Writing Retreat: Writing together and feeling less alone

We recently decided to organise a writing week at RRD. With all the online meetings, we somehow felt that a dedicated week was needed to get some writing done. I have participated in a writing retreat in the past with my previous research group in Sweden, and had fond memories of sitting together in one room and typing away. The aim of a structured writing retreat is to use dedicated writing time to progress our writing projects in a supportive environment (see also more info about retreats here). Due to Covid-19, sitting in the same room was of course not possible, but Åsa Cajander also had some tips for online writing as well.

Planning

When planning the week, I also made use of this facilitator guide for writing retreats, as Åsa and her group did. In addition, I wanted to give a short introduction to the Pomodoro Technique and to Freewriting. I learned about Pomodoro years ago when I found this post by Dr. Steven R. Shaw in his How to not suck at graduate school series. Since then, I have used it a lot and also shared it as a tip with many students. For me this is the perfect method to stop procrastinating and get things going and into my flow, because it cuts down on interruptions. Every day we get interrupted, either externally or internally. This is super inefficient, as was shown for example by Gloria Mark, leader in the field of “interruption science“:

The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task.

With Pomodoro, you commit to a certain task for 25 minutes, wind up your kitchen clock and then work ONLY on that task until the clock rings. A Pomodoro can’t be interrupted – it is 25 minutes of pure work! After a short break of 3-5 minutes (used for a short walk, or anything else that does not call for mental effort), the next Pomodoro starts. Every 4 Pomodori, you can take a longer break. I suggested to use Pomodoro technique throughout the week and drafted a schedule for the week inspired by the Writing Retreat Guide, using Pomodori as time measure.

We made us of a dedicated MS Teams room and I also shared some information and instructions in advance:

Retreat works best when you:

  • Focus exclusively on writing
  • Define specific goals and sub-goals i.e. sections of a paper/ chapter, number of words
  • Define and discuss content and structure for writing sub-goals
  • Take stock of your achievements of these goals throughout the week
  • Discuss your writing-in-progress – mutual peer support

To prepare for the week:

  • Decide on a writing project and put that one a shared slide
  • Review the schedule: begin to plan writing tasks for timeslots in each day
  • Do as much of the reading and other preparation as you can
  • Gather necessary notes, plans, outlines etc. Outline the structure of your project
  • Download what you need

The Week

As we organised the week not too far in advance and because all our calendars are quite booked with meetings, we all had to make some compromises. Not all meetings could be postponed or cancelled. I manage to cancel many meetings and move student meetings to my lunch break, but there were still some important gatherings that I couldn’t move. This was the same for my colleagues, but this didn’t matter too much. As we dedicated the whole week for our writing, there was always someone in the room and we could just go in and out after each meeting and join the writing session.

Right from the start I said I would leave my camera on, so that despite not being in the same room, maybe we could create a feeling of being in the same room. Of course this was not mandatory – everyone could decide for themselves. However, everyone left there camera on and muted their microphone while in a Pomodoro session. We did not adhere strictly to the schedule; sometimes the intro round took longer or the coffee break was shorter because we were in flow and just moved on. We started and ended each session with a GIF in the chat – that way not everyone had to wind up a clock. My favourites were this pink llama to get started:

… and the coyote for ending a Pomodoro session:

If colleagues joined later while we were in a session, someone quickly wrote a message how much time we had in that Pomodoro. During the 5 minute break, we talked about how it is going, what we are working on, discussed something that we were currently stuck with or something non-work related. A lesson learned was to explain the “rules” or structure (some of which developed as we went along) to people joining later in the week. For example, one colleague came in later and when reading in the chat “we are in session, 10 more minutes”, she thought that she was disturbing us and should leave.

Already after day one, I was asked whether we could continue doing such sessions also outside a dedicated writing week. I also heard from several colleagues that they experienced the Pomodoro technique to be very useful. Personally, I must say that I felt less isolated. With some exceptions during the last summer, I am working from home for a year now. I’m fairly used to working from home and on distance (I did my PhD in Sweden while working in Germany), but I actually like working together with people. We also have some virtual coffee breaks organised, but somehow I barely manage to join these. There is always another meeting coming up, so that I could use those 15 minutes to do some emails. But during the writing week, we were together, worked simultaneously, saw each other frowning at the screen, laughing at the creative GIFs. Somehow it was kind of soothing to see my colleagues staring at their screen ;-).

The plan is to continue this with bi-weekly writing days that we already scheduled in our calendars. I am already looking forward to the next RRD writing day!

New year – new habits!
New publication: Special Issue on Value Sensitive Design

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