Pro Tips for Busy Writers: Ben Blackwell

Headshot of Ben Blackwell

To this continuing series on “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m glad to welcome Ben Blackwell, Director of Houston Theological Seminary at Houston Baptist University.1

Ben has published several books and scholarly essays. His monograph Christosis is now in its second edition (Eerdmans, 2016), and he has a further volume currently forthcoming, Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 2020).

Ben blogs at Dunelm Road with John Goodrich, Ed Kaneen, and Jason Maston.

By this point in your career, you’ve likely worked on several writing projects concurrently (e.g., articles, books). What’s a memorable example of a cluster of projects you worked on concurrently?

It seems that almost all my projects are overlapping others in some ways. I’ve had the pleasure of working on joint edited volumes with a couple of friends. These include Reading Romans in ContextReading Mark in ContextReading Revelation in Context, and Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination.

One of those projects always seems to be going, so my individual articles, essays, and books are concurrent projects. Over the past couple of years I co-authored a theology textbook, Engaging Theology, while also trying to make progress on a monograph, Participating in the Righteousness of God. As time progresses, the opportunities to write increase, and my selectivity has had to substantively increase.

I should also note that I had a brain condition arise about 2 years ago. It wasn’t life-threatening, but it set me back about a year. Its greatest damage was to my productivity, and so I’ve borne a bit of additional stress (not unlike my PhD days) since I’ve had overlapping deadlines.

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?

The tyranny of the urgent is a real factor. I find that administrative work is more distracting than smaller projects. I tend to find that the smaller projects give me the space and deadlines to keep advancing when administrative work and teaching maintain their relentless demands.

Of course, saying yes to essay requests, or even book projects, can eat into your time and dilute your productivity if you are not selective. But, I have found benefit in them because they offer external deadlines that motivate completion in a way that my internal motivation doesn’t always produce. So, you need a balance. I find the committed projects get the most attention since they have external deadlines, so I’ve not been as fruitful in the journal article area since these don’t have deadlines.

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?

I’ve found the most helpful thing is to have regular dedicated time, particularly chunks of time. Since it seems to take at least 2–3 hours to make substantive progress for me, I block out sections of time and either shut my door or work out of my office. (I get almost nothing done at home beyond email, so I find coffee shops most helpful.)

For example, when I was doing my PhD, I knew I needed to have a journal article published before I graduated to demonstrate my research competencies, so I devoted every Thursday night just to that task. It took about a year at that pace, but it produced a product on glory in Romans that’s been well received: “Immortal Glory and the Problem of Death in Romans 3:23.” Now that I have day hours, I block out chunks during the day.

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

I don’t guess the distinction between research and writing is one that I use since I’m always writing as I research. Of course, I read monographs and articles just to advance my knowledge, but if something is relevant to a project, I try to sit down when I’m working through it to incorporate the key ideas or quotes into whatever writing project it relates to. I’m a mostly in-the-moment kind of person, so I tend to read and focus on each project serially, though I’ve got a word document going for each project, so as I come across ideas I’ll add references and quotes so I can come back to them later.

Some of my best ideas come out of teaching, and that can be an underestimated source of writing. When I have the luxury of teaching a more focused class, it can be very helpful for me to test ideas and to sharpen the presentation of those ideas. However, it can be difficult since even graduate students can’t always catch the places where you are pushing academic boundaries into new areas since they are still trying to grasp where things are currently at.

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?

I am the king of overcommitting because I overestimate my ability to produce in a timely manner. Most often this is related to administrative roles.

I have a former life as a CPA (now inactive) with an MBA and worked for seven years as a benefits consultant on retirement and medical plans for corporations. Beyond the general business acumen I accumulated, I also became very proficient at Excel and budgeting. These are key skills that the university finds helpful since most around me are not as adept at these things that keep institutions going.

I also have a knack for recruiting graduate students. So, I’ve rotated through being department chair, graduate director, interim dean, and now director of our seminary. I’ve had to learn to book in time just for the unseen issues that always arise with roles like these.

When a project arises, I now consciously think about what it should take and then plan for it to take almost twice as long because I know that the workable bits of my schedule will get eaten up by some administrative or teaching duty. Another reason for doubling the time is an attempt to pay better attention to my health. While I don’t have any lingering side effects from my brain issue, I do think I’ve lost some stamina that helped me push through in the past. So, being realistic about what I can mentally and emotionally process is just a reality that I didn’t have to consider before.

