Why long breaks will kill your skills and achievement?

For years I’ve been telling people to break down big tasks into small chunks. Take small 5-10 minutes breaks after every 30-40 minutes of intense activity such as writing a paper or a chapter of your thesis. After every intense activity you need a rest. The time you take to recharge your batteries is critical to productivity and success.

If short breaks increase your productivity why would long breaks kill it?

I used to write a monthly 1000 words column on “Advances in Surface Engineering” as the resident expert for a magazine called trade Finishing. I was desperate to raise my profile and be known as the expert in the field. When I got the invitation I had ideas for 2-3 articles and thought it would be good for my career. I could always makes an excuse if I couldn’t come up with new ideas every month.

It took me a month to finish my first article. The process was slow and very painful. I felt like a rubbish. I just made the 9:00am deadline. Generating ideas, narrowing them down, writing the article, editing and refining. I waited a week to see my article in print. I was euphoric with joy and happiness. I believed that it takes 4 weeks to write a good article. Now I had only 3 weeks for the next one. Sparked by my initial success I was determined to submit the article on time. It did not matter how hard I had to work. I brainstormed new ideas, used mind maps to capture them on paper and then narrowed down to 3 ideas. It took me a couple of days to decide which one to research, write and submit. I finished the article and submitted  exactly at 9:00 first monday of the month. I felt certain I can write the article in 2 weeks. The next one took 2 weeks and then shortened to 1 week. For several months I gave myself a week to complete my column. I became comfortable that 1 week is the optimum time.

In the summer I had a family wedding to prepare. Asian wedding preparations go on forever. Parties, discussions, shopping etc got in the way. I did not think about my column. The wedding was over and we all had a great time and things went according to plan. Then it dawned on me that I had to submit the article tomorrow morning. I had only about six hours to research, write and submit the article. I was determined and worked all night. I came up with the idea, researched it, wrote and perfected it.  By 9:00am it was submitted. I made the deadline and felt incredible. My confidence hit the sky. Cockily I thought I can write a 1000 word article in 6 hours.

For several years  I wrote my articles on sunday evenings and never missed a deadline. Life has a way of teaching you. My son fell ill on sunday night and I had to take him to hospital and stayed overnight to look after him. I came home for a few hours to have breakfast and go back to stay with him. At about  5am I phoned the hospital and the nurse told me that he was sleeping peacefully. I remembered that I had to submit my column at 9:00am. I started to think about writing the column. I felt that there was no way I could write a good column in about 2-3 hours but felt the urge to try my best. My mind froze out everything that was happening and focused completely on writing the article. As if by magic the words just flowed and the article seemed to write itself.  My fingers seemed to be moving by themselves. The finished first draft was almost perfect, I read it once and then submitted. I again hit the deadline and submitted by 9:00am. I felt incredible and knew with absolutely certainty that if I was committed then 1000 words/hour was realistic and the first draft will be perfect. When challenged to write I got faster.  My writing just flowed. Ideas came out of nowhere. It got easier and easier.

Since then I have written numerous papers, books, reports and articles. The more I wrote the faster I became. I wrote the column for 4 years and the editor remarked that I was their most consistent writer and readers really enjoyed my columns. This felt good.

Then I moved onto other challenges and did not write for 6 months and then I had to write a research paper for a conference. I just could not write anything. I sat down to write but nothing happened. I was frustrated and angry. I thought,  “I’ve lost my ability to write”. I got writers block. This makes sense doesn’t it. If you run everyday then don’t run for a month, you’ll feel soar and painful. You are bound to feel resistance to running. So if want running to be easy then run everyday and keep running. It’s the same with writing, if you want to write easily then write something everyday. It doesn’t matter what you write. Even if you write crap just write.

As a student make sure you read research papers everyday. Allocate 30 minutes to an hour to read and feed your mind. In addition make sure you write about your results everyday after laboratory work. Summarise papers you have read in your own words from memory. The more you read and write the better you will become. These are essential skills.

Read and write every single day. Eventually it is no longer a skill but its second nature.

Just read and write anything. The subject doesn’t matter. Quality doesn’t matter. What matters is to do it everyday.

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7 responses

  1. Excellent article. It has inspired me to write more regularly. I think I am falling into trap of just editing other people’s work, haveing 11 PhD students and other staffs. I must get back to the habit of writing. Thank you Prof Ahmed.

  2. Very true

  3. Wonderful write up. I fully enjoyed reading this article and I couldn’t disagree with any of it. I have had the same experience in the past. However, my break was for some 25 years. Now that I have started writing again, I find it necessary to keep writing no matter what it is. You must keep the lid off your imagination and thoughts.

  4. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

    Editing is an essential skill. You must divide up the wriitng process into stages
    1. Generate ideas and select one you’re most passionate about.
    2. Write the piece, article or chapter down on paper as quickly as you can and let your writing flow. Don’t judge or crticise. Just write.
    3. Edit, refine and polish you work until it is a masterpiece
    4. Let it out into the world.

    Being a good editor is a great start to being a great writer. get writing now.

  5. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

    25 years is a nice long break. Make the next break much shorter.

  6. This is such an inspiring article from Prof Waqar….I’m wondering if there is an article of this nature on ‘how to improve academic writing grammar’ ? suggestions would be appreciated…thank you

    1. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

      That’s a great suggestion. There are many good books around on English grammer. I will see if we can do a post on it in the near future.

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