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.” ( 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








The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School

I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride that are actually signs of an inefficient worker.

“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”

–No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

“I am not a detail person. I am an idea person.”

–Ideas that are well-researched, communicated in detail, completely thought out, and effectively implemented are useful. All others tend to be vague dreams that borderline on hallucinations. Everyone is a dreamer, but the truly useful person works hard and uses detail to convert dreams into reality.

“I am a perfectionist.”

–This is not a positive trait. Trying to pursue perfection is a useless activity that is harmful to well-being and productivity. Being conscientious, detail focused, and striving for excellence are laudable characteristics. Perfectionism is maladaptive.

When I hear people tell me that they are a perfectionist, I feel the need to assess further to determine if we simply are defining perfectionism differently or if their behavior is maladaptive. Usually people mean that they are detail focused and striving for excellence with undertones of anxiety. This is typically a good set of characteristics for grad students. But when they mention the need to be perfect, then we are into a zone where anxiety may be maladaptive. Seeking excellence is good. Seeking perfection is a neurotic waste of time.

“I edit while I write.”

–This is a guaranteed method of getting nothing finished or severely limiting your productivity. Get all of your ideas out on paper. Only edit when you have completed a document or at least a substantial portion. Editing while writing is slow, makes for choppy prose, reduced flow and creativity, and increases anxiety. People with this habit also tend to be perfectionists and have learned this habit while doing last minute work. Take the time to complete a full draft and then edit.

“I don’t want to show this to you until it is ready.”

–I understand this secrecy problem. Some supervisors are extremely judgmental and even hostile to unfinished work. Submitting any work is aversive under these conditions. The best approach is to have students submit work on a timed basis, even if it is raw. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is deadlines. Working to a deadline is more important than achieving the mythic ideal paper. I also find that when students wait to submit their ideal paper that they are crushed when substantial revisions are to be made. The supervisor can make suggestions, edits, improve the paper and move on without judgment. The goal is to develop a relationship that produces a large amount of scholarly material in an efficient manner. Trust between a student and supervisor is the best way to make this happen. When the secrecy issue is fostered we are teaching grad students to be perfectionists and adding anxiety to their lives.

“I’m a multi-tasker.”

–You are not. You can only attend to one task at a time. Many folks have developed a sophisticated skill set where they actively shift attention from one task to another. You attend to the television for a few minutes and then back to your book—you cannot do both at the same time. That counts for radio or music as well. You can focus on music or focus on your work, not both. What we tend to do is shift attentional focus. If you are listening to music and you know what was playing and enjoyed it, then you are shifting focus. Once you are in an activity where you are shifting focus between two things, then your efficiency is being robbed. There is some evidence that music with a constant beat and no lyrics can actually aid in concentration and focus. Classical music is an example. When I am at my most scattered, I listen to a metronome to help with focus. But no one is truly multitasking, you are rapidly shifting attention and reducing efficiency. This is not necessarily bad, but inefficient and needs to be used sparingly.

My wife works from home with the TV on.  She says that she likes the noise while she works. However, when I ask her what she is watching on television, she has no idea. She is certainly losing some focus, but not as much as she would if she was at all attending to the TV. I watch television while working only on weekends. I am mostly watching TV, but get a little work done at commercials. Not efficient and focused work, but better than nothing.

White noise can be a better idea than music or TV. White noise can be ideal for folks who like a level of sound to mask the often jarring ambient noise of your real environment such as construction, lawn maintenance, and loud neighbors. There are several white noise generators available online such as and . One of my favourite websites and apps is This site plays the ambient noise from a coffee shop. You can even select the type of coffee shop noise from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” to “university undertones.” This style of white noise is also helpful for the folks who actually prefer to do creative work in coffee shops, but cannot get there. I do not understand how people do this as my attention flits to the homeless guy, the hostile person in a long line, and the sounds of coffee slurpers; nonetheless many people do their creative work in coffee shops. The white noise from coffitivity is associated with a place of creativity, which can put you in the mood to work. The secret of white noise is that there is no content in the noise to draw attention away from your work.

Once I learned the skill of unitasking, I became at least twice as efficient as before. Now I do one thing fully focused until completed and then turn my attention to the next task. Not only is my work completed at a faster pace as a unitasker; I enjoy movies, TV, and music much more. And as an extra bonus, there are not the nagging feelings of guilt that go along with such multitasking.

We all develop work habits and there are many ways to be a productive worker. But as grad students and professors have increased pressures to produce the limits of our work habits are often reached and exceeded. What worked as an undergrad no longer works and now falls under the heading of a maladaptive habit. There is a constant need to hone work habits and remove of the productivity robbing myths and habits from your work.