goals

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.

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PhD or RPG: The game of self-directed study

An RPG is a type of video game. I like video games. I also like my PhD. But I like them in different ways.

My PhD gives me a sort of holistic, long-term, feeing of achievement. Deep down, in a gentle way.

Video games give me short term burst of achievement. I won the race. I completed the level. Even shorter? I nailed that corner. I beat that enemy. I’ve loved video games for a long time, but I hadn’t put my finger on why until recently. Party it’s because it’s cognitively engaging. It’s one of the only activities I can do where my brain is really distracted from PhD  thoughts. Partly, it’s because it’s emotionally engaging. The story, the music, and the gameplay suck you in, and you feel like you’re in another world.

But partly it’s because of these short bursts of achievements. I’ve always responded well to short, challenging but achievable tasks.

I loved the learning part of school (as you can imagine, I wasn’t that popular…) because of the short, achievable goals.

I found my undergraduate degree more difficult. There were still objectives, which was good, but I could make more decisions for myself. There were more things that could go wrong. I burned out, and took a couple of years away from study. I went to a temping agency and asked for an admin job where I didn’t need previous experience and I could be given tasks to complete. I didn’t realise that I had identified (possibly for the first time) my preferred working style.

I did that job for a few months, and found that these tasks and bursts worked for me. It was a bit problematic in that job – I worked like a fiend. I finished everything. There was nothing left to do (for the day…). There was nothing to do. I wasn’t allowed to read. I was reported to my boss for playing solitaire. I didn’t have internet access apart from for specific, work-related sites.

So I learned how to tune out. And then the work would build up. And then I’d blitz it. And then I’d have nothing to to do. So I’d tune out.

Rather than identifying this as another signpost to my preferred working style, I struggled with it. Tussled with it.

My Masters degree was similar. It was taught, so had a similar amount of structure to my Bachelors degree, but a bit more choice. I could choose how to spend my time. It was hard to find work to do at the beginning of the course, so I tuned out, and spent my time replaying Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on my N64 and working doing first line IT support, both of which involved short tasks and quick achievement (apart from the Water Temple, which is a notoriously lengthy part of that video game).

And now, I’m doing my PhD, a very self-directed project. I’ve found it really fun, but really difficult. In my first year I was tired all the time. I had a normal routine (in my opinion), and was getting eight hours of sleep every night. But I was exhausted. I went to the sleep clinic in Edinburgh, where they strapped wires to me and watched me sleep. But there was nothing wrong (despite my awesome theory about alpha brain waves interrupting my sleep). And it was then that I started to realise that the problem was engagement. And achievement. I wasn’t ill. I was bored. Stressed, and bored. I took an interruption of studies for three months, and came back.

That was a year ago. My year has been more structured – organising studies rather than undirected reading and writing. But I’ve still been stressed. Less bored, but still stressed, and sometimes a bit lost.

Why?

I’ve only just recognised it, this small, sharp-toothed monster that’s been dragging along at the bottom of my jeans. I’ve been feeling guilty that my working patterns don’t match other people’s. How has this happened? I like being different. I usually embrace this. But to me, having a different working style equates with sucking (colloquially, not literally).

People have prescribed a certain amount of hours that you should devote to your PhD each week. 40 hours a week is what I’ve been told. 40 hours a week means that you don’t have to feel guilty in the other hours of the week, and that you will get you work done.

The amount of hours a week that I work on my PhD vary. I have a job 2 days a week (doing technology training, which is more self-directed than my previous job). But I’m trying to set myself tasks and do them. And then feel the achievement.

And I can get so much work done that way.

And so I’m just going to say what seems to be taboo:

It is not about how many hours you work. It is about how you spend your time when you are working.

I feel inferior to friends who work in the office from 9-5. This is my own doing, none of them have ever made me feel bad about it. So I am identifying my working style, my strengths and weaknesses.

It is a strength that I can do things quickly. It is sometimes difficult that I work best in short bursts. But a PhD is the time to harness this, because I am in control of my own time, as described by Ben from Literature HQ in a recent Thesis Whisperer blog post.

So I’ve been turning my PhD into a game.

For the past six weeks I’ve been setting myself weekly tasks, and when I aim to complete those tasks. It has helped enormously. The tasks have evolved, and become increasingly specific.

So, continuing the Zelda comparison, rather than “complete the water temple”, it’s narrowed down to  “find the next silver key“, to “hookshot over to the door”, “beat the enemies in that room”.

Or in writing terms, it started with “design my study”, and narrowed down to “scan literature about physiological measures”. Now it’s “email C regarding her physiologist friend”, “do a Google search for ‘measurement windows pulse rate'”, “read the abstract of five of the results that come up”, “if any are relevant, read protocol, if not repeat search”, and so I’ve broken my PhD into small morsels of achievement. And I feel good. It makes me want to keep going.

My aim is to make my PhD the thing that I just want to keep doing until the next save point, because the achievement is so tantalising. It’s easy to keep working because you feel guilty that you’re not doing enough. But to keep working because it’s fun? To get enough done in those sessions that I can block out time for the rest of my life?

That’s my goal. What do you think? Do you find yourself playing video games instead of your research? Does the 9-5 work pattern sit badly with you? Do you have any tips for how to manage expectations of a certain working style? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below….