Fitness journey: How not to suck at grad school

Fitness Journey: How not to suck at grad school

SR Shaw

During my summer schedule, I typically take a break between 12 PM and 2:30 PM to go to the gym, take my dog for a run, and shower. And like most obnoxious exercising types, I announced that I was going to the gym on my twitter feed (@Shawpsych). One of my twitter colleagues, Karim R. Lakhani (@klakhani) wrote: “I am waiting for @Shawpsych to write the book on academic fitness – like Art DeVaney’s diet book!” That sounds pretty cool. Unlike DeVaney (an economist who developed the framework for the popular paleo diet), I am not that sure I know enough about fitness to write a book. However, a blog post seems appropriate.

Academics tend to be remarkably fit group. On my twitter feed and in real life, I know academics who are mountain climbers, bodybuilders, power lifters, triathletes, rowers, swimmers, roller derby skaters, jujitsu rollers, weekend basketball players, and a lot of marathoners. My own research lab consists of a volleyball player, marathoner, bodybuilder, dancer, hockey coach, soccer player, and generally evidence that my grad students are staying in good physical shape. But I am just a guy. If I were in the Avengers, then I would be Middle-Aged Man: A walking example of dad bod.

My fitness journey is typical of a middle-age person in academia. I played and enjoyed all sports as a kid and generally sucked at all of them. Then I had one of those weird late bloomer things where I went from scrawny and uncoordinated to athletic over what seems like a one week period when I was 16 years old. My new 40-yard dash times, vertical jump, and bench press caught the attention of the football and basketball coaches; but I honestly had no idea how to play football or basketball. I played soccer in high school and in an under-19 team while in college; and my roommate got me involved in martial arts. But when I was lucky enough to be accepted to graduate school, I stopped everything physical. Very long days of studying, little sleep, poor eating habits, too much alcohol, and limited physical activity were the norm. Then I got married, got a job, had kids, and got fat.

At age 48, I read about this thing called a Spartan race and it sounded like a lot of fun. I also had a sabbatical year. This was the perfect opportunity to get back into physical condition with the Spartan race as the final exam. Every day I wish that I had not stopped exercising and I paid for 25 years of sloth. Training hurt every day. Stretching, running, doing burpees, and learning the basics of an obstacle course (e.g., climb a rope, get over 8 foot walls, run muddy trails without falling). I finished the Spartan race, but had torn my rotator cuff during the training — and that was unpleasant. That injury took about a year to heal.

When my young daughter wanted to try martial arts, my wife (who had long trained in Aikido) and I encouraged it, and I drove her to class every week. After a few years, she got good. When her instructor finally encouraged me to join the adult judo class, all I could imagine was semi-permanent pain, severe injuries, and being required to wear orthopedic tweed sport coats forever (good thing Canada has a quality health care system). My dad encouraged me to hit the weight room and do yoga to reduce the severity of judo injury (“it isn’t if you are going to be hurt, it is how often and how severely“). He is a shockingly good athlete. Dad is 79 years old, I am still not sure if I can bench press more than him. A combination of my dad being correct with the training idea and having a first-rate judo instructor (who excels at teaching falling with skill and confidence), and I have returned to being a pretty good judoka who competes well with younger, bigger, stronger, and more athletic people. My favourite complement was after a difficult, but fairly even, randori (i.e., sparring session) with a bigger and more experienced partner, I asked my daughter how I looked. She said, “he is better than you, but you look more like a fighter.” (Yes, she is sweet.)

When compared to my far more athletically accomplished and knowledgeable academic peers, I am not an expert on fitness. But as a middle-aged man I understand how to keep motivated, grind, find time, nurse injuries, be disciplined, and take great joy in being physical. I do not take it for granted. Exercising is physical, psychological, and spiritual therapy during difficult times. I also find that I am much sharper mentally than I was six years ago. I can work longer and with more intense concentration than ever. My recommendation is for graduate students to do something physical at least three times a week and to make that one of your high priorities. In my lab, students are required to write two yearly wellness goals. These wellness goals can be anything from spending time with friends and calling your mother to improved diet to exercising. I encourage regular exercise, even if it is long walks. Do not make the mistakes that I have made. Getting back in shape as an old man is far harder than maintaining good physical condition. I appreciate the fitness journey.

