Summer updates

I am hanging on in the Machine Learning MOOC! Week 9; barely! I am trying to keep my eye on my progress and focus on how much I have actually learned instead of how frustrating it is to repeatedly get something wrong for several hours in a row.

I was talking to some friends about defining characteristics of success in their occupation, and persistence came up as a candidate for computer science. Persistence is definitely a weak spot for me, and I’m learning both machine learning and programming simultaneously, so this class has been a real trial. Hopefully I will be able to look back on it in the future and say, “if I can finish that machine learning class, I can do this!”

I have mostly stopped weekly planning. Travel, having guests in town, committing to a new project, and trying out a new objective setting plan have colluded to derail that project. I learned a lot, though, and I wholly recommend trying it, even if the lessons you learn are from what stops you ūüėČ

Speaking of which, I’ve started daily objective planning.¬†As part of testing an app my partner is building, I’m setting objectives to further my life’s current projects. I can’t wait to share more info about that app with you, but for now,¬†the practice of daily objective setting generally has been really effective for me. Putting each objective under a large-scale project that I believe is important has been just as motivating as the crossing off of them each day. I have a bigger-picture view of my life and a better ability to balance the urgent with the important.

I fly back startlingly soon and have a lot to do! I’m working on a literature review, so I will have lot of actual science content to share with you shortly :)

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How I learned to stop worrying and love the bubble bath

Remember when I said I was going to reflect weekly? Well, the weekly part hasn’t worked exactly, BUT the spirit of the project (continuous improvement to my schedule for work and play) has been consistent and beneficial.

Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned:

I must make room for my humanity.

This may sound weird and woo to you, which is fair– ¬†you can reword it however you like. The point is, about two weeks ago, I was getting into daily self-soothing spirals of unproductive and¬†un-fun messing around. First, it was¬†reddit and facebook. Literally, I would read one until I ran out of content, then switch to the other. Then, I downloaded “Two Dots.” Ya’ll, this is important: do not download Two Dots.¬†After I deleted Two Dots, I went back to reddit and facebook.

This happens for me when I am stressed out or overwhelmed by something that I should be doing, or if I’m not taking care of myself.¬†Not only was my work suffering, but my relationships were, too. I was grouchy because I felt guilty, and I felt more guilty for being grouchy.

So, I downloaded an extension for Chrome called “Block Site” and instructed it to redirect requests for “facebook.com” or “reddit.com” to list I created in Workflowy¬†of things to do that I would¬†enjoy and would make me feel¬†refreshed.¬†These things were a plausible and attractive alternative to social media loops, and have an ending point– something to accomplish.

There are big things on this list– like “hike Mount Woodson (for real this time),” but they are mostly small things. I could walk to a nearby grocery store for a fruit popsicle and go read with in in a nearby park. I could paint my nails, or watch a TED talk, draw or color. I could read in the bath or on the pier. Or I could write in this blog.

I feel so much better when I’m done with one of these things, and by the time I’m back, I’m usually ready to get back to work. If I’m feeling up for it, my “work” reading is on the same Kindle as the Neal Stephenson novel I’m into right now, so I can adjust my level of work based on my level of energy.

I was trained (as I’m sure many of you were) by school to “NO EXCUSES WORK RIGHT NOW ALL THE TIME.” That doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate, it just meant I felt a constant hum of¬†guilt and worry when I did anything other than work. This ethic does not allow for being kind to yourself, discourages you¬†from trying something you might fail at, and it doesn’t prioritize reading your mind and body’s signals that are telling me how much work I can make myself do.¬†When I was ignoring these signals and buying into the guilt-driven work ethic, I would feel bad¬†for so much as getting out of my chair. Therefore, when I felt tired or unsure, I would stay put. And I would open a new tab. Of course, all I had to do was type “f” and my browser knew what to do (-acebook.com) from there!

So far, this has made a big difference in my work and state of mind. Notably, I haven’t been on reddit at all in 2 weeks. I am nicer to be around, and more likely to be available when my friends invite me somewhere. Also, there’s a fancy grown-up coloring book on its way from amazon today : D

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First summer weekly reflection

Today I did my first reflection on my weekly schedule. As I explained last week, I am trying to continuously improve my work habits so that I am as effective as possible by the time I have a huge, independent dissertation project on my plate in a year or so.

