I love feedback!

I am going to confess to something now that is going to make me look like an absolute trumpet.


I don’t love it that much that I would cover all my papers in red ink, mind you. And I don’t like to harm myself with it when I have done something wrong either. But in all other senses I love it, and I constantly look for it, whether in my student life, or my referee life, and sometimes even at work. I like to know when I am doing things right and what I should do or change if I am not. And I love to think outside my own box. Yes, what a trumpet I am.

I am writing this post today partly because I got feedback from my supervisors for the article I have been writing for the past few weeks. I barely ever see anything that needs to be changed, or any particular flaws, the first time around. I operate a policy of “get it out, and let’s move on”. I am a critic after it’s written, but I know that I am too close or attached to the text, and I know I can barely see the mistakes. So then I ask somebody else to read it, whether my better half, who has patiently corrected my terrible English grammar for the past year, or my supervisors, who see between the lines and underline bigger expression mistakes, non-referenced sources, and other issues. After they have covered the text in red ink, I can see where I am wrong, and start killing my children. And I do it with pleasure – I know that the massacre is only going to help to make the text better, and improve my writing, expression and analytic skills.

I reckon this is probably making me sound like a trumpet because not everyone likes feedback. By feedback, of course, I mean constructive feedback from reputable sources. I think I have reached that point in my student and referee life in which I can tell where the reputable sources are, and how to interpret the feedback from the non-reputable ones. A few years ago I did an “international” game with a senior referee with whom I have a great officiating relationship. We had a great game together, and I learnt some things about the so-called ‘feel for the game’ that otherwise it would have taken me longer to develop. Not everyone thought we did well, though. As a referee, you are exposed to everyone’s criticism – players, coaches, spectators… but more importantly fellow referees in general, and assessors in particular. A fellow retired senior official saw the game, and felt compelled to what can only be described as “rant” about our performance. I did not know who this person was until he had finished giving us a piece of his mind about our performance. At that point I was a relatively junior official, but I was not deterred by his words, because they were inconsistent with the teachings I had received from my federation over the years. With time, you learn to recognise bad feedback, acknowledge it (shit happens, so whatever), and move on without thinking about it.

Sometimes, however, the line between good and bad feedback is very thin, and it is hard to call it. In many occasions, you end up judging the feedback by the person who gives it, and their track record with you. That can be dangerous because sometimes the people we rank to be best in the field can also give terrible feedback, and the other way around. But the assumption is that most feedback will try to be positive, or at least constructive, and help with the individual’s development. If that is not the intention, then that’s not feedback, it’s just abuse. And I sort of know about this because people really let me know of their feelings about my calls on a basketball court, believe me.

So if feedback tries to be constructive and help the individual, what is not to love? Yes, a lot of people are a bit sensitive and protective when it comes to their work. Seeing your own mistakes highlighted on a page is not amazing – realising you make mistakes is also what puts off people from liking feedback, I guess. But the thing is we all make mistakes, we all leave references all mixed up, and most of us have expression issues (or maybe that’s just me). Nobody is perfect. Someone telling you that there are things you can correct to make your text even better should be something to love – it means they actually care to read your stuff critically. Answering back justifying your position and your choices is normal, but trying to argue every correction is just not right. It’s easy to blame it on others on a basketball court, because there is another official with you that, at any given time, you can try to throw under the bus and save yourself (although it’s badly frowned upon). You can’t really do that when you are the single author of your text. If a senior academic thinks you have to reconsider certain points, be glad: they read your text and are suggesting something to improve it.

I can safely say that I would have never got this far in my refereeing career (Scotland Level 3, sort of a big deal for me) or my PhD if it wasn’t for my love for feedback. Only seeing and acknowledging your mistakes will make you try to work something out to fix them and improve. So next time you see that paper you wrote covered in red ink, think about it twice before going to “I’m a failure” or “You are wrong” mode and be critical of your own work. And then move on and get oan wae it.

Ps. Sometimes I wish I knew what I originally meant when I get the feedback “not sure what you mean, rephrase”. Whoops.

New project, new pad

Stack of books freshly picked up from the library this morning.

I love the smell of new stationary. That’s perhaps the only reason I am still a student and the only reason that makes me love September – it reminds me of a simpler time in which I used to raid all the stationary shops in search for lovely bits for my collection with the excuse of the new school year, and my mom would allow me to buy some and not just look. My mom would be so generous as to pay for a set of Bic pens, those with all four colours and an extra blue one. Crystal Bic, not Orange, cause I like my ink flow regular, not skinny. That would be the highlight of the month and it’d make me forget that the summer was over and it was all back to school for everybody.

Stingy times were always the regular times at the Llamas’ household, so I was only allowed a few notepads per year, which considering my writing stream, was a bit over-stingy. Mom would let me buy an additional notepad mid-year if I was running out of paper. I used to fill the house in paper, mind you, so my mom wanted to restrict my writing, and I understand her now. Those days are gone, but heading to the uni bookstore and getting myself a new Pukka pad, smelling of fresh, untouched paper, still makes me feel good about it. I have read some blogs lately that underline that need to get new stationary every so often as a common issue amongst PhD students. I feel the same when I freshly pick new books from the library, even if I know I might never even read them. It means a new project is on the cards.

Following the last post about being lazy and smug with my own work, I finished (as I had set myself to) rewriting this article on Good Friday, revised the grammar and the referencing yesterday and sent it for review, which means that I am 100% finished with my Project One (yes, capital letters), and I am moving on to Project Two. It feels great because my first expectations were to finish Project One last December, but that was obviously not going to happen taken into account the amount of hours I work, the amount of hours I study and the sick I was last year. Despite having moved to Part Time, I have finished the first part of my thesis plan only four months later than originally planned by Full Time standards. Mini clap to me, punch the air, yeah. So moving into a new project is not only exciting because of it being “new” and shiny and all, but because it means I succeeded in something I had many odds against. Punch the air again please, yeah.

I am now sitting in my office trying to work out how to take onto the next project in a wise time scale, and, as expected, I am listing new books to read, sending interlibrary loan requests, Gantt charting my research, and brainstorming all sorts of crazy ideas into a new Pukka pad that has been sitting politely in one of the drawers waiting for the new project to begin (I accidentally anticipated myself by a month, and bought it in a rush). That must be the reason I am still a student: the smell of freshly new Pukka pads and the excitement of beginning a new project. What a geek.

On being lazy / Mongrel-complacent

I have been a lazy bum for the past 3 weeks, and the other day, I admitted it to my supervisors. It took no courage to say “I am really sorry, I really have achieved nothing in the last fortnight”, but of course, I felt a bit embarrassed. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, yet having to admit that you have spent most of your time sleeping, checking Facebook, laying on the couch, etc, whilst there was a not-very-pressing deadline coming up is still embarrassing. Trying to fill out one hour of a meeting with your supervisors when you feel you have done very little is daunting. Yet I am a bit of a chatterbox, so it always seems okay. I know I am bluffing when one of them does not take any notes. That’s my cue to understand that nothing I have done that fortnight has had an impact on my general research so as to make a note of it. Almost like a silent, de facto pact.

At the end of the meeting, one of my supervisors told me that if I feel stuck, that is, somewhat hitting a writing wall, I should just stop and take a break. Perfectly reasonable advice. The funny thing is I don’t believe I am stuck per se – it’s not like I don’t know what to write. I know what I have to write and I know how – got my methodology, a serious analysis, and a good reason to be rewriting this article from scratch. What I don’t have is the willpower and the urgency of writing it. It bores me, in a way. And I have found many excuses to avoid it – from crazy calendars to migraines and basketball tournaments.

The reasons behind this apathy are twofold. On the one hand I feel a bit demotivated and research energy deprived. Why? I have recently finished writing and reviewing chapters one and two of my thesis. Yes, I am sort of writing as I go and it’s perfectly reasonable too: I am covering three different periods of the twentieth century in Catalan literature, so each of the three blocks of my thesis will be able to stand in isolation although interrelated. It makes sense to finish one project by writing the chapters about it and then move on. I set to myself the task of brainstorming for the next project throughout April (I already have a new Pukka pad lab book to start off when I decide to let my mind roam free), and I will start gantt-charting, project structuring, selecting readings and all in all the new project in May. But the “right now” seems dull. Plenty of cool stuff happening soon that I can’t seem to motivate myself to rewrite this article. I also feel an odd sense of self-complacence. I have finished those chapters, and I am mentally drained and very smug with my own work. I almost feel like I am mesmerized with my own achievement and that prevents me from finding the right motivation to go on at the moment.

The other reason is quite obvious as well. Two chapters of the thesis will be stuff that will be necessary to analyse my evolution and work as a researcher. The article I am writing right now is an off topic. It will not be published with the thesis. So why bother putting it together then? And why bother now, why not later? Well, I guess I will definitely not have time or willpower for it later, that is, when I am pushing towards a real deadline and I need to reduce my load of stress. I am writing thinking that it could potentially be published, but what if it doesn’t? What if a non-relevant, off-topic article takes me time to write and it never goes anywhere? Indirectly, even if it does go somewhere, the results will be nothing but immediate. It will only count in the end for my list of publications, but there is no immediate reward, and it does not make my thesis easier to write, despite allowing me to explore a topic that is somewhat related to my main thesis plan. So yeah, those thoughts are also collaborating in making me a lazy bastard.

