I’m writing as fast as I can!

This academic writing month has been strange for me. I’d already been pushing myself to the limit, but somehow I thought it was a good idea to push myself even harder. You can read about my goals and the ensuing exhaustion here.

I’m a productivity addict: I love breaking down goals into bitesize tasks and smashing them. I’ve always been this way, I just love going fast. How could I turn down the opportunity to be even MORE productive? What what negative consequences could possibly arise?

Exhaustion, depression, anxiety, nausea, irritability, stress, to name a few.

In addition, I’m currently working on my literature review, which needs careful, considered thought. I need to get the story just right.

So for the rest of #acwrimo (as of last Wednesday, the 20th), I’ve made a new goal: To slow down.

To sit with a pen resting against my chin, considering my argument. To rest, and relax, and do things I enjoy. To run my ideas past my friends (thanks in advance, friends). And to gently coax the story of my literature out from where it is hiding.

It will be both very easy and very difficult.

What do you think? Is slowing down hard for you? Do you find it hard to find a mid-ground between on and off? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

#acwri, one step at a time

Have you seen that episode of Friends where Chandler gets cold feet before his wedding? Ross has to come and find him, and Chandler says that it’s all far too scary. And Ross gives the perfect advice for anyone with a big project (like, let’s say, a thesis…). He convinces Chandler to take things one step at a time, distracting him from the larger task at hand. Chandler takes a shower. Chandler gets dressed. Neither of those things are scary, right?

Well, that’s how I’m trying to work on my thesis at the moment. I’m working on my literature review, which has been the part of writing that I’ve been most afraid of. Almost too afraid to look directly at it. When I have considered all the work that needs to be done, it has scared me, and it’s felt like an insurmountable, impossible task. Very scary.

So I’ve been taking it one step at a time. Just like Chandler. Reading a paper – that’s not scary. Writing up notes from that paper – that’s not scary either. Playing around with the structure of a subsection using post-it notes – well, that’s fun!

Any every so often, I take a peek at how I’m feeling about the literature review as a whole. To start, it was scary. Then, I started to get a sneaking suspicion that it might be going [gasp] well. Like I might one day finish it. And then I go back to the tiny steps, terrified that I’ll jinx it, and that I’ll realise that progress is not what I’d thought.

But today, for the first time, I finished a subsection. A small subsection. But that subsection is now ready to be part of my first finished draft. And I thought about how I felt about the literature review as a whole, and realised I felt okay about it.

In the next few months, I’ll get to the part where Ross tells Chandler the final task he has to do – get married (still scary). But in the mean time, I’m piecing together segments of my thesis, focusing on the small tasks, not on the huge one (submit thesis).

For me, it works incredibly well and feels very overpowered (the gaming word for “so effective it feels like cheating”). But that’s no surprise – If you’ve read any of my blog posts or spoken to me on Twitter, you’ll probably know that I’m a big advocate at breaking down goals into tiny, bitesize chunks (or tasks). In fact, earlier in the year, I wrote a series of posts about identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks.

In no way am I suggesting not to keep the big picture in mind – a thesis must be a coherent document, not a collection of disjointed segments. But focusing on the small chunks is definitely making me feel more positive about achievement.

How do you deal with working on big projects, like a thesis? If you have any ideas, tips, or stories, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Exhausting #acwrimo

Today marks the end of the first week of #acwrimo (Academic Writing Month). How do I feel? To be honest, I feel exhausted. And that’s really surprised me.

I was expecting to feel energised. I know that when I’m productive I have a lot more energy. The more goals I set, the more I achieve, and the better I feel.

I’ve been looking forward to this year’s #acwrimo since…well, since #acwrimo 2012. And the timing is perfect – this #acwrimo I’m writing the literature review chapter of my PhD, which needs a good deal of updating since my first year review.

My daily goals are a bit complicated. I work as a technology trainer two days a week, so my first goal is 90 minutes early every weekday morning (including work days), and 4 to 6 pomodoros throughout the rest of the day on the three non-work weekdays.

So I’ve been getting up at 6:45am every morning, and beavering away from 7-8:30am. Then work or pomodoros.

On the non-work days, 4-6 pomodoros isn’t a huge amount. I’m really not working flat-out. I’ve read my book, played video games (usually Civilization V or Oblivion), gone for coffee with friends.

And I’ve been getting lots done. I’m really pleased with my progress so far. I’m still not sure whether finishing the literature review within the month is a realistic target, but that’s what I’m working towards.

But I’m still exhausted.

And I’m not sure what the answer is. Is this tiredness an inevitable part of the PhD process? Is it time to power through, knowing the end is in sight? Or is this a sign that I’m pushing myself too hard, and that I need a break? Perhaps it’s just my brain and my body reacting to the darkness (after all, winter *is* coming).

What do you think? Do you find the winter months more difficult? Is tiredness an inevitable part of the writing-up portion of the PhD? Or is it a signal to slow down? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth)

A no-failure perspective on #acwrimo

It’s November 1st, a day of many happenings. A day of Apple releasing a new iPad, of Starbucks starting their festive ‘red cup‘ drinks for the year, of shaved faces for Movember, and for Academic (and National Novel) Writing Month.

