Tag Archives: academic productivity

Useful things: free-writing on your research project or dissertation

tangle

Author: Brianna

I have two similarly slender books on my desk that are both virtually guaranteed to give me a little motivation boost on any given day: How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia, and Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker. These books are concise and have plenty of concrete advice that can actually get you writing more, so they’re worth a read.

A major decree from both books is that you must write, at least a little, every (work)day.

I haven’t written much over the last year or two (not just on this blog!), mainly because I’ve been amassing a pile of dissertation data that’s involved many museum trips, measuring hundreds of fossils, lots of pictures, more CT scans than you should shake a stick at, and several memorable weeks collecting gait data on the friendly tapirs at our local zoo.

A few weeks ago, as I tried to gather my thoughts and my PowerPoint slides before heading to the ICVM meeting, I was browsing through the Bolker book when I came across her suggestion to begin each day with ten minutes of free-writing. This can take the form of whiny stream-of-consciousness (“I don’t have any ideas. Why do I never have any ideas…?”), posing a series of questions to yourself (about the project in general, or a particular area you’re stuck on), exploring your thoughts and line of reasoning for something, or even just writing out sentences/paragraphs that might go into a paper.

I’m quite familiar with the creative-writing practices of beginning with free-writing, or shitty first drafts (link is to a PDF file), or starting the day with morning pages. I know it’s useful in that context; I spent a year in an intensive creative writing course at the University of Oregon where at one point we were turning in new short stories every couple weeks, and the only option was to write your tired little fingers off. Also, the license to whine or navel-gaze as part of the free-writing is useful for a fairly high-strung person like me so I can get the cluttered, gnawing thoughts out of my head and onto the page.

But for my research?

Once I thought about it, though, it makes a lot of sense. A recurring concept in books like these, whether about creative writing or scientific writing, is that we should write so that we can think—not think so that we can write.

After spending so much time collecting, processing, and analyzing data, I was feeling a distinct lack of big-picture thinking about the broader arc of my dissertation. Also, I’m nearing my favorite time: paper-writing time. One or two of my dissertation projects are very nearly ready to write up as papers, but that means I need to be in a writing frame of mind again!

Enter dissertation free-writing. Most resources on free-writing (/shitty first drafts/morning pages) recommend using a notebook and pen, but I’m lazy and I like things I can search or copy/paste, so I made a Word document. Do whatever works for you.

Let me tell you, it was the best idea I’ve had in awhile.

I started with all the questions I have, or want to answer, or am trying to answer. I wrote out ideas about how I am doing that, and how I might do that in the future. I noted down snags and doubts and areas where I feel like my logic or argument is fuzzy. I brought up papers I’ve read (or need to read) that relate to certain areas. I pondered follow-up projects. I sketched out some plans for my ICVM talk. I made a list of the last bits of data I need to get before writing up a paper. I sketched out the main ideas of each of the next few papers I’ll write. I whined (a little). I spent some time thinking about the Big Ideas that get me excited as a scientist, and how I might pursue those in the long run.

Naturally my overall thinking has been boosted by feedback and conversations at this conference, but even before I got here, I began to feel a nice sense of clarity – like I could actually wrap my brain around the project again instead of being lost in the weeds.

Time will tell how much this pays off in terms of actual writing productivity. I’ve begun writing snippets of actual…well, writing….in my free-write document, the kinds of sentences that might go into a paper. I tend to think pretty hierarchically, so before long I’ll begin working from an actual outline for these manuscripts. We’ll see how much of the material generated in these sessions translates to the draft itself, but I am already convinced of the utility of daily(ish) free-writing to boost productivity on a specific research project.

Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.


Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge — and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

My writing rituals

Author: Brianna

This post was inspired by the podcast on writing rituals over at James Hayton’s blog. He focuses especially on the beginning and end of the writing day, which I agree are critical times.

I spent considerable hours as an undergrad writing creatively. After taking the standard Intro to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction courses, I decided to apply to the Kidd Tutorial, an intensive (and intense) yearlong creative writing course. I was accepted! Hooray. I spent the next year juggling regular and serious creative writing output, plus scholarly analysis of the craft, with classes like Physics and Organic Chemistry. It was quite the experience. Just me, three other undergrads, our MFA-student instructor, and two hours twice a week of discussion, workshops, and pushing my limits. It made for some truly frazzled finals weeks.

