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Holiday Challenge

Are you going to try to work on your dissertation or publication over the winter break?

I'd like to offer a holiday/winter break challenge to anyone who would like to take me up on it.

Post what you'd like to work on (if anything) over the holidays, and the maximum amount of time you'd like to spend on it daily. Please keep this time limit reasonable and low unless you're under huge deadine pressure -- in which case you don't need this challenge in order to get something done! Then you can go back to this post daily, weekly or just at the end of the challenge (shall we say January 15?) to say how you did, to tell us about your problems or to encourage and commiserate with others.

So, to summarize:
  • Post what you're working on
  • Post your daily time commitment
  • Post again periodically to tell us how you're doing -- I'll receive all posts as emails and will comment and encourage you!

Good luck and happy holidays!


  1. ok, here's what I'll be working on. I'm going to write an article for Inside Higher Ed on "The Academy's Dirty Little Secret." I'm working on creating my membership website, tentatively entitled, and I will be writing web pages and articles for that.

    My plan is to work for an hour a day, but to skip Dec. 23-26. The hard part for me is that once I start I get into it, but I burn out if I don't take a break. So I will only do one hour.

  2. Anonymous11:56 PM

    OK--I'll take you up on it. I've got an incomplete I need to finish. I need to revise an article I wrote to do it. I'm going to work 1.5 hrs/day, beginning with the extra reading I need to go through, and ending with inserting the extra framework bits I'm told need to be in it. I'll finish the whole thing off with listening to an outsider's opinion of the writing to make sure it's legible and reasonably interesting. I'm not going to work on Christmas Day.

  3. Anonymous11:57 PM

    Hi Gina. I'm new round here! I have to write one short article and one long article for a dictionary of obesity. They're mostly going to be culled from internet sources (because one of my topics is obesity and the internet this is easy to do). This is not very much and i already have much of the research done; I also need to post some things to the collaborative website which I have already done but haven't gotten around to posting. I also need to revise my statement of purpose because I'm putting in a couple transfer applications.

    If I feel like it, I'm hoping that the revised statement of purpose could lead to some scratchings on something major I have to finish by the end of spring for my interdisciplinary program called a "first-year plan" where we map out the rest of our time here, which will then in turn help me with my NSF application. But I am NOT making myself do this now.

    If I find I have time, I would also like to start putting up even a skeleton of an academic website (where I can hang a few papers and a CV at least, to have something to point professional colleagues at besides my LJ). This won't be much writing, but will instead be primarily coding, something I enjoy much more, so I have less of a problem with doing that during "fun" time.

    I can only work in very short periods, so my goal is to do two hours of alternating ten minute sprints and ten minute breaks every day. If I get in a mode where I am super-focused, great, I can work for up to the whole two hours. If I can't focus, then hopefully I at least get some research or coding done. I will work Dec 20-Jan 11, with possible "days off" for New Years and on the dates (tba) I'm moving. I intend to do no work whatsoever Jan 11-21, when I am ON vacation, unless I just feel like breaking out my laptop at the moments when I'm on a train.

  4. nquirer, that sounds like a very reasonable goal. It's specific and time limited. I think you can do it!

    museumfreak, welcome! You've got a lot on your plate, but I like your strategies -- the sprints interspersed with breaks, and
    the back-up tasks that are lighter and more "fun."

    My pearl of wisdom is this for both of you: if you don't get to it one day, don't punish yourself by trying to do more the next. Just stick to your daily work schedule.

    Thanks for starting off the challenge for me. And check in as often as you like!

  5. Anonymous12:07 PM

    I have found that planes are a surprising good place for me to write drafts, and I am to do one on my flight to/from home this break. Here's my low-tech method:

    1) Before I go, I outline the paper down to the topic sentence of each paragraph (got this idea from
    The outline is on 3x5" cards, ordered by section of the paper.

    2) During the flight, I put in my earplugs and get settled in. Using a pad of paper and a pen, I work through each 3x5" card and write out the paragraph. Usually I can get a couple of sections of the paper drafted, but sometimes the whole draft!

    3) After my trip, I type up the paper back in my office. If we had a secretary I'd farm this out; or pay a student. Takes me about 2 days.

    This works for me because I'm bored on the plane and would like some task to escape into. I can't get to the web or do "just a little more" analysis or background reading, like in my office.

    The rest of the break, I'll do nothing but relax.

  6. Latinaliz, 3 hours a day is a lot! But you must know what you're capable of. If you find yourself just not getting to it, you might have bitten off more than you can chew, so cut back to two or even one hour. You'll get more done in the long run. I'll look forward to hearing how you did.