Booking in sabbath is necessary for longevity and production. I got to below empty this spring, and it took me almost the whole summer to recharge my batteries. I intentionally never teach in the summer because I know I always go full-tilt in the regular semesters and need that recuperation time.

As you consider the amount of time to commit, another issue to consider is the afterlife of the project. No project is done even when you send off the “final” manuscript. There are potentially multiple rounds of responding to editor responses and the requisite time and effort spent developing indexes. Plus, with books, there are all the necessary marketing aspects, particularly if the you’re not just with a strictly academic press. This includes managing endorsements, blog work, etc. If you don’t mentally book in that space, it can really throw off your subsequent projects.

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

The primary tool is having a Word document for each project. As I mentioned, I work on projects serially, so there’s always a chapter or essay that I’m currently working on which will be organized into sections, etc.

For the other projects, I keep both a Word document with general list for ideas that are in the germination phase and another document for each project that has spawned into something specific. The general list has paper ideas that I think I would like to come back to some day but that I haven’t thought through enough to have an outline or anything. The specific projects are ones that I have usually committed to or just have in progress.

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

I try more and more to use my concurrent projects to overlap in some way. That way, I can maximize my productivity and use the multiple projects to sharpen my thinking about my larger monograph projects.

That said, some opportunities just don’t fit. I’ve not written nor will I come back to anything on Revelation and the Damascus Document anytime soon. So when I was working on Reading Revelation in Context, I just had to add that to my Paul and reception history work. While I was not as efficient on the Revelation project, it is helpful and even necessary to branch out of your comfort areas to expand your competencies.

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

I’m most excited about my in-progress monograph—Participating in the Righteousness of God. It’s been delayed by at least two years beyond when I first expected to finish it, but those delays have been providential because some new work has come out in the meantime that has given me clarity on the project. The next monograph that I’m just at the initial phases on is the Theology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians for an update to the Cambridge series.

What closing advice 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?

While writing is important and gives an opportunity to have a dispersed impact, I believe investing in institutions and people is necessary for the longevity of our work as well. Finding that balance is necessary. Institutions are generally poor at valuing anything other than that which contributes to the current need, so they will often not value writing even though it is necessary for the reputation of the institution (and your career progression).

Everyone will have different gifts, but acknowledging to yourself the value of institutional progress and personal writing progress is necessary. By understanding and evaluating the relative value, you can then allocate your time appropriately to those relative areas.

  1. Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

Daily Gleanings: Persisting (30 August 2019)

Evernote discusses habit formation, largely by way of abstracting Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit. Biblical scholarship sometimes isn’t thought of as being the most habit-dependent field, but the formation of good knowledge work habits do play a key role (e.g., of regular writing).

Todoist releases a “complete guide to timeblocking.” The post has some helpful examples, illustrations, and other discussion around timeblocking.

For further discussion of timeblocking, see this series of posts.

Ode to to-do lists

Kristina Malsberger discusses managing oneself and one’s commitments amid what can be a hectic whirlwind of incoming information and requests. According to Malsberger,

there’s a simple, centuries-old solution: the daily to-do list. Sure, checklists have their detractors—folks that claim they constrain creativity or induce undue guilt—but when done well, a to-do list functions like a trusty aide-de-camp, greatly improving your ability to remember, plan, and prioritize.

Malsberger then provides several practical recommendations about using and managing to-do lists. Among these are not “treating your to-do list like a junk drawer for all your ideas, wishes, and reminders.” Instead, a someday-maybe list that’s regularly culled for dead wood is much more helpful.

For the balance of Malsberger’s reflections, see her original post on the Dropbox blog. For discussion of someday-maybe and other types of helpful list ideas and workflows, see David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (rev. ed.; New York: Penguin, 2015). See also other discussion of productivity-related matters here.

GTD Times

David Allen, via Twitter

It’s certainly not new, but I recently came across the GTD Times blog run by the David Allen Company. The most recent entry is the first part of a keynote in which Allen overviews his approach to “getting things done,” as covered more fully in his book by the same title. If academia should ever manifest itself as an environment with an overabundance of demands, Allen’s advice may be a helpful starting point in adequately coming to grips with that situation.

On similar notes, see also David Allen @EntreLeadership.

David Allen @EntreLeadership

David Allen, via Twitter

If you’ve never read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity (Penguin, 2001), a recent episode of the EntreLeadership podcast has a sit-down with Allen and crash course in the fundamentals of what he thinks makes for effective time management self-management in time.