Category Archives: Strategy

Experiment Results Part 1

Well, my month of exercising and writing my dissertation 5 days a week is up–in fact, I finished on September 13.

In the sense that I dissertated for 42 hours in a month, the experiment was a success. Even though I knew it was an arbitrary goal, I held on to a sense of urgency and convinced myself that it was important to finish at all costs.

But that sense of urgency wasn’t always my friend. There were three weekdays that I did not work–and not because I was lazy or unmotivated. They were days when I had a lot of time-sensitive work to do for my part-time job. And once I missed a day, it was very hard for me to make it up. I was truly working as hard as I could. During the second, third, and fourth weekends of the month, I had an underlying sense of stress because I knew I had days to make up, but I wasn’t able to alleviate any of it until the very end of my experiment.

Was it worth it? I don’t think so. I worked hard all month–I deserved peaceful weekends. Instead, the dissertating I did on the weekends felt like a punishment.

Also, remember how I judged myself on hours spent? That was a bad idea too. I was acutely aware, every day, of the minutes ticking by–I practically jumped out of my chair at the two-hour mark.

Joan Bolker, as usual, is right about everything. It’s far better to have a goal for the day, and reward yourself for completing it instead of punishing yourself for not completing it. The risk of setting a goal for the day is that it will take too long or too short of time to constitute a good day’s work, and for me, it is harder to figure out a reasonable goal during the revision process. Still, the task-related goal gives a better sense of purpose than the time-logged one.

I want to keep the consistency that I developed over the month. So I’ve decided to try a reward-based system. If I work five days a week, I get to buy a new-old romance novel from the used book store. I think this is brilliant for a few reasons:

  1. It facilitates happy, relaxed weekends.
  2. My reward is not expensive–only a few dollars per week.
  3. I am not in the habit of buying pleasure-reading books for myself, so I don’t think it will be difficult for me to refrain from buying books when  I haven’t met my goal.
  4. I can gloat over the fact that I haven’t become snotty about books just because I’m about to be a doctor of literature.

On the flip side, if I don’t meet my goal, it won’t have an effect on the next week of work. I can still take the weekend to recuperate and start all over on Monday. The “you’ve been bad, and now you have to be extra good to make up for it” philosophy doesn’t work in child rearing, dieting, dog-training, or dissertating.

Vivid, Enjoyable Prose

Reading Gail A. Hornstein’s Chronicle Review article, “Prune that Prose: Learning to Write for Readers Beyond Acadme,” made me sad.

I wanted, as Hornstein suggests, for someone to say about my dissertation “It was riveting.” Can you imagine? Riveting? I have read precious, precious few books in grad school that I would call riveting. She asserts that simplicity can be a virtue in academic writing, rejecting the assumption that complex sentences and multi-syllabic words are needed to express smart ideas.

Hornstein also quotes our old friend Gerald Graff as saying “don’t kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don’t understand it yourself.”

Shortly after reading this article, I got an e-mail from an advisor asking for “more footnotes” in a chapter draft. I don’t want to distort his advice, so let me say that what he really is asking for is more conversation with other scholars. I don’t think conversing/referencing other scholars necessarily prevents my work from being riveting.

But recent versions of the diss that have been footnote-heavy and employed more jargon have been received much better by my committee. When non-academic people ask me what I’m writing about, I get a lump in my throat. I really wanted to write a dissertation with no footnotes and no “vocabulary.” I worry that all the changes I’ve made are narrowing my potential audience further and further.

And yet, and yet, this draft of the dissertation is definitely better than it was before. How much did I need those footnotes and that vocabulary to form my ideas? And, now that I’ve improved the draft, can I take the jargon out without weakening it?

Skimming and Skipping

I have a hard time not reading every word of everything I start reading, and that’s a real liability when it comes to scholarship.

I’ve been practicing skipping as sort of a warm-up to developing the skill of skimming. I now skip the makeup articles in Real Simple, since I have never worn makeup and don’t ever plan to start. And I’m working on skipping articles in trade magazines–things like The Chronicle of Higher Education. I was advised, and I think it’s good advice, to read The Chronicle as preparation for going on the job market. And indeed, I feel that I have been getter a more complete sense of the profession from reading it. But sheesh, it is long. And it comes really often. Then there’s Poetry magazine. I really do not enjoy it, but it features articles pertinent to my dissertation often enough to make it worth my while. Except for the lame poems–lame poems are actually never worthy my time. Now, I read the first six lines or so of every poem and then (mostly) skip!

Still, just because I’d planned on reading it today, I read an essay that was almost an exact duplicate of a chapter in the book I read yesterday by the same author. Why I did not recognize the obvious need to skip this reading is beyond me.

Wait, no it’s not! I was just scared to start writing. Aha! The FEAR strikes again, this time in the form of re-reading something that was a struggle to read the first time through! And the sad thing is, I read that book twice four years ago in preparation to write a book review. (I really did need to re-read it once though, I swear.)

Writing–4 days     Exercise–4 days     This experiment is going great so far! Exercise really does give you energy. Today I went running first thing, then did a ton of cooking and cleaning in preparation for the Future Mister Doctor & my first wedding anniversary, and then wrote for two hours! And look at me now, posting to my blog! Whee!

Public Commitments

I just watched Julie & Julia, which I loved–and it reminded me of the light-hearted and funny book by Julie Powell.  I decided to try something from the blog/book/movie and make a public commitment. It’s not quite as dramatic as cooking through the recipes of Julia Child’s cookbook, but still. As Marcee pointed out in her comments to my freewriting post, sometimes a public audience makes all the difference.

I’ve accomplished a lot this summer–wrote a new and dramatically improved introduction, traveled over 5,000 miles by car and visited over 50 loved ones, started a new business with my husband, helped my parents find a house to rent in Austin for the winter–and I like the variety of those accomplishments. But now I’m craving normalcy and dissertation progress.

So here’s my commitment: to write 21 days in the next month (by Friday, September 11) and to exercise 21 days in the next month. Why 21 days? Well, as Joan Bolker points out “writing every day” can mean different things to different people. My “every day” excludes weekends and national holidays (in this case, Labor Day).

Joan Bolker advises a pages-per-day method (you’re done when you’ve written a certain number of pages) but in my revising phase I’m having trouble knowing what can happen in one day. I’m re-writing parts of Chapter 1 from scratch, which sometimes involves stopping writing to research. Other parts of the chapter need mainly stylistic revisions. So I’m going with the butt-in-the-chair method: 2 hours per day to work on revisions specifically (in other words, no e-mailing dissertation support group or advisors, no meetings, no background reading, no blog posts).

As for exercise, I’m committing to 20 minutes per day. And yes, the exercise part of the plan is completely related to making progress on my dissertation. The health of body and mind is something I’m convinced that anyone concerned about productivity should be paying attention to.

Don’t worry–every post this month is not going to be related to this commitment. But I will  monitor my progress in my posts this month like this:

Writing–0 days     Exercise–0 days

Passion

As a kid, I was kind of a quote-hound. As a cynical academic, I can kind of see how an inspiring quote has only a very limited ability to change one’s life. Also, I tend to quote things like, “it jarred my slats” from L.M. Montgomery’s  Jane of Lantern Hill that I find amusing but mystify the people I’m talking to.

Anyway, I cracked open the September issue of Real Simple this morning and saw a quote that seemed pertinent to my dissertation this morning:

Nothing great has been and nothing great can be accomplished without passion.–G.W.F. Hegel

Yes, I thought to myself. I need to get some passion going. Then I did a double-take and flipped back to another quote a few pages earlier:

One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdowns is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.–Bertrand Russell

There are a lot of contradictory adages out there that have a ring of truth. While some dissertators I know draw a lot of comfort and even strength from a mantra of some sort, it’s good to be adaptable.

For example, when I told the now-Doctor Gale that “There shouldn’t be all this craziness,” she used it as a sort of grounding tool while she was revising her dissertation. I was a little surprised that what I’d said seemed so meaningful to her, but when she repeated it back to me a couple of months ago (I didn’t even recognize it as my own phrase) it seemed like a crucial idea to hold on to. OMG, There really SHOULDN’T be all this craziness. Wow!!!

There’s only a little of summer left, so maybe now is a good time for all of us to assess whether or not we need more passion for our work or more vacation in the next few weeks. I fall into the passion camp at the moment, but I know there’s some of you out there who haven’t let yourselves take enough of a break this summer. There’s still time!

Freewrites

Before I started writing my dissertation, I found that freewrites were about the only way I could accomplish anything tangible. I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and the freewrites allowed me to record my thoughts a couple of times a day (on a good day). I did very little re-reading of this writing–but the act of writing helped keep me moving.

Some people are proponents of the “write without letting your pencil leave the page until the timer rings” freewriting method. I got along better when I had a specific topic (a book I’d just read) and simply tried to type quickly until I ran out of steam — usually around ten minutes. I let myself pause instead of making myself write “I don’t know what to write” because I found that if I wrote continuously, a bunch of complaining would seep into the writing that was actually not emotionally helpful to put on paper.

Once I started researching my specific chapters (instead of the general reading I did at first), I stopped needed freewrites so much–I typed notes about my sources (with any additional dissertation thoughts, related or unrelated, in parentheses). And I typed my chapters. But I didn’t need to do the free-form, no-planned-direction type of writing for a least a couple of years.

All the sudden, with a complete draft of my dissertation done, I find myself turning to freewriting again at the advice of my Dissertation Support Group. And I’m reminded that freewrites can be good for getting unstuck any time. At the very least, some writing is happening.

I never want to freewrite–I always want to do the “actual” writing that other people will see as part of the dissertation document. But even at this late stage, sometimes I really don’t see another way to get the project moving.

