The Value of Rest: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Today is a holiday. And I will be working most of the day. Most academics probably are putting in either a full day or taking care of administrative odds and ends (or grading). Despite my apparent inability to use a holiday for its intended purpose, I wanted to write about the value of rest in being a productive academic.

Rest is an essential component of long-term productivity. Rest is considered by many academics to be a luxury. Rest is something that takes place after a deadline is met. But there is always another deadline coming that permanently pushes rest to the back burner. Rest is something that is done intermittently at best and almost always without a planful approach. Rest is too often something that only happens when an academic nearly passes out from physical or emotional exhaustion or illness. Even more problematic is that for highly ambitious academics; rest is considered something for the weak, unambitious, and mediocre. At some level, most academics realize that rest is a good thing in the abstract, but not something that needs to be made a priority. I would argue that rest is not just desirable to grab when you can, but is required for long-term productivity.

There are many forms and definitions of rest. I am making the case for serious downtime, where the world of academic thought (and that includes guilt for not working) is put aside so that the scholar has an opportunity to rest and recharge. Weightlifters have scheduled days off that are part of the program. Gym rats hate days off because of how much they enjoy their workouts. But over-training is a real problem that can lead to injuries, burnout, and long term setbacks. Rest prevents these issues. No offense to my serious weightlifting brothers and sisters, but picking things up and putting them down is not exactly a high cognitively loaded task — yet weightlifters have figured this out long ago and academics have not. If downtime is an important part of long-term productivity, then what does it mean and how can we do it?

The first element of effective rest is sleep. People require 6 ½ to 8 ½ hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than 6 ½ hours reduces cognitive functioning, attention, physical recovery, weight management, emotional regulation, and a host of other factors critical for health and academic success. There is a minuscule percentage of the population who function effectively on 2 to 4 hours of sleep per night. Almost certainly that is not you. There are many people who believe they are among this small low sleep requirement population, but nearly all of these people are simply used to being constantly sleep deprived and believe that their sleep deprived state is normal (e.g., the current US President). Those people are impaired due to insufficient sleep. Historically, there are many figures who slept poorly or inconsistently, yet one of the few documented low sleep requirement figures was Margaret Thatcher. Low sleep requirement people are extremely rare. Nearly all of us cannot even begin to have a strong approach to rest unless we are getting at least 6 ½ hours of sleep. A good rule of thumb is that if you are in a situation that you can sleep, then you should sleep. Naps can be recharging and count toward for 6 ½ total hours of sleep, especially for those with problems sleeping at night. Sleep is a non-negotiable.

The notion of “work hard, play hard” is as common in academia as it is fatuous. Socializing academics to work ridiculously long hours followed by concentrated and intense travel vacations is common. As if you can make up for a highly intense work life with a highly intense vacation. Travel vacations are often not restful. If your vacation has a formal itinerary of places to see and things to do, then it is not a holiday from work and is not restful. You have simply exchanged one form of intense effort for another. The work hard, play hard mindset also leads to the idea in parenting that “quality time” where parent-child time is small, but focused on highly eventful and memorable activities. For some people this might work; but I am a fan of parenting via big fat massive hunks of quantity time. This works for both parenting and rest. Vacations, quality time, and special events are wonderful; but are a small part of a comprehensive resting program.

Most of us approach rest as an ad hoc period of non-activity that simply appears concurrently with our spare time. The trope of “you should be writing” colours how we think of rest. Many academics define rest as the period of procrastination, wasting time, avoiding work, or what we do when we are distracted from the things that are important (i.e., writing). Given that most academics eschew the idea of spare time because they believe they should be working every day and all day, the assumption is that spare time equals wasted time. This mindset detracts from the importance of an effective rest diet.

Rest is mindfully pursued downtime with the intent of recharging both physically and mentally. Rest means different things to different people. For some people, going to a party is part of the resting program and for others this adds stress. For me, rest does not include much of life outside of academia such as cooking, commuting, cleaning, managing finances, medical treatments, parenting, exercise, shopping, or being in a relationship. Rest is a balanced and organized program that includes sleep, vacations, socializing, and guilt-free laying about. The guilt-free component is most relevant for academics — we love self-flagellation for not working more than most professions. The nature and frequency of rest is determined by the individual and their specific needs.

Schedule your daily program of rest as carefully as you schedule your program of work. Critical elements of rest programs are that time is not used thinking about work, worrying, or experiencing guilt because you are not writing. Although I have a work schedule, if I have trouble thinking because of fatigue, stress, or need for a break; then there is no trouble or guilt in obtaining additional rest. I need it just like I need food. Rest means that you must turn work off for a while and do something that is recharging. I think I am a high-energy person, who genuinely enjoys long work hours. Even as I get older (I am now 54), sometimes I still believe that I do not need to rest or to take breaks. To quote Dilbert, “There is no kill switch on awesome.” Thus, I need to be disciplined in obtaining rest to prevent burn out and exhaustion, to recharge, and to keep my thinking fresh. Or else I tend to work until I drop — not healthy. Rest is engaging in simple preventative maintenance, even when I am not in the mood to rest. Any program of rest that works for you can be helpful for recharging, but be mindful and experimental in exactly what works best to recharge you. Below are the elements of my regular rest program:

  • daily
    • in bed between 10 and 11 PM
    • waking between 530 and 6 AM
    • 15 minutes breathing meditation after waking
    • 20 minutes for lunch (when I often play a videogame or work a crossword puzzle)
    • 60 minutes watching television (either sports or something really stupid)
    • 60 minutes reading non-academic books (latest reads, When Buddhists Attack and The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, Vol 4 Causality and Complementarity)
    • 20 minutes of a meditative stretch (usually with Joyce)
  • vacation
    • at least 3 four-day weekend vacations through the summer
    • at least one seven-day vacation that involves some travel (not conference related)

Take care of yourself and get some rest. You and your work will thank you.

