Friday, December 16, 2016

Time Management for the Worst Procrastinators

Photo by Emilie Ogez on Flickr
Time management is not something I am good at.  I'm good at staring out the window, doodling plans and lists, and doing every other project except the one I need to finish by May 2018. I get a lot done (a doctoral student and a mother has to), but it isn't easy.  And it doesn't often happen through careful planning, but through sheer will!

So as I worked through grad school, my early teaching career, and now the beginning of the dissertation... I realized I need to get my act together. Just like writing a paper without an outline stopped working, so did living a day without an outline. But no loose planning in a bullet journal or motivational mantra on a bulletin board could help this daydreaming procrastinator. Any wiggle room would ruin me. So, desperate for a method, I focused on the smallest unit of time that could be put to excellent work, coupled with a proven system for fighting the distraction of other projects -- the Pomodoro.

What is it?

What the heck is a Pomodoro? It's a tomato. But more on that later.

The Pomodoro work method is based upon research that shows we can most successfully work in something like 25 minute bursts.  This is enough time to get into a groove without wearing out our eyes or our carpal tunnels, and it's enough time to produce a substantial work chunk, say, to grade three long papers or to write a page. It's also a short enough time that we can completely ignore everyone else in the universe and they'll be just fine until we get back from our little Pomodoro planet. Close tabs, log out, hide phone -- blast off!

Photo by Luca Mascaro on Flickr
So why not make it half an hour? Because that 5 minutes at the end gives you a chance to look up from the screen (recommended by doctors, brain doctors, and opticians alike), and move around a bit.  Then you dive back into another 25 minutes or work. Four of these productivity bursts makes for almost two hours of work, only slightly (and restoratively) interrupted.  Four timer sessions = a "Pomodoro."  Say it out loud: "I just did a Pomodoro!"  Get up and take a long break.  Exercise, pet the cat, feed your starving kids, whatever. You earned it!  Then, you can choose to do more Pomodoros or call it.

The method is named as such because the original timer, designed by Francesco Cirillo, is shaped like a tomato. Imagine one of those egg timers that looks like an egg. Now it's a tomato. Tada!

Pomodoro praxis

I began the method with a stack of grading last spring, and it worked like a charm. It is absolutely flawless for clerical tasks like grading, organizing notes and sources, making tables, etc.  Although, I had to practice and get comfortable with it before I could really write in a flow state a la Pomodoro. You may have to work with it awhile until you can do real "knowledge work" on a timer.  But now that is an easy habit for me.

As important as the timer is the minimization of distraction. CLOSE THE TABS!  Nothing bad will happen.  Some online timers can even do it for you.  Half the point of this thing is work-life balance. This is the part where you have to let life slide -- it's only 25 minutes.

I do not use the actual physical tomato, but I may start.  Instead I use one of many online timers specifically geared towards the technique.  You can of course use any timer that goes to at least 25 minutes (but for obvious reasons, don't use your phone!).

I have used some great Pomodoros online. There are dozens if you search:

Tomato Timer
A super simple platform with start and stop key commands (or mouse buttons) and no frills. My favorite.

A tricked out timer that lets you create an account and track projects and time spent.

The Real Pomodoro Tomato Timer
The "real deal" tomato is available from many sellers, but some are mightily over-priced. I think I will get mine from The Animal Rescue Site, so my $12.95 feeds a dog or some other fuzzy guy

One more thing about TIME

Ok, I am a mother, a grad student, a teacher, a "life-partner" if you will, and a gigging musician. I know a thing or two about not having enough time (one of those things will require another blog post). So let me tell you something that we hear all the time in this office, and that I have had to turn into a Pomodoro-complementary mantra:

You do not find time.  You MAKE time.

There is no extra time anywhere waiting to be found. And if you happen to stumble upon some, you will not even realize you have found it because you will be caught up in it, looking at the TV or just resting with your loved ones.

Extra time has to be made. The only way to do this is to shorten the length of time spent doing other tasks (i.e. non-dissertation tasks and clerical dissertation tasks) so that you grow the time you have to think and write and be healthy and whole. Get efficient. Make extra time for yourself and your family, and for your knowledge work.

So, some parting questions for you:

What work can you let slide in the name of making time?  Instead of thinking of it as letting something slide, can you think of it as producing something precious -- the time you need?  

