Tips from the NCFDD Monday Motivator: June Edition

by Daina Tagavi, Professional Development Peer
Monday, June 01, 2020 3:20 PM


Are you feeling like you just can't get anything done with everything that has been going on recently? Read on for tips from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of over 71,000 graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members​. 

To take advantage of this amazing resource (free for UCSB students!), you must register with your UCSB account (see how to register here). Once you ​register, you are automatically subscribed to the Monday Motivator -- your weekly dose of ​positive energy ​and actionable steps to increase your productivity and motivation. This week's Monday motivator focuses on seeking advice from others and working toward creating solutions that will help you work smarter

Usually, at this point in the summer, we’d be checking in to see how the writing is going. And yet, as we write this, it feels like our own writing projects are futile amid the backdrop of everything happening in this country. The reality is, this has been a particularly heavy week in an already difficult year. The murder of George Floyd and the continued violence against Black Americans are horrifying and traumatic. Knowing that we have family, friends, and students who face these same threats is distressing. Seeing people we know go about their daily lives as if nothing is happening is heartbreaking. It was inspiring to see so many people organize and march for Black lives over the weekend, and yet, watching the violence and devastation in cities we’ve called home stunned us into silence.

On top of this, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19, while affecting us all, impacts us, our loved ones, and our communities in such different ways. We are coming off a semester of converting all of our courses online and caring for and homeschooling children. We and others we know are dealing with the heartache of losing people to the virus. We’ve attended funerals on Zoom. We have loved ones who survived COVID-19 but are still on the long road to recovery. We have undertaken efforts we never imagined to protect our household, our society, and ourselves, but in the process, we have been unable to see the people we love, and we have no idea when—and for those with family who are ill, if—we are going to see them again.

Right now, the writing may feel impossible. Still, we know it is important. We don’t just mean in terms of productivity. Yes, we are an organization that provides resources for scholars to navigate their writing projects, but the writing we are talking about right now goes much deeper. Writing helps us make sense of the world, even when sense-making seems so out of reach. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from people in history, from Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Du Bois to James Baldwin, it’s that writing matters. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the scientists, doctors, and journalists who are amplifying stories about COVID-19 in newspapers and Twitter, it’s that writing matters. Even if the words we put on paper are never seen by another person, even if it’s just to usher us to a place of understanding we don’t yet have, writing matters.

Still, you may come to the conclusion that this is not the week for writing. Instead, this may be the week to heal. This may be the week to check in with your friends and family. This may be the week to organize. This may be the week to attend to your family members and friends who are essential workers and first responders. This may be the week to have conversations about race with members of your community. This may be the week to celebrate your students or your children. This may be the week to escape into books. This may be the week to center your physical, mental, and spiritual health. This may be a week of rest. If this is the case, we wholeheartedly support you.

However, if you feel like you have some writing in you, then please continue reading. Even if you don’t have writing in you for this week, you may want to save this Monday Motivator for later. If this is where we part ways, know we are excited to talk to you next week. We can pick up the conversation about writing next Monday.


Before we shift to talking about writing, let’s take a moment. Sit still. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. With each exhale, we want you to release anything that will make you feel lighter. We know this is hard, especially right now, but to the extent that you can, quiet the noise and try to anchor yourself to the present.

Today, we’re going to talk about Writing Rocks. No, we don’t mean we’re going to talk about why writing rocks. We are going to talk about writing rocks. It’s a system of writing that’s developed from empirically-tested strategies about what gets people to write. Besides your writing equipment, all you’re going to need is a timer, whether it’s an egg timer, your iPhone, an app, or an online stopwatch. The point of this system is to help you overcome those inevitable moments of resistance.

It’s simple—there are three types of writing rocks in our system: pebbles, stones, and boulders. Pebbles are 15-minute blocks of writing, stones are larger 30-minute blocks, and a boulder is a whopping 45-minute block of uninterrupted writing time. Let us describe each in a little more detail so you know how they relate to resistance.


Pebbles are designed to address our primary level of resistance. As we’ve mentioned, there are so many reasons why writing may be the last thing on our minds. We know that the biggest roadblock sometimes is just getting started. Once we get started, we’re often surprised to find that the writing starts flowing to the point where we even lose track of time. For us, the challenge is figuring out how to get in that chair and put those fingers on the keyboard.

With pebbles, we keep our goals super modest. We literally say out loud, Let’s just write for 15 minutes. Knowing that it’s such a tiny amount of time makes the fear and anxiety subside substantially. To get started, we set a timer, drop down into the writing, and keep going until the timer goes off. When the timer goes off, we reset it for a 5-minute break and do whatever we want, whether it’s getting some fresh air inside, sneaking in a quick snack, or checking the socials. Once that break is over though, we drop into another 15-minute writing session.