    Anonymous, thanks for the link to that intriguing article. I looked at it but will have to digest it in more depth later. The idea of writing your thesis in one draft goes against some current thinking, but I'm open to anything!

    It's a nifty trick to put each paragraph's topic sentence on an index card. I might try that.

    I agree with you completely about the plane. There's something about being trapped there with so few distractions that clears the mind. I've never seen anyone write about that before.

    Enjoy your well-earned relaxation!

  7. Anonymous2:28 PM

    I am going to read key chapters from two books in the next week, as I have time. I will be taking three days off. But, since I am always reading, this won't look like work to my family when I visit. :-) If I do two chapters from each book, then that will be great, but I am not going to be pressed.

    When I return, I am going to spend four hours a day revising two chapters to send out. I have a deadline of January 10th, so this will help out. I do my work in one hour sessions with something fun immediately following, so it flows and I do not feed deprived.

    Looking forward to the challenge.

  8. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I'm working on 1. a rewrite for a journal
    2. another journal paper that needs minor revision
    3. another journal paper that needs major revision

    PLUS I am teaching in the winter session for 3 hours a day.

    My plan is to work starting at 10 p.m.-2 a.m. and get up at 10 a.m. every morning, prepare for class from 10-4 and then teach at 6.

    It's not a break for me. I'll be working. The last week of January (?) or thereabouts I plan to take a whole week off.


  9. Anonymous5:25 PM

    Hi Gina, thanks for the challenge.
    It's great to know that others are doing this at the same time.

    Here's my plan. From Dec 16 through Dec 21, I'm going to work four hours a day on revising dissertation chapter drafts, so that I send all revised chapters to my advisor Dec 21. Yes, four hours a day is a lot, and I've managed to keep up this writing schedule for the past six months, by paying an assistant $10/hour to sit beside me while I "talk through" what I'm reading/writing the whole time. Expensive, but worth every penny given that I've produced most of my draft this way.

    Then I'm going to take 100% time off to vacation with my family until Jan 2 (I only see them once a year). Jan 3 and 4 I will be revising a conference paper - lots of motivation because the conference takes place Jan 5-8. Interesting to see how it goes with my partner accompanying me for the first time to a conference. I'm hoping it will give him a better understanding of the work I do and a chance to meet some of my colleagues and collaborators in person.

    When I return from the conference, Jan 9-14 I will continue revising the chapters, hopefully in response to feedback from my advisor. I plan to distribute the final draft Jan 16th at the latest for my Feb 16 defense. In 2006 I will work alone for the first time since I hired the assistant, to save money and to prove to myself that I can do it, at least when a big deadline is imminent. - SW

  10. I love reading all the different methods that people have developed to work optimally.

    Victory, I'm a great believer in rewards, so your system sounds great! The idea of not feeling deprived is important, too.

    MD, your schedule sounds unbelievably hard! You can't keep up a schedule like that too long. I'm glad you're going to be taking a vacation. Good luck with all the work you have to do.

    SW, that’s an intriguing and innovative technique to have an assistant to talk things through with. It’s especially good because it’s working for you! Thanks for sharing that idea. It seems to me that more academics should do this; after all in the “real world” executives have assistants!

    Katrillian, are you going to be working 2 or 3 hours a day on your paper revision? I like the breaks every 45 minutes. Are you allowed to take fridge breaks then?

    Keep us posted on your progress – I’ll be rooting for you!

  11. Anonymous7:58 AM

    Hello, Gina!

    I too am thankful for the challenge. My problem is that the work needing to be done is relatively easy, but will take a *long* time. Here is what I'll do from Dec. 23rd until Jan. 3rd or so, during which we'll be hanging out with the family for the holidays.

    Every day I will do an hour on map-building for my presentation; an hour of debugging some texts that need to go up online as soon as possible (preferably sometime last year); and at least some reading of the book I need to review. "Some" is variable, even if it's only a couple of pages before sleep.

    During this time, there will probably be a couple of days when nothing will get done due to family events; I'll consider those the sort-of-planned rest days.

    Happy holidays!

  12. Hi Vika!

    Welcome to the challenge! It’s nice knowing we’re all in this together.

    I’d love to know what “map-building” is – maybe it relates to your specific field, but if it’s a new organizing technique, I’d love to hear about it. Or is it mind mapping?

    I’m a big believer in the reading-here-and-there method. This might be TMI, but I keep a copy of books I’m reading in the bathroom. It’s amazing what you can do with a few minutes here and there.

    Enjoy your holidays!

