Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.


I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?

Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt

SP asks:

Any advice for my husband, who is starting his first TT job in January? He’s in a science field, if that matters. He’s read this article: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life if you have any opinion on it.

One area his struggles is with time management and deadlines. He meets his deadlines, but often will work on new research until he absolutely has to start preparing a paper, then is working until the very last minute. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!” He’s done fine in grad school and post-doc, but he is worried that his style won’t translate well to balancing teaching and advising with research.

My first advice is for your husband to ask for advice himself.  :-)  Specifically, he should ask his mentors and senior colleagues (respectfully) for advice when he gets on campus.

He’s right to be worried!  You can do everything last-minute on the TT, but it will destroy your health and your family life, and could be less-than-great for tenure.  One book he could read is On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James Lang.  This would be especially helpful if he hasn’t combined teaching and research before.

#2 points out that the excellent Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice is pretty convincing on the not binging and crashing research or teaching and also has great tips.  She has definitely found that starting early and doing a bit at the time really helps her subconscious to figure out tricky problems for her seemingly in her sleep, resulting in her spending less time on teaching and writing overall with higher quality results than when she last-minutes things.

It’s kind of ok to prep your teaching at the last minute, but there will be less sleep and probably more stress than necessary.  Doing a last-minute class prep is less likely to be successful when you have very little experience doing it and at figuring out how long it takes you, personally, to prep one class period from scratch.  Some of this may be inevitable in the first year, but after that it should be more measured.

#2 liked to spend her Sundays doing lecture prep that first year.  She also did a bunch of up-front prep work before school started getting the bones of the class down.  After each lecture she either changed her notes right then or she left herself post-it notes for what to change or keep– this helped her amazingly the next time she taught the course.

I wonder if his papers have been successful in getting published if he always does them at the last minute?  I would be concerned that they will get rejected rather than R&R because they are likely sloppy and do not show revisions or clear explanations, do not anticipate reviewer objections, etc.  Perhaps setting up a writing accountability program or group would help him be more productive in the long run  (click on our writing tag to see what we think about this).  Meeting deadlines is good, but having enough time to ask for feedback before the deadline may be more successful.

#2 notes that one of Boice’s big things is to “let others do the work for you”– that’s something you can’t do if you leave things to the last minute.  A grant is going to be more successful if someone proofreads it.  Reviewers will like your papers better if they make sense and are error-free.  He can always set himself earlier deadlines that will allow him to put down the completed paper or proposal while someone else looks at it so he can polish it at the last minute.

New research is shiny, I admit, and way more fun than revising the intro to the paper you just wrote about your previous results!  What’s his R&R success rate?  His grant funding rate?  Sometimes last-minute grant-writing will work, but it puts a big strain on the support staff and you might not be able to get it through the relevant campus offices as fast as you think.  At the very least, last-minute grant work will burn goodwill in the sponsored programs office on your campus, and you might need that later.  Again, it totally does happen sometimes, but if EVERY grant is last-second hair-on-fire sign-this-form-today, you may start to encounter resistance.

#2 notes that many faculty put grants off to the last minute.  If you get a reputation for *not* doing that, they will often love you and be more willing to go the extra mile for you.  I speak from experience.


So much to do! A busy summer ahead

OMG, I am so overextended this summer, but if I can pull it off, it will be AWESOME.

What happened, in case you’re wondering, is that I submitted a bunch of short-term grants and got three of them.  On top of that, there’s regular submitted papers coming back from journals and so on.

So I have 4 big projects that need major work for the summer.  Mentally I’m only capable of keeping track of two or three, so this is going to need extra organization.

I have:

1.  The R&R paper that is getting split into 2 papers (a small one for the journal I sent it to, and a regular-sized one for the journal I’m sending the main paper to).

2.  Restricted data project for which only I am allowed to touch the data.  I was supposed to have access to these data last summer but SNAFU FUBAR @##@.  But I have it now, and am going to need to get a no-cost extension to keep it.

3.  Pilot study needs to get done for grant proposal for big grant.  Coauthor moved slowly so we’re behind schedule.   Lab manager graduated.  New lab members.  Do not want to talk about the weeks of administrative SNAFUs.

4.  Stupid NSF thing I got added to for the $.

[update]:  #5.  Mildly crappy paper that I sent into a conference got accepted unexpectedly.  I guess I passed the threshold from being accepted too infrequently to being accepted too frequently, at least in some venues.  No more crappy submissions to this conference in the future!  It’s going to be hard getting an hour and 15 min talk out of the material.