Motivation is not hard for me now. I became very good at going to the gym regularly after my wife became ill. It was an important form of therapy during her long and challenging treatments. That therapy has turned into a habit. We often stretch or go to Tai Chi classes together as she is healthy, but still regaining her former strength and fitness. Hard workouts are excellent at keeping depression at bay or at least minimizing the bouts. It is also motivating to look and feel stronger.

My plan is to have my exercise mesh with my work schedule as closely as is possible. I like to try new things and new techniques to avoid overuse injuries and simply to keep the exercises fresh. I always modify programs and ideas to take account of my physical limitations. I divide the calendar year into three segments with a long winter break thrown in. The fall is difficult because grant proposals, teaching, training and orienting new students, heavy administration loads, and writing large numbers of letters of recommendation make maintaining a routine difficult because of the long days/nights and frequent deadlines. The winter is a little bit smoother, but data collection projects demand a lot of time. The summer is the writing term, which involves flexible hours but a lot of solitary writing time. About 75% of writing takes place during the summer. My workout schedules designed to fit this approach.

I steal a lot of specific workouts from www.bodybuilding.com. They have several great programs and a library of videos to help with form. I am also comfortable checking with trainers/partners at the gym to ensure that my form is solid and reduce the chance of injury. I like to work fast and do not want to loiter. I am on the weights for 35-45 minutes and cardio is a 26 minute session. I have become good at the habit working out. Now if only I could improve my diet with some consistency….I should check with Dr. DeVaney.

Fall (Sept 1 to Dec 8) (Goal: keep the momentum going–60-70% of one rep max)

Monday – pulling muscles (back/bicep)

Tuesday – evening judo

Wednesday – off

Thursday- evening judo

Friday – off

Saturday – pushing muscles (chest/tricep)

Sunday – legs/abs

Winter break (Dec 9 to Jan 6) (Goal: change of pace)

Monday – pushing muscles

Tuesday – cardio and judo

Wednesday – yoga

Thursday – legs/abs and judo

Friday – yoga

Saturday – cardio

Sunday – pulling muscles and judo

Winter (Jan 7 to April 30) (Goal: strength increase with a 5 x 5 program–80% of one rep max)

https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/sclark70.htm?searchTerm=5%20x%205

Monday – gym

Tuesday – evening judo

Wednesday – off

Thursday – evening judo

Friday – gym

Saturday – yoga/cardio

Sunday – gym

Summer (May 1 to August 31) (Goal: weight loss and flexibility)

https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/lee-labrada-12-week-lean-body-trainer-week-1-day-1.html

Monday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio

Tuesday – yoga/pushing muscles/cardio

Wednesday – off

Thursday – legs/abs

Friday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio

Saturday – tai chi/pushing muscles/cardio

Sunday – legs/abs

 

 

 

 

Being an Expert: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Being an Expert
Congratulations! You are an expert. You may be extraordinarily modest or have some degree of impostor syndrome, but you are an expert whether you like it or not. There are few people with the perseverance, intelligence, work habits, and collective wisdom of all your teachers to have developed expertise in a specific area the way that you have. As you complete your Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation you have read every paper, all books, and contacted every expert in the field. There is nobody who knows more about your topic than you. Now that you are an expert, what are you going to do with this magical designation as expert?

As I am sure you have read, these are difficult time for the experts. There is a lot of talk about the death of expertise. The public clearly would prefer to accept comfortable untruths than face uncomfortable truths. Your expertise will be challenged repeatedly by your peers, colleagues, editors, and your family. You will be referred to as a “so-called” expert by those who disagree with you, are jealous of you, or are insecure in your presence. You will hear, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich.” Your family will remember every stupid thing you did as a child and remind you that you are not that smart. Moreover, discovering that the only people influenced by your research publications are other people who are experts and publish research can be frustrating and lead to existential crises.

Sometimes, your expertise is recognized and you will be invited to consult, testify, lecture, be interviewed, or appear on radio or television. This sounds exciting and flattering. However, there are times that this can be more frustrating and fruitless than trying to convince your beer swilling uncle that you should be called “Doctor.” The frustration arises because no one truly cares about the details of your expertise, but they care about how they can use your expertise as a commodity. Businesses may want to provide information to reassure stockholders. Lawyers may wish you to provide expert testimony that supports their side of the case. Television and radio may look for entertaining information. Everyone is looking for a way to use your expertise to their advantage and they get you to provide that expertise with the compelling combination of flattery and money.