In order to overcome this complacent and lazy state, I have set up a deadline to finish on Good Friday, even if I know (and have agreed) that my supervisors won’t read it until after Easter. This way, only in the worst case scenario, that is, computers dying and the world coming to an end, I will make sure I have it finished by Friday. Even if I know that this is a personally set up deadline and that it won’t change the course of my degree at all, knowing that I have committed myself to do something is pressure enough to get my bum on a chair and write. Taking up the task and challenging myself makes it again somewhat exciting (mind I am using the word exciting in a very loose sense here). Mongrels work in short bursts.

Ps. I started writing this article on Friday 11th. In the last two days I have written 3,000 words and I only have the conclusions to write, plus referencing. Yeah, the challenge is working so far. 

Grinding afternoon

I am not a morning person. By morning I mean anything that is not my normal wake up time, which is just before 8am. I can’t oversleep on a normal work day, and I hate having to get up earlier than normal. But sometimes, you know, there is no way around it.

This week has been hellish in those terms. Normally a balanced, happy person from 8am, I’ve had to get up at 7 every day this week to start work at 730. I know it’s not a drastic change, it’s not like it’s 5am in the morning. Some of the ladies at work remind me how early they get up. Well, I am not 50+ and I have more things to go than just serve coffee in life, to which it is essential that I get up at 8. Starting work at 730 means that I miss my best period of productivity, the rough two hours between 830 and 11, and I have to sub that off for doing those two hours after 3pm. We can agree that there is not enough chocolate or coffee in the world to reactivate my brain at that time that will work as well as my regular two hours. But, tough.

Fighting for inspiration is not the greatest of feelings. It’s not really recommended – when you hit the wall, you’ve got to get your Bottom off Chair Town and go do something with your life that is not staring at a computer screen. However, sometimes you do have some deadlines to meet, and there’s no way around it – your Bottom should stay there, and you should restrict yourself to look out of the window every five minutes. It’s almost spring in Glasgow, which means there is a chance for sunny spells and nice things to see out of the window other than the miserable cadence of rain. It’s no consolation, however, when you are stuck. Sometimes looking outside the window feels like checking Facebook – people go by talking about random things you don’t understand, but the general gist is that things don’t change that often.

Several things have kept me right on track and distracted enough, but not too much, so as to lure myself into doing some work. Writing this is one: “I will write a post about how dull this was when I’m finished”. Then, uploading the Nike Fuel onto my netbook, given that the app is not compatible with my phone anymore. I have been on Facebook for 10 minutes on my phone and I felt so crap after it that I actually wrote quite a lot. I have also been looking for fancy words to include in the article I am writing, and checked whether “contrastable” exists in English or not. It does not, in case you were wondering. I also tried a Pomodoro, but almost ignored it. All in all, my aim was to write 500 words and I wrote 1,059. It was good for an afternoon effort, almost optimal. Trying to fight off the need to go home and lay on the couch was hard. Researching should not be this strenuous, and that’s why I hate 730-3 shifts.

Job done, I am going home. We have a guest Syrian hamster with us, Tom, that needs some attention. I just hope he didn’t escape and eat Jordi and Iniesta, because he looks gigantic next to them. He won’t get a treat if he did.

Time Management from Mongrels

I came across this idea whilst on the subway yesterday. I had to dash from this workshop that I had only last minute decided to enrol in (so last minute that I got a confirmation of enrolment this morning…) and get to the city centre to pick up the lady and battle with Nike to replace my lonely and broken FuelBand. That took no time by the way – Nike were very happy to exchange it for a new one, I was in the shop for barely five minutes. Kudos Nike, thanks. So whilst on the subway I scribbled some notes on Evernote, if you pardon the pun, and I am now taking the time to develop the issue.

The workshop I was in yesterday was Time Management (fairly adequate that I showed up one hour late, only after I left work), delivered by Sarah Shinton, which I particularly enjoyed and have enjoyed in the past due to the tailored nature of it – very accurate and relevant advice is given, and that’s what we all need cause we don’t have time to spare or, dare I say it, waste. It was full of Pedigree PhDs, aka Fulltimers. I spoke to a few, and the more I heard their stories, the more I thought that Mongrel philosophy can help Pedigree PhDs with some of their issues. Not all Mongrels are the same, like not all Pedigrees are the same, but some patterns seem to be recurrent and I thought I would explore some communal problems and potential solutions. This might develop in a series of posts – the first one focused on time management.

The students I spoke to yesterday seemed to have one common problem: lack of productivity and confidence. They are interrelated problems – you think you’re not good enough, which in turn paradises your production, only to end up blaming your schedule and/or time tabling problems to bad time management skills. It is a vicious circle. However, about confidence and “getting over it” is a completely different topic, and I will explore it in another post. 

Considering the place where they were with their PhDs (plenty of second and third years), most students seemed to be unaware of what was their most productive time, and they seemed to be binge writers – only a looming deadline or two sleepless days will get them to work. Regular writing was not part of their routine. They did not have anything to anchor their day – a regular wake up time, lunch schedule, teaching schedule, or a coffee break habit. This came to me as a complete shock.