SRShaw

 

 

 

 

Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

We usually think of the development of scholars from their undergraduate days to tenured professor as a journey of continuously increasing content specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. We also think of scholars evolving increasing independence from relying on experienced professionals to becoming supervisors and innovators. These are normal processes that are formally or informally supported through mentorship. However, the ability to cope with increasing demands of productivity may be one of the most important skills that scholars develop and is frequently one of the most ignored in supervision and mentorship.

This is not to say that undergraduate or graduate students do not work hard. My experience is that they work incredibly hard and ridiculously long hours to master their craft. Ultimately, undergraduate and graduate students do not produce as much new material as experienced professors. In addition, my experience is that older professors, with sufficient motivation, can produce more high quality new findings than a younger professor. With experience comes practice and expertise. I have concluded that I can produce much more quality writing and thinking with less stress than ever before. I figure that just about the time I have total mastery of the process, it will be time to retire.

As is typical of this blog, I have no data on this process and this is only my experience. But here are some mechanisms that new researchers can use to systematically train themselves for increased quantity, quality, and ease of producing original thinking and written products.

I am sure there are a lot of readers who do not accept my initial assumption that more experienced professors can write more than highly energetic and motivated postdocs or tenure track academics. Certainly, full professors have fewer monetary or career goals for producing a lot of work. As such, many, if not most, full professors begin to slow down in terms of their productivity on their own volition. For me, I have the feeling that I still have a lot to say and study, but not that many years left to produce. So my productivity is increasing each year and I am finding the increased productivity far easier than when I first started in academia. However, this does not happen by accident.

There are two variables that simply are a function of time in the profession. First, you become extremely knowledgeable of all the literature in the field through accumulation of reading. Students need to learn the literature of the field from the ground up, having to grow from seminal articles up to current studies. Advanced professionals have the theories and important research findings as part of their routine vocabulary. This makes identification of important research topics and questions easier. Second, is simply practice. The writing, revising, editing, publishing, and persistence of publishing papers is now second nature. Most of us have found relatively effective habits. Yet, waiting to get old is not a particularly good strategy for advancing quickly.

Training Analogy

The best analogy I can think of concerning gaining the ability to produce a lot are sports requiring long-term intensive training. Teenagers and young adults have incredible physical energy and strength. However, most of the best marathoners are older — in their late 20s up to 40 years of age. Powerlifters are often older than that. Even amateur marathoners and powerlifters find that they achieve their personal best times or weights at an advanced age for an athlete, most often in their late 30s to mid 40s. They have learned to overcome injury, setbacks, life events, and many other disruptions to advance and improve their performance with consistent and disciplined training. A lifetime accumulation of training and advancement is required to get to the highest levels of competition.

Goal setting. I tell my students that the most effective way to be productive is to be consistent and persistent in production. I tell them that their goals are to write 1000 words on research and publishable tasks and read 100 pages five days per week. Most of them cannot do it. There are distractions, class work, other professional responsibilities and tasks, personal life, mental energy, and other factors they keep new students from this reasonable production goal. No one can run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds on their first day of training. You need to set a training schedule that allows you to work toward goals.

Assessment and initial goals. The first challenge is to determine exactly what your levels of productivity are now. Keep track of exactly how many pages you read that advance your knowledge for purposes of research productivity and how many words are written in a week. Assess over a three-week period exactly how many words were written and how many pages read that are directly relevant to research and this serves as the baseline. I would argue in the initial stages that there should be relatively more reading than writing, because students often are at a deficit of knowledge in terms of full understanding of the literature. A reasonable baseline might be writing 100 words and reading 80 pages per day.

Consistency. Inconsistent performance is quite common. I have students who write zero words for two or three consecutive weeks and then write 8000 words over the next week. I would argue that this is an extremely stressful approach and that typically this inconsistent pattern is due to writing only when there are deadlines approaching. Smooth the work periods into short, consistent, and feasible daily work. Being consistent is the first step towards being disciplined and mindful. The best way to train for a marathon or powerlifting is to have a consistent training schedule with appropriate amounts of rest and recovery scheduled.

Discipline. Inspiration is perfectly fine, but the discipline of reading and writing habits is more effective for achieving your long-term objectives. Schedule writing periods and reading periods. I place 30 minute Pomodoro writing segments into my schedule. I check my schedule, see that there is a writing segment on the agenda, set the Pomodoro timer and go. Also, on my schedule is rest time. Turning your brain off, having fun, and spending time with other people is required to have a quality life, rest, and recover. My own experience is that when the non-academic parts of your life are ignored, large disruptions in your home and work life are sure to follow; just like overtraining can lead to injury and burnout in an athlete. Making long-term gains if you only work when there is a deadline or when you are in the mood is not possible. Over the long term, discipline with appropriate rest and recharging is superior to inspiration in terms of quality and quantity of work.

Improvement. To move forward from your baseline, consistency and discipline are necessary but not sufficient. A reasonable approach is to create a writing and reading diary such as that suggested in Paul Silvia’s fine book entitled, “How to Write a Lot.“ Divide the writing diary into one-week segments. The goal is to achieve your quota of words written and pages read for the week. The following week, the goal is simply to write more words and read more pages. Even if it is one more word and one more page, that is successfully advancing your goals. Nearly every week needs to be a personal best until the goals are achieved. Cumulative gains happen faster than you think if gains are pursued with consistency and discipline.

