.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

Yes, I tend to try to do the bulk of the research first, take a plenitude of notes, and shape them into the orderly progression that will become the article or book.

Of course, new questions arise in the course of the actual writing. But those tend to be rather specific things that I had not anticipated having to dig into and don’t stall the writing process too much.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

Undercommitting has just never been a danger for me. I’ve used those rare occasions when I’ve had free time between projects to be creative in other ways, like composing anthems or arranging organ music for my church work.

I have a serious problem with overcommitting, and I’ll simply say that it’s better to err on the side of undercommitting—and having some good free time for other interests or just for the tasks of home ownership and yard maintenance!—than on the side of overcommitting.

The Hebrew Bible image for enjoying covenant blessings was sitting under one’s vines and trees, not incessantly working on them.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

When I can’t avoid working on multiple projects in the same time frame, I tend to compartmentalize and devote, say, Monday and Tuesday to the one and Thursday and Saturday to the other (before our kids were grown, however, Saturdays were sacred to playing!). That way, I can keep my focus in one place at a time.

But in these cases, they’ve also been significantly different kinds of projects, e.g., working on the Greek handbook on Galatians (so a lot of very technical and not-so-creative work) alongside writing my novel, Day of Atonement.

Organization is, of course, essential. I’ve never used “project management tools.” I just put all the physical books I need for one project on one group of shelves and those for the other on another group of shelves. I divide all my notes and drafts into appropriate folders on my computer desktop.

How has your approach to concurrent writing projects changed over time?

I have accepted my tunnel-vision approach and try not to work against myself.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I’m excited not to be working on two or more projects concurrently!

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Publish articles and present papers on the way to completing larger monographs. If there are key new works that you must engage to do your own research, target those (and only those) for book reviews. (This is essentially advice not to get involved in concurrent projects, but to get the most out of a single project.)

Don’t stress yourself out about the quality of what you’re writing. Just keep working at the level at which you were working as you successfully completed your dissertation.

What you did once, you can do again—and again. Your skills will naturally grow with use and exercise, particularly as you keep engaging the research of your peers.

What’s your biggest take away from this interview?

Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

Daily Gleanings: Atomic Minimalism (6 December 2019)

James Clear and Cal Newport discuss the symbiotic relationship their prior work has in terms of fostering focus.

In particular, Clear and Newport situate Clear’s program for habit formation as an excellent way of making operative the program Newport has articulated for the need to foster focused work.

It’s a rare thing when authors of two productivity-related lines of thought sit down for such a mutual exchange, and the full recording is well worth the listen.

Daily Gleanings: Focus (2 December 2019)

Corey Pemberton has a very helpful essay on focus. The essay discusses eight specific types of challenges with focus and provides some suggestions for overcoming each type.

In particular, the eight types are:

  1. Trouble prioritizing what’s most important,
  2. Emotional procrastination,
  3. Lack of motivation,
  4. Too much multitasking,
  5. Time management issues,
  6. Physical health issues,
  7. Mental health issues, and
  8. Distraction.

If you work through this list, you will probably identify a trouble spot or two that you have. But, Pemberton also suggests keeping a distraction log for a while if needed to capture what is hurting your focus if you can’t readily identify it.

For Pemberton’s full discussion of these reasons focus can be difficult, see his original post on the Freedom blog.

Daily Gleanings: Digital Distractions (13 November 2019)

Freedom interviews Tyler Shores about avoiding digital distractions.

Tyler is doing a PhD in Education at Cambridge. Some of his advice to fellow academics is to

Keep[] track of your progress with any kind of word count spreadsheet, or other means of tangibly tracking what you are doing. This kind of feedback and ability to quantify is what social media and distractions also rely upon to keep us hooked — so we can use those principles to our advantage.

The open-ended nature of [academic] work is challenging. There can be no shortage of angles to chase up. Academics are no strangers to productive procrastination. Having social pressure can be a wonderful way to not take too long with things.

The older I get, the more I seem to realize how important sleep is. Matthew Crawford talks about the science of sleep and why we need it in his book, Why We Sleep.

For the full interview, see Freedom’s blog. For more about using Freedom to beat distractions, see “How to Use Freedom to Support Your Priorities.”

Daily Gleanings: Freedom (7 November 2019)

Via a Chrome extension, Freedom adds support for Chrome OS and Linux devices.

Of course, for Linux users, the Chrome extension won’t allow Freedom to run a session that blocks sites in other browsers like Firefox.

But for instance, if you

have a Chromebook, an iPhone, and an Android tablet. You know each device offers its own set of tempting distractions.

Add those distractions to a blocklist on the Freedom dashboard, choose your devices, and with a single click of the “Start” button, all the selected devices are actively blocking the selected distractions.

For more information about Freedom of Chrome OS and Linux, see Freedom’s full blog post.

For more about using Freedom to support your priorities, see this post.

Daily Gleanings: White-listing (4 November 2019)

Freedom releases white-listing for Windows:

Whitelisting or Block All Except … allows you to block the entire internet except for the websites you add to your exceptions list.

Thus, with white-listing, you don’t need to positively identify what online distractions you want to avoid. You just need to identify what online you need to be productive.

For instructions about how to use white-listing on Windows, see Freedom’s original post.

For more about using Freedom to support your priorities, see this post.