At the end of the year I left with a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for writing, the knowledge that I did not in fact want to be a creative writer for a living, a mild-to-moderate sense of creative burnout, and—perhaps most important to my current occupation—much better-developed skills for saying what I wanted to say and for pushing my mind to continue creating when I felt like I was trying to draw water from a dry well.

Surprisingly useful skills for a scientist.

Over that year and the years since, as my writing output has become more focused on scientific papers, I developed some strategies and rituals. What it comes down to is, sometimes your brain is like a well-trained adult German Shepherd ready to focus on the task at hand, and sometimes your brain is like a little hyperactive Labrador puppy that’s as likely to pee on the floor from being so excited as it is to flop over with no warning and take a nap because it’s just done.

We should not yell at puppies for accidents or for napping (and really, THEY ARE SO CUTE if also aggravating), and we should not yell at ourselves if and when we struggle with writing. And sometimes even a grown-up German Shepherd needs a play break.

Just like there are ways to train your puppy, there are ways to train yourself to at least smooth the writing process along. Here are some things I have invented for myself, with an eye to the special weirdness of my own brain. Modify as you desire for your own weirdness. (Note that the only thing scientific about these ideas are that I tested them on myself and refined the ones that worked.)

1. Develop an “I’m writing now” situation that engages multiple senses.

The idea here is to build an association between the activity of writing and your ritual. A very strong association. Then, ideally, when the ritual starts, your brain gets into the writing “mode” much more efficiently.

For me, for whatever reason, the following seem to work:
Sound: I usually associated about an album’s worth of songs with each story I worked on. Yes, I am one of those people that will happily listen to a handful of songs over and over and over again, at least for a short while. This builds up a strong connection between those songs and that story (or paper), and has the advantage that after awhile the music is so familiar it fades into the background, allowing your mind to focus on the words you’re making. I still get vivid memories of writing certain stories when I hear songs I used for them. Similarly, I strongly associate Goat Rodeo Sessions and the Imagine Dragons album with scientific productivity, because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those albums while working.
Touch: Easy. I write best when I am cozy. This usually involves wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up (also functions as blinders!) and/or wrapping a blanket around myself.
Scent: I go the easy route and use a candle. It is my writing candle, and it smells like pleasantly cinnamon-y spicy things. You could use…I don’t know. Room spray, perfume, those cool little lavender satchet things, whatever.
Taste: This one is less rigid. Basically it means I have a snack and/or tea while I write, because it keeps the resistant parts of my brain from being all “But we are HUNGRY and we want something to DRINK and this is BORING WE SHOULD STOP NOW.”
– Sight: Less important, because you’re staring at the damn computer screen (or notebook) most of the time. Perhaps we should interpret this more loosely as location. Writing always in the same place can certainly help trigger writing mode, although it’s important to remember that shifting locations can be important too.

2. Warm up with a free write.

I first learned about this from my high school English teacher when I took College Writing my senior year. It is not a new concept; see the Thesis Whisperer, most creative writing books, etc. The general idea is that you take a focusing idea (or not) and just…write. Type or longhand, doesn’t matter. Don’t think, don’t stop, even if you have to write “I am stuck on this and I hate writing and where am I going to go with this” over and over again. Just go.

I find it helps to start with a question and free write from there. What am I trying to say in this conclusion? Why should someone care about this paper? What do we know from this figure that we didn’t know before? Something like that.

It sounds silly, I know. It sounds like it will waste your time, because none of those sentences are likely to go into your paper. It sounds more like journaling than anything.

But seriously. It unlocks the writing brain; it gets words going from your mind to the paper or screen and that is often the hardest part about writing. It also subdues the editing, perfectionist tendencies. Even if you aren’t one of those people who can handle writing shitty first drafts (links to PDF) a la Anne Lamott and desires to craft high-quality sentences and organization as you go, you can benefit from settling down on the nitpicking early on.

I admit I don’t do this as often as I should. Usually it is a last resort when I am feeling stuck.

3. Draw pictures.

For organization, I like to draw visual representations of my argument. For creative writing, this can take all kinds of shapes–two stories I analyzed in detail had remarkably interesting structure, one with a sort of back-and-forth tidal pattern and the other a spiral that broke through the center at the end.