Advanced goals. In any form of training or long-term preparation, there will be setbacks, discipline will fail, and motivation will be hard to find. Falling into a rut is inevitable. The first thing to do is to make sure that you have had enough rest, energy and attention have been given to the non-academic parts of your life, and you have determined that the line of work you are pursuing is rewarding and exactly what you wish to do. Even if these things are addressed, ruts will occur. In the case of athletes, they often change up their training. So a marathon runner may train using swimming, jump rope, cycling, soccer, or spirited games of tag for a change. Powerlifters may engage in gymnastics, strongman activities, or kettle bell work. The purpose is to change things up and to have fun. If you have been disciplined, consistent, and improving for a long period using the same mechanisms, then you will find that any change is rewarding and fun. The key is to keep moving forward in a positive manner. For a scholar working on reading and writing productivity some excellent activities are to form a journal club, create writing circles, or engage in timed writing sprints. I am constantly in search of methods to improve my efficiency and quality of work. Currently, I use voice-to-text recognition and try different patterns of work. The voice-to-text recognition is something I will probably continue. I find that I can write much faster than typing. I also find that my fingers get sore quickly as I age–so there is an accommodation for the physical limitations of aging. I also found that I was in a bit of a rut with some of my thinking. Therefore, I am now in a heavy load period of production: I wanted to try eight weeks of producing 10,000 words per week. This is now week three: 9987 words for week one and 7985 words for week two. My plan is to reduce back down to 5000 words per week at the end of this heavy load period. Change things up and avoid the rut.

Conclusions

Effective writing cannot be reduced entirely to work count. Obsession with word count could lead to an unfortunate Jack Torrance situation. Writing is a proxy variable for prolific and creative thought. One cannot write a lot without reading a lot of background information, experimenting, collecting and analysing data, outlining and organizing thoughts, and having an approach to contributing to the knowledge base of your field. The written word is solely the visible part of the iceberg. By pushing reading and writing productivity, you are pushing thinking and experimenting.

Relentlessly seeking improved performance is a fundamental trait of high achievers in any field. Nearly everyone I know in academia is a high achiever. And nearly everyone I know gets stuck at one time or another. By keeping the goals of completing a marathon or achieving a personal best lift, training has a reinforcing goal at the end of the journey. Likewise, academics train for managing increasingly heavy productivity loads that will last throughout your career.

SR Shaw

What to Do When You Are Overwhelmed with Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Ambitious graduate students and academics inevitably run into a big problem, being overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of work. This happens to nearly everybody. Becoming overwhelmed will happen, even if you are the most disciplined, organized, meticulous, strategic, and well prioritized scholar. Efficiency is a useful characteristic, but it does not make one immune from being overwhelmed. The ability to say no frequently is another useful characteristic, yet becoming overwhelmed is still inevitable. It happens to everybody. The question is, what do we do when the sheer volume of work surrounds and suffocates.

Most academics are wise enough to adhere to the Linus Pauling adage, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That is, important and productive researchers have multiple projects ongoing at all times. There are additional papers and projects that are somewhere in the publication pipeline and require energy and time. All researchers working at universities also have time requirements for teaching, administration, university governance, and other supervisory or training with students. In addition, there are professional responsibilities such as journal editorship, engagement with professional organizations, reviewing papers, and evaluating grant proposals. The projects resemble a Jenga tower of precariously stacked projects that grow taller and taller. At some point the tower becomes too tall and collapses due to its inherent instability or the presentation of some external event (e.g., illness, a surprise or last-minute project, personal problems). The careful balance of multiple ideas and projects then becomes an incoherent mess of pieces that have buried you in a massive disorganized and chaotic jumble. The purpose served by balancing multiple projects and ideas is lost when the tower collapses.

Once your fragile tower of ideas collapses around you, it is time to rebuild. Even the most organized and disciplined scholar finds themselves in a cycle of building careful to-do lists and series of projects, which is followed by a collapse. Symptoms of the collapse include missed deadlines, the feeling of being spread so thin that nothing is done with high quality, there is no time to reflect and think about scholarly products and process, your day has become entirely about work, relationships and health again to suffer, and feelings of hopelessness and high anxiety are the norm. Rebuilding your tower mindlessly will result in repeating the process of building and collapse until there is burnout and intense frustration.

Step Back

The first instinct for most professionals when they become overwhelmed (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to grab the first task available and begin working on it. Working extra hours, reducing sleep, sacrificing friends and family, and giving up exercise are frequent consequences of immediately beginning to work on a task. There are two major problems with this hard-working approach: one is that as you are working on a task, new tasks are accumulating and re-filling the bucket; and two is that there is an increased feeling of hopelessness as you work harder and harder while falling further and further behind.

The better first move (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to step back and take stock of the situation. A mindful and well-organized plan of attack for reorganizing the to-do list and establishing a realistic timeframe for each task is required. Also consider what were the planning errors or events that created the circumstances for the overwhelming breakdown to have occurred in the first place. These are to be addressed if at all possible. Even when it comes to the overwhelming collapse of the to-do list, a thoughtful and mindful approach is more effective than haphazard busyness. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Long Term Planning

Because there is so much to do, most conscientious scientist will begin working on tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a mistake. This is the ideal moment for long-term planning. Assess exactly what your one-year and five-year personal and professional goals are. Then review all of the pieces of the to-do list in order to determine if all tasks are consistent with professional goals. Items on the to-do list that are not consistent with professional goals need to be eliminated or given low priority.

The purpose of the long-term planning exercise just at the moment that things are most overwhelming is to ensure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply working harder and longer without a goal or purpose can be discouraging, frustrating, and eventually self-defeating. By occasionally reconsidering whether the to-do list matches with long-term goals helps to avoid the cycle of massive to-do lists followed by inability to meet deadlines. The best time to audit your to-do list is when things become the most chaotic and you feel most overwhelmed.