There are multiple pitfalls. Expert creep is an issue. The chances are that your true expertise is quite limited in scope. Those using your expertise will frequently ask you to make statements or answer questions beyond the scope of your expertise. You have something like a halo effect in that they assume an expert in one area must be an expert in all related things. And our ego is such that we rarely can utter the words, “I do not know” without fear of losing your status as an expert. Selling your soul is another issue. There is an extremely prominent person in my field who makes significant money providing expert testimony to major corporations with a history of environmental pollution — and given my field of study, this is problematic. He keeps this part of his work private. The third major risk is attention seduction. This happens when you begin to crave the attention of interviewers and audiences at workshops. You prefer putting on a show and showing off your expertise to learning more and increasing your expertise. You may have been seduced by the attention if you prepared one-liners that will appear to be spontaneous, had a spray tan before an interview, and worry more about the audience reaction than the quality of the content that you deliver. When you engage in these three pitfalls you become simply a provider of a commodity. You are like any other salesman. There is nothing wrong with selling and promoting yourself, but to become little more than a salesman means that you have lost the special rarefied position as an expert. I would argue that the widely reported death of expertise is in large part the fault of experts experiencing the pitfalls of using their expertise as a commodity.

There are five ideas that can help you avoid pitfalls while sharing your expertise and spreading knowledge in ways that can be useful to others.

  • Negotiate terms carefully. Once you understand that most people want to commodify your expertise, then you need to understand exactly how it will be used. What deliverable information are they expecting from you? Often you must do your homework to understand exactly what information they are looking for. Once you understand the goals of the people who would like you to share your expertise, then you must be very comfortable saying no. This is difficult, because when people approach you to share your expertise it validates that your work is valuable. If there are potential pitfalls that you are not sure how to address, then you are better off declining the opportunity.
  • Define the scope of your expertise. Ensure that anyone who wants your expertise is extremely clear on exactly what you are expert in and what is beyond your expertise. Inevitably, there will be expertise creep where you are asked to provide information outside of the parameters of your expertise. This is where you need to have the discipline to swallow much of your ego and say, “I do not know.” Even if you may know the answer to their concern because it is adjacent to your expertise, it is still best to say, “That question is a bit outside of my area of expertise.”
  • Define loose terms. Nonexperts who wish to use your expertise frequently use non-scientific terms that are difficult to interpret for people with narrow subject expertise. For example, “What is the best method of using X?” These types of questions cannot be answered simply. Often, a true expert will say, “it depends.” Although true, that type of equivocation makes your expertise less useful and enhances the reputation that specific expertise may not be particularly useful for any important decision making or policy. The secret is to ask your interviewer or consultee to define the term “best.” A reasonable request for clarification would be, “by ‘best’ do you mean the largest effect size, greatest efficiency, cheapest, most acceptable to people implementing the ideas, most popular with parents? There are many ways to define best.” By putting the onus on the person using your expertise, you reduce the probability of speaking incorrectly, reduce equivocation and losing your expert power, and help your interviewer or consultee gain the exact information that they want.
  • Define science. Often there is a belief that your expertise is defined by having access to a fund of information that no one else does. This is only partially true. Usually an expert in any area has a firm understanding of the process by which information is learned. This confusion is part of the death of expertise. It is common for people using expertise to note that one study concludes X and another study concludes Y. Often people infer that science must be useless because two papers using scientific methods yield very different results. You may have to explain to people that science is an evolving process and results are functions of sampling, methods, procedures, analyses, and many other factors. There is a risk of being pedantic. However, there are a great many people who are surprised that science is a process and not a collection of facts to be discovered. Of course, there are multiple philosophies of science — but sometimes an explanation of why science can be so maddening to scientists and non-scientists can be helpful and provide information that is much needed.
  • Focus on process rather than results. The emphasis of any presentation should be on what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and how the information is important. Related to the previous point, science is a process. If you have managed to find some results that are flashy and exciting, then the next step is to de-emphasize that result and focus on the next project you will be undertaking. This seems counter-intuitive. Information about the process (even when it is something ugly such as the phrase “how the sausages are made”) provides inside information that many people appreciate and find valuable. Flashy and exciting results will speak for themselves, your real value and expertise is focusing on how you found those exciting and flashy results. This approach further defines science and minimizes the possibility of running into major pitfalls.

So congratulations on becoming an expert. Now it is time to develop the next phase, which is how to use your expertise for the benefit of others without running into pitfalls that can derail your reputation, your ability to share your expertise for the benefit of others, and your work in science.