Less exciting usually for scientific papers. Generally I envision them taking the form of nested hourglasses, a concept I’m sure most of you are familiar with from high school essays.

hourglass

You know the one. Start off broad, narrow in to your specific ideas, widen out again at the end. The trick is that it’s kind of a fractal hourglass: the paper as a whole should follow the pattern, but (more or less) so should each section within the paper, and each paragraph within the section. This is not a completely rigid concept, but as a ritual before writing a paper, I find it immensely useful to draw at least the hourglass for the paper itself. When sketching out the structure of a section, I’ll often locate topic sentences of paragraphs on the hourglass; the first sentence of the introduction is the widest part, the next is a little more focused, and so on.

For whatever reason, I find the writing process smoother when it involves actual drawings. It clarifies my thinking, and then the words come more easily.

4. If you’re stuck, put in a placeholder and keep going.

Yes, I used this in creative writing and I still use it when I am writing papers. If I’m trying to say something but the words aren’t coming, I’ll pause and think about it for a moment, maybe trying some different sentence constructions. After all, you want to put some thought into it and not just give up the second you meet mental resistance. But if no forward progress happens, try just putting in a placeholder. I use square brackets, [like so], to indicate unfinished thoughts so I can do a search for them before sending off drafts with accidental incomplete bits.

In the brackets you can put things like, [get that one Smith paper with the squiggly bits], [find way to politely disagree with Smith here], [squiggly things are only found in Oregon but I should double-check that], [potentially irrelevant point about extinct Californian squiggles], and so on.

5. Park facing downhill. 

I believe this idea (or at least the specific metaphor) comes from Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, a book that I’ve skimmed enough to conclude it has some useful, kind advice in it and it is probably worth reading if you’re looking for writing advice. You’ll find this concept all over, though.

At the end of the day, do future-you a few favors. This is especially critical if you might not be coming back to it the very next day! Stop before you are completely exhausted and sick of the project. Roughly outline the next paragraph you will be working on rather than stopping at the end of a section. Picking up a half-finished paragraph is so much easier than beginning a completely new section.

Write a detailed note at the end of your document outlining what you have done and what you will start with next time. Did I mention how important this is if you’ll be setting the writing aside for awhile? “Today I tightened up my argument about why squiggles matter, but I haven’t yet managed to connect that with the importance of biogeographic distributions of all drawings in general and squiggles in particular. Next time, write the biogeography paragraphs and make sure to include that Jones reference about migratory squiggles, and maybe move some sentences from one of my earlier paragraphs to help tie the concepts together better.”

Clean up your writing area. Save everything. (You’ve been saving about every 15 minutes, right? Save early, save often. Ctrl+S isn’t that hard.) Maybe write something down about how excited you are about the insight you had today that squiggles might have persisted in glacial refugia.

You get the idea.

And that, my friends, is my writing advice for the day.

Weekend science work: not always a bad thing

Author: Brianna

I have been thinking about work patterns lately. (Let’s be honest: I am more or less always thinking about work patterns.) Meg Duffy over at Dynamic Ecology wrote an excellent post about the myth of the 80-hour work week being necessary to succeed in academia. The comments, as always, are absolutely worth reading.

I try to estimate my output by things I’ve accomplished, not butt-in-chair time. Unless I’m working on something that doesn’t always have measurable forward progress, like trying to figure out broken code or learn to code new things. Then, I count hours because otherwise I’d despair, and time put in really is a reasonable measure of accomplishment.

Generally, I don’t work weekends. I stick to a work schedule that fluctuates a little, but generally runs 8am-5pm during the week. Count me in the camp that thinks trying to be “on” 100% of the time means you’ll accomplish less than if you work with good focus for a reasonable number of hours. I’m also always trying to improve the intensity of that focus and the length of time I can stand to do it, but that’s a subject for another post.

Crunch time happens. I have spent many a weekend and evening and late night on papers, revisions, applications, analysis.

But today, I just want to declare that sometimes I like working on weekends, just because I can.

Tea and notebook

Sometimes it’s relaxing to sit down with a cup of tea and some minor tasks that need doing. Or curl up with a cat and do some reading.

Today I’m drinking chai, putting together a small award application, making a little progress on my taxes, and mapping out my next research project in a flow chart. There’s a cat in my lap (not visible in photo above, alas). It’s a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

 

Routine and flux in my academic life (or: if what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing)

Author: Brianna

The title of this post reflects one of the most basic approaches I take to my work patterns. Not to the science itself, mind; troubleshooting there is a different beast entirely and giving up too quickly is bad. I am talking about how, when, and where I work. If my current approaches aren’t doing it for me – especially if things that WERE working previously begin to STOP working – I pay attention. Often I will change my working style in response. This willingness to change helps me stay attuned to patterns and styles that keep me happy and productive. (There’s also an implied inverse: if what you’re doing is working, keep doing it.) As a result, I wind up with an interesting balance of routine and flux. It works for me, and I thought some people might find it interesting.

