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Master your tasks for #AcWriMo

Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is well underway now, so I thought I’d write a post about task management for those who might be struggling. To me, learning how to master your tasks – that is, to set yourself targets and meet them – is a core component of AcWriMo. It is both a key ingredient of success and a delicious and useful output.

It’s all too easy with long academic projects, particularly PhDs, to become overwhelmed with everything you have to do. It can feel like there is an infinite amount of potential work. This can be very destructive to your feelings of productivity – if there is an infinite amount to do, then you will never finish. Nothing you do will ever be enough.

An excellent way to combat this feeling is to keep track of what you plan to do and whether you do it. I’ve written some posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks, but, just to recap…

  • Think about the things you have to do, in the reasonably short term, and break these things down into small, easy-to-manage, chunks. These chunks are your tasks.

Then, each week:

  • Schedule your tasks into your upcoming week, and…
  • Review the previous week’s tasks

To aid this recipe for success, here are some tips with examples:

1. Make your tasks as specific as possible, and include a measure for success

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading”

This task isn’t specific enough. Do you really know where you’re going to start? Probably not. Do you know where you’re going to stop? Definitely not.

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading on <TOPIC>”

This task is better, but there’s still really no way to know when you’ve succeeded. That task could refer to one abstract or thirty full papers – there’s no way to tell how much is enough.

EXAMPLE TASKS: “Do a search on <DATABASE> for <SEARCH TERMS>” (replace these with whatever is relevant to you); “From top ten search results, read the abstracts of those which look relevant, and select which still appear relevant”

With these tasks, it is much easier to know where to start, and when to stop. You will be more likely to know whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve

2. Make your tasks challenging but reasonable

It can be difficult to judge how challenging to make your AcWriMo targets. Arguably, the point of AcWriMo is to do more than you would otherwise. But setting targets that you are unlikely to reach is bad for your self-esteem and could very well result in you achieving even less.

It’s hard to give examples for this, because everyone works in different ways and I don’t want to work with the ideas of “not enough” or “too much”. But what I’ll say is this:

DO set yourself targets that will challenge you, that you will have to work hard to reach.

DO take into consideration the other things that you will have to do in the month.

DON’T set yourself targets that you will be unable to achieve without compromising your health. AcWriMo is a time for prioritising your academic writing, but never above your health.

3. Review your tasks and modify them accordingly

Last year, I saw a lot of tweets written by people lamenting their lack of progress, and their hope that they would catch up. Indeed, part of AcWriMo is setting targets and sticking to them. But if you find that you’re not reaching your targets, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Think about why those targets aren’t working for you.  I’m not saying you should automatically give up on your targets if you haven’t met them for a little while. But I am saying that AcWriMo is a brilliant time to set targets for yourself, try to do your best to keep them, and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. If something doesn’t work for you in AcWriMo, a month you have decided to dedicate to your academic work, it’s worth reviewing and adapting your task management practice.

Are you doing AcWriMo this year? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments…

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#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.

Ladder 1 Rung 3: Reviewing tasks

In this “ladder” (or series) of blog posts, I’m talking about how I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game. I have always responded well to structured, achievable tasks, and the lack of these has been really difficult for me during my PhD so far.

This ladder is looking at the short bursts of achievement that video games can give you. As such, the focus is identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks. There are 3 “rungs” (or steps) to the ladder, with one blog post for each rung.

In the first rung, I talked about how to identify tasks using to do lists and free writing.

The second rung covered how to schedule those tasks, whether using a pad of paper, a diary or calendar, or a task management app like Producteev.

In this, the third rung, I’ll be discussing how to review your progress with the tasks you set.

Please note…

After the first and second rungs (where you’ll have identified and scheduled your tasks), you need to actually attempt the tasks you’ve set. I would usually set tasks for one week, and set a time at the end of the week to review the past week and identify and schedule tasks for the next week.

So to make full use of this post, it’s a good idea if you’ve already identified, scheduled, and attempted your first set of tasks (say, a week’s worth).

Ready?

