“The semester has started,” my client and colleague Penelope said to me recently ”but I’m not on track.” This was a big switch from last semester, when she’d felt in control of her calendar for the first time in her career. She was managing schedule changes with ease, following her writing process (three days of deep dives each week), and finishing off one project after another—some of them on time. When she returned from winter break, she knew she had all the tools needed to set up her schedule to prioritize writing. “But, on the one hand, I’m looking at my calendar,” she tells me. “On the other, I’m looking at what’s due. And it just doesn’t work.”
One of the things you hear a lot when you reach this point—when it seems impossible to find time to write—is to prioritize what matters, and put everything else to the side. It’s not easy, but it’s sound advice. There are ways to artfully and professionally say no to new requests, extract yourself from existing commitments, and put off unavoidable work until you actually have the time to do it. It may feel uncomfortable, but it can be done. And the first time you do it—it’s a revelation to find that the world (and your standing in the field/department/college) doesn’t fall apart.
It’s also the case that sometimes we can prune as much as humanly possible, and still find that we don’t have enough time for all the writing we want to get done. If you find yourself in that position, it might be time, as Faulkner suggested, to Kill Your Darlings.
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This phrase, common among non-academics, refers to the idea that writers often have beautifully crafted, finely wrought sentences that shimmer on the page—but nevertheless get in the way of the work.
If you’re like me and you enjoy the craft of writing—the ferreting out of just the right phrasing to express yourself cleanly and with grace—you will understand this sentiment right away. You know those pretty little phrases: the ones you read over and over again, every time you open the draft—not because you’re procrastinating, but because you love how the words ring in the ear and set the mind thrumming. We know these phrases are scarce and hard won. We also know that as we clarify our argument, these pretty phrases often become unnecessary. They distract. They confuse. Or they simply fail to move the idea forward. When this happens, Faulkner was arguing, it doesn’t matter how much we love the words: they’re a gorgeous hindrance and we’ve got to let them go.
The thing is, what’s true for the craft of writing is also true for how we craft our days. We all have things in our lives that we’re deeply attached to, but are sometimes exactly the things that get in the way of what we most want or need to do. And this is what’s missing from the prioritize-and-cut strategy—the hard truth that much time management advice fails to mention. Sometimes, to get our writing done, we have to do more than toss out what doesn’t matter. Sometimes we have to get rid of things that do matter. Things that matter quite a lot. Because at the end of the day, they’re not what matters the most. And having to get rid of them is no fun.
Having to get rid of them hurts.
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One reason it hurts—and why we resist Killing Our Darlings—is that we have such a strong emotional attachment to the damn things. Penelope’s Darling, for example, is her role chairing her department’s undergraduate curriculum committee, which involves directing the overhaul of its undergraduate curriculum. The joy of teaching undergrads was what brought her to academia. And while she enjoys research, and understands the importance of publishing for tenure, she’d always been disturbed by her senior colleagues’ advice that she should give as little time as possible to teaching.
When she was asked last semester to oversee the curriculum revision, she felt a twinge of anxiety about how much time it would take. But she got so excited imagining how the work would enhance her students’ learning experience, that she promised herself she would make it work. In other words, it was her enthusiasm—her passion for teaching and learning—that drew her in.
The second thing that makes it hard to Kill Our Darlings is that they are an important part of our identity. In Penelope’s case, she’s not just excited about teaching—she considers it integral to who she is as a scholar. “If I’m not willing to do this curriculum work,” she asked me, “then what kind of scholar am I?”
Penelope’s question illustrates the third, and perhaps trickiest, reason we find it hard to Kill Our Darlings. Our passion for and identification with the activity in question can make us conflate the particular act we’re engaged in with the impact we’re hoping to have. Between prep time, teaching, office hours, and advising, Penelope is clearly spending plenty of time guiding students through the learning process. She could also make a significant difference by serving on the curriculum committee as opposed to leading it. But when we’re first considering the idea of pulling back from work that matters to us, it’s all too easy to miss these crucial distinctions.