What work could you do more efficiently or delegate to a partner or child?

What unproductive time-suckers can you give up completely? We all need some. But maybe you could make time by reducing them?

What could you work on being less perfectionist about? Good tasks are done tasks! (And a good dissertation is a done dissertation.)

More on all this in a later post.  Happy tomato-timing and time-making!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Stop Reading and Start Writing: Good Advice?

The Passion of Creation, 1892, by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945).

This entry is dedicated to those of you working on the dissertation proposal as well as to those who’ve cleared that hurdle.  At bottom it also calls out to thesis and dissertation writers in STEM and related fields.

Slouching towards Proposal’s End

It was rough, putting my dissertation proposal together.  Winter merged into early spring as I ran ideas past my director and formed my committee, taught two sections of English 203, and completed an internship on campus.  All the while I was steadily tracking down books and articles and even a few dissertations related to my research, reading them extensively and intensively, rereading notes and papers from courses I took last year and several years before that, compiling a colossal bibliography, staring into space, making notes and plans in my head and on paper and screen, thinking ideas aloud during long walks and bike rides, and trying to explain what my dissertation would be like to colleagues, friends, and family members whose quizzical grimaces, doubting frowns, and muffled guffaws in response to my ramblings linger on in bittersweet memories of that drawn-out span of time.  The best part of it, of course, was when the actual writing happened.  Once I finally entered the “zone” and was drafting and revising my proposal in earnest, things moved ever more smoothly and swiftly.
Sound familiar?  Most likely you can offer up an account like the one above about your progress on your proposal (or, for that matter, your progress on just about any major writing project).  Plenty of similar accounts on the proposal can be found on relevant blogs like The Thesis Whisperer (a particularly popular blog, which we here at Project Thesis recommend).  Such accounts tend to convey the idea that accomplishing the proposal is like completing the dissertation in miniature. It’s a big project but not as big as the main event.  It’s simply another engagement with the writing process. Many predictably advise that in order to complete it you must eventually do two very important and rather obvious things: stop reading and start writing.  But, in the cold light of second thought, to what extent is that bit of advice helpful?
Stop reading?  

It’ll never happen.  No matter how many times others tell you to stop reading and start writing, no matter how many times you say this to yourself, those words and the message behind them won’t dissuade you from naturally turning from your writing, at some point, to read something else. Perhaps it’s a secondary source like another research article that may shed more light on your project.  Perhaps it’s a book chapter you read two months ago that now seems to deserve another look.  Perhaps it’s a primary source, a text or study you’re analyzing and have read countless times before but now feel compelled to return to once more.  Turning to readings such as these when you need to be writing is often branded taboo.  Consider, however, that in some cases this judgment may a bit too drastic.  Recall the writer in the picture at the top of this page.  He’s clearly engaged in the writing process but isn’t putting words down.  He appears to be working out an idea in his head.  What should he do next?  Continue thinking with his eyes closed?  Draft whatever comes to mind?  Why not turn to some of the notes or books by his side?

Reading through a Writing Delay

Sometimes during the writing process writers get stuck in the drafting or revising stages and need to find a way back in.  Temporarily revisiting the pre-writing stage at such times can be a constructive move.  Among the various strategies for pre-writing, there is certainly a place for reading or rereading old or new sources.  Yet when you do turn to reading or rereading such materials to reactivate the writing you need to do, heed these tips:

Set suitable reading parameters
For example, if you’re proposing a dissertation on popular songs during the American Civil War,
clearly you should stick to sources within the boundaries of this topic area and avoid irrelevant
readings about, say, Modern Art.

Read and write in tandem
Reading broadly and deeply is a fundamental component of your project, but, naturally, you do need to write in order to complete it.  However, instead of thinking you should be either reading or writing, accept that, as you progress, both reading and writing can overlap.

No matter what your field is, embracing reading while working through each stage of the writing process is an idea worth considering.  Certainly, however, the nature and scope of the reading involved will vary from one field to the next.

A Call to Writers in STEM and Related Fields

Incidentally, if you happen to be working on a thesis or dissertation in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, or related fields, we’d be interested in hearing from you about your experiences with your project proposal (or hearing about your project as a whole).  What important differences in process or approach do you notice between your own work and what you read about here (and elsewhere)?  We invite you to drop ideas in the comment box below.