Get a Life (Beyond the Web)

Science writers struggle with time management

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA — Freelance science writer Steve Silberman might not be physically addicted to Twitter, but sometimes it seems like it. With nearly 15,000 followers and 25,000 tweets, he gets an online rush when tweeting and surfing the web and can easily see hours slip by without knowing it, falling into what he calls his “Twitter alcoholic blackout.”

Silberman, who also juggles magazine pieces and his NeuroTribes PLoS blog about “mind, science and culture,” recognized the need for an intervention when faced with a looming deadline to start writing his new book on autism and neurodiversity. After keeping a daily time log that showed how much he was living his life online, “I realized I couldn’t write a book between tweets,” he said.

So, he decided to try an updated version of detective writer Raymond Chandler’s strategy, which he read about on—what else—a writing blog. It said that Chandler religiously set aside four hours a day for writing, during which a writer “doesn’t have to write, … He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks,” Or, as the case today may be, he cannot tweet.

“It was a revelation that I had to cut myself off completely from social media for big chunks of time,” Silberman said in an interview. As an experiment, he decided to turn off all his social media connections from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day and devote that chunk of time to some serious, uninterrupted book writing. The result surprised him:

“One, I was tremendously productive, which was great. I was able to write quite a lot. The other thing that surprised me was how good it felt,” he said. “I thrive on social media, but I found a sense of sanctuary that nothing would suddenly pop up and divert my attention. It felt like I was on vacation even though I was working harder than ever writing the book. Suddenly I had control over my mental space for four hours in a way I had not felt in many years.”

Silberman participated in a recent journalism panel called “Get A Life: I Tweet, I Blog, but Do I Sleep?” which brought together several digitally saavy science scribes to confront an increasingly common dilemma: how can we balance our time in the virtual world of social media and online communities with our other professional and personal obligations? The panel, which I organized and moderated, took place at the National Association of Science Writers’ annual workshops, part of ScienceWriters2011, held this year at Northern Arizona University.

I caught up with Silberman and the other speakers afterwards for some take-home thoughts. They all agreed that their “virtual” lives have grown dramatically with the advent of myriad social media channels. It’s hard to resist the temptation to stay offline, but maintaining their digital personas gobbles up professional and personal time alike. Workdays never seem to end. Multi-tasking is the rule. And time for reporting or writing more thoughtful long-form journalism may shrink. Regular sleep? Hmmm.

Something has to give, but figuring out what and when requires self-awareness of how one really spends time. As homework for the NASW panel—an exercise that others confronting the “Get-a-Life” problem might try—each of the writers kept five-day weekday and weekend time logs. Like dieters who underestimate how much they eat when keeping food diaries, the science journalists were surprised by how much time they were devoting to tweeting, Facebook, Google+, blogging, e-mail and the like, often multi-tasking on more than one platform at the same time.

“We’re struggling like everybody else. We don’t have a life, but we are trying and experimenting with different mechanisms of self-control to curb our online habits,” said Bora Zivkovic, a prolific North Carolina-based tweeter (some 56,000 tweets and counting), blogger, and impresario of the popular annual ScienceOnline meeting.

Dubbed the “blogfather” by some (he started A Blog around the Clock in 2004), Zivkovic is now Scientific American’s blogs editor, managing a network of forty-seven blogs with sixty bloggers. Of those, he writes three, contributes to one, and edits two, while promoting all of them on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Zivkovic’s time diary made him more aware of where he was wasting time.

“That is the first step toward fixing the problem. First, you have to realize you have a problem and then you can make a plan,” he said. “I knew I had a problem. [The diary] helped me identify the elements of the problem I can solve.”

Zivkovic, always a night owl, had a “circadian epiphany.” He was very productive in the morning, but wasted more time in the afternoons doing so much tweeting and online work that he was less productive in the evenings. “So by the time evening comes, instead of coming to the computer ready to write, I found myself too tired to start a new blog post,” he said.

Since he mostly works from home, Zivkovic decided to take some of the afternoon off, walk his dogs, or do things with his family. “Then when I come back at night, I have the energy to start a new blog post,” he said. “It’s quite enlightening what times of day you are efficient and what times of day not.”