SRShaw

 

 

Producing a lot of research (without sacrificing quality): how not to suck in graduate school

In January’s blog post, I put together a meditation on what it means to be a successful academic. I received a lot of positive feedback on that post. However, there were several people who like the idea of redefining success as an academic, but stated that the ideas presented did not reflect their reality. It is possible to be a productive scholar with a strong sense of perspectives and priorities. This month I will get into the weeds of detail and provide some basic information on the day-to-day activities of being an efficient and extremely productive academic.

With current pressures on publishing a lot of papers in refereed journals growing every year, as if academics are simply producing widgets, there is a need to provide survival tools for this environment. I am a pro-science academic. To me this means that scientific thought, data-driven decisions, theory testing and improvement, and consistently making advancements and contributions to the field are more important than producing more words in print. As an editor, the most common type of paper I see are extremely well-done and well-designed projects that make absolutely no contribution to the field. Well-designed minutia is still minutia. More seriously, the pressure to publish a lot of papers has resulted in intentional or unintentional plagiarism, p-hacking, slicing data sets into least publishable units, data falsification, lack of transparency, and a host of other issues that not only fail to make a contribution to science; but actively diminish the quality of scientific thought and communication.

Publishing a large amount of work in the most efficient way possible does not necessarily mean that scientific thought and communications must suffer. There are simple ways to increase the number of publications that one produces without working 90 hours a week or taking shortcuts that reduce quality. In terms of writing and manuscript production efficiency, there is no better book than Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot. No matter how busy you are, this book is a short and worthy read on efficiency and writing discipline. I use several ideas taken directly from Dr. Silvia’s work. But assuming you are writing at maximum efficiency, how does one produce a lot of publications without going crazy?

I read that the average millionaire has seven income sources. I am not sure that this is true, but the concept is an important one. If your productivity depends entirely on you and a couple of students designing, carrying out, analysing, and writing up one study at a time; then you are necessarily limited. No matter how efficient your team is, this is only one productivity stream. This might be enough. You may have one productivity stream that produces all of the publications that you need. But for maximum efficiency and productivity, I recommend nurturing and developing multiple simultaneous sources of productivity.

There are many ways to do this and I will just describe how I do it solely for purposes of illustration. The primary challenge is to create a team of students and colleagues with expectations of productivity. My overly simple idea is that my lab will produce 12 major projects (papers for refereed journals, grant proposals, book chapters, grant reports) in the calendar year and that each graduate student is expected to be a co-author on at least two manuscripts submitted for publication every academic year. Every field and university has their own norms. In my field and my university, this is a fairly reasonable number of projects and expectations. Given that, what are my productivity streams?

