Snack writing

I thought I would use the next twenty minutes of the day productively and perhaps attempt to produce a blog post on snack writing by snack writing it. I suppose it would make no sense for me to sit down for hours at an end thinking about what to write on snack writing whilst being hypocritical about the inception of the post. So I have decided to go full pelt and go with the flow.

I thought about writing on snack writing again after that rather productive #acwri Twitter conversation. There is plenty of advice out there about writing, and given what it was said on that Twitter conversation, there is no such a thing as bad advice – only advice that does not really work for you and attempts to be prescriptive, rather than helpful. Let me explain myself. The other day I went to a Time Management workshop, and a colleague of mine said he felt terrible with his schedule. He wakes up late and does some work, and then most of his productivity happens from 10pm until 3am. He thinks this is not “normal” and wants to change it, “so as to feel like a normal PhD”, but he does not know how. The issue I can see here is that there is not such a thing as “normal”. If working like that works for him (productively and all), then so be it, do it that way. There is no shame on that because I myself only get to work productively from 7 until 9 (with breakfast with my wife and walk to work included in that period). The rest of the day is a waste for productivity, so provided you know when you work best and then go ahead with it, no one can really judge you.

It’s the same about writing. I wish I had time to sit down on my chair and mull over slow cooked sentences for hours. But that has never been the case. Even when I was a full time student I worked semi-full time hours – there is just no way I could do any extended writing. Now, as a part time, snack writing is the only choice I have. I am not sad about this, I am very relieved – because it works, for me at least. I normally have about 45 minutes in the morning before breakfast. I can write fast, but I also use this time to think. Almost slowly. I make sure that I know exactly what I want to get done through the day.

Some days are excellent – yesterday, for example. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the night before, so I woke up and straight away I was plugged in. I typed 250 words in 45 minutes, which is not a lot, but it was sufficient for what I was doing – it was even connected with the previous content of the chapter, so there will be minimal editing to do there. I was pretty pleased with myself and I thought that another 250 words would make me happy – if I was properly plugged in later in the day. At 815 I leave the house and make it to my office space between 830-845 (depending on how late I left the house in the first place). Yesterday, I got to my office space at 835. I thought “awesome, I have 25 minutes!” (Which translates into “Yay! One full pomodoro!”). I opened my notebook and kept writing following the same bit I was writing about before breakfast. I pulled two pages, which felt really good. When I got to work, I typed everything up whilst sorting out my emails. Turns out I wrote 497 words (with a few editions) in that 25 minute bit! For a total of almost 750 words! At 930 yesterday, I could already bask on the glory of having over-achieved what I set myself to do. Boom.

This is not always like this, and on days like, for example, today, I have to remind myself that productivity in one snack bite does not necessarily mean productivity in all of them. Today I hand wrote a page – so that will be between 200 and 300 words. It’s not bad but of course I want more. However, this is true of every sort of writing – even if you are writing for 8 hours straight, some days you will be more or less productive, or it will be more or less difficult to get going. That is just the nature of writing. I don’t think it changes with snack writing or long-period-on-the-chair writing.

I have always had a distracted nature, even when I could afford 8 hours of continuous writing, so I think that embracing the concept of writing in short bursts was an easy step for me. I understand, however, that is not for everybody. As I said before, writing advice can only be useful if it’s advice and not prescription. I cannot focus for too long on the same task without looking for an interruption, but I am sure other people have stronger natures and can stay at it for longer – or maybe not.

I think snack writing is something that everyone should try every once in a while, because it definitely puts you in a limited pressure situation, and blocks out every other priority or distraction. At times we are thinking too much about other things associated to research (I need to write that paper, I need to read that article, how am I going to do that presentation?, I don’t know anything about X topic and I probably should), so a short burst of writing acts like that headpiece they put on horses so that they can only look ahead: it gives you tunnel vision for a short period of time, and then it’s only you, your laptop, your writing and your target. There is nothing else other than that. And once it’s over you can zoom out and understand where that piece of massive writing you just did fits within your main work. And then feel awesome, not because you have written a lot, but because you have written!

The recipe is to do this every day at least once for a long period of time – snack writing is not binge writing, so beware! Self-complacency is the worst that can happen after a really productive session of snack or freewriting… Shake it off, shake it off now! Remember that the word count resets every day and set yourself a target to aim at, even if you’re not going to use all the words at the end.

And to end this, some math:

How many words do you think you can write in 15 minutes? And in 30 minutes?

Can you write 50 words in 15 minutes? Surely you can write up to 300 in 15 minutes, but let’s keep it realistic. Let’s go for 50. If you write 50 words a day (excluding weekends), you’ll get 13,000 a year. Enough for a chapter? Or an article?

