April 27, 2012

Stop What You're Doing and Breathe

It may seem counterintuitive to take time out to relax or meditate at this point in the academic year, but it's during these chaotic times when we most need to schedule in time for a break, even if it's just for a few minutes.  If the weather is nice where you are, try getting outside and taking a walk, or even just standing outside and breathing deeply for five minutes.  You can also sit in a rocking chair and rock, lie down on your back on the floor, or simply sit at your desk and close your eyes and count slowly from one to five.

For a little aided meditation, there are several web environments dedicated to providing relaxing sounds and images.  You may want to try http://www.calm.com/, which simply lets you into a quiet scene and stay there.  If you press start, there will be a slow voice giving you directions, but you don't have to press start. You can just sit and breathe and watch the scene.  You can also click on "no guidance," which will turn on quiet music in the background, and make the directions window disappear.

What do you do at this time of the academic year for a break?  And what ends up happening if you don't take one?    Whatever your answers are, I hope you manage to stop between work sessions and find a few moments of peace.

April 21, 2012

Academia and Achievements: Why is it So Hard for Us to Give Ourselves Rewards?

A few days ago, Academic Ladder coach Susanne Morgan wrote an excellent article about the need for writers to create habits, and in particular, to follow a system in which we first give ourselves cues to write, secondly write, and finally, after we've finished our writing session, we give ourselves rewards.  This is a great way to build a consistent writing habit, and rewards, both internal and external, are a big part of Academic Ladder's philosophy.  But if rewards are so important, then why are we so reluctant to give them to ourselves?  Many of the writing participants I work with have admitted to struggling with this concept, and  I often struggle with it too.

For many of us, it comes down to the culture of academia and the value that the academy places on product versus process.  Most of us have spent a long time in a culture where the amount of work we do is never valued or acknowledged; what matters is the end result.  Our dissertation chairs don't really care how hard or how long we've worked on writing those chapters; in the end, they just want to see words on the page. Likewise, when we prepare our dossiers for reappointment or to go up for tenure, we are constantly told to explain what we've done and have some tangible result to point to.  Publications matter, and to some degree student evaluations, but no one is going to value the hours or smaller tasks it took to achieve these results.

This is why we have to be our own auditors in a way, and we have to be very kind to ourselves in doing so.  When we complete our writing for the day, we need to spend some time acknowledging what we have done rather than beating ourselves up for what we didn't do.  It helps to have realistic goals that we can achieve, because then we're going to be more likely to meet the goal, and therefore to believe we deserve the corresponding reward.  It also helps, as one writing participant has suggested, to map out the rewards ahead of time, so that you know going into the writing session what the reward will be, and therefore will be more likely to want to work towards it.

Another way to look at this is instead of viewing the rewards as rewards, to view them as what one writing club participant calls "balancing activities," activities that will provide a balance to the intense, often mentally draining work of academic writing.  This way, even if you don't quite meet that day's goal, you can still participate in the balancing activity.  This is extremely important if you are giving yourself a walk or a physical activity as a reward.  So then if you fall slightly short of your goal, should you not work out?  Of course not!  Make sure that you are still taking care of yourself in the middle of all of this.  And continue to look back at your writing sessions and check for the times that you've been unrealistic or overly ambitious in your plan for the day or the week.  Remember to choose small, achievable goals rather than setting your sights on your own personal Everests that you may or may not be able to achieve.  You can certainly have those Everests, but remember that you won't climb the mountain all at once!  And valuing each step along the way has its merits.

What about you?  What rewards do you give yourself?  How do you work past the feeling that you don't deserve the reward?

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April 16, 2012

Task Mapping and Time Management for Academics

Last week we talked about goal setting and defining tasks. Since this is a challenging topic for most of us, I thought I'd break it down a little more. The idea of task mapping comes from business, but we can apply it directly to our academic writing tasks. The general idea is that you select a very defined segment of time and then think about what task or micro-task you can do within it.

The beauty of this approach is that by focusing in on one tiny task per half an hour or 45 minute session, you minimize the anxiety surrounding the enormity of the task at large. Chances are that you decided to do academic work because your mind likes to solve problems. Put that strength to work by giving it lots of little, defined, workable problems, rather than a nebulous general to do list.

