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 Amazon.com . . .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.

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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.

The How and When of Advisor Communication

When you’re giving the advisor something new, give yourself some good P.R! I constantly edit out of my e-mails questions like, “do you think the organization is okay?” I want my advisor to notice problems on his or her own, I don’t want them to be looking for the bad stuff I pointed out. I mean, as a teacher, how could you not find something wrong with a student’s organization if they said, “I keep trying and trying to make the organization work, but I’m still not happy with it.” Of course you would think of ways the student could improve, even if you followed the paper’s argument easily.Try to say something positive, even if it’s just “I’m looking forward to talking with you about this draft.” Give them a good feeling going in, not a feeling of trepidation.

Now, it IS important to explain where you’re at with your draft. Be clear: “this is a first draft,” or, “this is Chapter 4, minus the concluding two sections.” Even better, tell them what you want to focus on: “I don’t want you to copy edit yet, I’m still working on the big picture.”

It seems to me that the time for expressing doubts–saying, “I think the chapter might suck in this way, but I don’t know what to do,” or, “I really wanted to say that Godzilla was the postmodern equivalent of Zeus, but I’m worried that my point is not clear”–is just after your advisor has given you comments on something. You can respond to the comments they’ve given in a “yes and” kind of way. I see what you’re saying about the thesis not being clear, and I’m wondering if I should delete section three altogether, or if it should just be connected better to the concerns of section 2. The “yes and” concept is great because by agreeing with your advisor, you tell them you value their opinion and want to take their advice. You’re relating your own concerns to theirs, and that helps them feel understood by you (always a nice feeling when trying to help someone). At the same time, your self-criticism has a context for them–you’re not just badmouthing your work before they’ve seen it. Rather, seeing your doubts and their criticism as two approaches to the same problem might help both of you to articulate the potential solutions more precisely.

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.

Teaching & Technology

My brilliant cousin, Nate Gandomi, who studies (broadly) education and technology at Berkeley, just wrote a thoughtful post about a book called The E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook. My comment to his post is below:

“The hype that follows the emergence of new technologies assumes a smooth transition between entertainment and education.” . . . this quote summarizes the frustration I have felt when trying to integrate technology in the classroom. I’ve sat through workshops on everything from Google Maps to Dipity to Mind Maps to Second LIfe, all of which inspired me to try something new in class . . . until I tried to create a lesson plan of my own, at which point I’d just feel stumped. I’m not trying to say that integrating technology into the classroom cannot be both fun and educational, but I do think it takes *a lot* of creativity and effort on the instructor’s part. Also, teachers can’t simply find a YouTube video to show once in a while — they have to carefully choose which technologies they bring into the classroom based on their goals for the course.

I was also very struck by the phrase “access to information does not equate knowledge.” I remember showing my students on-line bibliography tools, as in, “isn’t it great? You never have to memorize the format of citations!” I would assume that I could then skip discussing how to make a bibliography in class–surely the students could figure it out for themselves. Of course, most of the students did not make a correctly formatted bibliography (probably at least half did not make one at all). More importantly, they did not understand the purpose of citing sources.

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.