Twitter is atweeting with the hashtag #acwrimo. At this point, almost 550 academic writers have declared their goals on @mystudiouslife‘s accountability spreadsheet, and tweets are flying thick and fast about goals set and tasks completed.

The tweets are also coming through from people who haven’t achieved the tasks they set, who perceive this as failure.

But is it, really? What is #acwrimo if not a time to figure out what works best for you?

I propose an iterative approach to Academic Writing this November. In a previous series of posts, I talked about setting tasks, scheduling them, and reviewing your progress. In the posts, I suggest doing this weekly, but why not do this daily?

Here’s a quick recap:

1) In your initial task setting, make it very clear what your ‘measure for success’ is.

2) Make a backup, for the ‘least amount of work’ you’d need to get done to feel satisfied.

3) When you’re reviewing your tasks, make a record of what goals you achieved, and which you didn’t. And more importantly, try to think about WHY you achieved/didn’t achieve those goals. Is it because of interruptions? Did you underestimate how long something would take? Were you cold? Hungry?

4) Revise your tasks for the next day (or week, depending on how long a period til your next review) in light of those things.

Try it! And let me know how you get on in the comments section.

Types of targets for AcWriMo 2013

It’s getting cold outside, the leaves are beginning to turn red and fall from the trees, which means it’s almost that time of year again – November, Academic Writing Month (or acwrimo).

Last year was my first experience of acwrimo, and I loved it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, acwrimo is one month where writing is made a priority. Targets are set and declared, and progress is reported. For more information, have a look at PhD2Published’s post, or at the #acwri live Twitter chat from last week on the subject, hosted by me (@ellenspaeth) and @pelf81.

But what are those targets? In trying to decide what targets to set myself for acwrimo 2013, I’ve decided to recap the possibilities in a post.

Initially, the challenge of AcWriMo was to write 50,000 words within that month (for more information on this, see Anna Tarrant’s piece in the Guardian). But since then, the emphasis has moved to setting whatever targets seem right for you. These targets tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Wordcount-based
  2. Time-based (e.g. a certain number of pomodoros)
  3. Output-based (e.g. an article finished, a thesis chapter written)

It’s possible to combine target types by setting both monthly and daily targets. For example, you could set an output-based target as your monthly goal, and a wordcount-based or time-based target as your daily goal.

Personally, I’d highly recommend this type of combination. The monthly target will give a big-picture view of the work you’re doing, and the daily target will keep that sense of achievement ticking over. As I’ve discussed (at length), breaking down larger goals into smaller chunks is an excellent way to stay motivated.

Sidebar: When I talk about “daily” targets, I’m not suggesting that you need to work every day during acwrimo. Set goals that are achievable without putting your health in danger – it’s important to take regular breaks.

Last year I set purely wordcount-based targets – 1000 words of freewriting, 5 days a week. This year is less easy – I’m currently working on my literature review, which is less easy to tame into predictable wordcount-based chunks. I’m currently leaning towards setting time-based targets, such as a certain number of pomodoros. The challenge, now, is to consider how many pomodoros is achievable…

Are you taking part in Academic Writing Month this year? Have you set your targets? If so, have you declared them on @mystudiouslife‘s accountability spreadsheet? Are they wordcount-based, time-based, or output-based? Or have you chosen a different type of target that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear about your AcWriMo plans in the comments.

Experiment recruitment: Why people don’t turn up

If you have run experiments with people as part of your research, you’ll know that recruiting participants can be a tough job. Even trickier is maximising the likelihood that those participants will actually show up to their assigned slot. It’s no fun to wait all day for participants that never arrive.

In the past year, I have run two experiments where I’ve had to recruit student participants. In the first, a pilot study (which is like a smaller, practice, dress-rehearsal style study), lots of people signed up, but quite a few failed to turn up to the session. In the second, I put a number of plans in place to make sure that didn’t happen again. SPOILER: Those plans worked pretty well.

And so, I am presenting you with two posts, which will hopefully prevent any of you from sitting in an experimental room alone and participant-less. Today’s post will look at what stops people from turning up to experimental sessions. The next will give some advice on what you can do about that.

Why don’t people turn up?

When a participant doesn’t arrive for your study, a number of potential reasons swirl through your head. Are they late? Did you give them the wrong time? Has something awful happened? The first time I had two no-shows in a row, I wondered if some sort of portal to another world had opened up outside of the building. This was probably overly dramatic.

In reality, it seems like there are two main reasons for why people fail to come to experimental sessions:

1. They forget

It’s easy to forget something if it isn’t written down in the place where you need to see it. Even if it is written down, the piece of paper may be lost, or the online calendar may not synchronise properly. These things happen. The blame for forgetting doesn’t fall solely on the participant’s side – if you (as the experimenter) don’t contact them to confirm their slot, they may never consider it a firm arrangement.