  • Solo work. My goal is to produce a minimum of one solo project every year. Usually this is a creative, theoretical, major literature review, or book project. For 2017 it is a book to be published by Springer publications. One big project per year is the only expectation here.
  • Student work. Students in my lab are strongly encouraged to develop side projects that are independent of or tangentially related to their thesis projects. These are typically small scale pilot projects or testing some detailed methodology or component of a theory. This year I have a couple of students who are extremely independent and have developed their own projects with absolutely no input from me other than some copy editing. They will be solo authors on those papers because I know it will improve the probability of them receiving fellowships, high prestige internships, or faculty positions. However, most side projects have 2 to 3 co-authors and are the result of teamwork. We expect two to four papers to come out of this work.
  • Thesis follow-up. Students do their best work on their masters and doctoral theses. Master’s theses are usually one project of the scope to be appropriate for article for publication. Sometimes data can be reanalysed to produce a second publication. We tend to write our doctoral theses as three or four related publishable manuscripts. As these manuscripts are completed, we send the best papers for publication even if it is prior to the defence of the doctoral thesis. We expect 4 to 6 papers to come out of this work.
  • Invited work. One of the nice parts about being old and hanging around my profession for a long time is that I am frequently invited to contribute articles to special issues of journals, book chapters, or other contributions to literature (this does not count predatory and/or open access invitations, which I always decline and insist that my students do the same). I accept about 75% of these offers. I would probably accept only about 25%, but many of them are great opportunities for my students to co-author relatively simple and high probability of publication papers. In general, the criteria I use for accepting these projects are: I can actually make a contribution, I believe strongly in the purpose of the book or special issue, my contribution helps or supports a friend, or it is a strong interest of one of my students. Honestly, I do not like writing book chapters, but there are times that it is worth doing. Another confession, sometimes I write contributions to books because I get a free copy of an extremely expensive book and am too cheap to buy it myself. We can expect 2 to 4 papers to come out of this work.
  • Collaborative work. Quite often I will have a colleague who wants to work with me for whatever reason. Usually, it is when a colleague has one half of a brilliant idea for a paper and knows that I have the skills to write the other half. Sometimes I initiate these activities when I have an idea that is not fully baked and know an expert to help me carry out the plan. Quite often this happens with a junior colleague who has brilliant ideas, but may lack the confidence or specific skills to carry out a complex manuscript. This usually happens about once a year.
  • Specialized contributions. It helps to be fairly well-known for some specific and valued skills. As such, I am frequently invited into projects that are not really of interest to me, but the principal investigator knows that I have a specific skill that they need. For me, my specific skills are the ability to implement innovations into school systems, program evaluation, professional development in psychology and education, and integrating medical issues with learning and schooling. So I am often asked to be on a grant proposal or to co-author a paper. The best part about this, is that my actual contribution is extremely limited. I may write two or three paragraphs in a manuscript and become a co-author, teach graduate students how to conduct a specific type of data analysis, be a liaison between a school system and a team of researchers, and work on connecting medical and educational professionals. I may be third or fourth author on a manuscript or parlay my coinvestigator status on a grant to provide a little bit of funding for some of my students, but these activities rarely take much time. I refer to these as “glomming on” to smart people. My name appears on 1 to 3 papers per year and usually one new grant per year while spending little time or energy.
  • Special issue editor (a great pre-tenure trick). My favourite pre-tenure trick is to edit a special issue of a journal. Some journals are designed so that it is actually easier and has a higher probability of success to propose a special volume than it is to have an unsolicited manuscript accepted. If you have several colleagues with expertise on a specific topic, then collecting 6 to 8 topics and abstracts for related papers to propose a special issue is a wonderful idea. Here is why this is an excellent trick for expanding your CV: you receive credit as an editor of a special issue, typically you can receive credit for two publications (a brief introduction paper to the special issue and one full content-based paper), the probability of acceptance of the paper and special issues is much higher than an unsolicited manuscript, your friends who have contributed to the special issue feel as if they owe you a favour, depending on the publication you may develop a reputation as a leading scholar on that specific topic, and sometimes special issues are so popular and so important that a publishing company will invite you to expand on the special issue to edit a book volume. I did three of these special issues pre-tenure and it was quite valuable for producing a lot of publications. I have no immediate plans to use this production stream in the near future, but I may put one together next year.

We hope that all of the papers are of high quality and have professional and scientific merit. These are good methods to keep multiple streams of productivity moving simultaneously. The challenge is to always to keep these streams focused on a consistent and coherent research program rather than scattered. You must be able to say no when the project does not meet your needs. It is also clear that some of these streams do not work for some fields of study. However, the logic remains and is useful for almost every field, have simultaneous multiple streams of productivity always moving in the same direction. In this fashion, we can meet the reality of efficiently producing a lot of high quality widgets for purposes of accountability, desirability for funding, and moving ahead in your career.

 

SRShaw

@Shawpsych

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

One of the most common conversations among junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students revolves around the question, “What does it take to be a successful academic?” The most common follow-up question is, “Is the cost worth it?” We are inundated with stories and experiences involving wise and senior academics who speak of 80 to 90-hour work weeks, lack of a family, no hobbies, no social life, and 100% devotion to all things scientific and career as if this approach to life was required for any success in the academic world.

I was inspired by a tweet from one of my colleagues, Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell (@Campbell_JD_), who wrote in response to a conversation concerning expected work hours among academics with, “If this is the cost to publish in @nature or @sciencemagazine it is not worth it. @raulpacheco & @Shawpsych are both successful & have a life.” It is extraordinarily kind of Dr. Farrell Campbell to both include me in the company of Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, and number me among successful academics. But thanks to Dr. Farrell-Campbell, I feel the need to create a meditation on success in academia.

I have written elsewhere in this blog that I may not be a typical academic because I have no real ambition and I simply enjoy the work. I actually learned only two years ago that the vast majority of awards won in academia are self-nominated — I had no idea that was an option. As someone who came to academia relatively late in life (my tenure track job started when I was 42-years-old after having a career as a psychologist for 16 years), I don’t have particularly good socialization as an academic and am used to a different professional culture. I’m just happy to have a job with no heavy lifting.

