Experiment recruitment: How to maximise attendance

A while ago, I wrote a post about why participants don’t turn up to experiments. In my pilot study, I’d had a lot of no-shows, and I was writing about that. I promised to write a “part 2”, where I explained what steps I’d found effective in maximising attendance, or at least minimising inconvenience for you, the experimenter. This is that post.

Here’s the background:

In my main experiment, I wanted 60 participants (all university students), to be tested individually. Each experiment would take around thirty minutes. To make it slightly more complicated, it was important that participants believed that other participants were taking part in experiments at the same time, in different rooms. This means that being more than 5 minutes late was not feasible.

Here’s what I did:

1) I scheduled in more participants than I needed

This is a fairly basic step. The likelihood that you will have a 100% turn-up rate is very low, so booking in plenty of participants is a smart move.

2) I sent reminders

I had a lot of correspondence with participants. When they first emailed, I asked them to give their availability. Then I emailed them with a time, requesting a confirmation. If they replied, I sent them details about the experiment location. If they didn’t, I emailed to ask for a reply. A week before the experiment, I sent a reminder email, stressing that they should get in touch to cancel if they couldn’t make it. Finally, the evening before the experiment, I sent a text message asking for a final confirmation.

I worried that this level of contact might be tiresome for the participants, but they seemed grateful to be reminded. Quite a few cancelled after the “one week warning” email. Some cancelled after the “one day warning” text. That is highly preferable to not showing up, and I had a system in place to help…

3) I had backups

There were more cancellations than I’d expected. Fortunately, I’d kept a list of backup participants. Those were participants who had contacted me after I’d filled all the vacancies. I’d emailed them, asking if they’d be willing to be a backup, and if so what days they were available. This was incredibly useful, and many of my backup participants ended up taking part in the experiment.

Here are the final numbers:

I was aiming for 60 participants.

I scheduled in 65, and had a list of about 15 backups.

In the end, 58 participants took part in the experiment.

Writing and listening

A while ago, I wrote a post about where I liked to do academic work. Generally, I work in one of three places, listed in order of frequency:

1. On the sofa in my study at home

2. In a cafe

3. On a train (if I happen to be going somewhere. I don’t just take trains to get work done, although the thought has crossed my mind)

But for me, there’s more to it than just physical location. There’s sound. In the previous post, I mentioned that I didn’t like an oppressively quiet atmosphere (although incredibly loud environments aren’t great either). If I’m on the train or in a cafe, I will often listen to music.

At home, on the sofa, it’s more varied. Sometimes I’ll listen to music. More often I’ll have some sort of TV show or film playing on a separate screen.

This really works for me. It has done since I was a child. My parents could never quite believe that watching episodes of Friends or Disney films was conducive to getting work done, but it was, and still is.

I don’t think it works for everyone. But I do think it’ll work for some people, and it’s the kind of thing that’s very flexible. Here’s what works for me:

1. I tend to either choose something I know very well (and like), or something that doesn’t require much attention.

2. I make decisions based on what I’m doing. I have different items for:

- Reading articles on my iPad (early Grey’s Anatomy episodes)

- Writing (Pokemon episodes)

- Really difficult writing (About a Boy soundtrack)

- Anything nearish Christmas (Love Actually)

- Data analysis (Bones)

- Urgent things (Inception soundtrack)

3. This one is subconscious, but I have noticed that I generally choose things where you don’t miss out by only listening. I tend to pay more attention with my ears than my eyes, and will usually listen to a TV show or film more than watch it. This lends itself well to “watching” media while working.

Why does this work for me? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I think that a lot of it is about emotion. I’ve chosen media that evokes emotions for me, based on what I need to get done.

Grey’s Anatomy is something I associate with good, relaxed times. I like the music, and I’ve seen the early episodes quite a few times, so it’s easy to keep in the background while I’m ready. It’s probably too emotional to have on while I’m writing, though. Love Actually is similar, without the dramatic plot twists.

The About a Boy soundtrack comes with relaxed, positive emotions for me, but with no plot to follow, it’s ideal for when I really need to focus.

Pokemon is very adventure-based, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of attention. It works well for morning writing, because it’s peppy and promotes the idea that you can do anything.

Bones and Inception make me feel like what I’m doing is of incredibly importance, and may change the world.

Do you listen to media when you’re working? I’ve asked this question to a number of friends, and responses have been divided. The most common is “oh, no, I just couldn’t concentrate like that!”. What do you think?

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.