I have a small army of RAs of varying quality to manage, including one guy who just got a low C on the final for his methods class.  Damn it.  He did well on the midterm, but ugh.  Fortunately he won’t be working the entire summer.

So, that’s my story.  I’m doing Dame Eleanor‘s thingy for #1, and I’ve got RAs to keep me going for 3 and 4 and a coauthor whose sabbatical is ending for #2.  Who needs sleep or weekends?

Boice for kids!

Ok, not really.  By “kids” I mean 24-year-olds.

(If you are my student, why are you Googling this?  Stop it and go back to work on your paper!) (Also, please don’t tell anybody my secret identity.  Thanks.)

Everyone else is doing writing these days!  Once more I attempt to incorporate writing into my content course for juniors and seniors in the major.  For them I am summarizing a lot of work by Robert Boice, author of the amazingly useful Professors As Writers. But, most of the stuff here in this post comes from his other book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency (1994).  I just couldn’t find a link to the other one, it’s hard to get ahold of.  It’s worth it, though, because it has more details than Professors as Writers, and it has particularly useful bits (almost half the book!) about how to get motivation and ideas, and how to answer your own objections to implementing a writing schedule.  Some of this stuff is new to both #1 and #2 so I’m plopping my notes here, just in case anyone else wants to know. [Editorial comments in brackets.]

These are really my own notes, so most are not in comprehensible sentence-form, sorry.  Also, remember not to plagiarize.  Personally, we find Boice inspiring, and we hope you do too.  (Although if you are a student for whom this looks very familiar, note that this post may have totally been plagiarized from your own professor… you just can’t tell on the internet.  Or it could be great minds thinking alike.)

First, an example of my own freewriting when stuck [I show this to students after they have already taken a version of Boice's blocking questionnaire, and have tried freewriting at least once themselves.]

Getting over some problems:
(Boice, 2000)

Before you are ready
- Informal outlines
- Talk aloud, freewrite
Keep going: contingencies
- Go back to freewriting if necessary
Finish: revisions (not today) [I don't talk about revision until later, because I don't want to distract the students from producing a first draft]

Starting before you are ready is hard for impatient people but will help them avoid doing it all at once.  It will help procrastinators and challenge perfectionists.  Informal outlines or talking will help perfectionists.

How To Get Motivation:

Boice (1994, p. 22) summarizing Murray:
1.  “[B]ecome an avid collector of details, facts, thoughts, anything including references.”
2.  “With immersion in a subject, the next step, wanting to order & organize the information, comes naturally.”
3.  “…realization emerges that much of what has been collected & clarified is unknown to others…”
4.  “Finally, after rehearsing the material in their minds, writers impose a plan & a schedule….”

A pep-talk:

“Motivation and inspiration follow, not precede, the practice of regular, accumulated work…”  (Boice, 1994, p. 19)
Writing can be conceptualized as problem-solving task.  To solve a problem, you have to try stuff.
The anticipation of pain is often worse than actually experiencing it.
BRIEF DAILY SESSIONS (not huge blocks)

Getting Ideas

Where do you get your ideas?
“There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ‘em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”   –Harlan Ellison [#2 likes saying Schenectady]

Boice book 1994, pp. 54 – 57: steps to get ideas from taking notes (presented here in much-reduced and adapted form)
(This also leads very naturally to a useful outline that won’t feel too rigid.)

If you know experts in the field, ask them where to start.

1.  As you read, ask how it can help your writing. How do your thoughts fit in with the conversation?
2.  Take notes.
3.  Go back through notes and write comments to yourself.  Have a conversation with yourself and author.  Agree, disagree, expand, argue.
4.  Set limits.  (E.g., <20 minutes per article, ≤1 page of notes per article)
5.  Carry your notes with you.  Pull them out when you have 10 minutes.  Continue conversation.
6.  Organize sources in different ways.  Arrange by topic, methodology, etc.
7.  Turn all notes into 1 page that integrates them.  Agree/disagree, tell a story, note gaps. Congratulations, you made an outline!
8.  Start turning notes into prose.  Don’t try to read every article ever.  Start writing before you feel ready.
– It can be informal.  “And then I will say the part about how XYZ…”
– explain it to someone or talk out loud

Now your outline won’t feel too stiff and you won’t ignore it or hate it.  This will actually make the writing of the paper go faster and easier, really!