Here’s what I observed this week:

  • I did not stick to my schedule on weekends. Although my Saturday is indistinguishable from my Monday, the same cannot be said for my friends! I want to maintain and improve my social connections, which I rarely have the opportunity to do since my move, so it’s important to me to carve out time for friends and family.
  • My starting time is manageable.¬†My first draft of the weekly schedule included 5 hours of work per day, 7 days a week. I worked from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. I started that late so I could enjoy staying out or up late on an occasional “work night” since every night is a work night :) I found it easy to be working by 11:30, and could consider moving it up a bit if necessary.
  • I don’t need a lunch break.¬†I had scheduled one in last week’s draft, but didn’t use it. I will get rid of it, and I will think this week about breaks. Studies show that they are important for productivity and health, so I will need to include them.
  • Ambiguous work tasks tank my productivity.¬†I spent nearly entire work day completely wasting my time until I realized that the task on my plate was intimidating and confusing because I didn’t know what specific things to do to accomplish it best. “Work on the paper” is too vague for me.

Here’s how I addressed each observation:

  • Weekends.¬†This one is an open question still.Each draft of my schedule includes a section for “open questions” to acknowledge and focus my attention on unsolved problems. I may not have an answer for every problem right away, and I refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this project.¬†I had to adjust my weekend schedule anyway because I took on a class on Saturdays, so I’ll experiment with this new schedule and see whether it’s easier or harder. I have another idea to solve this waiting in the wings, but I want to change my schedule incrementally so I can get the best picture of what actually works.
  • Starting time.¬†I decided to stick with the 11:30 starting time for another week to solidify the habit of daily work at a comfortable time, but I will consider moving it earlier for the following week. My goal for evaluating start times will finding one that supports the most productivity during the day, not starting as early as possible for earliness’ sake.
  • Breaks.¬†I eliminated the lunch break and brought in another project that had originally been relegated to free time. I’ve added breaks to my open questions and plan to observe my needs and existing habits for breaks closely over the next week.
  • Ambiguous work.¬†This last week, when I wasted a day I redeemed it near the end by using GTD’s project planning technique to clarify my goals, define my desired outcome, and create concrete, goal-oriented “next actions.” This cleared up my thoughts and the next day, I was back on track.

Draft 2 is on paper!

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Summer plans!

I’m trying a new thing this summer. I want to meet some specific goals in terms of each of three priority projects this summer, but I struggle to remain productive with unstructured time.

I’ve devised a plan for my work days that will support those goals and will help me build on what I learn so that when I have to, say, write a dissertation, I won’t have to figure it out from scratch.

Here’s the plan.
1. Get up to date in GTD. GTD is a productivity system laid out in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I have tweaked it slightly for my own needs and implemented in in workflowy.¬†The system and software work really well with each other and with my mind, when I am actively using them. The end of this last semester threw me off a bit, so my first goal will be to get my list back up to date. This included narrowing down all the projects I am interested in to the ones I am planning to actively work on this summer. It also includes setting up a time for a “weekly review” so that I keep my list up to date and in line with my priorities.

2.¬†Plan out my week.¬†Although it’s not specifically sanctioned by GTD, in order to make sure I’m spending my time in appropriate proportions on my projects (not just on what seems most urgent or interesting that day) I’ve scheduled out work time for each of my projects during the week. I plan to work about 5 hours per day, 7 days a¬†week.

My first draft of the plan started with a list of the projects I’d identified as important. I allocated a number of hours per week to work on each, and then drew a map of each of the seven days. Along with blocks for each project, I included regular calls, lunch, and maintenance tasks like cleaning. I also have a space for “Open Questions” on the planning page that will serve as prompts for the next step.

3. Reevaluate. On the same day as my weekly review, I have time planned to write about what I’ve learned about working when I have autonomy over my time. This will give me a time to reflect and adjust my plans if I need to. ¬†A week will give me a chance to test out every aspect of the plan before altering it, but each new plan will be lower-pressure: it’s not My Life Plan, it’s just what I’ve committed to for the week.

The written reflections will help me learn week-to-week and help me understand the effects of each change. Hopefully, by the time this summer is over, I will have not only a solid routine established, I will also have a better understanding of how I work and what my options for a routine are so that I can apply all of that knowledge to new circumstances in the winter, next summer, and during my dissertation work.

Commit, test, reflect, adjust. That’s the plan.

I’ve got time planned in my week for blogging, so I will keep this up to date :)

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The Alternative?