Part 1: Routine

First, it’s important to note that I am a creature of habit. I like to go to bed at around the same time and get up at around the same time every day. I like to make myself a giant cup of black tea with whole milk and sugar and drink it slowly. I love adding structure to unstructured time (more on that later). I like standing appointments with friends for a meal or coffee or rock climbing. I like to cook, but I’m also happy eating a few more or less unchanging meals for long periods of time.

For me, routine is a powerful tool against the squishiness inherent in academic work. If you fuss around not doing any work until 4pm but then hammer out a beautiful discussion and conclusion section for your paper over the next few hours, is it still a bad work day? If you fight with your R code all day with a short lunch break and at the end of the day you finally figure out what you were doing wrong, is it a productive day or a wasted one? If you spend all day in meetings and responding to emails and filling out paperwork, should you feel accomplished or frustrated?

Yeah. It’s complicated, and routine gives me some structure to work with. It also helps with decision fatigue, I think.

I usually set a rough schedule for the week, blocking off a couple hours at a time. First I fill in classes and other unmoving commitments like meetings with my advisor and lab meeting. Then I start assigning time to reading, writing, working on writing up projects from undergrad, data analysis, classwork, and so on. I try not to use blocks smaller than about an hour for any academic work. I know from experience that my focus is best from around 8am until I stop for lunch (somewhere between 11am and 1pm), so I usually concentrate writing and reading earlier in the day. In a future post, I’ll go into detail about my daily/weekly schedule, how I choose it, and especially how I handle my to-do list. I really, really love lists.

A few things I keep consistent: I roll into the office around 8am. I work until I am too hungry to ignore my food calling to me from the fridge. I work some more or go to class. I go home around 5pm and often head over to the climbing gym shortly thereafter. I read papers on couches or in chairs or coffee shops, not at my desk. I brainstorm with a pen and paper – always in the same notebook – and write at my desk (with external monitor + keyboard) unless I’m feeling stuck.

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about a few new habits I aimed to establish for grad school. New post soon evaluating last semester and laying out next semester’s goals, but the short answer is that I pretty much stuck with those habits. Especially biking. I love my bike and ride it everywhere, and I actually really missed it when I was home for break.

You may now adore my beautiful bike.
You may now adore my beautiful bike.

Who shaped my thinking?
Most of my ideas about routine have been inspired by a few sources. When I was just a wee freshman in undergrad, I learned a lot about building an effective routine for classwork from this Study Hacks post. In recent years, similar posts have expanded the idea of a fixed schedule and how to arrange that time. Most terms in undergrad, I’d go through three or four iterations of a schedule, with each weekday blocked out in hours. I would try to follow the schedule, note where I failed, then tweak and rearrange things until it worked for me and my rhythms. I do the same in graduate school and I’m grateful for all the practice I got as an undergrad. Like I said above, more detailed post on that soon.
Another source that went into my ruminations awhile ago was this 2011 blog post from a novelist: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Though I’m not writing fiction in my daily work, I am writing an awful lot, including sometimes on big nebulous projects that have many parallels to big nebulous novels. The author used three main techniques to seriously boost her word count: mastering knowledge, time, and enthusiasm.
Finally, recently I’ve seen some press for a book on the routines of various famous writers, painters, and other artists. It’s called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” by Mason Currey. I don’t know how strictly useful it is in terms of copying patterns – many of their sleeping schedules sound positively awful to me – but it’s nice to muse on other peoples’ methods and/or neuroses, and perhaps pick up an idea or two.

Part 2: Flux

The problem with any routine is that it, by definition, loses novelty. I stop truly appreciating the delicious combination of milk and sugar and black tea in the mornings. I get to the paper-reading time of day and it takes Herculean efforts of focus to make it through a single paper. I rearrange my books on the shelf and wash all the dishes and mop the floors because just about anything sounds better than sitting down to revise that discussion section.

My solution is to change something that doesn’t affect my ability to get work done, but shakes things up a little. Usually it has to do with where I work, because right now, the majority of my work can be done anywhere.

