Tag Archives: 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.

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.

Priorities in research doings (or: knitr, mammalogy labs, and motivation)

Author: Brianna

One of the nicest things about graduate school, for me, is the control over my schedule. I had that in undergrad too, but more constraints because of more classes. Also I was still riding horses almost every day, which cut out most evenings. Why is control over my schedule so great? Because I am obnoxious about my work habits and I think I can get better work out of myself when I follow my nose.

I drafted this post a few weeks ago in a fit of inspired work time. (I’m still just as excited about knitr, by the way. And the paper I mention is getting submitted in the next week or two, with full data and the code formatted all pleasantly thanks to knitr.)


You guys know the way I think about work habits all the time: I have detailed writing strategies, I enjoy settling into routines and then semi-frequently breaking them, I spend time thinking about nature of motivation. About the only thing that stays really constant is that I’m a morning person, so I don’t really do work past 7pm except in dire circumstances or…moments of pressing inspiration.

Which is to say: yesterday I was working on R code for a really neat project on horses from the Paisley Caves of Oregon, and as I was working I was pondering its eventual inclusion with the paper itself. So I was trying to be thorough, you know, including code to save the plots and commenting things nicely and such. And then I thought, what the hell, learning to use knitr and rmarkdown to make nice outputs has been on my to-do list for awhile, let’s learn it.

Which is more or less why I wound up working last night until about 8, when the grumbling of my stomach became too much to ignore. (You’ll note that the other half of Fossilosophy would snicker at this, as Kelsey sometimes doesn’t even warm up until around that time in the evening.)

Because I was having fun. So much fun. Do you guys REALIZE how cool knitr is??

Right, about priorities: yesterday I tasked myself with working on writing mammalogy labs. That is also a cool project that gets me really excited about science and teaching, because I get to design an entire semester’s worth of labs. And also I am feeling internal pressure to make forward progress on it because it has slipped down on the priorities list thanks to preparing two posters for SVP.

But I was really excited about knitr!

So you know what? I worked on my code and knitr. Because damned if I’m going to waste the kind of excitement that helps me learn important tools I’ll use in just about every research project ever, while also moving forward the project that is probably closest to submission of all my projects.

This is the glory of having few to no hard deadlines this semester, a luxury that I recognize is rare and thus will milk for all it is worth. I will still write all the mammalogy labs; a day or two will make zero difference. How silly it would have been to let the internal guilt meter decide what to work on when I was truly excited and motivated about something else that also offers me long-term research benefits.


Extra credit links:
A Beginner’s Tutorial for knitr
Knitr with R Markdown
Getting Started with R Markdown, knitr, and Rstudio 0.96
Drifting towards deadwood, or not: learning to use R (interesting thoughts on putting in the time to learn big new skills; same thought process I use to make myself put in the time to learn things like knitr)

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.

Research projects are like cats

Author: Brianna

I have come to an important analogy-realization. This is great because I spent the four years of my undergraduate research career being spoken to in elaborate analogy (see: Edward Davis’s use of 7 football maxims for basically any mentorship discussion). And that means that I, too, must develop my stable of eye-rolly but ultimately enlightening metaphors!

So here’s my new favorite.

Research projects are like cats.

Louise

Adorable, cuddly, wonderful cats.

Everyone wants one. (If you do not like cats, feel free to substitute dog/bird/child/expensive car/whatever.) It is good to have a cat. Especially if cats are something you want in your life, it is kind of sad to be hanging around not having a cat and looking at all the adorable cat pictures being posted by people who do have cats.

So you get your first cat and it’s really really exciting. Maybe you even soon get another one! That’s great. You spend much of your free time snuggling with this cat and thinking about how awesome it is that your cat is the best, most loving, cutest cat in the whole world.

Louise 2

And life is good.

But cats take up time and attention. You generally know where they are in the house, more or less, and if you have multiple cats then you might get really nervous if they are off in some other room and things suddenly go mysteriously quiet. Your energy and focus is divided.

