Working Methods for 2017

Confession: I am a work method junkie. If there is a book on strategies or experiences to make life more efficient or productive, I tend to like reading it. Even if the content reveals that many tricks are already familiar or a part of my own routine, I find it inspirational to learn how others have mastered their time or goals and achieved something. At the end of the Gregorian Calendar, I like to put aside my academic reading and writing routine aside for a couple of days to re-evaluate how I work. Over the last couple of days, I have read Cal Newport's Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016). Many of his strategies, including deep thinking during walks to work or scheduling uninterrupted times for concentrated work, are methods that I have also come to find useful in my life. Although there was little new that I picked up from this book, as a strong believer in the power of deep, concentrated, and undistracted work, I found this book interesting enough to finish. 

My own use of concentrated and devoted work time stems from my experiences of growing up in Japan. In this structured and disciplined country, it is common for the general public to have respect to those who devote their entire life to one specialty. This level of devotion is really difficult to find in the United States. Here, it seems that popularity of ideas and topics change by the minute. There is an unsettling amount of rapid change that takes place. If you can't keep up, you are definitely going to fall behind, at least in certain circles of society. 

However, from the number of books and movements of focused and purposeful living strategies that can be found on the internet and littered in the bookstores, perhaps this is changing here. I have noticed some seeking to find calm in their lives through meditation. Others have finally understood that fast and constant change is not always a sign of productivity. There are, it seems, small but significant changes that might be taking place in the mentality of work ethics here in the US.

In many ways I feel that in the last year I was able to find a new level of working strategies that work for me, especially as I meticulously documented my work methodology throughout the summer of 2016. By keeping record of how many words I write during a 365 day period, I now have a good idea for how much writing that I am capable of accomplishing within this time. I know, for example, that I could write more if necessary. At this experimental level, I have come to understand that my 30,000 words a year word count is more of a minimum requirement than a maximum outcome. In my current work situation, writing more than this would require more isolation from friends and family -- something that I am not willing to give up at this moment. But at a later date, when I need to be producing more writing, I am confident that I can find methods of doing so.

I have not read the book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), but would guess that I would resonate with its contents as well. Slowing down and paying attention to the details of my work will be a goal that I will aim to achieve in 2017. During my undisturbed Fridays, I will continue to strive and find at least four solid hours of undistracted time for writing and thinking through problems that I cannot handle during my otherwise busy work week. During the week, it is only possible for me to find around two hours a day -- enough to get some concentrated work done but not enough to make the type of progress I want at the moment. 

Two years from the completion of my doctorate, I feel that I have found a new way of working as I begin my career. I still have places of refinement that need to take place and 2017 will be a year of discovering small habits that I will add to the over-all methods that I have established so far.

Accidental Research: The Queen's Doctor of Music

Several weeks ago, I appeared as a guest on  Musicology Now, the American Musicological Society's official blog. I had discovered, quite by accident, that the Queen of England holds an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Bangor University. I say by accident because the discovery happened while I was relaxing and browsing through old photograph in the internet's many rabbit holes. As I was writing up my discovery, it made me think about the continuously debated life/work balance question. 



It seems that some of the greatest discoveries are made through unintended or unintentional actions. I for one tend to be thinking about or engaging in something connected to my research nearly all day long. During my walk to work in the morning, I am thinking about what I read the day before, analyzing my thoughts by working through problems that I couldn't quite solve at the moment. Sometimes I will be cleaning the house and doing the same thing. For some reason, showering is an action that really gets my mind moving and engaged.

I have alluded here before about how I like to segregate my time into different chunks and work without distraction. But in reality, I actually believe that I am always thinking about something concerning whatever project I am working on at the time. 

There are so many connections between what comes across my screen and what I may be working through in my notebook. To segregate life from work, or not thinking about work during my other daily tasks, is nearly impossible for me. 

It is far more interesting to connect the dots and find ways that interlink all different aspects of what I am interested and curious about at any given time. I enjoy finding out that someone famous has a special connection to my own life. In the case of this discovery, it was a connection that I didn't anticipate and likely would have not found precisely because I wasn't looking for anything even remotely like it. My evening that night turned from one of relaxation to "work" almost instantly. But it was exhilarating work.

