An academic’s short guide to achieving balance

September 9, 2011

From the website of the amazing artist Andrew Goldsworthy

Over the coming weeks we will be covering a number of overlapping topics, all toward the goal of making graduate school more fun and useful. This week we will focus on time management, next week on how to read the literature, and the week after *that*, a bit on writing, particularly grant writing.

Luckily, as this blog has been around, off and on, for five years, we have some blogposts to mine on the way toward introducing new stuff (and updating the old). So check out these five oldies but goldies.

  1. If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia .
  2. Every day we find ourselves encountering a long list of things we would like to do. Each has its own timeframe; each its own difficulty and reward. To get some sense of how you can begin to organize those tasks, and immediately feel better about yourself, read Getting Things Done: getting started. 
  3. How do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop until you power down at the end of the day. We’ll have more to say about it over the week.
  4. OK, as we move from strategic (big picture) to tactical (simple tools) let’s tackle one of the biggest hurdles between you and a productive day: email. Here is a simple set of rules that allow you to master email, not the other way around.
  5. Finally, one of the single most encouraging developments in the past decade for academics is the evolution of Second Brain Software. It contains a link to James Fallow’s introduction of software that allows you to achieve a mastery of your reprint collection.  Things have come some way since this post (one of the first on the blog) Fallow’s is still one of the best introductions I know.

Barak Obama on Getting Things Done

July 28, 2008

The New York Times transcribed a bit of conversation between Obama and the Tory Leader David Cameron on Obama’s recent trip to Europe.

I love to eavesdrop on accomplished people.

Mr. Cameron: You should be on the beach. You need a break. Well, you need to be able to keep your head together.

Mr. Obama: You’ve got to refresh yourself.

Mr. Cameron: Do you have a break at all?

Mr. Obama: I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. … In 15 minute increments and …

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

Mr. Obama: And, well, and you start making mistakes or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel …

Mr. Cameron: Your feeling. And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.

To do great things, don’t just work hard. Give yourself the luxury of time alone, just you and your notebook.

h/t 43 folders

The GTDA blogroll–43 Folders

February 21, 2008

I don’t have a huge blogroll at this site, largely because a long blogroll buries the sites that are consistently, absolutely, worth checking out on a regular basis. One such site is Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders. I like this site because Mann is tech savvy, funny, and not afraid to experiment.

The other thing I like is that 43 Folders is a wee bit agnostic about Getting Things Done, the time management system that inspired the nifty title of this blog. Ultimately, your system is your system–a series of tips and habits that accrue in your toolkit because they allow you to work effectively and increase your happiness. Toward that end, one of my goals here is to point out some promising stuff to add to your toolkit. And 43 Folders is so consistently, over the top useful, that it resides in the GTDA blogroll.

If you haven’t visited 43 Folders lately, here is a good place to start. A recent mention by NPR spurred Merlin to highlight some of the better posts on the subject of GTD. Enjoy.

5 transformative email tips

January 28, 2008

email.jpegEmail is still a relatively new tool. However, its power, for good or evil, is clear. To get the most out of email, and minimize its suckiness, consider the following five tips. Also, be considerate of your elders, who stubbornly retain many of the worst email habits. They were trained, after all, on V 1.0.

The first four come from an interview with Marilyn Paul, on Matt’s Idea Blog.

  1. Use subject-line protocols to speed communication: a.) No reply needed – NRN; b.) Thank you – TY; c.) Need response by date and time – NRB 10/30 3:00 pm; d.) Use subject line for whole message: Meet 10:00 10/30 Okay? END Mike: This is becoming standard practice, but don’t be surprised if an older colleague or –yikes!–your major advisor “replies to all” with a message “Yes, but when is the meeting?”. Don’t worry. She’ll only make that mistake, ohhh, five times or so.
  2. Keep e-mails short. Most should be no more than 1-10 sentences. Communicate your main point in the first sentence or two. Don’t make readers work because you don’t have time to focus.
  3. Don’t deliver bad news in an e-mail message. If it’s urgent, pick up the phone. Use tone of voice to indicate concern, but not anger. Mike: It’s easy to hide behind email. Don’t do it.
  4. After two rounds of problem-solving on e-mail, pick up the phone. Mike: Email is not a panacea. The more intractable the problem, the more you need human contact–and all the meta-information contained therein–to find a solution.
  5. If you can deal with it in 2 minutes, do it. Otherwise drag it to your Action, Hold or Archive folder and clear your Inbox. Just don’t forget to regularly plow through your Action folder.

Will you earn your Ph. D.?

January 20, 2008

images-3.jpegAn interesting post from the political science blog The Monkey Cage. Some folks at Syracuse University looked for the best predictors of graduate student success in their Economics program, using as data the records of their past students.

The upshot: the best predictor of passing comps: your GRE scores, having an M. A. degree, and having an economics major.

However, the best predictors of completing the Ph. D. program were different. They combined something very concrete–a student’s preparation in mathematics, with something far more intangible–the strength of their research motivation, as gleaned from the personal statements in their application to grad school.

