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.
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.)
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.
Alright, well. I guess now is as good a time as any to get around to learning knitr and associated fun.
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.
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.
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.