June 17, 2013

Adventures in exercising (while working)

Stephanie's post (below) made me think of the recent research that shows how bad sitting is for our health, even if we do also work out regularly.  Stephanie's comment that exercise, sleep, and healthy eating are not luxuries really struck a chord with me.  And it coincides with what I've been trying to do the last couple of weeks--move while I'm working.

While I'd really love a treadmill desk, I'm not sure where I'd put one, and they're pretty expensive.  So my fabulous husband decided to try out a set of simple elliptical pedals first.  We bought one for less than $100 on amazon.com and so far, it seems to be working well, at least in terms of my writing output and productivity.  I currently have it in front of my kitchen island, and have my laptop on top of my microwave, which allows me to hop on the elliptical and still type on the laptop and read off the screen while I'm moving.  The transition has been surprisingly smooth, once I got used to reading a screen while in motion.

I don't have enough data yet to measure what impact this is having on my body, but I do notice a difference in the way I'm responding to and processing information.  I feel less anxious on the whole, I respond to questions more quickly, and I am definitely sleeping more deeply.  All in all, I'd say it's been a success, even if so far the results haven't
shown up on my scale.

What do you all think?  Do any of you have a treadmill desk?  What do you do to break up your work and/or writing day?

A new meaning to the term "Brain Drain?"

By Stephanie Goodwin, Ph.D., AWC Writing Coach

Academic life may be sedentary, but new research suggests it is both mentally and physically fatiguing. Macora and colleagues (2013) randomly assigned adults to either watch documentaries or perform demanding mental tests. Ninety minutes later, both the film-watchers and test-takers were asked to hop on an exercise bike and peddle for long as they could. Despite the fact that both film-watching and test-taking were equally sedentary, the test-takers ran out of steam and stopped peddling long before their film-watching peers. Importantly, although test-takers reported feeling more tired, both film-watchers and test-takers chose the same level of resistance on their bikes. In other words, even though the test-takers knew they were feeling drained, they didn’t adjust their expectations to match their energy levels. Instead, they chose to work just as hard as folks who weren’t feeling tired.

So what does this research have to do with writing productivity?  First, these data underscore the physical fatigue that many academics report at the end of a long day of writing.  Although we may have “desk jobs” that doesn’t mean we aren’t working hard. The next time someone says “you academics have it so easy” remind them that cognitive labor is physically demanding too.

Second, these data suggest we could learn a thing or two from people who exercise for a living. Just as
competitive cyclists don’t ride at top speeds every time they train, academics shouldn’t expect to work at 100% of mental effort all of the time, every day.  Athletes vary their training over the day, the week and the month to maximize endurance and performance. For us “mentathletes,” balancing more demanding tasks (e.g., writing) with less effortful responsibilities is key to maintaining our productivity and stamina. The next time you’re planning your day, consider these data and try to alternate your high/low demanding tasks to maximize your productivity across the day.

Finally, these data should remind us of the importance of healthy self-care. Eating, sleeping, and exercise are not “luxuries” – they are required for healthy human function. In spite of our academic culture of heroic stamina, we are only human. If we want to be mentally productive we need to be physically healthy. And when we are feeling fatigued, we need to cut ourselves some slack. Rather than beating ourselves up emotionally, we should acknowledge the mental and physical effort we put into our days. Instead of pushing through and failing to meet our goals, we should reset the resistance on our proverbial bikes to a lower level to stay on the path to success.

Want to see the original study? Follow this link: http://jap.physiology.org/content/106/3/857.long.

June 12, 2013

The Lonely Academic

Okay, I'm just going to come out and say it.  It can be lonely being an academic.  Academics spend a lot of time on independent tasks that are done alone, such as researching, writing, editing, and grading.  If you’re not careful, you can spend too much time on your own, and it will curtail your productivity.

This loneliness can intensify in the summer months.  Those quieter months you've been longing for are here -- but you sit in the library or the office and realize that it's almost too quiet.  You may feel like you have no one to bounce ideas off of and that no one cares about your work.

Some of you might be saying, “But I’m surrounded by people!”  Or, “I try to work at home, and my family/friends keep trying to get me to spend time with them.”  Or, “I work at my office but other people keep coming in and interrupting me.”

The fact is, you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.  If people don’t understand the struggles of academic writing, or are not interested in how you are doing with regards to your writing, you can feel very much alone.

There are several ways to combat loneliness.  We've compiled a few of our favorite ways to make writing more social this summer and to add variety to your routine.

1.    Get out of the house/office

If you work alone, without other people around, you can start to feel like a deranged hermit.  It might sound obvious to say this, but…

You don't always have to work alone! 

It’s a myth that writers become creative only after they hole up in solitude.  In fact, many writers find inspiration from working near others, even if that means just sitting at the same table in a coffee shop and doing different work.

For those of you who are struggling to write productively and who have never tried it, break up your normal routine by working in a library, coffee shop, or even a park!  You may be surprised at how you focus better with the buzz of non-distracting sounds and the feeling of community.

2.    Find a writing buddy.

If you haven’t yet tried writing with a buddy, I highly recommend it. Whether you find someone in your area that you can spend time writing with, or someone that you connect with virtually, this kind of personal interaction is a great way to combat loneliness, and get really productive.  In fact, since this can be such a great help in your writing, watch for our next Academic Ladder ezine and I’ll share some great tips for how to connect with other writers.

3.    Make use of your university writing center and other institutional resources.

One of the best kept secrets of many universities, the writing center, can be an excellent place to go for generating ideas, getting feedback on drafts, and participating in workshops on grammar, clarity, and citation styles.  Although most writing centers focus on helping undergraduates, many are now extending their services to graduate students and even faculty.  You might also ask them if you can come there to work -- some writing centers have a sort of "writer's cafe" hangout approach, complete with cookies and coffee.

4.    Participate in "chat writing" sessions. 

Our chat writing sessions are extremely popular in the AWC (Academic Writing Club).  In these chat sessions, members usually log on at a scheduled time and announce their writing goals, write for a brief period of time, and then come back and say how the session went.  Sometimes the chats will last for an hour or more, punctuated with brief breaks.  The energy in the chat rooms is exhilarating, and chatters usually end their final writing sessions energized, relaxed and inspired.  It's also a great way to bump into like-minded people and exchange ideas.

The AWC also provides coach-hosted Challenge Chats several times each week.  In this way, you have a ready-made group of people, all eager to get support and to write.

You can create this chat room environment on your own in a number of ways.  Contact people you know and suggest setting up a regular chat writing session – there’s no need to explain it yourself; just send them this article! Or go to online forums and find people who are interested in participating, show them this article, and schedule a mutually agreeable time.


The summer can be a great opportunity for completing a substantial amount of writing and research.  You may miss that opportunity, though, if you don't have enough support.   Make sure that you have a plan for social interaction both within your research life and outside of it.  Your quieter moments may become less tedious, and you'll be better able to focus on your work.  You really can make this a summer that is more social, productive, and restful!