  1. Do you have your list of tasks, and the times you scheduled them for? I tend to have these in a file in Scrivener from when I was identifying and scheduling the tasks.
  2. Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
  3. Do you have a way of writing things down? I use Scrivener for this too, because it means that it’s easy for me to have my “identify” and “review” files open next to each other using “split view”, and refer to both

Let’s go!

Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings

  1. Tasks you completed
  2. Tasks you started but didn’t finish
  3. Tasks you didn’t start

For each of the tasks you’d identified and scheduled for the week, choose which heading fits best. Then, write the task under that heading with a gap between each task (you’ll be writing more in those gaps).

Have you done that for all of your tasks?

Next, under each task write:

  1. A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
  2. Why you think you managed to/didn’t manage to complete it.

For me, point 2 is the most important part of this rung, and one of the most important parts of the whole ladder.

Look at your reasons for completion or lack thereof. Are there any themes within the headings? Write them down!

To give you an idea, I’m going to share some of the patterns from my first review session.

1) Tasks you completed

Things tended to get done if they were:

  • Manageable
  • Specific
  • Scheduled
  • Urgent

In my first week (and in following weeks), most of my completed tasks were done during a writing session with a friend. That’s one session in the week. If this working pattern sounds familiar to you, I highly recommend this blog post from the Thesis Whisperer.

It’s easy to view the rest of the week as a failure, or write-off, but instead I’m trying to try and focus on the achievement of that one very productive session, and to figure out how to replicate it

2) Tasks you started, but didn’t finish

This mainly happened with tasks where the criteria for completion were unclear.  I started using the “measure for success” heading when identifying tasks as a way of combatting this problem.

3) Tasks you didn’t start

With me, these were mostly because I was ill or tired, or other things came up. “Tasks I didn’t start” seemed to be due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s also possible to have a high amount of tasks in this list if you overestimated the amount of time you’d have, or underestimated the time it would take you to do the tasks.

Once you’ve done that, think about ways you might replicate the conditions that helped you to complete these tasks. If you’re interested in the idea of improving a situation by embracing the positive rather than banishing the negative, appreciative inquiry is a research approach that draws on this. As my research focuses on improving healthcare, I’m also including this abstract for a paper which uses appreciative inquiry in a healthcare context.

In my first review session, mine were

  1. Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
  2. Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
  3. Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
  4. Have contingency plans in place (this and the previous bulletpoint were addressed by adding the “measure for success” and “backup plan” headings in the identification phase)

If you review your tasks each week, and schedule the next batch of tasks at the same time, you’ll start to get a good idea of:

  1. What time of day is best for you
  2. What working environment is best for you
  3. How much time you can devote to these tasks
  4. How long it takes you to get things done
  5. What stops you from getting things done

And that’s the end of this ladder. Well done, you reached the top!

I’d really like to write more posts on improving productivity by taking hints from video games. If you have any requests or ideas, please let me know in the comments section. You can also use the comments section to say nice things, let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful, or if you have any suggestions.

Ladder 1 Rung 2: Scheduling tasks

Last time: Identifying tasks

For an introduction to the idea I’m trying out, have a look at this blog post. In short, I’m attempting to make my PhD more like a video game by creating short, manageable, but challenging tasks to promote a sense of achievement. Each technique I do will be referred to as a “ladder”, with the individual steps branded as “rungs”.

This is Ladder 1: Identify, schedule and review.  There are 3 rungs to this ladder, with one blog post for each.

In my last post, I talked about how to identify tasks (rung 1). In this post, I’m looking at how to schedule those tasks (rung 2). In the next post, I’ll be reviewing the tasks (rung 3). In between rungs 2 and 3 you actually have to do the tasks. There’s no post for that.

Ready? (Software…)

For rung 2, I’ll be using the task management software Producteev. There are a lot of task management applications out there, but I’ve chosen Producteev for several reasons:

1) It’s usable on anything that accesses the web (via a website) and there are apps for Windows,Mac, iPhone and Android. This means I can use it on my laptop, my phone, and my tablet.

2) It’s free for individual users (you can pay to use it for teams)

3) It has features I like: I can schedule things and view them on a calendar; I can tag tasks with labels; I can email tasks to Producteev; I can capture webpages to Producteev using a neat capture tool.