At some point, you have Too Many Cats. Just keeping track of them is a chore, let alone doing anything fun with them. They keep you up at night, meowing and knocking things over and clawing the furniture. Your feline carrying capacity (catpacity?) probably increases throughout your career, especially if you have collaborators helping you take care of some of them, but early on that number may be limited.

So you have to…get rid of some cats? By publishing. (This is where the metaphor breaks down a bit if you are too literal-minded, as all eye-rolly metaphors do. Maybe you are a foster home for cats, and you need to find them loving journals – er, homes…)

Therefore it is important to not wind up juggling too many cats, lest you lose the focus that lets you help them along into happy home/journals.

I have a few too many cats prowling the halls right now. They are all totally great projects and I love them! But some of them need to go out the door. They’ve been lingering a little longer than I’d really like. Happily one should get submitted, if not next week, then by the end of July; it’s about 95% there. Another is clicking along fairly rapidly, and two more are sitting in the corner waiting for me to stop being annoyed about having to rewrite semi-substantial sections. Then there’s the shiny new one I started as a first-year project at Harvard, and the even shinier plans I have for my dissertation…

Too many cats. Good thing I really like them.

Thoughts on motivation

Author: Brianna

Sometimes motivation is hard to come by and that is okay.

For me, the trick is in being calm when motivation is gone; in being a grownup about keeping up my responsibilities even when I don’t have it; in finding it when it is hidden; in knowing and trying to learn more causes of its ebb and flow; in making choices that will nurture it in the long and short term; in spending time around and talking to interesting people; and in consciously aiming for more intense productivity when it is close at hand.

This all involves paying close attention to what excites me. The good news: my dissertation plans excite me! Right now, though, I am working on remembering my excitement for a few papers that need to get finished and out the door. It was there once, and I can still kind of feel it, but we’re in that last 10% of the publication process that always takes up about as much time and energy as the first 90% did. I will be pleased when these papers are off my plate. They are good projects and I like them.

Also, it is good to be home for a little while. I missed Oregon and my animals.

McKinna
Communing with McKinna before my first ride in about 6 months.

Dealing with the first year of grad school, Part 1: the general sense

Author: Brianna

It occurs to me, as I sit in a cozy chair in a sunny lounge overlooking some pleasantly evergreen trees, that I am currently ‘dealing’ with graduate school. As in, things are going pretty well. I’ve published a paper, submitted another, drafted a couple more, given some presentations, taken some classes, made good friends, found a good first-year project. I haven’t written much lately, in part because I am not always sure what I (we) want this blog to be. Also, blogging is not always high on the priority list.

But I think this blog can be a place for advice. I like giving advice, but I am also “just” a first-year graduate student. (This is why we have an “Unsolicited Advice” category.) I still have some sensible ideas about getting work done, though. At the very least I have my own experience working my way through this first year and ostensibly the years after that. I think that might be a useful and/or interesting thing to people. Especially if you’re, say, a senior-ish undergrad looking to go to grad school. Or a first year grad. Something like that.

So this is the first in a several-part series, which I’ve just now decided will be a loosely organized collection detailing exactly what you’d think from the title: how I am dealing with the first year of graduate school.

For the first post, here’s some things I do to keep myself healthy and relatively happy and chugging along. Maybe in the next one I’ll go into some specifics of the first year, like learning to use a bike to commute (even in a terrifying place like Cambridge/Boston!) and being scared of meetings with your adviser.

I have been spending a lot of time around my fellow first-year grads, or G1s as the parlance here goes. Turns out they are a bunch of brilliant, kind, interesting and interested people. Our new-grad seminar, where we meet professors or work on professional development and do lots of talking, is a highlight every week. As a cohort we’ve been tight-knit socially but also academically, for lack of a better word – there are always several people willing to proofread a paper or grant application, give feedback on a presentation, or sit in the conference room eating lunch while you sketch out your lab meeting talk on the whiteboard. You can’t force cohesion, but you can seek out this contact. The first year is easier when you have some buddies to panic with you. (Same goes for the rest of the grad students in the department, of course. But I think making strong connections with your cohort is important, if you can.)