As the year comes to an end and I reflect on past experiences and future plans, I look forward to another year of mixing work and life because for me it has nearly always resulted in the most interesting discoveries. They seem to appear almost out of no where while I go through my daily tasks. I would hate to miss out on such fascinating discoveries. 


End of Semester: Six Lessons Learned

How I Felt Most Days - Cartoon by me of me
The end of the semester is filled with joy, relief, and a sense of accomplishment that culminates in a mixed emotional response. Carrying on from the lessons I learned during the summer about tasking out my duties through Things, I vowed to myself that I would take my weeks one at a time, one day at a time, and ultimately one task at a time. I am a natural multitasker but this semester, I realized that I needed to focus on small projects one at a time to insure quality and completion.  It worked. The semester was intense with three different classes on top of my administrative work but with careful planning out of each week during the weekend, I was able to stay in control of the numerous tasks that came across my desk. 

Here are six things I learned from this semester:


1. I can work in a weekly headspace

I have a tendency to look at the big picture and become overwhelmed with what I find there. It is not often that I can break things into smaller tasks and take them one by one. The plus side of this is that I know how where I want to end up, in the end. The negative side is that I have difficulty in finding merit in the small tasks that culminate to make the large goal happen. This semester, I forced myself to look only at the tasks that were essential to get through the week. It was surprisingly a relief to know that I could leave one problem until another day or week (and often find that the problem disappeared entirely!). 

2. The importance of categorizing my work day

If a task needs three hours, then I make sure to find that three hours and block it off on my calendar. No exceptions. This semester, Tuesday evenings were my non-negotiable nights to prepare for class. I had to refuse several social outings but it was worth it to make sure that I had everything ready for my Wednesday classes in advance. Fridays, I turned everything off - email, phone, texting... If someone really needed to get a hold of me, they could find ways, but most times, whatever needs attention can wait. These sacred pockets of time are helping me be more present in the other times of my day because it gives me peace to know that I have the time to take care of the projects that require my undivided attention.

3. Sleeping, eating, walking

I am a strong advocate of doing all three of these well. Walking for me is especially important not only for exercise but also to have time to myself to think things through. I regularly walk to work or get out on the mornings during the weekends to think through my arguments that I make for different issues I am dealing with: in my research, teaching, and in life. It sounds cliche, but I rely on all three of these important times in my life to stay active and alert. An old but solid article in the NY Times emphasizes the importance to renew my energy through these three necessary and natural human needs. 

4. Always planning ahead

Even though this conflicts with no.1 above, I am actually constantly looking at my calendar to make sure that I am meeting my professional deadlines. By knowing what is coming up and tasking it out in my Things app, I find that I have missed few events/deadlines and give myself plenty of time to think through the details before submission. This winter, I need to revise my five year plan, as I am currently exactly in the middle of my original five year plan and need to push forward into new agendas and tasks to work towards.

5. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

This semester, I found out that one of my book chapters for an edited volume will move forward with a great press. I also had my article on Louise Hanson-Dyer accepted for publication. And I discovered a very interesting bit of history from my doctoral institution which resulted in a major blogpost. All three of these things were worthy of celebration. I am a strong advocate for celebrating these and smaller accomplishments along the way. Without stopping and enjoying success, the long hours spent reading, writing, and research during the evenings and weekends would, in my opinion, not be worth all of the effort.

6. Mingle with new people

I find that getting to know new people is a difficult task and yet, it is what inspires me to find new ways of doing things. It keeps me motivated and to not get stuck in a rut, to always look for how other people live their lives, and find out what they are interested in. This semester, I had the opportunity to learn from different people during conferences, hackathons, dinners, gatherings of unrelated events, and simply by saying hello to a stranger in the waiting room. Meeting new people is such a different kind of act from just getting along with daily tasks. It is rather uncomfortable at times. But it is so important. 

End of Summer Reflections

Beautiful Coffee Shops in Montreal
I started my summer with one goal in mind: keep myself accountable so that at the end of summer I will feel that I have accomplished something. I sat down with my calendar and worked out that the summer weeks would be extensive, 17 weeks long to be exact.

Based on the challenge that my friend gave herself during her study leave, I decided to keep a public forum here on my blog and write weekly on my progress, on what I struggled with, and how I manage daily research and writing routines. These are the things I learned about my own work style.


In the early weeks, I did not have any structured plans for what I was going to be working on. Instead, I relied on external circumstances to dictate my work. For example, in my first week, I received a copy of my chapter for an edited volume with comments and suggestions for altering to fit the style of the final book. I took these comments and worked with them, but did not find ways to be proactive about how I was going to work on the chapter. Most importantly, I did not have a goal for when things would be done during my week. This is likely why I wrote that I felt that the week had slipped by rather than feel structured and in control. I set a few vague goals for the following week and worked toward these.


By week 3, I was writing that I was losing momentum and did not have clear guidelines set up to follow through with the work that I knew needed to be done. I felt an imbalance between what needed to be done and what I had been able to accomplish. I wrote about discovering how I needed to maintain a momentum rather than work hard one day only to find it difficult to pick up where I left off.


Thankfully, the struggle did not last too long and by week 4 I had gained back my confidence and clarity of perspective. It also coincided with a two-week class that I was scheduled to teach in the summer. I wonder now if the thought of having something regulated in my schedule forced me to find focus once more. In any case, it seems to have taken at least this much time for me to find my feet, so to speak, in my new summer rhythm.


By week 6, I was able to send off my re-worked chapter to my editors and felt very good about this turn around. The struggle of figuring out what I needed to do while I rewrote certain sections was painful but in the end I am much happier with the outcome of this chapter. Now I had the chance to figure out what I wanted to do for the remainder of the 10 weeks of summer, a somewhat daunting task.


It was also at this point in my summer that I found the use of the task manager, Things, to be extremely helpful in scheduling tasks and projects that I wanted to complete. I learned how to use this task manager over the course of 3 to 4 days and began plotting out what I needed to get done during the week to fulfill my goals. Now I had a way of putting everything into one place and be reminded what tasks I needed to do when I opened my computer. I could not believe how much easier my morning routine became!


With Things as my co-pilot, I now have a new way of working through my projects. On the weekends, when I have a bit more time to figure out what I need to accomplish in the week, I sit and write down all of the tasks that I can think of that need to be done. They include articles that I need to read, books that I need to borrow, chapters of dissertations that I need to read, paragraphs that need reworking... Then, I assign dates for every task. This is where I take my calendar out and see what other activities surround my writing schedule. Some days I have quite a few hours to devote to a longer task while other days I can only find an hour or two to fit work into. And I learned that this is okay and simply part of life. What happens in the morning when I sort my day out is that the tasks that need to be accomplished that day are sitting right there in my task manager. I don't have to think about whether I should be doing this task or not this day because that decision has already been made (by the weekend me). There is simply nothing I can do about it but complete the task.


Once I rearranged my work schedule using this task organizer, my entire summer shifted from being a long overdrawn and endless set of vague goals to small, clear, and manageable tasks that needed to be accomplished.


The second half of my summer was devoted to working through 32 manuscripts and putting the contents of these manuscripts into a large database that I created in Scrivner. This is a task that I had wanted to work on during my PhD but never ended up having the time to do. Now with other essential components of my life a little less ambiguous, I finally had the time to work through and consider the material in a complete scope. I found secondary literature that needed to be read and assigned days to read these. I found descriptions of manuscripts in obscure places that required interlibrary loans. I focused on getting the big picture now so that I can go back and find the smaller things throughout the sources at a later date.


In between these tasks that I assigned for myself, I had to prepare for an interview and so took a couple of weeks away from the daily grind to formulate a new temporary set of tasks. A new semester in the fall meant that I needed to refresh some of my syllabi and teaching materials. I also made sure to take several long weekend getaways to rest and recuperate during the quieter months. Exercise through the form of biking (I did so many 30 mile rides!) and swimming at least 3 times a week kept me healthy and refreshed.


In my final week of summer, I can say that I accomplished these key items this summer:


1) revised and re-submitted a chapter for an edited volume

2) taught a two-week intense summer class on writing
3) created and completed a large database for future research
4) read through many seminal articles, books, and chapters that I had been putting off for a while
5) prepared syllabi and teaching materials for the new academic year
6) completed an article for review
7) learned how to organize my research agenda to ensure that tasks are actually completed
8) got plenty of sunshine and exercise to keep me happy and motivated.

Spending 17 weeks tracking my own work style has been an extremely useful activity for me. Blogging about my work has helped me to reflect on what I found good and bad in my work habits. I thought that I was already pretty good at getting things done but it really wasn't until I began the new habit of assigning myself tasks to accomplish during the week that I found clear direction in what I need to get done. I now have a better understanding of how I work.


To those who followed through with me on this summertime journey, thank you for reading. I hope that perhaps some of the things I learned along the way motivated you to also find new ways to keep tasks at bay and goals accomplished. I truly feel good about starting the new academic semester because I am refreshed, feel accomplished in what I was able to complete, and know that I can continue my task management system to keep me on track.




Summer Challenge: Week 16

Last day of Summer Vacation in Maine
I took my second long weekend vacation trip planned out for this summer. It was a beautiful trip into the wilderness, peaceful, calm, quiet, and tranquil. Having just returned, I am thrilled that I feel refreshed and ready to hit my busy schedule as activities for the new academic year are already beginning to pile onto my calendar.

My database is now complete for what I want and need it to be as I start to work on more details for the upcoming semester. I have a folder called "new discoveries" which contain small little discoveries that I made during the massive data input which will now need to be investigated and contextualized. This will be what I will do during my research days and scheduled hours in the autumn semester. I also need to finish editing an article that I have been working on bit by bit. In the spare moments of this past week I took the time to re-examine what I have and edited out some sections that really did not belong there. I am still struggling to find a good logical way to introduce and present the opening of my article and believe that this will take some time to contemplate.

As I enter week 17 of summer, this will likely be one of my last summer challenge posts. Next week, I will look over my entire summer goals, plans, actions, and results to gather what I learned in how I worked this summer. I hope that this will help me understand my own productivity and working habits so that I know how much work I can actually manage during these types of extended time of research.


Summer challenge: Week 15

I honestly cannot believe that I have been able to maintain 15 weeks of continuous work towards my summer goal. The act of writing a public post at the end of each week has definitely been a motivational point for my summer, which could otherwise have easily slipped away without intention. It feels good to be able to see how many tasks I have completed on my list in Things and that I have reflected on my work weekly to ensure that I am remaining on track.

This week I spent more time working on finishing my database. I have 9 more manuscripts to enter which will easily be done by the end of August. What I plan to do with the database will be determined after I complete it and I have scheduled a time to sit down and review what things stand out initially as interesting and worthwhile ideas to chase further. Scrivener allows me to search the entirety of what I have put into it and I plan to use the search function often in the following months. One thing I have noticed from the long hull of entering data is that some of the first few entries will need to be revisited as I changed the format of information that I have entered. This I will need to do perhaps in the final week of this challenge to ensure uniformity. I presume that this resource will expand and be developed in different ways over the years as I work toward my book and am glad that now finally I have everything in a reachable place for easy access.

Summer Challenge: Week 14

My database has expanded this week and my teaching prep is all finished. For the latter, my goal was to make sure all powerpoint slides and listening requirements are set up and textbooks were ordered for the bookstore. All I will need is a couple of hours per week to prepare for my classes during the semester rather than the 4-5 which I have normally spent before. The fact that I am teaching a class for the second time in the fall makes a world of difference in my preparation level! The prep for each class still took about 3 hours per class but now I can leave that behind and enjoy the last few weeks of summer.

I have divided up work for my database and assigned days during the next four weeks to accomplish each task. If I stay on track, I will have a completed database to play around with in the fall. I also took time this week to dig up an article that I needed to leave alone for a while to gain perspective. I spent a day working on editing the first half out and considering other aspects that the article still needs. Having done this, I plan to assign a few days in the fall to get this wrapped up and sent off for review, hopefully within this calendar year.


In addition to getting tasks done, I have been very active this summer, taking advantage of the beautiful weather. Last weekend I took a 40 mile bike ride and I have been swimming almost every other day. This is keeping me refreshed and focused!