But does Zivkovic ever sleep, given his Energizer-bunny online presence? He laughs: “I do sleep and more than people think. When I’m active, I’m very active so it looks like huge output, but it comes in bursts.” He claims six hours of sleep per night during the week but sleeps in and relaxes more on the weekends. “Nobody notices because they are not online either.” (During the NASW panel, another prolific night owl, British science writer Ed Yong tweeted that it was 1 a.m. in London and he was following the NASW “session on work/life/online balance at #sciwri11. Heh.” One tweeter retorted with a question along the lines of “Does anyone see the irony in that?”)

Time management has also been a growing challenge for the prodigious Pulitzer Prize-winning author, blogger, and tweeter Deborah Blum (who also has a full-time job as a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

“It’s gotten harder because Twitter can be really addictive. I go on and find myself saying, ‘That looks interesting,’ so I go to links and read. It’s like a great news service for me… but that can really suck up a lot of time,” she said. “I’m dealing with catching a digital tiger by the tale: more often than not I feel it has control of me. I’m sometimes a virtual Deborah rather than living a real life.”

Blum’s strategy is to work harder to keep mornings open for writing and use her social media time more wisely the rest of the day. “When I’m not a professor of journalism, I’m a freelancer in a medium-sized midwestern town,” she said. “To be more visible and connected, I have to spend time on social media. But I have to be strategic about using it and defining who I am on social media.”

Blum has found Twitter and her PLoS blog, Speakeasy Science, to be “hugely valuable” in writing and promoting her most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. Those platforms also give writing ideas and tips about strange cases of murder by poison that she might not otherwise have known about.

“I’m not getting a very good grip on social media yet,” said another panel member, Alan Boyle, science editor, Cosmic Log blogger, and author of The Case for Pluto. “I don’t have full control over it. But who’s controlling it? It’s me. Maybe there is something of an addictive quality to it.”

“There’s always a reason to spend more time at the office,” often until 8 or 9 p.m., said Boyle, who works at’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Then, at home, he’ll usually turn on his computer or juggle his iPhone on his knee while watching television. But he does manage to grab more personal time on the weekends.

Other social media mavens at the meeting reported similar concerns. Freelance writer Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug and a Wired blog of the same name, is a frequent tweeter. “This is something I really have a lot of psychic stress about,” she said. “I drift to the computer early in the morning and fall into the Internet rabbit hole.”

McKenna, too, hopes to pare down her twelve-hour home computer workdays by adopting the strategy of turning her social media world off for blocks of time. “It’s simple when I say it, but challenging in practice,” she said.

The growing dominance of digital and social media has consequences not only for the lives of individual journalists but for the profession of science writing as well.

Boyle says that the 24/7 online environment “tends to make science journalism twitchy, which can be bad and also be good. Bad in the sense that the pace of keeping up with information and being so competitive that some may cut corners or not do the due diligence they should.” On the good side, “there are lots of people willing to weigh in as part of an interactive community.”

The NASW panelists praised the informal “peer review” that vigorous global online science communities can quick bring to bear on new research or news stories, quickly sniffing out potential errors, poor science, or poor science writing. Silberman calls it “a rapid response immune system.”

But what about the online audience? Is this a case of preaching to the converted, with like-minded social media science enthusiasts talking to one another?

Just the opposite, contends Zivkovic. “I think we are reaching larger public audiences because of the concentric circles. We tweet and retweet, so it’s spreading information to people who may not be actively seeking science content,” he said. “We are throwing out science to people who would otherwise not know science is cool and fun and interesting and relevant to their lives.” In contrast, he sees dedicated online science media sites as often pulling in the other direction, attracting audiences that are already interested in science.

While many journalists have gotten to know their colleagues online, professional gatherings like the NASW meeting have the added benefit of bringing the virtual and real worlds together. Zivkovic bumped into science journalist Boonsri Dickinson at the conference hotel, and off they went for lunch.

“That was nice. I’ve known her online, on Twitter for more than a year,” he said. “So many people I have met here for the first time in person.”

Note: Twitter handles for the science writers mentioned above are: @BoraZ, @b0yle, @deborahblum, @stevesilberman, @marynmck, @edyong209, and @russellcris. Hashtags for this session at #sciwri11 #sciwrilife. A compilation of ScienceWriters11 tweets can be found at this Purdue University site.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , , , , ,