Category Archives: Strategy

Panel on Productivity

I’m sitting here at SXSW in at a panel entitled “I’m So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done.” It’s probably the worst panel at a conference that I have ever been to. I wish that I tweeted regularly so that I knew how to quickly tweet with the appropriate hashtag and tell everyone at the conference, including the organizers, how much I hate it.

Anyway, what’s making me mad about it is that the people who are on the panel have no information, no research, and no advice. They simply say, “buckle down, don’t let yourself get distracted, and do the work.” Oh, thank you.

If it’s true that these people are great at self-control, then I don’t think that they are the best people to offer advice to those who want to be more productive . . . But wait! Now these supposed experts on self-control are freely admitting that their personal relationships are screwed up because they are constantly distracted by their phones.

Here’s my theory: the people on the panel are not more productive than the people attending it. They are just more confident and more forgiving of themselves. Maybe it would help the people attending the panel to believe that they are productive. Maybe believing it makes it true.



I tried an experiment last week in order to try and see whether anticipating problems would help me be more productive. One morning, I felt unusually tired, so I wrote a short list of what to do if I started having trouble working:

  • 30 minute nap
  • shower
  • 15 minute walk

It actually really helped. Later that afternoon, I looked at my list and decided to take a short nap. Not only was the nap effective, but when I hit a wall, I was able to quickly evaluate my options, make a decision, and address the problem with a minimum of stewing.

Since then, in the front of my calendar,  I’ve been keeping a running tally of ways to address typical problems I face when writing. My mission: to avoid getting sucked into hours of playing computer games. I was truly embarrassed the other day by throbbing wrists in yoga class that I was 100% certain related to mouse clicks. I just got a massage, which included a lengthy session on my forearms, and I’m determined not to waste that money or treatment by exacerbating the problem immediately after attempting to fix it.

I usually play computer games when I’m restless. So here’s my restless list:

  • dance party (an extremely effective method my friend Rebecca & I came up with while writing papers in college)
  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • empty dishwasher/advance laundry
  • organize magazines
  • write a blog post (just thought of that one!)

I know organizing magazines isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time, but we have quite a stack of unread magazines right now that it soothes my mind to put in chronological order. The Future Mister Doctor helpfully disorders them on a fairly regular basis, thus giving me a completely non-urgent, non-stressful project that can be accomplished in less than ten minutes.

And here’s the FEAR list:

  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • exercise
  • design an elaborate reward for the end of the day’s work
  • try to focus on inviting yourself to write and explore, rather than demand yourself to succeed (a technique I learned in yoga)

As you can see, there is some overlap in the lists. But the point is not originality, the point is simple, effective ways to get the off-track Future Doctor back on task. For me, a written contingency plan has been very helpful.

Ooh, just thought of another list–the maddening e-mail from an advisor list:

  • call and/or immediately forward e-mail to members of dissertation support group
  • read the Dinosaur Comic entitled “kant was the one who thought genius meant originality, but kant thought a lot of things” (The title alone reminds one that every smart person has a bunch of idiotic ideas, too–just consider Plato on the theater. Then T-Rex starts talking about a “Power Punch Bear.”)
  • watch Die Hard (where the hero takes every form of psychological and physical abuse, and yet triumphs) or something in the Shooter/Taken genre, where Marky Mark/Liam Neelson gets mad and then kills everyone. Any Bourne movie would work too.

Emergency! Emergency!

. . . is the title of one of my favorite Promise Ring songs. But it’s also the state in which many of us get the most work done.

You can’t exactly maintain a sense of urgency for eight years. At the same time, watching The Future Doctor Anderson revise each chapter in 48 hours in the final push to finish her dissertation was completely awe-inspiring. And then I, who took 3 full months to revise my first chapter, revised Chapter 4 in less than two weeks. When graduation gets near, you can do amazing things!

But wouldn’t it have been great if we could have been that fast earlier? How can that be accomplished?

