Resolving to Return to a (Work) Routine

As I begin writing this post, I can’t help but sigh heavily. To say that August has been a whirlwind of chaotic activity would be an understatement. But as it comes to a close and my special collections research ends (or at least is put on hold), I find myself struggling to get back into my old routine of writing and reading. Or rather, I need to find a new routine. Either way, productivity is down.

Part of this is simple burnout. I want and need a break. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I have approaching deadlines that require that I continue working and accept the last two days as break enough. As Tim Gunn says, “It’s time to make it work!”

So, since I’m not simply falling back into a work routine, reflection is in order to push past the feeling of being overwhelmed with “stuff” to do. What do I need to do? What is the first step(s) to getting it done? What is my priority? What can wait a while?

And to make this official, I’m sharing my “To Do” list, in prioritized order with any formal (or informal) due dates:

  1. Organize desk top. (It is a mess from the move still.) [X]
  2. Register for conference in Sept. [X]
  3. Reserve shuttle for Nov. conference. [X]
  4. Read and incorporate secondary sources into my current dissertation chapter. [in progress]
  5. Polish my current dissertation chapter.
  6. Submit to dissertation director before meeting on Sept. 15th. [X]
  7. Condense to conference presentation and submit to graduate student presentation contest by Sept. 18th. [X]
  8. Begin creating colloquium presentation (PowerPoint or Prezi) while on the topic.
  9. Attend and present at conference Sept. 25th-28th. [X]
  10. Finish preparing 40 minutes colloquium presentation paper/notes and visuals by Oct. 16th.
  11. Jump into next chapter (already begun but put on hold last semester), in particular to prepare for Nov. conference presentation.
  12. Prepare conference presentation by Nov. 5th.
  13. Attend and present at conference Nov. 5th-8th.

I think at that point in November I can afford to take a week or two off to recover.

And, just as I’m about to publish this post, I realize I left all my job application materials off the official list, so . . .

*1-13* Scatter job application prep, search, and submission throughout.

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Optimizing My Writing Space: Paint & Plans

In a previous post, I discussed how having a dedicated and comfortable writing space was improving my productivity as I compose my dissertation. I mentioned purchasing a separate keyboard to use to increase comfort when typing as my desk is setup with a keyboard shelf and therefore not super conducive to typing on a laptop resting on the desktop. (I switched to the keyboard halfway through the first sentence of this post, so it was a very good decision!) In this post, I’d like to compile and discuss some of my plans for improving my writing space (aka desk).

In a week I will finally be moving into my “permanent” apartment (yay!) and so will have the opportunity to reorganize my work space. This is what I currently have in mind:

1. METALLIC PAINT

To begin with, I’m painting my current desk to make it more aesthetically appealing. The desk was a hand-me-down from my dad, so I really had no say in picking it out. Also, because it was free for me, I’m not opposed to putting a bit of money into painting it.  What color, you may ask? I’ve decided on metallic nickel!

I’m excited for the transformation and have been “researching” how to spray paint laminate furniture (mostly on Pinterest). This backfired a bit as the paint I wanted, and the copper color I wanted, was unavailable in my area. I was able to find the metallic nickel color, however, and the paint, while not formulated for laminate, is made for plastics and other “hard to paint surfaces.” I tested it on the keyboard shelf yesterday as an easily removable and mostly unseen piece to paint and perhaps ruin, and so far so good! Hopefully, the results prove equally pleasing when the rest of the desk is done!

messy workspace, painting in progress

Part of my current disaster of a work space. You may notice the newly metallic keyboard shelf at the bottom.

2. NOTE & QUOTE ORGANIZATION

In addition to painting my desk, I’ve been considering new ways to organize my materials. During this recent in-between time (crammed into a one-bedroom apartment with another person–my bed is in the dining room actually and my desk is located at its foot) my desk has become out of control–simply a huge jumbled mess of random stuff (see photo evidence above). While this may do for now, I want a better system in the new apartment. Enter Pinterest (again)!