I do not understand discussions of academic success in general. There are so many roles and functions that an academic can fill that there appears to be little overlap. For example, the environments are dramatically different. Working at a community college (or CEGEP), liberal arts school, state school, R1 institution, or research institute all constitute being an academic, but have few skill sets in common. Roles and expectations also vary among fields of study. The skills required in philosophy, medical education, social work, drama, genetics, and many others are widely different; as are the criteria used to measure success. Research output is a widely agreed upon metric for success. But even within the same university and the same field of study, some academics are successful for being leaders in university governance, outstanding teachers and mentors, involvement in student life, consultation and business partnerships, university-community partnership, and many other measures of success. There are so many metrics for measuring academic success that I am not really sure how success is defined.

There is also an individual perception of success. I am always surprised by how many people are driven to achieve by anger, ego, money, making one’s parents proud, to prove to others that they are not a failure, and other external factors. Most fields even have rankings of the most influential or most productive scholars in each specific field. Convoluted metrics of journal impact are used to quantify and rank scholars. It makes me giggle a little bit that some scholars are competing to be tops in the field of creating new journal impact factors and ranking other scholars (that should be called meta-scholarly studies, if it isn’t already). Different people have different needs for objective success in their field.

When I left clinical work to try academia, my close friend, former partner, and respected colleague berated me for over one hour for abandoning children who need me so that I could write papers for the judgment and entertainment of other people who write papers. That hit a little close to home and hurt, but was a valuable perspective. I have a fairly simple view of success as an academic that revolves around two criteria: I want my students to meet their professional goals and for everyone else to leave me alone. Honestly, there are no publications in Nature or Science, no awards, and no other status that are as productive and valuable as making small contributions and supporting the success of students. A lot of people do not believe me on that one (yes, I acknowledge that this is part of the privilege of tenure), but it is true. And I want to publish enough papers that make contributions to my field, have enough grant money, and have enough academic accomplishments so that I do not become an embarrassment to the department and require the attention of the department chair. I know that I have an h-index, but I do not know what it is and I do not know how many refereed publications I have written. I want to study what I want and with whom I want. Ultimately, the goal is to indirectly influence future professionals and improve the outcomes for many more children than I could ever help by myself. That is success as an academic for me.

There is the second part of the equation. Is it worth it? Do I actually have a life? I work fairly long hours, but I don’t keep track because that would probably be a little bit depressing. About 50-60 hours per week, I guess. I come home every night to cook dinner for my family (my wife doesn’t cook). I am still married after 25 years. My children still seem to like me and we have conversations every day. My dog is probably little bit undertrained and I do not socialize much, but have good friends. I have simple hobbies of training judo three hours per week along with my younger daughter and I go to the gym three days per week. So that’s enough for me.

Many thanks to Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell for considering me a successful academic with a life. By objective measures, I am a fairly mediocre academic and I am okay with that. Yet, I believe that I am successful and the work is worth it to me; but only for my context, specific definition of success, and desired quality of life.

SRShaw

@Shawpsych

 

 

 

Trying Not to Suck: New Year’s Edition 2017

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about how to function one life seems to be falling apart. I mentioned that my wife had been diagnosed with cancer. After 13 months, we are finally finished with all of the treatments. Everything looks good for her continued health. There are never guarantees, but all news has been positive. In addition, she is back to exercising and regaining her strength. She is a pretty incredible person. We are both ready to resume our family life and career. Many thanks to so many of you who have been supportive and helpful over the last year.

In addition to fewer stressors and medical appointments, I am also ending my term as a journal editor at the end of 2016 and my term as program director ends on June 1, 2017; so I will have far fewer time and energy demands to interfere with achieving outcomes.

