Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Working efficiently I: My previous attempts

This is the first post in a series about work habits. Americans are more comfortable talking about sex than money; since graduate students don't have any money, it seems like graduate students are more comfortable talking about sex than work habits, and they get more tight-lipped past graduation when they have to be professional. Everyone complains about how much work they have, and everyone complains about how much they procrastinate, but people rarely go into the gorey details. Sometimes, people will let loose with a vivid tale of procrastination, but they will rarely reveal the enormity of their procrastination and their feelings about it. Procrastination can sometimes truly feel frightening, like the triumph of fear or negativity over reason and motivation; our dreams of making a difference in the world get channeled into exercises of pure pointlessness. In this series, I want to explore my own procrastination and inefficient work habits, and attempt ways to surmount them.

Now that I have finished my dissertation, several projects loom before me to finish before I can start anything new: publishing two papers from my dissertation, and finishing two projects that I worked on with professors; also, there are two little projects related to my dissertation that I feel like I could do pretty quickly. I'm slightly embarrassed about the projects owed to professors since it seems to me that a normal graduate student would have finished these projects at the time that I was paid for them. Somehow, time dragged on, and my dissertation took precedence, so I shelved the projects. One of the outstanding projects probably prevented me from getting a postdoc that I applied to this year, which I had really wanted. (The postdoc advisor knew the professor I owed the project to.)

I actually have an even uglier confession: last year, I had funding to finish my dissertation, and nothing else to do, but somehow the stretching out of infinite time inhibited me. I am not sure what I did last year. Read blogs, some of which were academic. Spent infinite amounts of time at each task. Allowed my dissertation to intimidate me. Frequented online dating sites. Oh, and I wrote up my job materials, applied to 70 jobs, finished enough of a dissertation chapter to get a job talk, spent a month on phone calls, two months traveling, and a month google-stalking the tenure track job which was eventually recanted and they didn't hire anyone. Logistically speaking, I did have the time to finish my dissertation last year; I had done enough of a chapter from start to finish to have a job talk and could have found the time to finish writing it up, but somehow everything being in flux unsettled me enough that the risks of tackling the thorny parts of my own work seemed too overwhelming.

Flux is the name of the game in academia, however, so I am hoping to learn how to work within it.

Before making a new start here, I think it's important to figure out what hasn't worked for me. Last year, I had a bright idea: doing homework isn't so hard because it's finite and comes with deadlines, and sometimes professors will actually take a much larger project and break it down for students so that over the course of a semester, they will have completed a large work. At the beginning of fall semester, I took the templates that I used for constructing assignments from my time as head TA, and I wrote assignments for myself, about 8 of them altogether. Each assignment was a reasonable weekly assignment to give to students, and the initial ones were even quite easy and were suitable for undergraduates, possibly even first years.

I wrote the assignments using the tips from Boice (Nihil Nimus: Advice for New Faculty Members), not to work to excess, and to schedule the work. A college friend of mine who was also a PhD student actually happened to be in town, so we agreed to meet up in the library reading room and sit next to each other for a few hours every day as long as she was in town, and I wrote the assignments during this time, which took only a few days. I felt so organized to have a small pile of assignments for myself, which looked like real assignments that I gave to students. I think I even put my name and a "course name" in the upper left corner.

When I actually started the assignments, in retrospect I didn't push myself hard enough. If I came to an obstacle that I couldn't push through in the time I'd allocated, I would stop, and the next day I would dread coming back to the work, so I would decide it was a great time to work on my CV or look for more jobs.

I knew that completing my dissertation would be a challenge, so I even started working with a therapist, but she found my procrastination problems understandably boring and petty, as they are. Procrastinating is virtually universal, though people engage in it to a greater or lesser extent, but it just sounds so silly to come out and talk about why exactly you're procrastinating. When it's someone else's procrastination, it seems like the answer is just to do the darn work, and it doesn't seem like there's anything to talk about. Maybe you can even get specific and give the trite advice to break down the task into small bits. Therapists may be more used to talking about interpersonal issues than intrapersonal ones; certainly, this therapist found it much easier to talk about my relationship with my advisor and department, my job search, and my dating quandries. Ironically, the therapist that I started seeing in order to advance my dissertation became another vehicle for procrastination, in which I would instead think of other parts of my life instead of my dissertation. The counselor was free through the university health center, so even though I wasn't getting what I came for, I didn't feel like I wasn't getting my money's worth, so just kept going.

Over time, the assignments got a bit wrinkled and water-stained at the edges from being carried around, and when I came back to them during this final push to finish my dissertation, I discovered only several pages, from which I could extract only a subset.

In high school, I was really good about starting my work ahead of time, even in difficult courses, and I relished feeling oblivious to deadlines because I'd finished the work long ago. In college, I felt overwhelmed, partly because I took more difficult courses than I had to. Nonetheless, for a few isolated semesters in college and graduate school, I had that lovely tranquil feeling of order that comes from going to bed early the day before a deadline and opening my folder the next day to the completed assignment, which I hadn't seen since completing it a few days before.

While my life will never again be quite as neatly packaged as a school assignment, I think that I can teach myself to avoid working to deadline.

I can extract one lesson from my past attempts: as important as it is to break things into small tasks and not do too much at any one time, it's also important to push through obstacles, perhaps to make sure that I accomplish in each session one difficult thing that I dread, if there is one.

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