Now here’s when the Mongrel tries to save the world. This might not help anybody, but this is a breakdown of my schedule, point by point. At any given day. I swear. I get to the office every morning between 830 and 9 am. I allow myself to stroll up to the office without thinking that I have many things to do. I allow myself to enjoy the walk, in a way, weather permitting. Now I study at Glasgow, so that almost never happens – at least the only reason I run to the office for is to get out of the wet streets and into a warm and cosy building.

I start office work at 9am. If I am at the office early, I fiddle with bits that I know will annoy me if I don’t do them. I have TWO HOURS to do any work that needs doing. So the first fiddly bit is figuring what I want to achieve that morning. Things that need my urgent attention. And things that, if I am done with everything else, I can fall into and do just because. Dare I say I never complete all the items in the list – there is always one task in that list that is background/slow backlog. The aim of that task is to provide me with the mindset that only time and work will free me from my PhD duties. I don’t do everything. There is always something left to do

The second fiddly bit is updating my calendar – looking at the week and setting all my commitments outside the office. This normally means work and games to referee. That way I know straight away if I have any pending tasks by the end of the day, and if I have to arrange for travel or leaving early, etc. That way I know I don’t have to be worrying that I may have forgotten something. I free my mind.

The last fiddly bit is non-academic stuff: emails, game reports, sending scoresheets, etc. I know that advice does not apply to many people because they start with email and they finish with Facebook. But I don’t allow myself to jump from something non-academic to something just procrastinating for the hell of it, and also, my load of emails is really small. If I get rid of those early, I can focus on the important stuff next. This only applies to me because I am a Mongrel. Pedigrees, do not try this at home.

Every day, only with some exceptions, I start work (real life work, as in, a job) at 11am. Work is only 5 minutes from the office, so really, I have from 9 until 1050 to do everything I need to do. Everything needs to fit within that time frame. I finish work at 7pm. There is no way I have the energy to keep going at that time, and my partner would not let me clock any overtime in the office. At 7pm all I want is the couch, cuddles, dinner and playing with the hamsters – that is, if I have not fallen asleep at work. I do not work in the house, I only work in the office. All my documents and my log notebook are in the office. I used to carry the notebook everywhere. Then I realised that the hope of working elsewhere but the office was just me being in denial about the impossibitily of working elsewhere. I got rid of the desk in the house and we bought a table just for dinner. I took all my PhD books and folders to the office. The only thing that connects me with my research at all times is my Samsung tablet and a very old pen drive in which I back up everything. After having backed it up in every cloud system under the sun, of course.Also, I never work on weekends. One day I need it to be off. Saturday normally is my refereeing day, so I spend it wandering around Scotland with basketball officiating commitments. So when I say I only have TWO HOURS to work on my PhD every day, I mean those TWO HOURS every day are the one and only frame I got.

Now, it can seem like such a short time. But if you think of it, two hours is roughly four pomodoros, and accounts to about 10 hours of productivity a week. When I sit at my office, I know work is going to happen. It has to, because I have no option. If I have 500 words in my brain by 1045, I am majorly screwed, because I will never retrieve them. Once the clock ticks 1050, that’s it. So I really need to speed up to make sure that any words that are still in my head, have to find their way into paper, otherwise, they are gone. If, as a Pedigree, you set yourself a time, and a pressing task that cannot be ignored at that time (it could be anything, from teaching to meeting someone, etc), and you know you have to be out of your office or work environment by a certain time, then I assure you YOU WILL WORK. There’s no way around it. Or else do you want to lose 500 words every day? That is definitely not a pleasant feeling! Do it or die, sort of.

How I structure the small two hour unit is a completely different matter: most days I write for an hour, and do other business in the other hour. Most of the time, I have a pre-set schedule – that month, I want to achieve so and so, so I break down the tasks in time units that will make me effectively reach the aim by the end of those 10 hours a week. Believe me, I have tried to read at lunch time. I have tried to write late at night. It does not work for me. So why waste my time when I know I am not going to be productive. As The Thesis Whisperer once said, just because Mr Botton is paying a visit to Chair Town, that does not mean you are actually working. So get your ass off that chair as soon as you stop working on it, and only go back when you know you’re gonna work. Otherwise, the procrastination cycle begins.

Was that helpful at all? Now get over yourself and go manage your time. Pat pat.

Ps. I do think about my degree whilst I make coffee. I mean, I have been making coffee for a fair bit, so it’s really not a challenge anymore and my mind does wander. If I find myself with a brilliant idea after a vanilla latte, I write it down or record it on Evernote. But the rest of the day is spent trying to serve good coffee and giving random, hilarious chat to customers.