*** Outline is a PROCESS, not a THING, and it needs to take place in brief daily sessions.  ***

Stimulus Control: Environment

Teach yourself that THIS LOCATION is for WORK ONLY [#2 really needs to work on this]
Minimize distraction: quiet, headphones
No interruptions: turn off phone, twitter, email pop-ups, close the door
Arrange objects for comfort & convenience
Office supplies
Don’t get lost in environmental tweaking
Use social control

Stimulus Control: Habits

Write every day (but don’t shut out family, sleep, exercise, etc.)
No time?  Do a time audit
Write when your brain is fresh
(Pre-) Write in small, frequent amounts
– Warmup time for each session increases with time since leaving project
Plan for next session at end
Keep a chart: time in, time out, work finished
Making work visible; accountability

Structures Do Not  Impede Creativity

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
–W. Wordsworth

The muse works for you!

Contingency strength is important: get you to write, but not to hate it
Binge writing results in fewer total pages over time, and more misery
Social contingencies: appointments

Once again, these are my own notes, summarized from other authors and a variety of sources. Please don’t copy them.  I also show my students part of this video by Anne Lamott, whose book Bird by Bird I deeply love:

Freelancing: Thoughts on Scalzi’s “You’re not fooling anyone

when you take your laptop into the coffeeshop.”

Now available for Kindle!  Or, you know, by clicking the “writing” tag on his blog.  Something like that.  Basically it’s a collection of his posts on writing up to 2006.  An entertaining read of short essays that are also blog posts.

What I got out of reading this book is that I could totally become a free-lance writer.  I have the skill-set.  I could go through the build-up process.  I can handle frequent rejection (after all, I am an academic).  I have no problem with thinking my writing is precious and uneditable.  I even have a few contacts I could tap.

But… I really don’t want to.  I just don’t think the amount of effort is worthwhile for me right now.  I just like my current job more.

I do do some free-lance writing, but only when it falls into my lap and is related to my research area.  Right now my time is too precious to seek out additional opportunities or to build up my portfolio for less than what I make now with my infrequent policy briefs and news articles and etc.  (Though, I did have to chuckle when Scalzi said that the NYTimes gets away with having people like me write for them for free in exchange for the prestige… because the NYTimes has done exactly that with me!  On an incredibly short deadline too.  Laura Vanderkam would not be impressed.  But hey, my department liked me having the byline.)

And I could be more like Betsy Stevenson (who is one of my personal heroes) and be a public academic for my area of research expertise, but I fear that would require having twitter and there’s other stuff I’d rather do with my time.

So I dunno, maybe if I go through a career crisis and we move to the SF bay area… but not any time soon.

p.s.  We were an editor’s pick in this week’s carnival of personal finance!

Have you ever thought about doing a second job but decided it wasn’t worth the time and effort?

In which we contemplate our February challenges

I have learned that I do not like working 7 days a week.  Even if one of those days is only for 30 min.

I learned that I will not get up and write for 30 min bright and bushy-tailed every morning  (me, either, says #2).  And that sometimes I need to do a bunch more non-writing work before it is obvious what I should be writing next.  Instead writing comes at different times of the day depending on whether or not it is obvious what writing needs to be done.  When there’s something pressing, morning writing is easiest.  When I have no clue, often something else takes precedence.  Trying to force myself to write in the morning when there’s something else work-related I would rather be doing results in me wasting an hour or three doing nothing but internet surfing.  Doing something work-related is better than doing nothing just to avoid writing.

Also with the 7 day a week writing, I found myself doing things that it would have probably been more efficient for my RA to do.  Like fixing citations.

I also learned that I probably can handle 6 days a week and forcing myself that 30 min can sometimes lead to an hour or three of happy productivity.  And I already knew that I can almost always find 30 min every day for 5 days a week and that writing pushes me to keep up with it through reading and research.  In fact, this past Sunday in March I just didn’t feel right until I did 30 min of writing starting around 6:30pm.  So maybe I’ll try to hit 6 days a week of writing instead of 5.

The other half chimes in:  I have learned that I probably shouldn’t commit to more reading challenges, especially ones with tight deadlines.  It makes something I do purely for fun into something more like work, and that doesn’t feel as good as it could.  However, I do really love the Monthly Challenges idea and its webpage, and I want to be able to show results there.  So that’s motivating.  I have also learned that inbox zero may not be possible when I’m getting 25 new emails in 14 hours, and almost all of them require me to do something or think something or write something or check something… gah.

Link Love of December 4

Yes it is — the first one in December!

We are dying again this week with the end of the school year approaching.  We know there are a lot of great posts out there this week that we’re totally missing.  Sorry!