Prioritize

As you survey the rubble of high priority tasks and try to figure out how to reestablish an orderly method of completing your work, you will need to prioritize tasks. The two primary methods of prioritizing tasks are by urgency and by importance. Urgent tasks tend to have rapidly approaching timelines or an expectation of rapid turnaround (e.g., emails, grading). The tendency is to immediately work on urgent tasks first. Timelines are to be respected, but tasks deemed to be most important in your long-term planning exercise must also receive immediate attention. In the most efficient approaches to addressing to-do lists there is always a tension between important task and urgent tasks. No matter how busy, it is always a good investment of time to allocate 20% of your energies towards tasks that are considered important, but not urgent.

Considering your priorities and long-term planning are also essential when it comes to considering which new tasks that you should say yes to and which opportunities need to be politely declined. Declining, then missing out on new opportunities is a common victim of the overwhelmed scholar. There is nothing wrong with taking on new tasks even when overwhelmed, but make sure that these task are consistent with your highest priorities and your long-term planning.

Renegotiate

The overwhelming collapse of the to-do list is something like a financial bankruptcy. In order to get out from under the avalanche of impossible-to-complete tasks some sacrifices may need to be made. Tasks with hard deadlines (e.g., grant proposals and conference deadlines), may need to be sacrificed if they are not of highest importance. Semi-firm deadlines such as manuscript reviews, agreed-upon delivery of work with co-authors, grading, and other tasks can often be renegotiated to a later time. The major mistake is to hide from overdue work. Stand up and address each person you owe work to and negotiate a new deadline. Clearly, this is not an activity that you want to do often and it is not fun at all. Negotiating a new deadline date with a research partner, student, or journal editor is far more professional than being late with no warning. In addition, tasks that do not have a formal deadline are often ignored. These tasks, such as submission of journal manuscripts, can be extraordinarily important. Ignoring this writing because your to-do list is too full will result in minimizing your research productivity and will affect the trajectory of your research program.

What Not to Do

There is nothing wrong with increasing work rate. However, all nighters, skipping meals, avoiding exercise, and working with high levels of anxiety are recipes for burnout. Effective self-care is impossible when extra work replaces normal life and this becomes a permanent state of being. There is nothing wrong with high intensity long and hard work. There is a problem when work is no longer productive for achieving goals and work is a never-ending hamster wheel of busyness.

A Couple of Pointers

Even after stepping back, creating long-term plans, prioritizing, renegotiating, and avoiding maladaptive practices; there is still a lot of work to do. Quite often the avalanche of work is due to a personal problem, illness, or some other event that has made work difficult to complete. Moving from no work to full speed work can be a challenge. An exercise to get back into the habits and rituals that are necessary to be most productive can be valuable. It is not too difficult for frequent readers to determine that this is the purpose of my blog posts. A blog post does not take full and intense concentration like a manuscript for publication in refereed journal, but it requires the discipline and productivity skills necessary to jumpstart efficient work habits. So a brief and manageable task is often enough to get you back on track. The second pointer is to create only a mild increase in time spent working on to-do list tasks. Rarely do you ever want to increase the time spent on your to do tasks by more than 25%. Multiple all nighters and marathon sessions usually result in poor quality work and quality of life problems. The last pointer is to fully complete your first couple of tasks in one sitting. Completing a task and checking it off of the list is reinforcing and launches your reboot of the to-do list in a positive direction.

Conclusions

Far too many academics despair when the to-do list becomes overwhelming and collapses into a disorganized and insurmountable mess. This happens to everyone who is making every effort to take advantage of all the opportunities to become a productive scholar no matter how organized they may be. The mistake happens when becoming overwhelmed leads to panic and mindless busyness. This form of work crisis is an opportunity to reestablish priorities and to work most efficiently on the projects that are of highest importance. Taking the time to step back and be mindful about how you conduct your daily tasks goes a long way towards sustainable productivity.

SR Shaw

Stupid Idea Time: How Not to Suck at Being Creative in a Lab Setting

Running a lab as a principal investigator, postdoc, or lab coordinator can be a tedious job. Organizing personnel, managing data, running experiments, managing ethics proposals, maintaining and repairing equipment, paying personnel, managing and monitoring adherence to protocols, completing evaluations, preparing for audits, writing grant proposals, and preparing and managing manuscripts can seem like a treadmill of activity. The harder and more efficient a lab works the more likely they are to be producing scientific widgets like a factory. The high quality grind results in paper publications and grant money, but rarely big discoveries or major contributions. Becoming stuck in a rut of unimaginative studies that can be produced efficiently is real and common in research labs.

One of the problems is that work in such a lab is rarely fun or inspiring. Students often have a fear of fouling up the efficient assembly line with new and creative ideas. They become factory workers. Creativity, creative thinking, and creative mindsets lead to a fun environment that can produce high quality work without fear of failure. Most importantly, the probability of increasing innovative and important research conducted by highly motivated and creative students can be increased.

Establishing a professional culture that involves careful skills and exact following of the research protocol and a creative mindset is a challenging culture to create. Integrating volunteers and new students into an innovative, but exacting culture can be difficult. There are a host of exercises and activities that can be implemented to create an ideal environment for productivity, precision, and innovation

One of the basic exercises that we use in my lab is referred to as “Stupid Idea Time.” This concept is in large part inspired by Martin Schwartz’s 2008 article entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” The goal of the exercise is to reduce the fear of being wrong that many students in lab members may have and to encourage consideration of new ideas. It is a suggestion box that comes to life in a group laboratory setting. The concept that there is no such thing as a stupid question is bizarre and incorrect. Of course, there are stupid questions. But these questions are not to be shamed or punished, but to be celebrated. The goal of stupid idea time is to challenge widely accepted assumptions and to say things like, “Why won’t this work?” “What if our assumptions are wrong?“ ”What if we examine this process from an entirely different perspective?” These novel, sometimes naïve, ideas are actually challenges to the status quo. The team needs to take these ideas seriously and come up with an explanation or play the “what if” game to imagine what the science would look like if these new ideas were integrated into the existing paradigm of a research lab.

