Are you ready for #acwrimo?

Saturday 1st November marks the beginning of Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo. Taking part in AcWriMo marks a decision to prioritise your academic work for the month, in whatever form works best for you.

Are you ready? Here are some tips to help you get started…

1. Think about where and when you are going to work

Amid all the excitement of the build-up to AcWriMo, it can be easy to forget to actually block out a time and location to do your academic work. Think about this in advance, and try to put a plan in place, otherwise you might end up spending your days telling yourself that you’ll “get around to AcWriMo later”. Then bedtime arrives and you have a choice between grumpy, sleepy writing, or not achieving what you’d planned.

2. Be prepared for each session

Make sure you have what you need BEFORE your planned start time. If you’re working on a computer, make sure your computer is on and your document is open. Have your coffee, or tea, or water, or whatever sustenance you require made and in a reachable place. It’s important to have these things ready in advance, otherwise you might find that 20 minutes of your writing time has magically been used waiting for your computer to switch on and for your kettle to boil.

3. Consider finding a writing buddy

I really enjoy working with friends. That is, alongside them – we’ll go to a cafe and work on our own projects. This practice, sometimes termed “shut up and write”, can be a great way to keep yourself focused but have the emotional boost of company. These sessions can take different forms. Some are strict, and focus on maximising productivity, such as a 20 minute burst of interrupted writing (or pomodoro), a break, and then another burst. Some are more casual, and have an undefined balance of writing and chatting. Find what works for you. For #acwrimo, a strict approach might be particularly helpful if you’re short on time. If there’s nobody near you to schedule a writing date with, hop on Twitter and find out of anybody’s looking for an online #acwrimo writing buddy.

What are your top tips for #acwrimo? Let me know in the comments…

3 reasons to do AcWriMo

November is coming. Everybody writes.

Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is nearly upon us. AcWriMo is a month devoted to academic writing or other academic work. For one month, you set challenging (but achievable) targets, declare them, and report on your progress. You can see more about more AcWriMo here

The most obvious reason that AcWriMo is so tempting is the idea of getting a large chunk of work done in one month. If you set yourself the challenge of writing 1000 words a day, think how much you could have done by the time December draws near? Because you only need to keep this faster pace up for one month, it’s easier to stick to than planning to write write write forever. The idea of being able to return to your usual pace in December, satisfied with your progress, is very appealing.

But there are other benefits to AcWriMo, beyond what you can achieve in terms of “work done”.

1. You can become immersed in a supportive, online community

There’s a big Twitter community doing AcWriMo, and it’s lovely to feel like you’re a part of it. For me, it’s particularly important in a process like academic writing. I set out to do research because of a desire to contribute to, and connect with, the world and the people in it. Typing alone for hours each day isn’t quite the tangible oneness that I had sought. The online community is a real boost – you can become part of it on Twitter by using the hashtag #acwrimo in your tweets and by keeping an eye on the #acwrimo hashtag and the @PhD2Published account.

2. You can learn a lot about when and where you prefer to work

When do you write best? Where do you write best? Personally, I do my best work in the early morning, before the day has really started. My strong dislike of getting up in the mornings had prevented me from discovering this until a year or two ago. Then I tried getting up early to work and found it a revelation.

As for location, I work well in cafes, or on my sofa at home. I like to either be alone or in a relatively casual environment. Computer labs don’t work so well for me; I’m in a permanent state of tension at the idea of disturbing someone and potentially being reprimanded.

Knowing what works best for you is incredibly important. Give me an hour or two in the early morning in a cafe or on my sofa and I will get more done than I would in five hours in a computer lab in the afternoon. Harnessing this knowledge can help you to be more productive and to have more time for yourself.

3. You can develop excellent task management skills

I am a very enthusiastic advocate of developing good task management habits. It’s easy to feel like you’re not really getting anywhere with academic work, even when you’re achieving quite a lot. Planning and reviewing your tasks can be a great way to battle that feeling. If you’d like to read more about this, I’ve written three posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks. Devoting a whole month to your academic work gives you a great opportunity to practice and develop these skills.

What are your top tips for AcWriMo? I’d love to hear about them in the comments…

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)