For instance, instead of 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. “Work on chapter 3” or even “Work on chapter 3, section x”, try really mapping out your time:

  • 2:00 – 2:45: Draft two paragraphs on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 2:45 – 3:00: Break (Get up and stretch and walk around the room—don’t check email!)
  • 3:00 – 3:45: Draft two more paragraphs on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 3:45 – 4:00: Break and write down action steps for the next day’s work

If you like to work in pomodoros (segments of 25-30 minutes), you could try breaking it down even further:

  • 2:00 – 2:25: Write 50-100 words on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 2:25 – 3:00: Break (Get up and stretch—get a quick beverage, no email!)
  • 3:00 – 3:25: Find reference for effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes and see how it fits into the section

If you don’t have drafting tasks that day, you can still use this approach for your other dissertation related work. So instead of “draft one paragraph of Chapter 3, section I,” maybe your task will be “Read article x and take notes” or “Read article y and see how it fits into the introduction of Chapter 2.” Or “Address adviser comments on Chapter 3, pages 1-3.” See how specific these tasks are?

If this is too micromanaging for you, you can try being a little looser and more freeform (like Benjamin Franklin with his schedule in the image above), but at least try doing the micromanaging approach for a couple of sessions just to see how it works. You might find that it feels more comfortable that it sounds, and that you get a lot more done.

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April 12, 2012

How to Define and Schedule Academic Tasks

On Monday, I talked about the weight of unfinished tasks, and how important it is to set daily, achievable goals, but many of us have trouble with that. Particularly if we are in the social sciences or humanities, we tend to have difficulty breaking down our larger projects into smaller, discrete tasks. We also tend to underestimate vastly the length of time it takes to do a particular task.

So how do we get realistic? How do we set those smaller, more achievable goals? 

The best way is to be as specific as possible with what you want to accomplish during a given session. For instance, at the broadest level, a task might be "work on paper" or "work on dissertation," but generally, that won't work too well. If we say "tomorrow I'm going to do something. Anything," it might work, but we'll have a much better chance of actually accomplishing the goal if we say something like "From 8:30 - 9:00 a.m., I will expand the introductory paragraph of chapter 2" or "from 9:00 - 9:45 p.m., I will begin outlining the section on Piaget's influence on early childhood development."

But what if you don't know enough about your daily schedule to be able to set a specific time to work? What if you haven't looked at a section in a long time and you don't know enough to be able to break it down into a set of micro-tasks? In that case, it's probably good to specify at least a range of hours when you think you'll be working, and still define the amount of time you can work. Frankly, it's not as good as making that concrete appointment with yourself, but it's better than just saying you're going to work on it "tomorrow." And if you don't know enough about the section you're writing to be able to break it down, then make your first session back into it be a brainstorming session, during which you make a list of the tasks you know you'll need to accomplish in order to complete the section. Then at the end of that writing session, you can choose what tasks to schedule next.

Now you tell me--what helps you get and stay motivated to keep writing? And how do you set your own goals and define your tasks?

April 9, 2012

Mental Clutter and the Academic Life: The Weight of Unfinished Tasks

Have you ever said any of the following? "I can't forget about that revise and resubmit. Oh, and there's also that book review." "I really need to work on my thesis." "After I grade papers and prep for class, then I can relax and work on my dissertation." "Things are just too chaotic this term to get significant work done. I can wait until the summer." As academics, to some extent, there will always be long term projects that will be hanging over our heads. So how do we make peace with this knowledge, particularly at this point in the academic year? How do we make peace with the idea that there may not be time to get everything we need to done?

First, the most important thing we can do is to be realistic in what we can achieve. It may be that it's just not possible to write that book review and revise that article, or submit that entire dissertation chapter during the final part of the term. We may have to make difficult choices about what is most important, and we may have to face the fact that our avoidance of certain tasks and our reluctance to define them is a way of denying the reality that we have to make those choices. If we keep a perpetually unfinished to do list, we can continue to believe in the illusion that the whole list will get done.

The problem is that perpetuating that illusion never really works, because there will always be a part of us that realizes we have more to do than we think we do, and that's where the guilt comes from. That's when we feel the weight of unfinished tasks. So while it can be incredibly painful to admit to ourselves that what we're attempting is impossible, it's often what we need to do in order to move forward and actually start finishing the tasks.

Maybe it's not realistic to submit that whole dissertation chapter, but it is realistic to write five or ten more pages of it. We might need to let that book review go and focus on the revise and resubmit instead. And maybe, if we carve out just fifteen to twenty minutes a day during the "crazy" part of the semester, we can still finish that thesis. By setting and defining concrete goals we can still move forward towards completing those larger tasks.

Finally, it's important to realize that while there will always be something more we can do, it is unhealthy and counterproductive to work all the time. The end of the semester is characteristically a very busy time, and you just might not be able to expect too much of yourself. Forgive yourself, accept your limitations, and then make plans for how to approach the situation differently in the future. You’re the only one who can release yourself from the weight of your tasks. You're the only one who can lighten your load.

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