From Undine: Dither and Blather

Thank you, Sheldon, we have been saying this for decades.  Our previous take: “Mommy… what does say doe mass oh kiss tick mean?”

Always Negotiate! My sister keeps thanking her lucky stars that the first company she accepted rescinded their offer after she took the entire time period to consider it… and she learned not to say no to company 2 until you’ve got everything completely in writing.  Thank goodness company 2 is not only a phenomenal place to work but also was big enough that they were able to find her a second position when she had to call back and ask to be reconsidered.

Dr. Crazy reflects on Writing. I am a sucker for thinking about the procedure of writing!

I, Reader: An essay on books, e-books, reading, and what it all means.

John Scalzi has invited authors to give Your Holiday Book Suggestion List.  Go check it out; it has already caused me to add to my wishlist…

Invest It Wisely discusses real food, which is the only kind I’ll eat.  (Though I’m pro-whole grain for me, even though I understand that it may not work well for other folks.)

Single mom rich mom had a couple of great posts this week.  We will link to the one that mentions us:  Enough.

As always, check out today’s hilarious Money Reasons comic.

We did not make it into this week’s carnival of personal finance.  Boo.

Academic ups and downs

  • Sleep is for the tenured.
  • I get so depressed when I don’t do any research.  If more than a day is spent on just service or just teaching I start feeling like I’m a failure.
  • It makes me kind of itchy in my brain to have so many unfinished projects.  I am longing for peace and quiet so that I can get some work done!
  • The part of the semester has hit where students can DO the things they couldn’t do at the beginning of the semester.  Their minds have expanded and they’re starting to *get* this whole critical thinking thing.  #2 says, yours do?  How nice for you.  #1  It doesn’t happen every semester, and it doesn’t happen for all students.  But we force a united message at them in the core… they learn correlation is not causation and the plural of anecdote is not data.
  • Even with Boicing, I’m always majorly behind on something.  Usually it’s writing.  Right now though, it’s reading.  I haven’t had to travel in a while so it has built up.  If I didn’t have office hours today I’d stay home in bed and just read this huge stack of stuff.
  • I am ALWAYS behind on email.  Who isn’t?
  • I really like my colleagues.  And I especially like the new hires that are my age in the (related but not the same) department one floor down from ours.   It’s nice having a lot more junior faculty around than there used to be.
  • Research librarians are awesome.  They can point you in new directions if you get lost.
  • Service swallows all your time.
  • Discussion seminars are really difficult when your students are lazy.
  • I hate feeling in the thrall of @#$# student evaluations.
  • The problem with getting more established in one’s field is that when you’re junior you only get crappy papers to referee, and the reports are easy, “Because of X, Y, and Z, this paper is not publishable anywhere” or “This paper is not of general interest but would be great in field journal Q,” but when you’ve been doing this for a while, people start to send you *good* papers that are going to be published, so you have to be a lot more careful with the reports.  And that takes time.  Plus it isn’t obvious right away what to do… early on they’re obvious rejects– just the fact that the top journal is sending a graduate student or first year faculty member a report at all means that it’s an easy reject.  There’s a lot more discretion and uncertainty when they stop sending you crap.  So… much… time…  It’s good for a person, especially when you see the other reviews, but it’s still a big time suck from one’s own stuff.

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!

Favorite podcasts

We like these!  Check ‘em out:

Wait wait don’t tell me For when you don’t get up in time to turn on the radio on Saturday morning.

The Splendid Table Don’t listen while you’re hungry. This is a big favorite for us driving home after eating someplace delicious.

Performance Today.  Consistently beautiful music is only available by radio and streaming but I am hooked on the Piano Puzzlers.

The Dragon Page: Cover to Cover (I haven’t tried the other Dragon Page podcasts.)

Sword and Laser and Books on the Nightstand are both damaged by a crippling reliance on that site of utter lameness, GoodReads (BotN more than S&L).

I tried Guys Can Read, but I found them ignorant and uninformed.  This isn’t a slam on them: ignorance is fixable.  Still, it wasn’t for me.

I Should Be Writing

Writing Excuses

I am also going through the Metamor City podcast, but slowly, as it is a lot of fiction.  Some of it has been really good and some so-so. I am still near the beginning of the archive.

Any suggestions?  Especially if they are about books!  (or writing)  I tried  Bookbabble recently, but there was too much babble in it, and poor recording quality.  Doh.

Big shout-out to Do Nothing But Read! These people are cool.

What are your favorite podcasts?


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