  13. Anonymous10:32 AM

    Hi Gina and others, it's SW checking in here. Great to read what others are planning and about all the different work methods we've tried... :-)

    I live in New York city, we're having a transit strike and so my assistant isn't coming in today. It would have been our last day working together anyway, so now is my chance to test whether I've developed the stamina to work alone for four hours.

    I plan to sit down at the appointed time and to allow myself 5-10 minute breaks every 45 minutes. I'm going to talk myself through the work and/or read aloud from my text and the sources, just as if my assistant were here. I'll feel a little strange, perhaps, but I seem to think better when I voice the words or read aloud.

    I'll let you know how it goes.


  14. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Hi Gina and others, it's SW checking in again. I posted a comment yesterday but it didn't show up on the blog so am not sure whether I'm doing this correctly.

    Anyway, it's day two of the transit strike in NYC so I am persisting in working alone without my assistant. Today my strategy is to call a colleague, listen to each other for five minutes each while we set definite goals for the day's work, then continue checking in with each other periodically throughout the day until we're finished working.

    My goals for today are to finish revising chapters 1, 2 and 4- mostly minor changes before I send them off to my advisor.

    How are the rest of you doing out there? Would love to hear from others on your progress.


  15. Good luck everybody!!

    (I never get anything done, so I will spare you the list).

  16. SW, thanks for checking in. I know it will feel weird doing it on your own but I'm sure you can do it.

    I like both the strategies you're employing -- the talking through as if your assistant were still there, and talking to a colleague about your goals for the day. I'd like to hear how it's going without your assistant, when you get a chance.

    Lisa, thanks for the encouragement! I love your blog; I've added it to my list of favorite links. That word meter is a very cool tool. Will they leave that up forever?

    As far as my work, I think that I didn't practice what I preached and was overly ambitious. Although I did do one hour's worth of writing on one day, I only did 15 minutes on another. I'm going to revise my goal to be 15 minutes a day, starting Dec. 27. On a good note, I have spent a lot of time researching information about the membership site. So much easier to read and research than to write!

  17. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Hi Gina and others!

    SW checking in... Well, the first day without my assistant I managed to work for two 45-minute chunks, with one 15-20 minute break in between. That was a near-miracle by my standards, and I was very pleased with myself. The next day, I did set goals with a colleague but didn't meet them. During the day a friend called to offer her support and I asked her to listen while I "talked through" the chapter I'm having trouble with, for about 15 minutes. Afterwards I managed to write up a 4-page summary of what we discussed.

    Although I had hoped to take 100% time off while on vacation with my family, my advisor e-mailed to say he wants the chapter rewrite ASAP so that we can send it to the committee member who requested it, to get his OK. So I have had to revise my work schedule. I am now in a hotel lobby trying to work while my family is at the beach. I've decided to try to work for no more than one hour a day, but using the strategy of telling my family that I need two hours a day (so that I have time to do e-mail and keep in touch with friends and have some me-time away from them!).

    Wish me luck!

  18. Hi SW, Congratulations on your near-miracle! I really like the talking-through typing-up summary idea. I'm going to start suggesting that to others. How nice that you're at the beach -- very wise to tell them you need two hours so that you have time for breathing and catch-up. I hereby wish you luck and continued progress!

  19. Hi museumfreak, sorry to hear you've been sick. I can really relate since I've been sick, too.

    If you're really really sick, then you do need to take a break -- could be your body is trying to tell you something. Sometimes a day or two where you give yourself permission to do nothing or even a command to do nothing can help your mind get a much-needed reprieve. If, on the other hand, you're just a little under the weather, have you tried what you said you'd do in your first note -- 10 minute segments of work?

    If your normal way of writing is mad dashes, it sounds like you're used to doing what Robert Boyce calls "binging." That means that when you do write you write a lot, in your case possibly right before a deadline. Unfortunately that sets up an unpleasant cycle where writing is seen as a sprint and not a marathon, which winds you and exhausts you. The "cure" is to be satisfied with "small meals" of writing a little bit. I think the mad dashes to the finish line work for course work but break down when you work on bigger projects. Your mind and your body cannot handle that kind of pressure over a long period. So get back into it by allowing for small blocks of time and not beating yourself up if it seems like the progress is not fast enough.

    Hope this helps a little! We're all rooting for you!

  20. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Hey museumfreak, I'm rooting for you too. You may not be able to take a break from your program, but it *will* be over one day and life will look different. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

    SW checking in as we enter the final 10 days of Gina's challenge. Taking 2 hours/day away from family during vacation was useful for me, but I didn't get much work done. Now that I am going away for another 4 days for the conference, I have realized I will need to use some of that time for writing in the hotel room instead of attending every talk that looks interesting.