Time Management & Travel

I am embarking on a truly excellent adventure this month: a working roadtrip. The plan was simple: visit a bunch of family & friends all while working as usual. We planned to be on the road four weeks.

You might be laughing right now, and indeed, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. (Witness the lack of blog posts in the last few weeks.)

Let me be clear: seeing said family & friends (and thirteen states while we’re at it) has been awesome. We’ve had so much fun with everyone. It’s the work part that has been difficult.

But I’m not ready to give up on this idea–in fact, we’re already planning another version of this trip for next summer. And I would add in my defense that after seven years in one city (working on one project) I needed a change of scenery pretty badly.

So for those of you who are as committed to traveling as we are in my family, let me share what I’ve learned.

  1. Give your work good PR. I freely admitted my burned-out state and reluctance to work, and as a result few of my hosts/hostesses took my schedule seriously. My husband on the other hand, has made his job sound not only important but also exciting and lucrative. He’s gotten a lot more space.
  2. Instead of telling my hosts I needed to work for 4 hours, as I’ve been doing–I should have told them that I needed to write five pages (or some such thing) before hanging out. In this way, I could have cut out some of the lingering breakfasts that I felt were sucking away precious energy.
  3. I would have stayed in hotels a few more times. It’s cheaper to stay with friends, but a little more down time would have helped keep me energized at working times.
  4. I should have left the house to work, which I didn’t think of because I generally like to work at home, in my pajamas.
  5. I should have realized that most of the people I know do not work 9-5! I imagined having a house to myself all day, and that has happened exactly never in the first three weeks of this trip. It was relatively easy for my hosts to make free time in their days, which wasn’t expected and should have been accounted for.

Radical Revision

My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”

The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.

She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.

When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%,  not again!)

As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.

Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.

But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.

Productivity & Positivity in Meetings

I’m reading an interview of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity. Fredrickson discussed some research by business consultant Marcial Losada. Losada studied sixty business teams during their annual strategy meetings. He tracked the statements made in the meetings as positive, negative, and neutral. He then tracked the performance of the different teams. He found that “three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point” that turns a medium-performing team into a high-performing one.

The first thing I thought about when I read this was a recent bad meeting I had. The meeting was so bad that it wasn’t until the next day that I realized major progress had been made on my dissertation. All the negative feedback was essentially about style. The core of my project–which had been on shaky ground–was finally acceptable. However, instead of anyone telling me that, they started telling me about minor things I was doing wrong. I can’t say I helped the positive vibe–I felt emotional to the point that it was difficult for me to have productive thoughts or defend myself.

Contrast that with a conversation I just had with my DSG (Dissertation Support Group). The first thing the future Doctor Anderson said after I told her about the meeting was, “wow, you sound like you’re handling a hard situtation really well.” I have long marveled at the chemistry and productivity of my DSG meetings, and now I realize that they are well beyond the 3 to 1 ratio of positivity. No matter how rough the material, we find ways to remind each other of the good work we’ve done.

But let’s go back to what I did right after this bad meeting.  I was determined to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of it that I could. So after it was over, I went over my notes and wrote down every useful suggestion I could find about how to improve my dissertation. Then I categorized the suggestions into categories. This was already helpful–the meeting seemed more productive once it was on paper. Then I sent the summary to people involved. I asked them to check over my summary and make sure we were all on the same page. The summary was in neutral language (“need to improve close reading” as opposed to “close reading section is very bad”).

The 3 to 1 ratio has many applications. I know that I don’t give my students that much positive feedback on their papers. I would really like to try to do that. I’d like to talk to my family with that much positivity. I’d like to be that positive when I’m reflecting on or discussing my work.

Here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to send this blog post to my committee before my defense. And I’m going to ask that they help me make that conversation as productive as possible. I know too many stories of defenses that are not fun, anti-climactic, or boring. Defenses should be at best a celebration of what’s been achieved, and at least a productive conversation that helps students revise before graduation and/or publication.

An Argument for Working Seven Days a Week

Both of my brother-in-laws, who work in the restaurant industry, are happy to work seven days a week. Imagining chopping vegetables for eight hours straight and then having to cover someone on my day off is downright appalling to me. But they are both of the opinion that a weekend (or other two-day break) breaks up their routine in a bad way. Another way of putting this is that Mondays are terrible precisely because you’ve had time off. You’re not used to working, and now you have to get used to it, and fast.

I really believe that working five days a week is best for me. But there are other ways of working it out–writing six or seven days a week, writing every other day, two days on/one day off . . . it’s worth experimenting, especially at the beginning of the dissertation writing process to find out what patterns keep you in your groove.

Another advantage of experimenting with your work habits is that you will confident that you’ve chosen the best process for you, which can be comforting when you discover other people’s habits. I usually have a reaction like “how could you possibly work that much?” and people tend to react to me like, “it’s amazing how you’re able to make so much time for things besides work!” As far as I can tell, there’s usually a bit of jealousy on both sides. But what other people do is not important. It’s only important that you aren’t ignorant of your own best practices.