Tag Archives: focus

Interesting ways we can talk ourselves into productivity

Author: Brianna

This morning I’m working in pajamas, waiting for the utility company folks to send a person to look at the gas meter or whatever it is that they have to do that requires you to be home for a 4-hour window. The subject of my work is a manuscript that I’m rather fond of, one that I and my coauthors are aiming to get submitted next week.

But you know how the end of writing a paper goes: last 2% of the paper, what feels like 50% of the total work.


And yet, yesterday I wound up putting in quite a bit of revision and tidying. All this shortly after I’d pretty much written the afternoon off, because I was sleepy and we had lab meeting focused on a really challenging paper that more or less fried my brain for more complicated thinking. So what got me going?

A little task on my Google Calendar that said “Add references for R packages to PC horses paper.”

Because, hey, adding references for R packages is pretty easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort! And my time-tracking app was showing me that I wasn’t putting on much of a good show yesterday. (This is why I have one: to keep me honest.) So I decided I’d rack up a few more points minutes with an easy task.

Well, you know where the rest of this story goes. I added a short paragraph citing the R packages after tracking them all down and adding them to Zotero. I corrected some numbers on the manuscript that had changed a bit when I fixed a mistake in the code. I wrote a new caption for a figure that had changed considerably and then changed the main paper text to reflect the new figure. I found a couple places to improve our phrasing. Then I wandered over to the Discussion section that needed a little more love and found myself revising, and then adding new text…

All that from a Very Easy Item on a to-do list that I happened to see when I was checking my calendar.

I’m not sure what the unsolicited suggestion is here. Perhaps it is: keep in mind what small fiddly tasks you might be able to do as a way to ease into more challenging tasks on the same 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.

New Habits for Grad School

Author: Brianna

Lately I have been thinking about habits. My context has changed– new city, new school year, new degree program, new people– and I think it’s natural to feel like my life right now is a bit of a blank slate. The new environment makes it easy to establish a fresh set of habits. Some patterns will undoubtedly remain the same…I’ve been a bit of an old lady in my sleep habits since high school and I doubt I’ll suddenly become a night owl. Mostly I have been considering academic habits and which ones I’d like to keep or change.

At a bioinformatics workshop workshop I attended this summer, I was in the middle of one of those deeply satisfying science conversations (you know, the ones that leave you full of ideas and happiness) with one of the instructors and he made a comment that really resonated with me. I forget the exact context, but he said that focus and discipline were tremendously important for doing quality science. I think he also noted that these qualities are often difficult to come by. I look forward to work every day and I love doing science, but I think this is still important. It’s a phrase to remind myself of when I am working and get distracted, like “Be here now” for meditation. Focus and discipline.

I’ve been mulling over the concept ever since, and it’s reflected in some of the new habits I’m trying out:

I work best in the morning, so I treat 8:00ish to after lunch with particular respect. I turn my phone off as soon as I get to my office. No emails, no texts, and no tweets get through to me. Everything except academic websites (Google Scholar, libraries, etc) gets automatically blocked on my browser, and I often shut down my laptop if I only have reading to do. It seems silly that I have to do this…except I do. Otherwise, the need for novelty is overwhelming whenever I experience mental resistance. (For more thoughts along these lines, take a look at Boost your productivity: Cripple your technology, an old post from Cal Newport on his focus-centric grad school schedule, and this xkcd comic and follow-up blog post about inserting some serious delayed satisfaction in distraction-seeking.)
For after lunch, I’m still experimenting, but I am generally a lot more relaxed about focus. Often this is when I’ll accomplish little things (email, jump through administrative hoops, check out library books) or succumb to semifrequent internet browsing. I also have a few classes and other departmental things to attend.

I read a lot more, and with intent. In moving from a palebiology focus on biogeography and skeletal anatomy to more of a modern biomechanics research area, I have some serious learning to do. A set goal of X papers per week helps me formalize the process, push myself to become familiar with the literature, and feels good when the tally marks start adding up. I’m also making an effort to read one science book per week, whether it’s more historical, a collection of essays, or a short textbook. Last week I read In the Light of Evolution, a really wonderful collection of essays that somehow manage to be very educational, funny, and poignant, often all at the same time. This week I’m working on This View of Life, from paleontologist G.G. Simpson.

This one relates only indirectly to academic productivity, but I now use a bike for the majority of my transportation. It’s good for me, good for the environment, and I get to go faster than cars half the time, even if riding on Cambridge streets is a little terrifying sometimes. I say it indirectly relates to academics because exercise = a happier, more focused me, so really it does contribute.

These are the major three habit changes I’ve instituted. Time will tell how well they hold up – it’s easy to make a change in the first few weeks of classes and the real test will be if I’m still doing all of this come December. So far, so good.