You can use whatever task manager you like, including a pen and pad of paper. I hear “diaries” are particularly good versions of pads of paper for task management and scheduling.

Let’s go!

From the last blog post, you should have already identified some tasks that need to be done (if you need help with this, look here).

Gathering your information…

The next step is to figure out how much time you have this week to devote to your task list. Look at your diary, or your calendar, or wherever you’ve listed things you have scheduled. And then use that information:

1) What are your “working hours” for these tasks? If they’re Monday to Friday, 9 – 5, then you know that the maximum hours you have are 40. But you can’t work solidly all that time, can you? So take out an hour for lunch each day. That’s 35. Then there are breaks. Factor those in. Everyone works differently. I work in bursts, so the 9-5 thing doesn’t actually work for me. Now you’ve calculate the maximum time you have to spend.

2) What do you already have scheduled? If you have a meeting at 10 on Tuesday morning, what does that mean for the rest of your day? Be realistic…

– Can you do any work before the meeting? Could you arrive early and get some work done first? Could you work at home before you leave? Or is it better just to write off that time?

– When can you start work again? If the meeting lasts an hour, do you want to get going straight away? Do you need to clear your head first? Or eat? If it’s a stressful meeting, maybe it’d be good to do some exercise or have some downtime. You’ll work better afterwards.

3) Look at what you have left, and write down the segments of time where you realistically think you can get work done. Make sure the times listed are actually times you will be in position to work. Not the time your meeting finishes until the time you’re meant to be at the cinema.

You’ll do this again and again when you review your progress and identify your next set of tasks. And you’ll quickly begin to develop an idea of how long it takes you to get stuff done –  an excellent by-product of managing your time this way.

Putting it all together…

By this point, you should have your list of tasks, and a list of times when you can do the tasks. Last time we talked about “dependencies” (i.e. a whether you need to do one task before you can do another). I’m only going to give one task a dependency for this post, to make things as simple as possible. The other headings we used in the last post are more useful for completing and reviewing the tasks.

Here’s an example of tasks and available times…

Tasks:
a) Read <name of paper> on <name of subject area> [b) IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
b) Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON a)]
c) Email <name> about <interesting thing>
d) Draft blog post on <something you write about>
e) Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
 
Available time:
Monday, 9 – 12
Tuesday, 2-5
Wednesday, 9-12
Thursday, 2-5
Friday, 9-12

Finally, you need to slot the tasks into the available time slots. You can make this as fun as you choose. One option is to write the tasks on post-it notes and write the time slots on bigger pieces of paper. Then put the post-its on the bigger pieces of paper. Another is to write the task list on one side of a piece of paper, and the time slots on the other. Use arrows to connect them.

You’ll end up with something like this:

Monday, 9 – 12 – Read on [TUESDAY TASK IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
Tuesday, 2-5 – Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON MONDAY TASK]
Wednesday, 9-12 – Draft blog post on <something you write about>
Thursday, 2-5 – Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
Friday, 9-12 – Email <name> about <interesting thing>, review this week and plan next week
Don’t forget to schedule in time to review the week, and to plan the next one.

Then pop those tasks into your diary or calendar. If you use Producteev, you can use their inbuilt calendar, combining the process of creating a to do list and noting the tasks in your diary . You can do something similar with Gmail and Google Tasks. If you use Gmail for your calendar this may be more convenient, but I prefer the feature set of Producteev.

Video game creators can spend lots of time figuring out how easy or difficult to make each task, and that’s a big part of what makes you want to continue playing a game. If the level is wrong, then it’s boring: too easy and the achievements mean nothing, too hard and the achievements are too rare.

So the big challenge to this rung of the ladder is making your achievements challenging but doable.

Every time you review a week, your next plan will be adjusted to take into account how easy or difficult your tasks were. You’ll be learning how much you can ask yourself to do. But that’s for the next post…

Note: This is very much a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for improvement, stories or tips to share, or nice things to say, I’d love to hear about them below. Leave a comment!

Next time: Reviewing tasks

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….