    I plan to give my paper, attend a friend's paper and hear both keynote addresses and maybe one more paper that really looks great - but that's it. I plan to write in the hotel room for 1 hr 20 minute blocks, because that's how long the conference sessions run. I will go out for lunch and eat the free snacks at break time. And I plan to attend both evening receptions because that's where a lot of good networking can take place. My goal is to rewrite the trouble chapter by Jan 7-8 so that I can send it to my advisor for feedback before my meeting with Committee Member X, which will take place during the final week before I distribute. Wish me luck! SW

  21. Hi SW, I know it's hard to work at conferences. So tempting to stop in and hear what others are doing. But networking (and free-snack eating) is vital, so you're making a good choice.

    I wish you best of luck as you close in on your deadline, and also good luck with your presentation!

  22. Anonymous8:42 PM

    Sigh. Well, that didn't work.

    The only thing I ever succeeded at doing while simultaneously visiting with family was a cross-stitched wedding gift for two friends.

    Gina, the map I was talking about -- the one I still need to make -- is quite literally a map: one of contemporary Europe, showing the birthplace and date of each of my primary sources (manuscript illuminations, statues, stained glass etc.) bound by a common theme. There are some technical as well as informational difficulties in making the map, so it's been slow going.

    The book for review is about 5% read. I got sidetracked by Vonnegut.

    The texts to be debugged are, actually, mostly debugged. But that's because I "cheated" and did most of this work before responding to your challenge. On the other hand, it's one of those things where you never know how much remains to be done until it's all done.

    Put the puppy back on the paper... here we go again with attempts at structure. O joy! Tomorrow I move into office space I'll have until the end of this academic year. Hopefully this will do wonders for productivity, as compared to working from home.

  23. Anonymous11:32 PM

    SW here, celebrating - I just sent a 26-page rewrite of Chapter 3 to Advisor. Now waiting his feedback and getting ready for my last meeting with Committee Member X Thursday. My distribution deadline is Monday Jan 16 so he had better not demand any big changes in this, his pet chapter, the one that has gradually become all about *his* area of expertise. I've done more work in the past two days than I thought possible, but don't know if I can keep this up for another six days.

  24. Anonymous3:22 PM

    Victory checking in. I had a change of plans the day or two after I posted. A census worker asked me a question that really shook me up: how many weeks did you work in the last year? My answer: 52. I took days off here and there,but went long stretches without breaks and worked some part of each week. I did not really let this sink in until she asked this question.

    So, when I went home, I went home - no work planned for a week and a half.

    I came back and worked for at least an hour a day, although it has been tough since I am mourning the loss of loved one. Last week I finished re-writes for one of the three chapters I am working on, and I have been making slow, but steady progress on the second. I am not hitting my deadline goal, but I am moving, so praise God for that.

    Good to hear from everyone. Now that school is starting up, I am shooting for an hour a day minimum. I am focusing on starting, not finishing, and writing first before I do anything else - whether I feel like it or not. This has helped tremendously.

  25. Well, it's January 15, the end of the "Holiday Challenge." I'd love to hear how each of you did, what worked, what didn't, what you wish you had done differently, or any other comments. I know this is a busy time for most of you, but tell us what you can!

    I was able to work on my membership site, mostly technical issues, but I tried to write also most days. I can't say I always succeeded, although lowering my commitment to 15 minutes a day definitely helped. I'm going to renew my efforts to get more writing in -- my new technique is to enter "Write" into my schedule (Palm software) each day as if it were an appointment.

    Happy New Year everyone, and hope your semester gets off to a great start!

  26. Anonymous10:47 PM

    Hi everyone! SW here. Thanks, Gina, for creating your Holiday Challenge and for encouraging us all periodically. It's been great to read everyone else's goals and plans, and I'm looking forward to hearing updates from everyone.

    First, the good news: Yay! I met my deadline. I finished the entire dissertation draft by Jan 16 in time for distribution. All my hard work over the holidays was worth it - Committee Member X approved the chapter rewrite, saying for the first time in history that he was actually pleased with my work.

    The not-so-good news is that it cost me. After trying to write solo since Dec 21 without much success, I called my assistant and hired her back for another six days, 4 hours/day. So those 24 hours of focused writing (for $240) were what enabled me to finish up. I have used this method (very successfully) for 16 hours/week for the past eight months. However, I can no longer afford to keep paying someone to listen to me while I talk/write. I did it to complete the dissertation, because I needed to get the degree to keep my tenure-track job (I was hired ABD and this is my third year teaching). But now that I need to start getting publications out, I am not sure how to proceed. I need to find a work method that is cheaper and sustainable over the next thirty-odd years. Any ideas out there?



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