I’m set as long as I have a computer, notebook, pen, and maybe an internet connection. Preferably also music and a hot beverage. Over the fall semester, here are the places I accomplished large amounts of work:

  • Main office on campus: reading on the couch, LOTS of writing at my desk on many different papers.
  • Ernst Mayr library on campus: reading on the giant leather couch, one day of surprisingly productive writing on a class paper when I forgot my laptop power cord.
  • Field Station: basically like my other office, except I go for a nice walk outside when I get stuck on something. I’m not as good about that on the main campus.
  • Home: usually writing at the kitchen table and reading upstairs in the Papasan chair. I often work from home on Fridays.
  • Coffee shop halfway between my apartment and campus: mostly writing. And biscotti. Mmmm.
  • Rock climbing gym: they have a lounge, a big work area with couches and sitting tables and standing tables, and treadmill desks. It’s glorious, I’m telling you. Have done great big swaths of writing papers on that treadmill desk and a good bit of reading in the work area. Plus, built-in break time: go climb, work for a couple hours, go climb some more…

I think those are all my regular places from the fall semester. The key is that I tend to stick with one as my major workplace for awhile, occasionally dropping in to the other places, before I make a switch. The switch only happens when what I am doing isn’t working. For example, early in the semester I did virtually all of my work in my office. When I could barely get myself to sit down on the reading couch in November, I hauled myself up to the library with a big cup of tea and promptly cruised through a giant stack of papers.

I change other things, too. Early in the semester I hand-wrote notes for all the papers I read in my research notebook, then later transferred those into Zotero annotations. Later, I stopped appreciating the aesthetic experience of handwriting into a notebook and craved speed, so I typed directly into Zotero. For most of the semester, I used my iPad for paper reading. After I found myself continuously switching to Facebook on the iPad instead, I printed off a stack of papers and banished myself from electronic devices for awhile. Sometimes I sought out people to work with, sometimes solitude. I started drinking Good Earth Original spiced tea for awhile instad of plain old black tea, and then even switched to Constant Comment! WHAT WILL SHE DO NEXT?

You get the idea. If what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing. You will notice that none of my shifts were an easy way out or an elaborate way to procrastinate…they just changed the context in which I was working, which seems to give my brain just enough novelty to help me settle down and just get to work already. Laying out the changes all in a row makes it seem like I flit more or less steadily from one working style to another (phyletic gradualism?), but I can assure you that the experience is much more of a punctuated equilibrium.

Who shaped my thinking?
I think my approach to regular change has come mostly out of just observing my own work habits and paying attention to what improves productivity. Nevertheless, I’ve certainly pulled ideas from a few places over the years.
Not surprisingly, more in the way of the Study Hacks blog. I’m telling you, there’s some serious gold in there, especially for undergrads looking to establish good working patterns early on. Adventure studying/work emphasizes changing your physical location, and here’s a post on context that discusses beer, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.
If you haven’t read about the pomodoro technique (basically work in short timed bursts), it’s useful. I don’t use this when things are going well, but if I am having a hard time bringing my mind to the task at hand or am procastinating like a madwoman, this approach gets me back on track.

I should note that this is particular to the scheduling flexibilities I have now, as a PhD student. According the whining discussion I hear from my more senior friends, meetings and paperwork and other undesirable things soon begin to fragment one’s schedule. I could take this as an interestingly reversed “uphill both ways in the snow” situation (it’s just that instead of “back in the day,” it’s “just you wait…”), but mostly I pay attention because I believe them. I think it’s instructive and motivating. If I can’t manage my time effectively when I have close to 100% control over my schedule and few commitments, how will I survive later? Right. So my goal is always to optimize my working habits for the situation I am currently in, while recognizing that over time that situation will change.

I am looking forward to revisiting my old routines now that I am back in Cambridge. It’s been a lovely winter vacation: two weeks back home in Oregon soaking up the time with friends and family and my cats and dog and horse, then a couple weeks in Austin for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, plus more friends and family. I like my apartment and my own bed. Especially my own pillow. And, awesome bonus: we’re catsitting! That’s right, came home to two adorable fluffy felines prowling around. Very pleased.

I’ll be spending more time out at the field station this spring and possibly doing some Actual Data Collection. But other than that, I don’t expect my working habits to change much. Read, write, study, think. Happily those are some of my favorite things, and undoubtedly I’ll find one or two new places in which to do them when the routine needs a little flux again.