This is a “reprint” of a post I wrote for an in-class, private blog as an assignment last term, slightly edited. It is a response to articles about mental health challenges in graduate school; something like this one.

I was inspired to fetch and post this publicly by a conversation I had with some more senior (and one former) graduate student today about whether and how we were prepared for the intellectual and emotional work of grad school.

I post this with gratitude to my friends whom I mention here, all now PhDs in their own rights :) 

I feel lucky to be here.

I am aware————————–de=erd ¬† [<– this is the contribution of my cat, Mandelbrot! I’ll use this occasion to try that sentence again]

I was convinced for most of my life that I was only possessed of aptitudes for which I could not be paid: drawing, painting, poetry, the verbal sections of standardized tests, and getting things down from high shelves. This would have been fine– that’s what hobbies and short roommates are for!– except it also turned out that I was pretty bad at doing things that did pay, and pretty miserable doing them, too. I thought I was just not very clever, and rewarding work wasn’t in my future, until I met some grad students.

I had this impression that in order to pursue a PhD, you needed to be some kind of savant– that if I were to meet people who were doing so I’d have so little in common with them that we couldn’t even communicate. But I was way off.

The graduate students I met were sharp, of course, but also friendly and fun! They had meaningful conversations thoughtfully, and, surprisingly, they cared about *my* thoughts, too. They wanted to know what I was curious about, what my ideas were. They even thought some of my ideas and questions were good, and I felt like I was a real, equal partner in our discussions. Meanwhile, at work, I would be asked for my opinion, ignored or over-ridden by someone senior to me, required to execute and stand behind something obviously stupid, and then told to clean up after those ideas went wrong.

And the more I got to know my academic friends, I noticed something really amazing. More than anyone I knew, they sincerely loved their work. People say, “don’t ask a grad student about their thesis topic,” and I can’t think of worse advice. I mean, yeah, don’t ask when it will be done, but if you like to learn, ¬†the person to ask is someone who taken on huge opportunity costs to become an expert in a topic that they care about. So they were experts, they worked hard, and they loved their work. I quickly grew to love graduate student parties, because I could go around and ask, “so what do you study?” It might take a few follow-up questions to convince them I was actually interested, but eventually, I could learn a ton about something from someone who knows all about it, and gave up what is often considerable income potential because they care about it so much.

The value surplus of my friends’ work expand the human knowledge by pin pricks, and I worked to– what exactly? prevent a start-up from failing? Make some board members (marginally more) wealthy?

So if there’s a checklist, my friends had autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I had none of the above.

After being told by a senior executive that I was here to be “something nice to look at,” being spied on, and finally asked to do something unethical, I quit my last¬†start-up job, and I promised myself I wouldn’t find another until I took those GRE books out of my trunk and put them to use.

I spent the next year gathering research and teaching experience to give this an honest shot. By the time I got into this, I had seen my friends go through comps, prospectus defenses, dissertation defenses, and the job market. It looked terrifying, though they all handled it with grace. They confessed it was brutal, and it was totally worth it.

The choice was perhaps easier for me than them, even with open eyes to the difficulties, because the payoff–rewarding work– was a unicorn I never dared believe existed (and frankly my alternative was pretty shitty.)

My partner, Brandon, persuaded me to write a plan (in GTD style) for how I’d get in to graduate school. I went back to check it out (had to go look in the “Completed” section by the way– what a trip!) ¬†Here are the purposes and principles for my “get into graduate school” project:

  • Enjoy learning and researching for 4-7 years, and expand human knowledge by a pin prick at a time
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to enjoy learning and research (in academia or industry)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to expand human knowledge (pin pricks at a time)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can spread enthusiasm for science among people like me, who initially were intimidated or uninterested
  • Qualify as a expert in something, about which I can write
  • Qualify for a career in which I could feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Have an income for 4-7 years
  • Expand my social network with more thoughtful, invested, ambitious people
  • Publish a first-author paper
  • Don’t idolize R1, TT jobs
  • Don’t put your name on half-assed work

Fortunately, all of these things can be accomplished if I end up working in industry. So as as intimidating as the pressures created by the structure of academia are, and as much as I want to fix the issues that plague the academy for the sake of current professors and undergraduates, I am walking in with open eyes and and a back up plan.

It’s fun to end with a photo, so here is Mandelbrot gloating about her astute blog contribution.

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