2. Something else comes up

Reasons for participating in experiments vary: Sometimes it might be purely out of interest, or altruism, but more often than not (especially with a student population), it’s because of the compensation that’s received after the experiment (usually vouchers or cash). But sometimes things will come up that are more important than that money.

Say, you’re going to get £7 for an hour. But then you realise that you’re late with your coursework. You need that hour more than you need £7. So you don’t turn up.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into consideration how important that hour is for the experimenter.  The room may only be available for a limited amount of time, and all the participants have to be seen in that time. Fewer participants mean that working with the data might be more difficult, and it may not be possible to use the tests you’d originally planned.

Why don’t people tell you they’re not going to turn up?

As an experimenter, I have no problem if someone wants to cancel their session. If someone gets in touch in advance, and says they will no longer be able to attend, there are zero hard feelings. I don’t even need a reason. Obviously, the more notice is better. That way you can arrange for another participant to come instead. It’s not great receiving a cancellation email or text two minutes before the allotted time. But you know what, it’s so much better than never receiving any correspondence at all. At least, then, you can do something with that experimental slot, rather than sitting, nervously, wondering if someone is going to arrive twenty minutes late.

So why don’t people just tell you they can’t make it?

1. They forget

Look, if they’ve forgotten the experiment was even happening, they’re probably not going to remember to let you know. However, if they remember at the last minute…

2. They are pretending it isn’t happening (out of sight, out of mind)

It’d be pretty embarrassing to forget about an experiment until the last moment. There is the worry that if you contact the experimenter, you’ll receive a message in return, rebuking you for your behaviour. It may seem easier to just pretend that it isn’t happening. Similarly, even if you have plenty of notice to cancel, you may be wrestling with your decision to do something else instead. It may feel like you’re letting someone down, and maybe you should still go to the experiment. But things slide, and you can’t make it. And by then, it’s too embarrassing to get in touch. And thus, an empty experimental slot is born.

Next time…

We’ll look at some methods I used to keep my experimental schedule as full as possible, and to minimise no-shows…

If I could give one piece of advice (part 2)

This is the second of two blog posts talking about this question, posed on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

The first post talked about health, wellbeing, and support. If you missed it, you can find it here.

In this post I’ll share the replies that gave writing advice.

Again, thank you to @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses, included either in this post or the previous one.

Writing advice

The three replies that focused on writing posts all had a similar message: Write from the beginning, and don’t expect your writing to be perfect. You are not a wizard. Here are the first two:

“Write from the start, and expect to go through at least three drafts per chapter, sometimes more”

“Just write. You may end up scrapping it but it will focus you and mean you keep moving forward”

Debates exist as to whether it’s sensible to write from the beginning, or to wait until later. The “wait until later” team argues that you don’t really know what you need to say in your thesis until you’ve gathered all of your data. But this assumes that all “writing” is “thesis writing”. For me, designating something as “thesis writing” makes it all too easy to obsess over getting it just right. And this is where the “write from the beginning” team comes in: Learning to write is a big part of a PhD. Do free-writing. Blog. Write summaries of the literature. You’ll find them later, and be very grateful (it happened to me quite recently). And a particularly practical way to write from the beginning was included in the third writing reply:

“Document what you did – you won’t remember 3 years later”

This is really important. We’ve all had those moments when we assume we’ll remember something: A recipe in a cookbook, a reference in an article, or, once, where I’d put a particular stone on a pebble beach (I was 5, and very confident of my own memory skills).

Don’t let that happen to your PhD. I recommend having a Scrivener file full of questions and answers, explaining what decisions you’ve made, and why. I started my Q & A file when I was still awaiting data but couldn’t wait to start writing.

And finally…

Two tweets didn’t fall neatly into either “health, wellbeing, and support” or “writing advice”. Rather than try to make them fit into a place where they didn’t belong, I’ve given them their own mini-section.

The only one-word response:

“don’t”

I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do a PhD. Embarking on a PhD is rarely (never?) the only option, so it’s important to think about if it’s what you really want. And like anything in life, a PhD is made up of good parts and bad parts.

To maximise the good parts:

“Be passionate about exploring what you are researching: its a long road and that will keep you going”

This is important. PhDs are fun, they are difficult, they are exhilarating, they are stressful. Studying something that you find fascinating and important is brilliant. Still difficult at times, but brilliant. If you’re not interested in what you’re researching, you may get all the “difficult” bits without the “brilliant” bits.

That’s all of the replies I received, folks. I hope you find it helpful. People are gifting out beautiful words of advice everyday on Twitter – I particularly recommend keeping an eye on #phdchat. If you have any advice of your own, or any questions or comments about the tweets in this post, please let me know in the comments section.

 

An update…

It appears that the “don’t” tweet was a case of hitting-send-too-soon, and was intended as a much more positive message:

“don’t become your PhD. It can consume your life so take time off to do things you enjoy!”

I’m delighted to hear this, as it means that the tweeter is not deep in the valley of shit (to the best of my knowledge). But for now, I’m going to leave the post as it is. I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to decide that a PhD isn’t for you.