The process is not quite the same as brainstorming. In brainstorming, ideas on a specific topic are tossed out in a rapidfire fashion with no judgment. The goal is to generate via a group stream of consciousness as many possibilities and solutions as possible. Evaluation, discussion, and group interaction are not typically parts of brainstorming; but are used in subsequent meetings to consider the products of brainstorming at a later time.

Here is how we do it:

  • Try not to have stupid idea time very often. We may only do it once or twice per term. It is a useful idea when ideas have gone stale, there is low morale, when the energy of the lab is low, or there needs to be a shakeup in the dynamics of the lab. When you decide to use this method, give the students one-day notice that stupid idea time will be on the agenda. If you give people too much time, they will write formal list and make proposals and generally defeat the spontaneity of the exercise. But one day allows them to think about what they would like to change, or innovate; and allows the energy and anticipation of a fun session to grow.
  • Students are often reluctant to be the first to start with the ideas. It is a good idea for the PI or leading postdoc to provide the first of the ideas, just to get the ball rolling. Then challenge the others to come up with something weirder and more creative. Ideally, the first idea should be something that all of the other students in lab members laugh at. (e.g., so how would we analyze zombie DNA?)
  • Encourage discussion and reaction to new ideas. A general atmosphere of silliness is often helpful. The goal is to encourage lighthearted camaraderie, good humour, and allow the group to expand and clarify upon an idea.
  • Do not worry about feasibility of the stupid idea. Challenge other members of the lab to develop a more practical variation, how the new idea fits into the general theoretical concepts used by the lab, and generally keep the discussion going.
  • Because quite often a lot of people have ideas, it is okay to run with an idea for a limit of 10 minutes before moving on to the next idea. Everyone needs to be encouraged to engage in refining, judging, and even mocking of the idea. Whatever you do, dream and think big. Ultimately, the goal is to increase the excitement, novelty, and potential for breakthrough findings in your research lab.
  • Make sure that all the stupid ideas are recorded because some of the ideas might be mentioned, but do not register as especially notable until well after the meeting takes place.

For example, the idea arose that we remember that annoying little animated paper clip figure that would pop up and give you ideas from old versions of Microsoft Word. Someone thought an idea like that help with interactivity of our classroom-based lesson plans. We agreed that it should be a cat instead of a paper clip (Shaw sounds like chat, French for cat. Many of the children we work with believe that Dr. Shaw is actually a cat). And if we are going to increase interactivity, then why don’t we make our ideas applicable to be used on a SmartBoard in front of a classroom with strong graphics, video, and hyperlinks. Then we can code animation, voiceover, and teacher modifications into an interactive website. For several minutes, the ideas continued to escalate, refine, and develop into something that could be actionable. Most importantly, the atmosphere of the lab became more engaged, energetic, humorous, open, and creative. Although the specific idea may be extremely helpful, the process has reinforced the value of creativity and pushing limits of projects. Especially valuable in this exercise are undergraduate volunteers and new research assistants. They are often naïve to the background and history of projects and are not constrained by ingrained habits of thinking.

In an era of tight funding, novelty and thinking outside of the box can jump start a research program to gain attention of granting agencies and donors. Even if nothing actionable comes of the exercise, there is nothing wrong with fun and positive interactions in a lab meeting.

How not to Suck at Graduate School: Creating a Productivity Schedule

There are many ways for academics and graduate students to increase their efficiency and productivity. Because individual circumstances, both personally and professionally, change it is necessary to be able to adapt your methods to your current realities. Nearly every semester involves a new strategic plan to increase quality of work. Because no matter what the realities of life are, the goal is continuous improvement.

For me, this should be a high productivity academic year in terms of scholarly papers and ideas. I have a favorable teaching schedule, a research lab of motivated-to-produce graduate students, pent-up ideas that did not get written last year, invited papers and a book contract, and a solid base of data to use. I have also decided not to go after writing major grant proposals this year because these activities require a large amount of work with a low probability of success. The plan is to have a strong publication year now that will increase the probability of grant funding for next year. I also have a lot of motivation to keep up with my younger, smarter, an extremely productive peers; and move to a full professor status. Although this strategy may not work for everyone, even for me in previous terms, this is what I am using for a potentially high productivity year.

The first assumption is that a to-do list is simply fantasy unless time is allocated to complete each item. So at the least your to-do list must sync with your calendar (I use Priority Matrix, but there are many excellent to-do lists available). It also helps that I have enough experience to know how quickly I can work and therefore am a little bit stronger at estimating the time to complete a task than I once was. Here are the steps that I use:

  • Fill your schedule with nonnegotiable items. This includes your classroom teaching schedule, scheduled meetings, office hours, classroom planning, and other regular meetings that you cannot escape.
  • For every one-hour of meeting time, schedule at least 30 extra minutes to prepare for the meeting or to follow up. Meetings without preparation or follow-up are a complete waste of time.
  • Fill your schedule with items that are critical to your life. I know it sounds silly, but schedule time for lunch, time with friends, family time, exercise, sleep, shopping, time with significant other, rest and downtime, hobbies, volunteer work, etc. Your work is a marathon and not a sprint. Take care of yourself and your relationships. It is easy to become obsessed with work at the expense of living a decent life. Once these items are put into your schedule, they are also nonnegotiable.
  • Estimate at least two hours per day for flex time. These are for impromptu student meetings, hallway consultations, answering emails, bathroom breaks, taking deep breaths, office naps, and other work (e.g., reviewing manuscripts and reading).
  • I tend to keep a seven-day schedule. However, it is extremely rare for me to do more than four hours of work per day on the weekends. Many academics like to keep a five or six-day schedule.
  • I do not seem to have the mental stamina that I once did. So I cannot write for hours at a stretch anymore. Therefore, I use the Pomodoro system of 25 minutes of full work with five minutes of rest (this is when I usually send out Tweets of frustration @Shawpsych). Then Pomodoros are added to the calendar. I typically have 20 Pomodoro units (10 hours) scheduled per week.
  • From experience, I know that I write approximately 300 to 350 words per Pomodoro. That does not sound like much, but there is much variability. Sometimes I can write 2000 words in one Pomodoro and other times writing comes slowly or the session is spent editing and revising. Nonetheless, the goal for me is to have 6000 to 7000 words written per week. Sometimes Pomodoros are used for data collection, outlining, planning, or data analysis.
  • Now go to your projects. A project is any paper, chapter, book, grant proposal, report, or work that requires dedicated time to complete. I have a gross list of all projects that are on my agenda. There are usually 10-12 that are in my brain at any one time. Many of these are co-authored. I keep all of this information on a spreadsheet.
  • All projects with firm deadlines such as grant proposals, contracted work, invited papers or reports with deadlines, and the like are scheduled first. If possible, I like to give extra time on projects. For example, if a paper will be approximately 7000 words (or 28 APA-style pages) in length. I schedule one week to write a first draft, one week to revise and edit, and one week to let it rest or for unforeseen problems.
  • Well thought-out papers and papers with complete data take about 3 weeks to prepare for submission. Papers that are not fully baked can take forever. Spend Pomodoro time developing your ideas, completing analyses, and making detailed outlines so that writing will go smoothly. I have individual meetings with all of my students. Usually, this meeting time is where our projects are thought out and outlined.
  • Projects without firm deadlines are the hardest to complete and probably the most important for your career. See #getyourmanuscriptout for Twitter inspiration on this issue. Most often we work from deadline to deadline and those papers with no firm deadline can be put off for months or years. But typically this is your most creative work that sets the tone for who you are as a scholar. Place these papers into your calendar of Pomodoros. I typically place one project paper without a deadline into my schedule at a time. When that paper is submitted, then I move on to the next paper and schedule that.

All fields are different in relative demands for project completion. In general, 12 projects per year is a reasonable goal with this model of work. As we all know, some projects are massive and some are simple. I am a no-drama advocate. Consistency and scheduling time for high quality work is preferred to a lot of down time followed by high intensity panicky writing.

A critical factor to remember is that Pomodoros are not free time. When someone asks you if you have time available, consider a Pomodoro to be a meeting with yourself that cannot be cancelled. In a pinch, you may be able to move a Pomodoro to a different time, but do this rarely and never cancel.

This also helps you to understand which requests you can say yes to. If there is no time available to complete a task, then the answer is no. It is always easier to say no, if there is a larger yes on your schedule.

The hardest part of this schedule for many is the insta-author aspect of this form of schedule. If I have a random 30-minute period between meetings, then I can instantly get into focus and write for 25 minutes—and then move to the next meeting. I have always been able to do this. Many folks need to get in the mood and do not bother to work unless they can string together 2 or 3 consecutive hours. That’s okay—I just like to pick up the scheduling crumbs of the day and make them useful.

Sometimes, I do extra. We all know that there will be interruptions, disruptions, emergencies, lack of motivation, anxiety, depression, and other things that will interfere with the productivity schedule. It is going to happen. The calendar and productivity schedule is aspirational. If I am writing and on a roll, then I will keep going beyond the scheduled Pomodoro, if possible. I consider extra writing to be productivity insurance for the inevitable disruption of regularly scheduled writing tasks.

I have made the case many times that the best strategic plan is to have a plan. There are so many techniques and strategies available that the above described idea is probably not the best for most readers. Pick and choose the parts that work for you. Or develop a completely different plan. Have a plan. I know that many people fly by the seat of their pants, work all night, sleep for days, every project is completed one minute before the deadline, and move organically (or haphazardly) from project to project—and many of these people are successful. But these folks are often hard to collaborate with, have challenges in their personal lives, do not sleep well, experience burnout, and have a host of other difficulties. Have a plan. Your sustainable productivity and overall quality of life will improve.

SRShaw

 

How Not to Suck at Summer Work Habits

As often happens, I was inspired by Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent blog post. This one is entitled, “My daily workflow: On focusing on ONE task at a time.” (http://www.raulpacheco.org/blog/). I always learn a lot from his insights and experiences. Moreover, I am always fascinated by the variations in work habits that productive people enjoy. Although I have written about my organization, work habits, and approaches to completing tasks before; summertime work schedules, priorities, and tasks change.

For me, summer is four months without teaching, few grant deadlines, and minimal numbers of meetings. About 75% of my writing volume is completed over the summer. Because so much writing is completed in such a short time, maximum efficiency of work habits is needed. In addition, there are vacations, downtime, children home from school, and wonderful weather that demands time be spent outside. The best part is the flexibility. I have few 10 to 12 hour days. Many days I can complete my daily work in six hours. Even taking a few days off is perfectly fine in the summer. The goal is not to allow this flexible and enjoyable time to slip away without achieving maximum productivity.