I have been paying close attention to what works for me and what doesn’t. The things that work for me have fluctuated a lot over the 8 months or so I’ve been here so far, which surprised me quite a bit. I talked about this more in the post on flux, but I’m still surprised just how adaptable I’ve needed to be. I need to remember that when I’m stagnating, I should probably go for a walk or go work somewhere else, like I did just a bit ago by relocating to this lounge. When the usual trick of goal-setting and bouncing ideas around really wasn’t helping me get out of a motivation slump, I accepted it eventually. I slept in a lot (for me, around 9 or 10am). I worked in coffee shops to enjoy the anonymous rumble of cheery conversation flowing around me. I read a lot of non-science books. I went from occasionally doing a few hours of work on weekends to never working weekends. You know what? The world didn’t end. I kept up with my classwork, and I made a little progress on my research each week even if it wasn’t mind-blowing giant steps. And then the sun came out, and it stopped snowing (mostly), and gradually I walked myself back up the hill to the place where I once again get excited by all the things I want to do.

But at the time, it felt a little like everything was ruined forever. It’s okay to feel like that.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the short-term deadlines, I take a deep breath and remember the long timeline of this PhD. It’s oddly comforting that just about everyone in the program seems to say they didn’t get much of anything directly “useful” (i.e., that went into their dissertations) until their second or sometimes third year. This lets me be content with indirect usefulness.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the long timeline of this PhD, I take a deep breath and focus on the short-term deadlines.

I lift a lot of weights. It’s satisfying, it makes you ready for bed at the end of the day, and it’s a good chance to chat with a friend if you talk one of them into being your lifting buddy. Also it is really good for you. If I had to pick one thing that helped me pull through the end-of-winter slump, it is starting up with a regular lifting schedule again. (Okay, two things: sleep too.)

I make a conscious effort to stop my stress, or at least mellow it, about things I can’t control.

I don’t go for as many walks as I should, but whenever I do it makes a world of difference to my mental state. I come back calmer, happier, and clearer of mind. Bonus points if you spend some time on your walk coming up with things to be grateful about. I usually start with the healthy legs that are obligingly carrying me around, particularly since I’ve spent enough time in the past with a broken ankle to know a taste of the alternatives.

I try to focus on the parts of my research that I love (planning, data analysis usually, writing, exciting projects) and be a grownup and just matter-of-factly accomplish the parts that I love less (some types of data collection, cleaning up mistakes in data, doing a bunch of revisions after reviews, less exciting projects). Same goes for life: more enjoying things like cooking or rock climbing or thinking about the power tools I’m going to get this fall, less procrastinating on things like taxes or cleaning the bathroom. Just do it and move on.

I go to as many job seminars, departmental seminars, and dissertation defenses as I have the time and energy for. Sometimes I have other priorities or I can’t bear the thought of sitting in a dim room for an hour and a half. Those times I generally don’t feel guilty about.

Good food is important! We get a CSA (community supported agriculture) box with fresh fruit and veggies in it every week, which is nice when you learn to cook new delicious things and annoying when it’s the fifth straight week of way too many dandelion greens.  It helps that I like to cook. It’s easier when you live in a house with roommates who like to cook, too; we all go through cycles where sometimes you’re cooking giant meals all the time and sometimes you have no desire or available time to cook. It’s nice to have hot meals even on evenings when you come home hungry and grouchy at 8pm. I suppose my advice here is to get good roommates! Failing that, learn to make some simple, fairly healthy things that you like to eat. Make them in quantities and freeze some for the busy times.

That’s enough for now. The SVP abstract deadline is coming up, and I have things to finish!

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.