My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

Reading Log

Note: this is a navel-gazing post offering some reflections on my reading habits an how I keep track of what I read.

I have always been someone who gravitates to books rather than other forms of media. Many of my fondest memories involve sitting, lost in a book, and basking in the untroubled freedom that accompanied an existence where my concern at that moment was whether my seat on a rock or against a tree was comfortable enough.

Of course these days only ever exist in memory.

A funny thing often happens in graduate school for the humanities: reading for fun withers, if it doesn’t disappear altogether. You read so much for work that when you finally get a break, it is much less mentally taxing to play a video game or watch TV than it is to pick up a book. If you do read, it is entirely understandable to read familiar, comforting books. This phenomenon reached its climax for me in early 2013 during my last semester of coursework and the run-up to my comprehensive exams. These exams are designed to prove that you have a grasp of all of the scholarship in your chosen fields, usually by providing a long list of important texts (as determined by your examiners) and culminates in multiple days of written exams followed by an oral defense. I read three books that January, all before the start of the semester, and then not another book until May.

By contrast, I have had only three months total since then that I haven’t finished at least one book, each time caused by reading or attempting to read a particularly hefty book (Don Quixote, War and Peace, Infinite Jest) while also keeping up with writing my dissertation and teaching.

I started reading fiction again almost as soon as I finished my exams because it made me feel more normal, but it took me years to start reading non-fiction again on a regular basis other than what was required for work.

Now, I am a firm advocate of reading in general, but this goes double for anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre. As experts like John Warner are fond of saying, the two foundations of becoming a better writer are 1) read more and 2) write more. I might add reflective practice as a third pillar in that it helps you become a better self-editor, but the first two are both spot on. No idea, however brilliant, is worth much if it can’t be communicated, which is one of the frustrating things about reading some academic prose.

However, the point of this post is not why people should read, but about the reason I can point to specific months when I read nothing or can see how my reading habits developed.

Once upon a time I tracked all of the books I read in a simple list, but then graduate school happened and I stopped. I started this list again in January 2013, this time on Google docs, and that list has undergone several revisions until now where the list has two components, both kept in Google sheets.

Part one is a cover-sheet that shows all of the year-over-year data for (a) books read by month and a sum total; (b) monthly page-count totals; (c) averages for both categories; and (d) the information for specific categories I’m tracking (more on this in a minute). This year I also added a radar chart.

Part two consists of an annual sheet that keeps the list of books read and all of the information I’m tracking that then automatically fills in the data back to the coversheet.

I also created a separate list not yet incorporated into the cover sheet that tracks the academic books that I read in a given year.

If all of this seems overly-structured, well, it is. I find this oasis of order soothing amidst the chaos of existence, but the actual switch to sheets was largely so that I only had to enter data once and the rest of the systems could be automated (I do update the formula the calculates the monthly totals).

The change also allowed me to update and adapt the data I collect about my reading habits, which functions much like a calorie counter for anyone watching their diet. My initial categories were somewhat arbitrary: books by Nobel prize winners and number of original languages, but has expanded to better reflect my reading goals. I still keep tabs on the number of books by Nobel Laureates and the number of original languages, but I have added to these books by African and African American authors, books by women, the countries of origin for the author (English-language literature from India is going to have a different flavor than from the US), and non-fiction books.

Once I started tracking the information, for instance, I learned exactly how few books by women I was reading and so started setting annual goals, such that this year I’m at almost 50%. I still lag behind where I’d like to be in other categories, but the net result is that my reading habits are becoming gradually diversified as I make a conscious effort to seek books by people I had not traditionally read. I don’t like every book I read—that is not part of the deal—but I both enjoy hunting online for new books with interesting sounding plots and have been blown away some of the ones I found.

I might be obsessive about this sort of documentation, which I use to track my writing time and exercise information, but I cannot recommend this general practice highly enough. I appreciated seeing the anti-racist reading lists people put out over the past several months, but, to my mind, that is only a first step. Read the books that are on the trendy list if that is your thing, but building a reflective practice around reading can help fundamentally diversify a reading intake and create long-lasting change.