  • Some people apply to conferences with yet-to-be-written papers. If they get in, this forces them to get a solid draft of something by the time they give their talk.
  • For me, what kicked me into high gear even more than graduation was the thought of my upcoming four-day stay in a luxurious-looking hotel in Napa Valley. We’re going there for a wedding. I’ve never been, and the thought of the restaurants (French Laundry! I’ve been dreaming of you!) and the wineries just makes me want to have accomplished something. I cannot work in Villagio Palacio Hotel of Grandeur, or whatever it’s called. I need to be treating myself to a hot rock massage in celebration of my dissertating accomplishments! I need to be telling other wedding guests that I’ve finished my dissertation as I sip (okay, guzzle) local wine. Whee!
  • My husband has two busy seasons in his work. His business has a seemingly natural flow to it, heating up for September, slowing down for the holidays, getting crazy in March and then relaxing through summer. Maybe it’s possible to arbitrarily designate two busy months of the year, when you’re going to knock something out or die trying. Especially if you follow that busy period with a small break–perhaps a holiday, or just a couple weeks of taking it easier.
  • Sometimes a big life change (pregnancy, the start of a new job, funding running out) can be used as motivation to finish up quickly. Or maybe even a particular birthday looming ominously.
  • A writing group deadline, where you have one or two chances per semester to turn in work, could be very helpful. If your date to share is not flexible, you’ll probably crank something out just to avoid looking like a fool in front of your colleagues.

It’s hard to have a sense of urgency, though, when you really don’t know how long things are going to take. You don’t want to punish yourself for taking longer to write a book than you expected–hey, you’ve never done it before. That sense of urgency can quickly turn into a sense of failure if one isn’t careful. My therapist used to ask me what would happen if I took a semester longer to graduate. I guess she was trying to give me perspective, and show me that 3 months here or there wasn’t the end of the world. But it’s all too easy to get used to that lack of urgency, and be unproductive because of it.

Life Well-Lived

I just read another Litemind post, which I quoted last time in my post about expertise and problem solving. I hate to post negative comments about other people’s ideas, but this most recent Litemind post really made me mad. The post, by Mark Foo,  starts off completely wrong, suggesting that you “keep in mind the following 50 tips” to streamline your life.

Um. . . 50?

Worse, Foo’s 50 tips consist of things we all know we should do–schedule preventative doctor’s appointments, throw out old clothes, drink lots of water, organize our photos. But is a list of 50 things that we should do (and that there’s almost no way we actually doing) the way to a happier, healthier life?

Maybe the post made me mad because I have worked so hard to get myself out of this kind of mindset–I am trying to truly understand and believe that happiness does not equal checking every single item off of my to-do list.

Au contraire. The only person I know who tracks the amount of water she drinks per day is my 85 year-old grandmother. I’m not trying to imply that her life is empty–she has a very busy social and volunteering schedule. However, I sincerely doubt she kept track of glasses per day when she was in the thick of raising 11 children.

Is organizing your photos a key to an enjoyable life? Well, for some people, yes. I know people who derive a great deal of pleasure from scrapbooking. And for some, showing people photographs is a frequent part of their social activity. I enjoy a well-curated photo album myself. But for a lot of other people, unorganized photos make them feel vaguely guilty–and if they chucked the guilt, the chaotic photos would have no negative effect on their lives whatsoever. After all, would I have a picture from the 1970s of the Future Mister Doctor’s parents dressed in ridiculous outfits on my refrigerator right now if the Dilworths kept their photos organized? No, I would not. I would have looked at the photo once and forgotten about it, instead of discovering it in a messy pile on the coffee table one day and deciding to put it on display.

My uncle once gave me a Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul anthology, and it was mostly cr–well, it was mostly not useful for the doctor or the future doctor. However, one piece of advice in it stuck with me . . . ha! I just found it on . . .the quoted advice is actually from Reader’s Digest. I’m really digging into the non-academic stuff today!

Anyway, this advice was from someone named Nardi Reeder Campion’s Auntie Grace, who developed a short checklist of six things to do every day:

  1. something for someone else
  2. something for herself
  3. something she didn’t want to do but needed doing
  4. a physical exercise
  5. a mental exercise
  6. an original prayer that always included counting her blessings

Now, this advice, I still think, is quite excellent. First of all, it’s manageable . . . only six, and some of them, you could probably combine. (You could cultivate gratitude in yoga class, for example. Or you could talk on the phone while washing dishes. Maybe the thing that needs doing is the dissertation, which surely counts as mental exercise.)

Anyway, I like this advice for dissertators because it focuses on balance–it asks you to do a little bit for your happiness, mental acuity, and physical health every day. And it asks you to be social! You and your book are not the center of the universe, and that’s why something for someone else tops the list. And yet, this list doesn’t ask you to be a selfless saint.  And that thing that “needs doing” could be organizing photos–but it’s only one reprehensible task, which is then offset by that thing you do for no other purpose that your own pleasure.

