Hacking my work habits

(What is a hacker? Let’s please get away from thinking that hackers steal your password — those are crackers — and get back to the original idea of a hacker as someone who tries to make things better, more elegant, more efficient, more effective, or just new and cool…)

This semester I am desperate to get more writing done.  It not only betters my career chances but it also gives me a sense of accomplishment that teaching never does.  It would alleviate a lot of personnel-evaluation angst if I could get some things accepted pretty soon.  I am trying so hard to carve out times to get my brain into research-mode, and then to actually execute on my plans to write.  My brain is not being cooperative, though.  It keeps being obsessed with how I haven’t seen my partner of over a decade in a month, and it’s another month until I have time to fly and see him.  I am so lonely.

So I am hacking my work habits.

Usually my writing must take place off-campus.  In my campus office I am constantly getting interrupted by students, and if I close the door my office gets hot, and sometimes I have to leave the office to use the bathroom (thereby betraying my presence in my office).  So I write at home, and I try to also write in a local indie coffeeshop.  I know it’s dumb to pay for coffee when I have both a home office and a campus office (and I can get cheap coffee at either), but I will do whatever it takes right now and see if it works.  Sometimes I will do a sprint, such as working constantly until my laptop battery dies, and then plugging it in and taking a break to switch tasks.

I need to use external controls on myself, like accountability partners, because self-control is a limited resource, especially without my partner around to encourage me.

I have a colleague in the same position I am: too many things to write, too little time.  The two of us have made dates on Friday afternoons throughout the semester to meet up off-campus and have research time.  During this time we may not do any teaching or service work, and no surfing the net randomly — only research and writing.

When in the afternoon doldrums or at other times when I am craving a nap and yet have work to do, I have tried something new, which is the idea of a standing desk.  I first saw this idea, in various forms, at Lifehacker, which tends to show off fancy custom-made standing desks.  I have a simpler method that I’ve tried in my campus office: making a stack on my desk of a ton of textbooks, and putting my new small laptop on top of that.  It’s easy to go from standing to sitting just by moving the pile of books.  Working on the computer while standing definitely keeps me more alert and can be combined with the sprint idea.

Have I mentioned how much I love coffee?  I find it to be not only an alertness-enhancer but also a mood-elevator.  Cheaper than therapy.  All hail coffee.

Virginia Valian is an amazing scholar of, among other things, women in academia.  She has written two incredible chapters about hacking your work habits.  One is Learning to Work (PDF): how is writing like sex?  I think Boice would approve of what she says here about working in very small, but constant, chunks of time.

Solving a Work Problem (PDF) details her updated system as an assistant professor in trouble (hi!). She is now a distinguished full professor with major research in not one but two areas.  You should read this because I want to quote whole entire paragraphs of it, way beyond what is fair use.

One thing I took away from this chapter was the idea of treating yourself as a research subject and trying different things, recording the results to see what is most effective in getting the desired behavior (in this case, writing) from yourself.  I am giving myself more permission to do whatever works this year, even if it seems weird.  In a memoir I recently read, a creative writer talks about how he finally managed to work out a routine that produced excellent results every time — but it was really complex.  It involved turning out all the lights, jogging in circles, lying on the floor, etc.  His behavior, explained out of context, seems… well… maybe a bit insane.  But the thing is, I understood how he had gotten there.  I don’t want to have to go that far, but I’m giving myself more permission to engage in whatever rituals or behaviors will produce results (publications).

If you are at the point of tl;dr by now, then:

bunny with a pancake on its head

Boice says to proselytize and I am infecting my mom with these ideas.  Not only have I sent her some books about writing for her birthday, but she is also on our writing accountability site and has even started trying to moderately hack her own work habits.   Last week she IM’d me in the middle of the day to ask me if I would call her at a certain time that night and ask her if she was done with her freelance work yet.  She reports that it really did help her get motivated and complete the work.  Go, accountability partners!

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7 Responses to “Hacking my work habits”

  1. Sandy L Says:

    My best girlfriend was a psych major and I was a chemical engineering major, but we both would get together for study dates at the library. Misery loves company and somehow it helped that we were both forced to hit the books at the same time. So, it’s natural that I think your meet up idea is a great one.

  2. Everyday Tips Says:

    I agree. Just like how people are more apt to exercise if they have a ‘buddy’, you will probably get more done if you are accountable to someone else for your writing. (It is easy to break a plan you have with yourself, but nobody likes to let other people down.)

    Good luck on your quest, and I hope you find the perfect schedule for yourself!

  3. Grace Says:

    Writing in coffee shops worked for J.K. Rowling and David Mamet!! Mamet wrote a darn good book of essays on the subject. All my writing buddies took off past me and never looked back–of course, writing was all they did, while I still had my day job, my kids, and my excuses!

  4. Rae Says:

    Yes! I’ve also made a makeshift standup desk by piling my computer on top of boxes and books. Whenever I feel sleepy I make myself stand up and almost immediately I feel my alertness increase back to normal levels.

  5. Pondering productivity, and trying to hack it | Scientopia Guests' Blog Says:

    [...] had several posts about hacking our productivity in the past. Obviously it is a work in [...]

  6. Pondering productivity, and trying to hack it « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    [...] had several posts about hacking our productivity in the past.  Obviously it is a work in [...]


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