Easter holiday is over; two more weeks of term break until revision week, and then the exam term begins. I won’t be teaching during exam term, but I will have plenty of responsibilities on campus to break up my research days. Which means that now – while we’re still on break, and as we head into summer – is the time for me to make my research plan for the next few months.
I find the shift from “teaching mode” into “research mode” very challenging. It helps to take a week or so off – I learned that several years ago, when I managed to fritter May away doing heaven knows what, and woke up in June realising I wasn’t rested and had accomplished almost nothing. But even with the week off behind me this year, I’m feeling those old familiar anxieties: how to prioritise what needs getting done in the short term (conference papers; chapter draft), medium term (journal article; book proposal; another chapter draft), and long term (stack of reading sneering at me from the other side of the desk; catching up on developments in key journals; plenary paper for the fall; more work on the book…). How to organise each day so that I maximise the time at my desk and don’t resent the dog, or not being outside, or not being on my bike. How to just get started. Sigh.
I spent part of this past weekend strategising around this problem. I’ve decided to adopt the “less-is-more” approach that Tracy Issacs wrote about in January (read it here). It strikes me as an ideal way to manage the paired anxieties that conspire to rob me of productivity: worry that I will not accomplish my set tasks, coupled with fear preventing me from even starting those tasks as a result.
Using less-is-more as a template, I came up with the following goals for myself for each day until exam term begins at the end of April. I’d really love to hear if others have related – or even totally unrelated – strategies they’d be willing to share; I’ll update you on my progress keeping to these goals over the course of the month.
1. Start the morning with a stimulating “breakfast.”
I’ve decided to begin each day by reading a journal article over coffee and breakfast. My friend, mentor, and colleague at the University of Guelph, Ric Knowles, once told me he tried to start the day this way – reading just one article from a recent journal issue, and often one not in his area of expertise, so it was a fun task as well as a work task. I found myself adopting a version of this exercise over the past few months, reading newly released journal issues on my subway commute to and from work. I found I could get through most of a good-sized article on the way there and back, and reading on my iPad I was able to highlight key ideas on-screen (via Adobe Reader, which isn’t perfect but works very well for articles downloaded from my library’s website and saved as a PDF), which I then copied and pasted into my reading journal once I got home. Just because I’m not commuting right now doesn’t mean I can’t carry on with this useful habit; my aim will be to read for about an hour every morning – roughly the time I would normally spend reading The Guardian or The Globe and Mail.
2. Pick the task that scares you most, and stare it down – for 30 minutes.
I’ve been reading for years about how effective just a few minutes a day of writing can be for those of us whose long-term research agendas involve lengthy book projects (this brief piece, by Richard M. Felder  on the always excellent Tomorrow’s Professor blog, is one of my favourites – type “900” in the box at the top left of the screen to see Richard’s post). I’ve decided to adapt this strategy for my spring labour in this way: I’ll nominate one project per week that requires sustained attention, and work for 30 minutes per day on that project alone, without breaks. This work might be writing; it might be collating reading materials; it might be finding those reading materials. Anything goes, as long as it’s related to the project at hand. My hope is that, at the end of a week of this kind of labour, I’ll be in the flow of my nominated project’s work and hungry to carry on with it. Then, the following week, I can do that with less stress, and nominate another slightly terrifying project to spend 30 minutes on per day.
3. Read for pleasure, and work.
I am bad at this. I have stacks of books beside my bed, stacks of books on the shelf above my desk, and a shelf of books on my “theory and criticism” bookshelf that all want me to pay attention to them. Some of these books are purely for pleasure (I’ve recently really enjoyed Canada, by Richard Ford, and am about to start Alice Munro’s Dear Life); some are for both work and pleasure (like Jackie Bratton’s fabulous The Making of the West End Stage); and some are books related to my own current book project which I frankly should have read long ago (Toril Moi’s Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism), and which I’d be looking forward to reading if I wasn’t so nervous about writing the damn book at the end of it all… Anyway. I’ve decided that I should end my work day with this kind of reading, in the same way I’d like to start the day by reading exciting new work published in the journals I follow. So one hour per day, at the end of the work day, will be for reading one book from the aforementioned stacks. I’ll read hour by hour until it’s done. Then I’ll move on to a new one.
4. Build in time for busy-work.
While I’ve been composing this post half a dozen emails have landed in my inbox asking me to do stuff: organise a Skype meeting; read article proofs online; write a reference letter; vet applications for our MA program. This stuff needs to get done, but it can easily eat a day. (See my previous post, on how admin labour affected my teaching this past semester.) It might need less than an hour; it might need a bit more than an hour. But, thinking incrementally in the spirit of less-is-more, I hereby offer busy-work only one hour of my time per day until the exam term (when it will necessarily increase, along with the admin load that term dictates).
5. Walk the dog.
She does have this most pernicious way of staring at us from the corner of her eye when she wants a walk. Which is almost all the time. Half an hour for lunch, then half an hour for a walk: sounds very civilised to me! And, if there’s time and light at the end of the day, I will get on my bike.
Great ideas. If I may add one thing to the 30-minute star-down commitment, it’s tracking. I’m not usually a fan of tracking, but I make an exception for writing time. Watching those small chunks of time add up is pretty satisfying. One thing I didn’t mention in my post on doing less was The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. It counselled grad students and faculty members at Berkeley for lots of years, mostly those who procrastinated. But procrastination and workaholism are just two sides of the same coin, and his practical suggestions for tackling projects, big and small, while still enjoying what he calls “guilt free play” are transformative. That’s how I finished my dissertation and my monograph, as well as lots of things in between. The “unschedule” is a great tool. Enjoy doing less! Thanks for the post.
Kim, I really enjoy reading your blog. I can identify with the academic culture shock you had experienced coming from North America to the UK. In my case, it was Yugoslavia-Canada-UK: each time a culture shock and each time I have been learning a lot… I think there is some scope in trying to combine these different experiences… something like searching for a hybrid pedagogy of an “ignorant school master” (the latter is how I normally feel, but now thanks to Ranciere, it seems even credible) … In any case, I wish there had been a blog like yours all the way on this journey… thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas… it ‘s very inspiring and helpful…
pragmatic inspiration solga