Auntie Grace’s checklist is still a pretty tall order–I haven’t done half of these things yet today. But I like how unquantified it is, those activities don’t have to be monumental in scale.  If I do some sit-ups and make dinner for the Future Mister Doctor, and take one moment to be happy with what I’ve accomplished instead of worrying about making preventative doctor’s appointments, I’ll consider the day a success.

Forget the Experts

“We should stop looking for experts and start looking for analogues. It’s a big world: chances are someone has solved your problem already. And she might be an anteater.”

So say Dan & Chip Heath in the November issue of Fast Company. The Heaths accuse Ph.D.s of becoming “domain experts” who lack perspective on the major problems of their field . Yet “problems that are difficult in one domain may be trivial to solve from the perspective of a different domain.”

Luciano Passuello at the Litemind blog recently posted about the same thing, quoting pyschologist Abraham Maslow as saying “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.”

Passuello takes a different tack to solving the problem of narrow-minded expertise; he suggests talking to “regular people” who don’t know the rules of your domain. They don’t see the boundaries of your field.

I know that I sometimes dislike talking with non-experts about my dissertation–I assume that the conversation will be boring for them. That might sound self-effacing, but actually, there’s a fair bit of snobbery in that assumption. I’m deciding in advance that the other person will not have anything of value to contribute to the conversation. In fact, when people ask me about my work, I see my answer as an (unwelcome) opportunity to deliver a mini-lecture, instead of imagining any kind of exchange.

Here’s a little experiment for all of us experts to try: genuinely explaining a challenge we are facing in our research to a non-expert. Or maybe to an anteater.

Bad Habits

In the months of November and December, I did more panicking about my dissertation than working. Witness the lack of insightful blog posts. Even after all this time, my bad writing habits still take over occasionally.

I will say that I did a better job working while traveling than I ever have, and I think this last bout of depression and anxiety was a) based partly on real-world worry & grieving, not just self-torturing for no reason, and b) still more short-lived than many other bouts of depression and anxiety that I have experienced over the past eight years. Also, c) I did do *some* work. In this dry spell, it at least drizzled once or twice a week.

I’m beginning the new decade in a spirit of self-forgiveness. I don’t have A+ or even A – writing habits yet, and I’m close enough to the end of this process to realize that I’m not going to attain–or, more accurately, I’m not going to maintain great habits in the time that’s left before graduating.Instead of saying, why haven’t I learned anything? Why do I still make the same mistakes? I will celebrate the fact that I can recognize my mistakes more quickly.

During the months of November and December, I knew I wasn’t writing because I was scared. And I had strategies to deal with it: I forced myself to go to the library, where there were no distractions, when visiting Chicago. I spent long periods of each work session reading over the parts of the diss that were finished–which made starting much less daunting, and continuing where I’d left off easier. When I was really paralyzed with the FEAR, I read from my reading list until I got a new idea for something to add to my dissertation, and, more importantly, remembered that I have ideas. A particular background photo on my laptop dissuaded me for opening computer games because it reminded me, in a very gut-punching way, that life is short. (That particular strategy didn’t stay powerful for very long, because that life-is-short sensation is fleeting. But I milked it while it lasted.) I worked from bed a couple of times because I was dreading my desk and somehow it seemed less taxing that working in an upright position.

I also knew, in light of the real-world worries, that I couldn’t demand of myself to be as productive and focused as I wanted to be. And I also knew, after two weeks of not exercising, that I needed to help myself get happier. And I also knew that I couldn’t just snap right back into my exercise-addict routines after such a big break, so I eased myself in with 15 minute walks every day to help my body and mind get excited about physical activity again. Along the same lines, during those first few days of being “back” in dissertation mode, I let myself work for short periods of time and then get huge rewards (watching movies in the middle of the day).

After all, if it was easy to do what we know is best, if humans could live in uncomplicated states of contentment and productivity–there wouldn’t be anything to write dissertations about in the first place.

Research & Recommendations

My friend Louisa Edwards wrote an interesting guest post about researching as a novelist. Her post reminded me of my own, slowly-growing conviction that if you’re not interested in the book you are researching, it’s probably not relevant to your project.

Sometimes people get into a trap of trying to read everything important to their field. I have noticed, however, that no matter how important something is supposed to be, if it’s boring me while I’m trying to read it, I’m probably not going to end up using it for my project. I don’t mean boring because it’s badly written, I mean boring because the information is boring (to me).