I came across some pins from a Better Homes & Gardens slideshow called “Home Office Storage on a Dime.” This simple organization system using some labeled clothespins appealed to me.

While the article suggests using the clothespins as a weekly schedule, labeling the clothespins with days of the week, I think this setup could be perfect for organizing various notes, quickly jotted thoughts, questions or directions, and/or quotations. Each pin could be labeled according to article or chapter topic or even sub-topic (for instance, Literary Annuals, Mary de Morgan, Theory, Introduction, etc.). Additional pins could be used as a to-do list or even a series of goals. Really, the possibilities seem endless.

3. ARTWORK & MEMO BOARDS

The same article also suggested turning canvas artwork into a memo board. It explained, “Don’t spend money on a corkboard — instead turn an artist’s canvas into a practical memo board. For a magnetic surface, attach a sheet-metal square. Hang it above your desk to keep important items visible” (“Home Office Storage on a Dime“)

I like the idea of a “prettier” memo board. But more than that, I like the idea of creating my own piece of artwork on a canvas and transforming that into a memo board. I’m currently taking a watercolor class at the community art center, and I think this may be the perfect way to utilize my newly acquired (basic) watercolor skills. Or, for more pop, I might use some basic acrylic paints, or even just wrap a canvas in a favorite piece of patterned fabric. Plus, I can choose whatever size I want and/or need.

Moreover, should I go the magnetic route suggested by the article, I could glue magnets to the labeled clothespins and skip the hanging twine altogether!

4. QUOTATIONS THAT MOTIVATE

Finally, I’m considering a motivational quotation, perhaps in the form of a wall decal. Tradingphrases.com has several options, but I kind of have a specific quotation in mind and am having trouble finding it in decal form. It’s from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

Not only is this quotation motivational as it encourages perseverence in the pursuit and completion of goals, but it also is rather calming in suggesting that there is a linear process to an end, whatever that end may be. I simply love it. So I might need to order a custom decal with this quotation. Or I might get an extra-large canvas for a memo board and incorporate the quotation into my artwork. 🙂

(Dissertation) Writing Tips

These are the steps that I have found productive in my personal dissertation-writing experience so far. While mostly basic and unoriginal, the tips below are tried and true in my experience. They may not work for everyone, but they are working for me, and so I’ll (re)share in the hopes that someone else finds them helpful.

Keep Writing

Source Unknown

1. Write every day.

Or almost every day. As regularly as possible. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, with links to other sites that offer similar tips and discuss daily writing specifically. When I wrote that post, I was just about to begin my trial run of daily writing.

Like most graduate students I know, I was previously a binge-writer, setting aside large amounts of time to write a lot all at once and then taking some days off. Although it has taken me several months to get into a daily (or almost daily) writing groove, it truly is amazing how much more productive I (feel I) am. Regularly working on my dissertation has also the side benefit (other than the main benefit of progress) of reducing my stress and guilt. Moreover, I can still binge-write; some days I might only write a sentence or paragraph, plan an outline of the direction I plan to take next, or read and take notes in preparation of writing the next day, while other days I will sit down for 6-8 hours and write.

But it’s important to note that by “write every day,” I do not necessarily mean WRITE. Perhaps work would be better, but writing is such a major component of the process that I think it needs to be emphasized. Once a complete draft is written, reading and incorporating secondary sources as well as revision are equally productive and necessary tasks. I therefore might not actually “write” anything that day yet I have prepared for the next day’s writing task.

1.2. Write every day even while teaching.

While I must note that my productivity has increased a lot since I began my fellowship and have not had to worry about teaching preparation and grading at the same time, it is also important to find ways to prioritize writing and research while teaching, especially because the final goal for most of us is to find a academic position that will require research and teaching.

One way I incorporated my own productivity into my composition classroom is through a Daily Writing Challenge. Basically, students could earn some extra credit points by posting daily writing (related to the course, such as paragraphs or outlines for writing assignments, reflections on or plans for progress in the course, etc.) to our course’s Blackboard Discussion Board. I posted as well, and if I did not meet the 6 out of 7 days a week goal I set for my students and myself, students earned freebie days they could skip as well. (So if I posted 5 days one week, students only needed to post 5 days to earn bonus extra credit points for completing the challenge for the week). Knowing I’m not helping my students progress by handing out unearned points motivated me to prioritize my own daily writing practices even while being busy teaching.

HabitRPG (discussed previously here and here) has also proven an excellent tool to encourage my own daily writing.

Moreover, Gregory Semenza just wrote on the benefits of writing in short 10-15 minute bursts throughout the day, in “The Value of 10 Minutes: Writing Advice for the Time-Less Academic;” these daily writing bursts can take place in between classes or any time some spare time is found.

2. Have a comfortable and dedicated writing space.

This really helps the writing process as I know when I sit down at my desk (or stand at my desk…more on that coming soon), I am preparing to write. Sure, I end up playing online games and checking out Facebook or Pinterest, but more often than not, writing occurs without me forcing myself to do so. A thought will pop into my mind that I begin to work out in writing, or my notes will catch my eye and inspire a new direction or nuance that I’ll want to immediately begin to record.

But comfort is also important, and the more you write in your dedicated space, the more you’ll realize what adjustments can and should be made to improve productivity. For instance, I purchased a separate keyboard a few days ago after becoming frustrated at how high my laptop sat on my desk; with the separate (and wireless) keyboard on my desk’s keyboard shelf, I’m sitting in a much more comfortable and natural writing position, without the edge of my desk digging into my wrists or my back aching from leaning forward.

3. Know your writing process.

This may seem basic but it is important, and if you don’t already know your writing process, you probably will by the time you’re halfway through your dissertation. This knowledge will certainly prove useful as you try to optimize your productivity.

I know my process begins with marking up the primary source, followed by drafting, researching, incorporating secondary sources, revising, and proofreading. I know that researching before I write my analysis usually leaves me confused and overwhelmed. I also know that I will inevitably write more during the drafting process, followed by less writing while I research and read secondary sources, followed by a final return to the writing process. Because I know this, I don’t worry when I’m not making visible progress on my written draft when I hit the secondary source stages; progress is still being made even if concrete evidence of it cannot be seen, and the bulk reading and note taking (or rather, quotation flagging) will pay off in a quicker incorporation and revision process.

4. Plan your writing projects strategically.

By this I mean that you don’t necessarily have to write your introduction first, followed by Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. I began with my middle chapter first because I felt most confident in the argument being made in it and I already had ~40 pages written on the topic from my Master’s Essay. I chose my next chapters based on scheduled conference presentations related to the topics, as well as based on which chapters had the most written on the subject from previous term papers and presentations. I know I’ll be leaving the introduction until the end, and I’ve also decided to wait to work on one of my chapters because it easily drops out of the project if I run out of time to complete it and defend in order to graduate in May 2015 (my current plan involves an intro, seven chapters, and a coda and therefore more than meets any length requirements even with one chapter dropped).

I’ve also allowed whim and muse to play a role in my writing process. If I’m trying to decide what chapter to work on next, and I’m not particularly interested in the subject at the moment, I choose a subject and chapter that does interest me. Writing about something I like and care about at the moment only increases my productivity and has me still loving my project even after several months of writing.

 

Update: Adapted Snowflake Method & HabitRPG

I just wanted to record the success of my use of both the Adapted Snowflake Method and HabitRPG (which I have discussed in previous blogs).

I most recently came across the Snowflake Method of novel writing (ironically, via HabitRPG) and adapted it for dissertation chapter writing. I thought it would provide some basic steps that would work well in my compilation of a dissertation chapter existing in pieces in various term papers and conference presentations, and it has indeed proven most helpful! Even with having taken two weeks off from dissertation writing to move out of my apartment and attend a conference, I have progressed through eight (almost nine) of the ten steps and have a clear direction for completing this chapter (planned for submission in a month, by the end of July 2014). Once complete, I will try employing the method with a stalled chapter I began during the winter semester and see if it helps me progress there as well. I’m also interested in trying the Adapted Snowflake Method with a chapter to be written from scratch, but that will have to wait until these next two chapters are complete.  If any other dissertators have success with the Adapted Snowflake Method, do share in the comments! Any suggestions for re-adaptation are also welcome (especially considering that I originally adapted it to fit with my personal writing process).

My use of HabitRPG has also proven beneficial. The website makes developing good habits and abandoning bad habits into a game, and my use of it has definitely boosted my productivity by making me more conscious of how I spend my time and reminding me to write daily.  I’m even earning points for writing this blog as I’ve listed it as habit I’d like to encourage. Moreover, my first encounter with the Snowflake Method was through a challenge created in HabitRPG. In the game, there are various groups that create various challenges players can choose to join; such groups include Scholars and Writers, and their challenges are often directed toward productivity. As I’m not teaching, I can’t speak to its success in a classroom environment, but I look forward to testing it out when my fellowships expire. Until then, I will continue playing (and writing) myself.

Adapting the Snowflake Method

Last Friday I sent my second completed dissertation chapter to my director! I must admit that I underestimated how long it would take me to put this chapter together. I was beginning with two literary analysis term papers (one that was 26 pages long and another supplemental 10-page paper that made new claims but also repeated some analysis from the first paper) and thought this would significantly speed up the writing process.  I’m sure it did, but it was still a lot of work and the compiling was more time-consuming than I expected. Moreover, my discussion of an adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood” necessitated a lot of secondary source reading given the number of books written on the topic.

Today, I happened across Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method for Designing a Novel.” While I’m not writing a novel, I think this method can be adapted to dissertation writing, or in my case, dissertation chapter writing. After only a weekend break after submitting my last chapter, I find myself highly motivated to begin work on another compilation chapter. This next chapter currently exists in a much more fragmented and incomplete form: approximately five term papers focus or touch on my topic but unlike my last chapter, I do not have a longer paper focusing specifically on the analysis my dissertation chapter will present. Therefore, this chapter is going to require more organization and more additions on my part, and I think an adaptation of Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method will help me achieve this organization and quickly identify and begin to fill in the gaps in my existing (fragmented) argument.

Ingermanson’s method consists of ten steps that I’ve adapted to dissertation chapter writing below:

The Snowflake Method Ingermanson’s Orignal Method for Novel Design Adapted for Dissertation Chapter Composition
Step 1 One-sentence summary of novel Thesis statement detailing chapter argument
Step 2 Paragraph-length summary of novel (expand Step 1) Paragraph-length overview of chapter
Step 3 One-page summary sheets for characters Brief analyses of primary texts discussed in chapter
Step 4 One-page skeleton of novel (expand Step 2) Outline chapter
Step 5 One-page character synopses (tell story from characters’ POVs) Connect brief analyses of primary texts to thesis statement/overall argument (expand Step 3)
Step 6 Four-page synopsis (expand Step 4) Introduction to chapter (expand Steps 1 & 2)
Step 7 Character charts (everything there is to know about each character) Complete, in-depth literary analysis of primary texts (expand Step 5)
Step 8 List of scenes in spreadsheet Research and compose list of secondary sources
Step 9 Narrative description of story (describe each scene in list) Read secondary sources, noting information and/or quotations that contribute to your argument/analysis
Step 10 Draft novel Layer in secondary sources and fill in remaining gaps in draft to form a cohesive argument; Add conclusion

Following this adapted method, I can organize and determine what fragments of my chapter already exist and what needs to be written, and by the time I complete Step 10, I should have a full draft of my chapter that is already relatively polished. We’ll have to see how this actually works out, but at the very least, I think the adaption of Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method has given me some direction for moving forward with my next dissertation chapter.