Category Archives: Strategy

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.

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