For example, my committee strongly recommended that I read Aristotle’s Poetics, a reasonable suggestion since it is the most cited piece of poetry criticism of all time. It bored me (nearly) to tears, but I kept slogging through it because I was convinced the committee saw some amazing connection between Aristotle and my own work that I was missing.  This happened in June. Then last week, I went to a poetry discussion group about Poetics. We had an interesting conversation, but nothing anyone said made me believe that Aristotle was going to be important to my project or theirs. And, my chair was there–and when I mentioned the committee’s recommendation that I read Aristotle, he could not remember anyone telling me that, and he seemed surprised that anyone would give me that suggestion!

So I guess my second piece of advice today is not to take too much to heart any reading advice by faculty or colleagues. Chances are, they are just throwing an idea out there without having really thought through its relevance to your project. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try their suggestions–you should. But if you’re bored, realize that you are bored for good reason and move on to something else.

Time Boxing

I’ve been reading about time boxing this morning. Time boxing is essentially budgeting your day not in terms of what you want to accomplish, but in terms of the amount of time you want to spend on a task. So you could budget 30 minutes per day for e-mail or 60 seconds for sit-ups. Time boxing seems to be particularly effective for small tasks that can build into overwhelming to-do lists and for intimidating projects that can be de-scarified by chunking them into small bits.

One of the intriguing strategies related to time boxing that I have never tried is to budget a very small amount of time for something you’ve been procrastinating–say, 30 seconds to begin writing a book review. The idea is that once you’ve made a small start,  it will be easier to keep going.

Freeelance web designer Bryan Connor’s post, To-do Lists & Priorities, contains very helpful information on time boxing, and following his links will lead to more time boxing insights. For tips on time boxing your dissertation, see The Clockwork Muse; Zerubavel does not use the term time boxing, but that’s essentially what the book is about.

One time boxing-ish strategy that I recently employed involves spending the last fifteen minutes of my work day cleaning up my desk. I re-file anything that has a home, go through my mail, and start addressing any to-dos that have been jotted down on scrap paper. If I have more time, I answer a few e-mails. The benefits of this fifteen-minute time box include:

  1. having a nice transition time between working and not-working.
  2. knowing there’s nothing urgent that needs to be done before tomorrow morning.
  3. accomplishing a few small errands that could easily be neglected and build up into a long, stressful to-do list.
  4. beginning each work day with a clean workspace and thus a feeling of calm.


I was recently discussing with the Future Doctor Anderson what has been working for her lately in terms of daycare. Her daughter is two years old now, and so she’s had time to do some experimenting with her schedule. Here’s what’s working for her right now:

  1. She really likes her daycare provider. The peace of mind that comes from knowing her child is *happy* to be spending time at daycare really helps her make the most of her child-free time.
  2. The daycare is located outside of her home. This is a big one, and as a former baby-sitter I can verify it. If someone else is taking care of your kid, but they can walk through your door at any moment to ask you a question, or your kid gets mad because she knows you’re ignoring her, or you can hear your child crying . . . it’s pretty hard to concentrate. Heck, I can hardly tolerate the Future Mister Doctor within 50 feet of me when I’m trying to dissertate.
  3. She gets up earlier than her child to get some quiet time first thing in the day. According to the Future Doctor Anderson, she is more focused while it’s quiet and her brain is fresh. Not only that, but during her “Mom” time, she feels calmer and more relaxed knowing that she has already accomplished something on the dissertation already that day.

Experiment Results Part 2

The other half of my experiment, exercising five days a week, was a brilliant success.

I don’t look dramatically different, and I’m still basically a weakling, but I feel physically and mentally much better.  I barely took any naps for the whole month, so I know I had more energy. I didn’t cry at all, about anything — except in yoga class, which I consider to be cathartic and healthy. In general, I was less anxious and felt more positive about the state of my life.

I should say feel, because I have continued to exercise five days a week beyond my public commitment to do so. I think this is working for me because:

  1. I didn’t specify a type of exercise or duration, so if I’m really squeezed for time, I can do push-ups and sit-ups for fifteen minutes.
  2. It pushes me to move beyond my much-loved story-time (TV, books, movies) for recreation. The Future Mister Doctor and I took a memorable walk last weekend during which we outlined our plan to get rich, make an awesome charity portfolio, and lend our expertise to our community. The conversation was a vivid reminder of why we got married in the first place, and–though I won’t belittle the joy we get from watching football together–it was a needed injection of deeper, bigger-picture connection into our relationship.
  3. Since exercise is a “must-do”–I have more structure in my day. If I know I need to go to yoga at 5pm, it can get me moving on the dissertation because I have a deadline.