Organization. Before the summer begins, I catalog all of  the projects that need to be completed over this four-month period. For me, this is fairly easy. I have several papers and book chapters that are being co-authored with students, there are student theses that require editing, and I have a book contract where I have promised to present a completed manuscript by September 1. I noticed that Raul uses conference deadlines to guide much of his scheduling. At this stage in my career, my personal life, and the priorities of McGill University, travelling and presenting at conferences is a low priority for me. About 90% of my summer work revolves around refereed publications, books, and grant proposals. So my list of projects to be completed over the summer is made with hard deadlines primary and self-imposed deadlines secondary.

Prioritization. I use the website/app Priority Matrix to organize my to do lists and projects. Typically, projects with hard deadlines and long difficult projects are attacked first. I have a tendency to procrastinate productively. In other words when I get tired of working on a long and difficult project, that I will automatically begin working on a shorter easier project just to break up the day (this blog post being an example—I wrote it during the night shift [about 7:30-8:00pm] after a day of writing).

Outlining. Most of my work has extremely detailed outlines. Every heading is written before I begin writing. Usually paragraphs that do not receive headings are also placed within the outline. Any figures or tables are completed before writing begins. The goal is that once writing begins, it should go quickly. The time required to write any manuscript typically involves about one third outlining, one third drafting, and one third revising and editing.

Writing. I write nearly all of the text via dictation with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This approach increases my speed over typing from about 50 words per minute to 140 words a minute. I typically have Zotero open to the folder related specifically to the project I am working on. I usually have tabs open for four or five PDF papers that have sections I want to emphasize in my papers highlighted. These open papers are most frequently data-heavy papers where I will be citing complex details in the literature review. For me, writing is about getting as much on the page as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time. Given the amount of time and energy I spent outlining, most often writing runs fairly smoothly. Sometimes I find that an outline that appeared to be solid is less so when I actually start writing. Then I go back and fix the outline for future writing sessions. There is always a reciprocal process between outlining and writing.

Editing. Revising and editing is where the differences between a professional writer and a beginning writer are most apparent. The first revision is called the FLOAT pass and works to perfect the bones and muscles of the paper. Float stands for Flow, Logic, Order, Accuracy, and Tone. Flow refers to an easy-to-read paper with strong transitions. Logic refers to whether the arguments supporting the thesis or hypotheses are clear and meet logical standards. Order is related to flow and logic, and refers to the sequence of paragraphs that creates a consistently deductive or inductive approach to making the thesis or testing the hypotheses. Accuracy is simple fact checking and includes appropriate attribution and citation of ideas. Tone refers to word choice and quality of expression. The second pass is editing. Paragraph structure, complete sentences, grammar, and punctuation are the foci. The third pass is formatting. The details of APA or AMA (or other) style are important. In addition to the general professional style, often journals have their own idiosyncratic stylistic issues that must be adhered to. Often the difference between acceptance and rejection of a paper can be traced to style and presentation.

Time Working. I like to work from home mostly because I have an 80 minute commute from my house to my office. Working from home allows me to have almost 3 more hours of productive time in the day. The goal is to work for 40 pomodoros (30 minute segments) per week. I usually exceed this or work without the Pomodoro timer running. There is flexibility for when these hours are worked. 6 to 10 Pomodoro’s per day is typical.

Weekends. My family tends to be fairly late risers on weekends. Since I typically wake up about 5:30 (dogs do not comprehend weekends — all she cares is that it is pee o’clock) in the morning, I have plenty of time to complete at least six Pomodoros on each weekend day before the family is awake. Household chores and family time take up most of the afternoon and evening. I also tend to work with the television on during weekends, but do not watch television on weekdays.

Daily Grind. I go to the office once or twice per week during summers to meet with students, pick up mail, and attend the odd meeting. But if I do not need to go to the office, then I do not. My typical summer day is as follows:

  • 530 to 6 wake up and walk dog
  • 6 to 630 meditation and brief yoga
  • 630 to 830 shower, coffee, breakfast, twitter, farting around
  • 830 to 12 writing
  • 12 to 230 gym, lunch, long dog walk
  • 230 to 5 editorial duties, thesis reading, correspondence, editing (I do this on the patio if the weather is nice)
  • 5 to 7 cooking, family dinner, cleaning
  • 7 to 9 administration, reading, and answering emails
  • 9 to 10 family time

Although this schedule is the default, it is realized maybe 3 to 4 days a week. Real life always is the primary activity, no matter what deadline is pending. Medical tasks, therapies, chatting, and just being together take priorities over any work. And sometimes I just need a nap or to spend some time doing absolutely nothing. I do not worry about days where not much work is done. Guilt is not helpful and robs the day of joy. When the work habits are established, tasks will get accomplished. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to make any task appear effortless.

SR Shaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

Academic To Do List Development and Management: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

There are an endless number of variations on how to develop and manage a to do list for maximum work efficiency. Books, workshops, motivational speakers, and efficiency gurus propose what they say are the best methods of using the tried-and-true to do list. There is no one best type of to do list. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, being mindful in selecting the appropriate methods for developing and managing a to do list is a major factor in how effective they can be for you. Like most people, I have tried multiple different forms of the ubiquitous lists with mixed degrees of success. Here are some ideas and factors that have proved important for making the list useful for me.

Whatever the form of the to do list takes, there are six variables that make this tool helpful:

Deadlines. The first items to be entered onto your to do list are those with fixed deadlines. These are hard deadlines where there is no opportunity to put off the project because you are not in the mood. These are grant deadlines, contractual deadlines, class assignments, end of fiscal year budgets, examinations, tax returns, and other externally imposed drop dead dates. Because these activities are not negotiable they serve as the bones of your list. Self-imposed deadlines do not fit into this category. You may wish to complete a chapter by May 1, but there are no immediate consequences if the assignment is completed a week later, a month later, or year later. Deadlines are must dos and must dos by a certain date.