When you are coming back to writing after a long hiatus, it’s totally OK to stick to pebbles for an entire week, perhaps even two. Pebbles help you reconnect to writing as a habit that is doable and enjoyable even, rather than daunting and scary.


At some point when you’re ready, consider working up to a stone. Stones are 30-minutes of focused writing, followed by a 10-minute break at the end. Stones are when we get into the more intense thinking and writing work. For us, it’s best if we have SMART goals, concrete objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Time-framed. A couple of examples: Draft three ugly paragraphs of my introduction by 10:00 am. Write a one-paragraph summary of the research studies my project is in conversation with. Storyboard the third substantive chapter of my book manuscript.

We know resistance well, so we realize that the moment we find the courage to embark on longer writing blocks, the resistance will ramp up. It’ll show up in a range of ways from feeling the need to read one more research article or convincing yourself that you can only write if you have a sugar free vanilla latte with an extra shot from your favorite coffee shop. Or maybe your eyelids will suddenly get heavy or your brain will tell you that you need to watch just one more episode of the Great British Baking Show. Of course, we are talking here about internal resistance; we acknowledge there are many external forces that are beyond our control.

Even if we cannot change these things, we at least know that we can make room for writing if we figure out how to dance with our internal resistance. As you can see, our resistance emerges in all kinds of ways, but the point is, we can pinpoint what it literally looks and feels like, which is the first step to overcoming it. We want you to do the same. Keep a log of each diversionary thought as it comes. You can save those diversions for the break or until your writing for the day is completed. Our bet is that once you complete that first half-hour writing block, you will feel warmed up enough to take on another 30-minute writing block with a lot less resistance.


Every once in a while, we drop a 45-minute boulder (and subsequent 15-minute break) into our writing routine. It’s rare that we do this for a couple of reasons: 1) big blocks of writing time activate the greatest resistance; 2) long writing times sometimes leave us cranky or come with a writing “hangover”; and 3) our busy schedules rarely allow for big chunks of time to write. That said, we do occasionally have a lot to accomplish in the face of a looming deadline. Sometimes it’s better for peace of mind to bust it out with a long session.

Boulders can bring out the inner critic. The resistance we have to boulders looks qualitatively different from the resistance we experience in shorter writing sessions. It’s uglier, and sometimes it undermines our confidence and self-worth. We can almost hear the inner-critic yelling (in our own heads, of course): Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is publishable? How are you going to complete this enormous project?

With boulders, we know it’s especially important to count on other human beings for support. Sometimes we need them to give us a pep talk on the front end. Other times, we need them to debrief after an intense writing session. Whether it’s a check in with my writing buddy or a chat with my Faculty Success Program crew, we know that boulders aren’t going to happen without our community. These people are both our accountability mechanism and our lifeline.

With everything happening, boulders may seem too overwhelming. If that’s the case, stick to a pebble and a stone. We’ve been able to see that even short writing bursts done on a daily basis can advance projects forward.

Writing is an arduous process. Writing Rocks is merely a framework that helps us understand our writing time differently. Getting accustomed to the different writing block frameworks means that reserving 60 minutes out of each day will go a long way in the long term. The Writing Rocks framework also allows for flexibility, depending on what’s happening. For example, you may have planned for a boulder one morning, but something pressing may have occurred during your set writing time. The good news is, you can probably sneak in a pebble some time later in the day.

We know that you probably prefer to write on a desk, but experiment with the idea that writing can happen anywhere. The great thing about Notes on the iPhone or keeping a tiny notebook with you is that you can sneak in a little writing anywhere, whether it’s waiting in line at the gas station, walking around the neighborhood (with your face mask, of course), or sitting in an outdoor space where physical distancing is possible. We’ve been pleased with how channeling the energy into 15 minutes of writing always feels better than spending 15 minutes thumbing through newsfeeds.

Our Weekly Encouragement:

This week, the Monday Motivator encourages you to:

  • Write every day for at least 30 minutes (in whatever configuration of pebbles, stones, and boulders suits your fancy).
  • Ask yourself: What is the relationship between the length of my writing time and my internal resistance? (Of course, we acknowledge that there are many factors outside of our control, but that’s a topic for another day.)
  • If you don't know the answer, try tracking your resistance and your writing time this week.
  • Once you observe your own patterns of resistance, try experimenting with different blocks of writing time and accountability mechanisms to see what works for you.

In closing, the Monday Motivator encourages you to experiment. And ultimately, please know everyone at the NCFDD is keeping you in ​their thoughts as we persevere through these difficult times.