Making time for real writing (Kelly Farrell)

Cyclops frog
(Image by Mark Rain |
Don’t tell my children this, but I was one of those kids who passed notes in class.

There was something delicious about those little folded missives passed through sweaty teenage hands containing the promise of some earth-shattering pubescent confidence.

The sheer joy of the distraction from the business at hand, that small matter of an education - well, that was just as enticing.

Email is the grown-up version of passing notes in class.

It has all the hallmarks: distraction from actual work and the potential – no matter how remote - for something vital to be contained within each unread message.

There’s the pleasure of the format itself: no longer a piece of Foolscap 7mm Ruled, but the Outlook (or whatever your poison) dashboard with its shaded window panes, little blue folders and neatly ruled lines separating each mini-missive.

As most of us know very well, email is the very antithesis of getting writing – real writing – done. Yet, for most of us, it’s the first click of the day.

As Dr Maria Gardiner (Thinkwell) noted recently in a seminar that was part of the RED Unit's research development program, email is the ‘illusion of work’. Just like those little folded notes, email content tends to be contained to one particular matter and its boundaries are often clear and defined.

Real writing is not clear, nor defined. It’s big. It’s bottomless. It has no obvious shape. It often has no obvious end.

Emails are usually highly structured:
9.07am, Tuesday 14 November. 
Could you please check all details on the attached and send it back to me asap?
For people grappling with how to articulate complex ideas, the straightforwardness of an email can be as seductive as Tony Jones in a black pin-stripe.

Anyone who has gone within three feet of a time management self-help book will know that the first chapter will be called something like: ‘HOW TO TURN YOUR EMAIL OFF’.

Isn’t that funny? Grown-up, professional people (some even very clever ones with higher degrees!) have to spend $29.95 to be told how to turn their email off! How ridiculous!

Only it’s not, is it?

Even when we know that kicking our email habit is likely to skyrocket our productivity, we remain in its thrall.

So, for those of us poor lost souls, here are some of the most popular strategies for resisting that particular electronic siren-song:

1. Batch

Remember when the only mail you got was from the postie? Make like it’s 1987 and check only once or twice a day.

2. Five sentences or under

Often, it’s not the volume of email, but the volume of time spent dealing with it that kills our productivity. Take the challenge and keep all your replies under five sentences. They even have a message for your email signature to explain your brevity.

3. Don’t open it

Especially when you finally get some time to write.

4. Don’t open it

Yes, that means you.


My addiction to time-management books rivals my attachment to email.

Part of what I love about them is their unlikely titles. One of the books I've read with the most useful pieces of advice really takes the cake on this front. Called Eat that Frog! (yes, really), Brian Tracy recommends that you don’t make opening your email your out-of-the-blocks task at the start of the day. It will suck you in, and eat you with chocolate sauce.

Instead, you start the day by ‘eating’ the biggest, ugliest ‘frog’ there is, that one thing that really needs doing and that'll make a difference.

For most of us, that’s writing.

Real writing.

Kelly Farrell joined the Research Education and Development Unit at La Trobe in February 2014. 

Prior to this she was a Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne where she designed and delivered professional development programs and resources for academic staff and HDRs, and made contributions to research and policy development in higher education practice (particularly in the area of peer review of teaching, in which she maintains a keen interest). 

She also has a background in HDR candidate support and was a student advisor/advocate at the University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association from 2000-2003.