Stages, Phases, and Steps. One of the real challenges of developing a productive to do list is to estimate accurately how long each item will take to complete. Most of us are pretty poor at this form of estimation. Some items on the to do list can be completed in 10 minutes while others require 80 to 100 hours and significant resources to finish. My preference is to make a sub entry for every four hours of estimated work. Given that many items on my to do list are writing projects and I know that I can typically write about 1600 words in a four hour stretch, I can begin to make estimations. For example, the to do list entry might be “complete chapter 1.” And let’s say I know that chapter 1 requires 7500 words. So under the heading of “complete chapter 1” there will be subheadings: a) pages 1-6, b) pages 7-12, c) pages 13-18, d) pages 19-24, e) pages 25-completion. In this fashion, at least one subheading can be checked off each day. Crossing off an item from the to do list is reinforcing. Working for an entire day on an item, yet not be able to eliminate that item from the to do list is discouraging. Breaking down large tasks into small projects that can be completed in the available time is a major factor in using this tool to allocate your energies.

Importance. Importance is independent of deadlines or urgency. These are the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to achieve your long-term professional goals. For academics, writing and editing of manuscripts are common items of importance. The items that get lost in the allocation of your time and energy are typically those of high importance, but without deadlines and with no particular urgency. Completing and submitting that article has no deadline and no one will get particularly upset if it is not completed by a certain date. However, a successful academic career depends on submitting that article and many more like it. Time needs to be carved out of each day to complete items of importance that are at risk of being forgotten or long delayed.

Delegation. Many items on to do list are team projects or require the input and cooperation of others. The biggest mistake that we make is to cross an item off the to do list that looks something like, “negotiate with Jane concerning writing of the methodology section.” This often means there was a meeting and an agreement that Jane will complete some work. A common mistake is that frequently once the item is checked off the to do list, the delegated task is out of sight and out of mind. Any time a team or cooperative task is delegated to another person, there needs to be an additional entry concerning checking or following up on the delegated task in order to ensure completion.

Making effective meetings. Preparing for and following up is about 80% of the value of any meeting. However, most often only the meeting time is in our calendar. Preparing for meetings and following up on the results of the meeting is efficient, but also time-consuming. Meetings can only be successful if time is allotted for preparation and follow up. For many people, unless an item has room on the calendar or to do list these activities do not take place in meetings become a waste of time.

Non-work life. My to do list does not only have academic and business items, I have personal items on there as well. Things like, “buy chocolate for Joyce,” “call Dad,” “remember Karen’s birthday,” and “do not forget to ask Isabel about her preparation for an upcoming math exam.” I know that it would be nice to be able to spontaneously remember to engage in self-care, attention to your family, and to make thoughtful gestures. However, I can be absent-minded and overly focused on work related activites. When I write it down, I can be assured that it gets done.

 Maintenance and Management of the List

Writing items on your to do list is necessary but not sufficient to make the list an effective productivity tool. The list must be maintained, managed, and acted upon. For me, this is a daily activity. I am fortunate to have about 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon to commute on a train. I spend that morning reviewing my daily time commitments and then allotting items from the to do list into the remaining space. I always give special attention to items labelled as important, because these are the items that so easily fall in the cracks of the schedule. On the return commute I review completed items, items that were not completed, and urgent tasks that may require evening work.

Each week receives the same treatment. Sunday evening or Monday morning means that the items for the week are reviewed and time is allocated for each. Items will not get completed unless there is time dedicated to them. Friday afternoon is the time to review the week, determine which items fell through the cracks and did not get completed, and exactly how much work versus play will be accomplished on the weekend. At the end of the week, I also pay special attention to list items in which there has not been sufficient progress. Sometimes, items need to be put in the long term bin. This bin is for items that may be important in the long term, but you are not able to get to them at all within a week. Be sure to check the long-term bin each week to determine if that item can be shifted from a long-term task to an active task. A major mistake is taking important long-term items, placing them in the bin, and then forgetting them. At this point the long term bin has become the garbage bin.

What Not to Put on the List

Knowing what not to put on the to do list is equally as important as what is put on the list. It is not efficient to use the list as a repository for activities that you are putting off until a later time. There are two well-known rules that I take seriously. The two-minute rule means that any item that requires less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. Never put a two-minute item on your to do list. A related rule is the never-touch-paper-twice rule. Any piece of paper or memo that comes across your desk is most effectively addressed immediately. This is not always possible as some memos require a great deal of time, multiple steps, or require delegation. But if possible address such tasks as quickly as possible.

Repeated items also do not need to be put on the to do list. Working out, answering emails, teaching class, office hours, and so on are not tasks; but scheduled activities. These items go into your calendar along with meetings.

 Conclusions

Beware of the to do list as the product. If “managing your to do list” is on your to do list, then the list no longer functions as a tool but is a productivity thief. I know people who spend hours colour coding, revamping, and giving loving care to every aspect of the functionality and aesthetic of their to do list. The perfect stationery, font, background colour, or pen used to complete your absolutely perfect to do list is procrastination. Finding something that works well for you may be a good investment of time. However, daily functionality with little maintenance is the goal. Whether you use a highly sophisticated piece of software from the latest management guru or a series of post-its affixed to your wall does not really matter. Make your to do list work for your goals and methods of getting tasks completed. Do not lose track of the goal of the to do list: a systematic approach to increasing efficiency, minimizing problems with follow through and forgotten tasks, and keeping perspective about how you should use your valuable time.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych