A week ago I came down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me bedridden for several days and caused me to miss nearly an entire week of TA duty. It also left me unable to make much progress on my dissertation research. The problem wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned; the problem was that days passed without me doing anything to move my project along.Some of my mom’s friends who are involved in creative writing used to say, “You’ve got to touch it every day.” I didn’t know how right they were before I started in on my dissertation in earnest. If you’re working on a substantial project, don’t let a twenty-four-hour period pass without doing something—no matter how small—to keep it moving along. It’s not so much a time issue as a quality-of-work issue. I find that if I let a day pass without engaging the project, I end up losing more than just the hours. I lose my bearings and my momentum, too. When I get back to it, it’s like walking into a room that’s been sealed off for weeks; the air is stale, the furnishings are unfamiliar, and there’s a fine layer of dust everywhere. You’ve got to keep everything in motion or a kind of general funk settles in, and you won’t be at your best until it dissipates.
I should add that you don’t necessarily have to be writing every day. The resolution to do a little something every day doesn’t necessarily mean you should always be churning out prose. (Most of what I’m doing at this point doesn’t involve putting words together.) But you should be getting your hands dirty somehow, whether that means locating and poring over sources, reading through notes, juggling bibliographic entries, or knocking out grant proposals. Even if you’re just putting in twenty or thirty minutes a day, do it. The point isn’t those twenty or thirty minutes, but making sure you’ve engaged with your project before hitting the hay.
The only exception to this rule comes when you’ve completed a draft, at which point it’s best to let it sit for a while before you start revising. But if you’re still in the research or rough draft phase, a day off will ultimately do more harm than good.
And on that note, I’ve lost too many days to recovery already. Time to pop a cough drop and get back at it.