So let’s move forward in the tradition of creating New Year’s resolutions:

  • I have a few personal goals for the year
    • 2016 was an excellent year for going to the gym. I went to the gym for full workouts nearly 4 days per week on average. I also had weekly judo training. These were great therapies when I was stressed. I want to continue this pace of exercise.
    • For 2017 judo training will increase to twice per week
    • The big change this year will be in the kitchen. I need to take the discipline that I use for getting to the gym and apply that to eating. I have become extremely muscular, but have too much weight for somebody of my age and it is time to get lean.
  • The theme of this year’s work is making personal connections and professional trouble
    • I was too busy and stressed to be a good supervisor this year. I barely know my students. I want to improve the relationships with the students under my supervision.
    • I would like to improve partnerships and co-authored projects with colleagues from around the world.
    • I will be working toward creating a stronger professional identity for Canadian school psychologists
    • I would like to disrupt the methods and assumptions currently used in clinical research in all fields. We are now ready to make trouble by publishing work on a new model that enhances evidence-based practices, addresses research problems in psychology, improves implementation, and advances theory in productive directions. Yup, it is a pretty cool idea and you are just gonna have to wait for it.

Goals are not useful without measurables and timelines.

  1. Finish book contract with Springer publishing by delivering the finished product by March 31.
  2. Submit one major project (manuscript for refereed journal or grant proposal) per month for the 2017 calendar year. All of these projects are to be co-authored with students or colleagues.
  3. Monthly lab happy hours for the 2017 calendar year.
  4. Submit new book series proposal by June 1.
  5. Reduce by 4 pounds per month.
  6. Take my wife on two vacations this year.

I also wish health, wisdom, compassion, justice, and friendship to you all.

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

 

 

How Not to Suck When Life Seems to be Falling Apart

In early November, Joyce, my spouse and partner of 26 years, was diagnosed with cancer. There has been much worry, shock, fear of the unknown, and all of the things that go along with that. There is the pain, fatigue, and general trauma of treatment. Yes, everything sucks just as bad as you would think. There is also support from family, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. But work is also a part of life. There are many issues and experiences that come with this specific life event that I will not discuss in this forum; and I know that the primary issues are not about me. For purposes of the blog entitled, “How not to suck in grad school,” the work is what I want to talk about.

Work can be therapeutic. Joyce works mostly from home in the field of business intelligence. She insisted on working after her diagnosis. She would likely still be working, but this is the time of year when she typically takes a couple weeks of vacation anyway. She will be back at work when her vacation is over. My kids are also working. My older daughter finished her first semester at university and continues to work at her part time job as well. My younger daughter has not missed a day of high school. Normalcy is therapeutic.

Obviously, we are not automatons. We have a rule that no one is allowed to be scared alone. We have dropped anything at any time to be together when needed. We discuss Joyce’s status every day. We make sure to laugh and cry together. The prognosis is good. Joyce has shown a productive sense of humor. We exercise together. We eat and fast together. We do not spend a lot of time worrying because we are busy managing every aspect of her treatment, making sure that household tasks are completed, keeping the whole family involved, and taking everything one day at a time. There will be tough times ahead to be sure. But we do this together.

When it comes to my academic work, the family is working, but I have been unable to do much. That is fine and completely understandable. The world does not revolve around me (much to my chagrin), and there are many projects that I am late to complete and other deadlines that are unlikely to be met. I am not upset by this because I am comfortable with my priorities. Nonetheless, for me to be a fully functioning human being projects need to be completed.

For academics, work requires focus, concentration, and creative thought. Even on the days where we are not 100% on point, there are administrative jobs, basic activities, and relatively mindless tasks to be done. But there is a lack of control, stress, panic, and a host of emotions that makes the most basic tasks challenging for me. Sometimes life seems to be falling apart and work is irrelevant. Yet, work is an important part of life and is therapeutic. Even when real and productive work is not possible, the effort to get back to productive work is the active ingredient in maintaining a sense of normalcy.

Others

Cancer is a conversation ender. There is no way to bring this up in a conversation without making everyone uncomfortable (so…sorry to you blog readers). People fall over themselves to help, offer sympathy, and generally step up. Friends, colleagues, and family have showed up to help, offered assistance, and been an important source of strength. My department chair has been supportive. He assigned a strong TA to the course I am teaching in the winter so that the TA can take over if I am needed at home on the day of a class meeting. I will simply prepare all class meetings one week ahead of time so that my TA can to serve as an understudy. Other faculty members have offered and I have yielded some of my program director responsibilities to them. My students (i.e., the impressive labbies) are amazing and patient. They have taken initiative on projects and made things happen while I am out of action. Reassigning tasks, renegotiating deadlines, seeking help, and being part of a team are all important activities. I have not told many of these people about my family circumstance—it is not a secret—it is that I do not really want to spend time and emotional energy talking about it and I do not want to make an excuse (even if it is a good one). Co-authors and other partners are aware that some of my work will be delayed, but only personal friends and people who need to know, have all of the details. Opening conversation and negotiation is the goal, mentioning cancer tends to close down any discussion.

