Summer, Take 2

It’s summer! And I’m in SoCal, where I can really enjoy it– see photo of a hike a few weeks ago :)

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As you probably know, summer in graduate school is not quite the same as summer in other kinds of school, but it is a big change in routine.

For your first two years(ish) you’re probably going to classes most days during the semester and earning your keep– by working for your advisor, TAing or working in your department for example. A lot of the time, you will have 9 or 9.5 months of funding for that arrangement, and you need to find a way to support yourself over the summer. If you have 12 months of funding, you’ll keep doing what your doing. Either way, you probably need to continue getting money in the summer!

Classes ending is a double-sided coin. On the one hand, you have a whole bunch of free time! You could be working on your own research, catching up on lost time from finals, preparing for your next step, getting a lot of reading done… On the other hand, your days have lost a lot of structure, and that makes it harder to get things done.

But you know what looks a lot like this– unstructured time, lots of possible work, no classes? Dissertation time! So it would behoove you to use summers as practice for that independent work time that will sum up your PhD.

My first summer, I didn’t totally succeed at working with unstructured independence, but I did get a decent amount done, and I learned a lot. You can read more about that using the “summer” tag, but the basics of what I learned are this:

  • I need to carve out specific time for work, so get things done and I don’t feel guilty about not working all the time
  • I need to carve out time for relaxing so I don’t go bonkers
  • I need to find and support healthy activities for relaxing time that I actually find relaxing, unlike the activities I tend to choose for myself (reading reddit, reading facebook, reading reddit…)

This summer, I will be doing all of those things, plus carving out a specific place for work– updates on that to come.

As far as relaxing time goes, my current habit is to commit to doing at least one artsy thing (a craft or art project, hair dyeing included) or one social thing every day. Once I have the rest of my system in place, I’ll reevaluate how that’s working.

My open question for this summer is do I need to specify which time is for my advisor’s projects and which time is for my projects, or can I work to get the most urgent project (my advisor’s) done right away, and then work on my stuff if I have time later in the summer? (If you have any thoughts on this question, please leave a comment!

And enjoy your summer :)

 

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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 😉

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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Slacking

I keep noticing that I’m less motivated, productive, and just feeling less on top of things than I did last term. I worry that I’m slipping into old habits or I’ve lost something key and can’t get it back. What if the new environment and the excitement of a new direction in my life is what allowed me to do well, and that productivity was not a skill I developed or evidence of personal growth, but a fluke of circumstance?

Well, last night (when I was aimlessly wandering the Internet at 3 am, because that’s healthy) I stumbled across an interesting analogy.

One of the ways I’ve been slacking is that I’ve gained back about 10 pounds of the weight I lost a year ago. (This has happened slowly over the time since I moved and started grad school, but I only bought a scale recently ; )

So I am back browsing some of the supportive weightloss forums I used to be on, and last night I stumbled on this post from a user who had also gained back some weight she had lost. Reading the comments helped me realize a few things:

  1. What happened yesterday/last month/over the last year has already happened, and feeling bad about it or denying it won’t change anything.
  2. Even if my slacking off had been an awful evil moral failing, the best thing to do would not be to feel bad about it. It would be to do something different today.
  3. The narrative of “I’ve been doing poorly,” or “I am slacking off,” or (possibly worse) “I am a procrastinator” is not helping. We have a bias toward wanting to be right about the world– if we believe we are slacking, it makes sense that we’d continue to do so. Why aim that tendency against your goals?
  4. Being vulnerable with other people about your experience, even if it’s your perceived failure at something they are all working toward and succeeding at, opens you up for their support and encouragement, and may even make other people who aren’t doing as well as they’d like feel less alone.

So I have to stop telling myself stories about being a slacker or about losing my momentum, and start thinking about what I can change. I can open up to people I can trust (or… the whole Internet?) about feeling like I’m not as productive as I’d like.

And, like my supportive partner reminded me, I can build a rat park for myself so I don’t use endless Internet binges to feel better. I’ll write a future post about the idea of rat-parking and my plans, but we talked through some basics on our weekly chat date this week. One of my favorite ideas was to start writing journal entries in draft blog entries. I love journaling, but it has seemed like it might detract from “real work.” I want to write a blog, but it’s intimidating to sit down and write a full, Internet-ready post in one sitting. Well, this way, I can journal, and if I like it, I can post it. If I don’t, I can save it to read or even polish for posting later. And either way, I get the writing practice and the cathartic experience of processing my thoughts.

So, it’s in the spirit of all of these things that I offer this journal-entry-which-is-now-a-blog-post, and this revamped description of reality:

Graduate school is stressful, and I don’t always eat, work, clean, or even relax the way I want to, but if pay attention to my behavior and feelings, be compassionate with myself, and make adjustments based on that understanding and compassion (instead of shame and guilt) I can look forward to the feeling of accomplishment, confidence in myself, and guilt-free relaxing that comes when I get shit done.

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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