My take, for what’s it worth.

In most programs, your written and oral comprehensive exam tests your mastery of a set of material, and, indirectly, the work habits that allow you to teach yourself.

But there is a reason grad school is often described as a process of transformation from someone who reads to someone who is read.

Because the second hurdle is the ability to design, and analyze novel research. This takes a mastery of logic (and mathematics is, at its heart, logical calisthenics) and a stubborn drive to see a project through. Those students who work on mastering the literature, but avoid the often lonely process of designing, collecting, and cranking methodically through data and manuscripts, risk the scarlet ABD of academia–All But Dissertation.

We’ll be spending some time in the upcoming posts working on your analytical chops. But in the meantime, don’t skimp on math. Even if your dissertation never requires matrix algebra or integration and differentiation, studying math trains your mind to think clearly.

10 tips toward better grant writing

January 6, 2008

Johnny CashHappy New Year everybody. I hope your holiday has been restful and productive. Mine has been….productive, as I’ve been participating in the yearly ritual of grant-writing over Xmas break.

Grant writing serves two purposes to the academic. It is first a way to get money. Money is good, and allows you to do stuff.

Another reason field biologists spend winter break writing grant proposals is that it’s a logical time to plan for the upcoming field season. What are the next steps in your research program (or programme, if you prefer your vocabulary spiced up with a few extra letters)? A convincing grant proposal will convince you of a course of action that will occupy a significant chunk of your life. Here are a few tips that might make this journey a bit less ornerous. Read the rest of this entry »

QotD: Walter Kirn on Multitasking

October 24, 2007

Walter Kirn“This is the great irony of multitasking–that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we are interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. ”

From Atlantic Monthly, November 2007

Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day”

October 19, 2007

OklahomaSunsetWe are big here on the notion that there are some activities, like reading and writing, you want to do every day. This kind of repeated attention builds good habits, allows you to get big projects done by breaking them down into little chunks, and keeps those projects in the forebrain, where you can cogitate about them.

But there is a case to be made that certain more mind-numbing activities should be allowed to accrue until you have a day’s worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate students.

The gem here is the notion of carving out one day a week (or one more likely, one morning or afternoon) for “Administrative Nonsense Day“. This can be anything from doing your monthly bills to updating your web pages. The point is you want to maximize your creative time, uninterrupted by the (oft seductive) siren call of the piddly stuff. If you know that stuff will get done soon, it’s off your radar screen and allows you to concentrate on the stuff that matters long-term.

This leads to the doppleganger of “Administrative Nonsense Day” your “Big Idea Day” (sound of harp glissandos and angels singing). This is the day that you don’t answer your phone, hide at home and give yourself the luxury of a 15 hours of reading and sketching out the next paper, grant, or project. Nothing replaces large chunks of time to think. Nothing. You deserve them.

There is one more tactic that you may want to consider if you are one of the many grad students paying your way by being a Teaching Assistant. Say you are required to teach two (or, three) lab sections a week. Try to schedule them all on the same day. That’s right, the 9:00-12:00, the 1:00-4:00, and the 6:00-9:00 night lab. There is a good chance you will teach better (and be damned relaxed by the night lab) if you focus all your attentions on a subject in one day. If you maintain your proper balance of caffeine, water, Gatorade, and Cliff Bars, you will sail through.

Having done this myself at the ole UofA, the bonus comes with that gorgeous feeling of walking out into the cool desert air at 9:30PM, knowing that you have Big Idea Day waiting for you tomorrow and no teaching for six whole days.


Five sensible steps to increase your productivity

September 13, 2007

Steven Covey’s Four QuadratsI’ve got a date with a tropical rain forest for the next 12 days or so, so posting will be light. What follows is my basic system for deciding what to do, day by day. It is accrued, accreted, and amalgamated from GTD, 7 Habits, and lots of trial and error.

The basic idea: combine strategic planning with a simple rule that guarantees you do stuff daily that promotes your long-term academic fitness. Its simple and professor-proof. Here’s the gist:

Read the rest of this entry »

How much is enough? On climbing the reprint pile

September 8, 2007

paper-stack.jpgClass the other night was led by a top comparative physiologist. As it wound down (due to low glucose levels, or perhaps a high titer of corticosteroids…maybe both?) I asked her “How do you find time to read?”.

She frowned, and said “I don’t find enough. And it’s frustrating.”

Over the next few minutes she nuanced this a bit, acknowledging that 1) we all have different roles to play in our lives, and only so much time, and 2) by definition, scientists are infinitely curious, the literature is vast, and so frustration is not a bug, as our techie friends would say, but a feature. Our impatience with the literature signals why we are scientists.

I scribbled down that little nugget, thinking about what I’d write today, generating a pleasing little dribble of epinephrine in the process. Just then, another member of the class spoke up. “How much is enough?” she said. “My major advisor says read ten papers a day! Ten papers! Every day!”

My adrenals belched out another aliquot, I scribbled again. “How much reading is enough?”. Read the rest of this entry »