Responsibilities

I have learned exactly how many people are counting on me to do my daily work. Between my role as teacher, supervisor, scholar, journal editor, program director, chair or member of various committees; there are over 200 people directly influenced by my inability to work for the last several weeks. This is a motivator to get back to work. There are many people right now waiting on me. There are days that I do not want to do anything, but it is constructive to be motivated. Everyone has been extremely patient and kind, but it is time to do my best for all of these people. To be clear, my work responsibilities are still second in importance to my family, but they are a strong second.

Compartmentalizing

This has always been a strength for me. I have the ability to shut out all noise and distractions and can work in any environment under any circumstances. I have a lot of experience with this. Anyone with clinical experience as a psychologist knows how to leave work at work and never let it interfere with your personal life; and home life stays home so as to not affect work. That ability has taken a hit. This current distraction is one that is tough to beat. Waves of emotion will wash over me when I least expect it and work does not happen. I ride the wave, address the emotion, handle the problems, seek support, and try to get back to it when I am able. Yes, it is frustrating to have a former strength turn into a weakness, but this is okay. I interpret these events as signs that work needs to stop and family time needs to take over with full attention.

Concentration

The essence of my problems have been with focus. Typically, my concentration is a strength of my work habits. I can usually work for 4 to 6 hours without taking a break. And I can do this for a total of 14 to 18 hours a day. That superpower has eluded me for the last 8 weeks. I have not been able to work for longer than 15 minutes before my focus drifts away. I set my Pomodoro timer to 15 minute segments. Take a break and check in with the family, do a household task, exercise with or massage wife, or walk the dog. I have gradually worked my way back up to a 25-minute Pomodoro segment, but the breaks are 20 to 60 minutes, rather than the traditional 5 minutes. Not fantastic, but I can work with this. Attention is fragile.

Sleep

This is another new problem. I usually do not sleep that much, but nearly always have high quality sleep. I can sleep anywhere at any time. There have been times of stress or mental health issues that have affected sleep in the past, but these were rare events. Sleep is now fitful. Sleep problems are probably as debilitating to my work as any other aspect of this experience. Sleep quality is improving slowly.

Self care

Joyce knows that I can be sloppy with self care, so we do a lot together. We meditate every morning. I fast with her before and during those treatment days. I make sure that we both drink a lot of water. I make soup often. I am improving my diet. We both know that I need to be healthy in order to be useful in her recovery. Now my favorite thing is to go to the gym. When I annoy Joyce, she says, “Go write.” I say, “I can’t.” “Then maybe you should go to the gym.” When I cannot focus and do work, then I can always lift heavy things. No offense to weight lifters, but it is not a high cognitive load task (“I pick things up and put them down”). Self care is not complex, but requires a bit of vigilance.

Conclusions

Life happens. Academics talk endlessly and tediously about work-life balance. Usually the problem is that work takes over, invades everything, and interferes with our personal lives. I know many people who have been through multiple marriages or unable to have relationships at all because work rules everything in their lives. This is not to say that one should avoid personal problems and seek solace in work, but work can be a therapeutic activity that reminds us of normalcy in times of crisis.

This news may be a surprise to many Twitter followers (@Shawpsych) as I have not mentioned Joyce’s medical issues at all. Twitter is a cancer-free zone for me that is the place to be silly, make coffee talk, try to inspire others, get inspired, and to be a tool for easing back to work. I will probably keep that status.

Joyce and I experience every day together. We still laugh and have fun. We still argue (apparently I suck at folding laundry). We learn every possible way to make her treatment better and increase the chances of a complete and rapid recovery. We are amused that everyone we know tells a story about an aunt, mother, sister, roommate, friend, or boyfriend’s mother’s 2nd cousin who went through a similar experience (or worse) and is “just fine now.” We have a long road ahead, but will simply take each day as it comes. We are ready and developing the skills to survive and even thrive. I am confident that we will get through all of this; healthier, better, and closer than before.

When something big and life altering, like cancer, enters your life; then everything is thrown off balance. Work is something that we can rely on. Sometimes it is an anchor that weighs us down with stress, imposter syndrome, absurdity, rejection, p = .051, and long hours; but others times it is an anchor of stability in rough waters. I appreciate all of it and am working to regain balance.

SR Shaw