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So, say you’re open to Killing your Darlings. How, then, do you do the deed? First, be sure that you’ve cut out as many inessentials as you possibly can. The end of this post lists a few of the common inessentials you might consider eliminating. It’s not that you have to cut everything on this list before you move on to the next step. Your seniority, field, institution, and leadership role will determine which you can truly consider, and which are out of the question. The point is that it’s helpful to think whether there are still some inessential commitments you can cut before moving on to those activities that are more meaningful, and therefore harder to cut out.
Second, search out your true Darlings. One of the best ways to know when you’re dealing with one of your Darlings is if you find yourself wondering what it “says about me if I don’t do [x].” This isn’t the same as being concerned about how an activity will impact your reputation in a department full of people deciding on your tenure case. That concern is significant and manageable and, in that case, the question you’re often asking is “what will [so and so] say about me?” But if your main concern is the “statement” you’ll be making or “who you are” if you do one thing or another, beware: you know your Darling is nearby.
Third, carefully distinguish between your Darlings and your Indispensables. Your Indispensables are sustaining routines, those essential habits that give you the emotional, physical, and psychological energy you need to enjoy your days and make it through hard times. Sleep, for instance, is an Indispensable. So are rest, physical movement, and social connection. For some, spiritual or contemplative practice is also an Indispensable. It’s incredibly tempting to “save time” by cutting your Indispensables, because they’re undervalued in most academic environments. But the difference between a Darling and an Indispensable is that the former is preventing your forward movement, while the latter is lubricating it. Resist the urge to make the easy cut.
Fourth, actively recall the reasons you first committed to your Darling. What was it about the work that first drew you in? What did you hope to achieve or express? Who did you think it would help you become? The clearer you are about the deeper commitments underneath your choices about how to allocate your time, the easier it is to determine whether they’re still important, and whether the sacrifice you're making to meet them is right for you at this time.
Finally, redefine your choices. In their work Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath argue that one problem with the way we make decisions is that we think in terms of false binaries: When Penelope and I first started talking about the curriculum committee, for example, she felt she had only two choices available to her (both of which were bad): either please her senior colleagues by overseeing the lengthy, time-intensive curriculum revision, or risk their ire by backing away from her commitment.
Instead, the Heaths suggest that when it seems we must choose between binaries, we can uncover additional options by asking ourselves “What would I do if I couldn’t choose either option?” So, I asked Penelope, “What would happen if you couldn’t oversee the curriculum revision but couldn’t step down as chair?” Once faced with this puzzle, several options occurred to her that had never before crossed her mind. Here are a few she came up with:
Once Pen got rolling, we actually had some fun imagining what felt like outrageous options (e.g., “We could try to put off the revision until next year!”) and discovering that, after some tweaking, what initially seemed outrageous was actually quite reasonable (“Instead of putting it off, we could scale back the scope of the revision and only work on a small, manageable part of it.”).
The point isn’t that all of these options are equally viable or attractive. Nor am I suggesting that the answer is always to find some way to sort of keep doing what you were doing before. (In the end, Pen decided to ask her chair to remove her from the committee, which he did, with the promise that she would return to the position after the revision was over.) What I’m saying is that once you recognize your Darling, it can feel impossible to let it go. But don’t be fooled: once you identify what matters most, and think creatively about how to achieve that work, you can find your way through the thicket of obligations that are stopping you from writing.
We all know that writing is hard work. What we don’t always say is that sometimes, making time to write is just as difficult. You’re not daft if you’re having trouble finding time each week to write. And you’re not weak if Killing Your Darling feels like too big a loss to bear. But neither are you trapped by that feeling, no matter its intensity. Our Darlings can easily seduce us into thinking that we can’t live without them.
But the truth is they can’t live without us.
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A short list of ways to cut out inessentials and find more time to write.