I find myself in that state again, in which I have a particular writing task — in this case a talk — with a pressing deadline, one that’s pressing enough that I really need to be working on it whenever I have time to write. (Being a talk, its deadline really can’t be blown.)

But for a whole series of reasons I won’t dig into too much right now, I’m struggling with the talk. It’s taking far longer to write than it should, and it’s just painful to work on. And so, as it drags on, the things that have been pushed aside in order to work on the talk are getting pushed further and further aside, and more deadlines are beginning to loom.

I’m caught in that eternal dilemma: put aside the most pressing thing in order to work on less pressing stuff that I might actually be able to knock off the list, but run the risk of not getting the talk done, or at least not getting it right? Or press on with the talk, hope a breakthrough comes quickly, and let the less pressing stuff continue to wait?

I have never found a satisfying solution to this particular kind of stuckness. What do you do when you’re caught in this deadline double bind?


  1. Crowdsource?

    Seriously, it almost always helps me just to talk through the problem I’m having, and to get a few fresh pairs of eyes/ears to mull it over with me.

  2. I am currently in the situation of having let a lot of the “less pressing” stuff slide (cough email) while I worked on something big and painful and pressing (which has reached a certain plateau but still isn’t done, deadlines blown to hell still, etc.) to the point where the stuff that was not pressing (cough email) is now very backed up and causing me psychic pain. I’m no one’s model of productivity and deadline-meeting, and I still sometimes do that shameful thing where I stay up all night finishing the talk beforehand, but in my healthier moments I do manage to balance the everyday routine with the longer-term painful stuff. Boice’s *Advice for New Faculty* is the best and most helpful thing ever when I manage to put it into practice (start before feeling ready, moderate negative self-talk, etc.).

    I will say that one thing that often helps and that I’m pretty good at is diagnosing the reason for the stuckness and difficulty of a particular talk. Usually it derives from secretly believing something that I don’t really want to say. And then the block goes away when I resolve to say it anyway, and put all my energies into saying it tactfully. 🙂

    Also, just coming up with a guiding metaphor helps me an unreasonable amount. I love metaphors. And they go over well in talks.

    1. Usually it derives from secretly believing something that I don’t really want to say.

      Amanda, this is a huge thing for me. The stuckness is almost always traceable to some unconscious resistance to something in the talk or article, whether it’s something I want to say but don’t think I should, or something I need to say that I don’t really believe, or whathaveyou. I talked with somebody yesterday who tried to help me think through my resistance in this case, and I think that in this case it has to do with the fact that the argument I’ve made in the past — an argument I really believe — runs the risk of offending or causing anxiety for my hosts, who cannot be left offended or anxious for a bunch of serious reasons. And so I think the trick is going to be approaching the thing as an exploration, not an argument, looking at the phenomenon in question from a case-study sort of position. I’m going to try to sketch out what that would look like this afternoon.

      Then there’s the take all this material that you’ve written two articles and a couple of talks about and get it down to 18 minutes part. That… at least confines how much I can write.

  3. Hey, so apparently, one useful strategy for getting unstuck? Complain on the internet, then sit down with a pen and paper and start clean, sketching out a rough if expanded outline. Yay, that!

  4. I get stuck with visual things more (not being a writer, nor academic) . My strategy is usually to take care of all the pesky, easy to cross off the list tasks and feel a sense of accomplishment. This could include cleaning the bathroom:) Then I step back from the work – literally – look at it from far away, and hope for stickness to dissolve. Good luck.

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