Writing 100 will get you 26,000. And 200 a day will smash your numbers to 52,000 a year. That is if you only fit one snack writing session a day. Imagine the word count if you had two or three…

I think I will go back to my previous statement of the only bad advice on writing is not writing at all. After that, try every and see how it works. And as part of the experiment, writing this post took two snacking bits, that amounted to about 40 minutes. Worth a try, huh?

How to build resilience, Mongrel-style

I often include the hashtag #beresilient in a hell of a lot of posts. Out of context, this can just sound like empty words, or yet another useless hashtag in the world of overhastagging (if you don’t know what this is, then you don’t have an Instagram account and a few stupid friends – congratulations, you are not missing out on anything). However, I feel very strongly about resilience, and I think it is *THE* top quality that one earns whilst doing a PhD, and certainly the one I am proudest of. The other day I was in a Planning your Career workshop, and I think I made my point about it – resilience is what lets you actually finish your PhD.

But resilience is not something that comes along and naturally occurs. It’s got to be built slowly. Not only that: everyone will react differently to the challenges that a PhD poses, so whilst some people might learn a lot from the difficulties and build a wall of resilience, others will either ignore the learning opportunities, or, if push comes to shove, they might even quit their PhD. I have found plenty of challenges along the way – being self funded from the very beginning, having to go part time, working zero hours and job instability, working full time and having no time for anything, anxiety issues, stomach ulcers, journal publication rejection, countless funding rejections,… to name the most important! This does not mean that I consider myself an expert in resilience or that the following list will be useful for everyone. I feel I know what I am talking about a little bit, and some people might find it helpful. As I always say, I think full timers particularly can learn a lot from Mongrels, so here is my contribution.

These are put together in no particular order:

1. Have a can-do attitude. Try everything.

At that Planning Your Career workshop, the presenter made a really good point that a lot of vacancies in the current job market are filled not by those more prepared, but by those who work the hardest. Putting that into context, if you think that you don’t have the right person specs to, in this case, apply for a job (when you probably do, being a PhD candidate) then somebody else down the chain might give it a shot and get it. Just try everything. If you have an interest in it, and might help your research, then apply for it – whether it’s a grant, a research trip, a conference, or a Tesco Clubcard. The fear or procrastination loop that the whole “oh, I’m never gonna get it” starts is the most toxic element of the dark side of the PhD. Get out of it and fast!

2. Fail miserably at something after trying really hard – and bounce back from it.

Perhaps not immediately, but you need to put these failures behind you and let them be your springboard into better things. As one of my supervisors told me once after my first article was rejected for publication, “the first pancake always has lumps in it”. Most times even the second or third pancake has lumps in it, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it another shot and have a great pancake in the end, right? There’s a lot of motivational posters out there about how success in life is not measured by how little times you fall, but how many times you stand back up after falling. Or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and other cheesy songs.

The thing is, all those cheesy posters and songs are right on the money. If one failure leads to giving up, then that attempt will go in vain – you will not learn anything, you will not improve the quality of your work, you will not give yourself a chance to learn from it. It also means that, the second time you fall (because you will), you will know how to take it – with a pinch of salt, and then keep going. Which leads me into point 3

3. Go back to your mistakes, analyse them, reflect on your practice, take away what is important, learn from them, and then DISCARD them.

This is a process I follow from my refereeing ‘career’. I totally hate watching myself referee on video (because you can’t change what you have done), but it is a great way of correcting mistakes and discussing with your peers. Mistakes happen in basketball all the time, whether you try your best to avoid them or not. You can minimize their presence or their impact upon your overall performance, but you cannot get rid of them – so embrace them as they come.

It is very easy, particularly in refereeing, to get stuck in a mental loop following a mistake. That is why sport psychologists earn a good living! You know how much this affects the game and you know you could have done much better. You think about ways you should have acted around it, and reenact it in your head a million times. The thing is, this spiral will only make you miss the next calls, creating an even worse scenario of nor just one bad call, but three or four in a row. It’s really important at that point to pick yourself up no matter what, and concentrate on what comes next – the next call is your most important. I think there is a lesson there than can be transferred to PhDing – if you made a mistake or failed at something, learn how to do it better (reflect on how you could improve), and then discard the situation.

4. Rejection is part of life. Don’t take it personal.

I can definitely speak for this one. That article I was speaking about before is perhaps one of my biggest failures. The editor of the journal knows me (I met her in a conference and she really liked both my presentation style and my topic), and to a point wanted me to learn as much from this rejection as possible. She said they normally don’t send the specific comments when they reject articles (maybe they don’t reject that many), but that these will be useful for me to improve the text. Well, the comments were harsh. They ripped through my text and my researcher persona like a school of killer whales. They thing is, I sort of agree with what they were saying – but they had no tact whatsoever, perhaps not expecting me to ever read it.

It was hard to not cry my eyes out and keep my head held high. And it was very difficult not to take the comments personally. The thing is, someone had reviewed my article, and thought I was inaccurate about things I said, which is fair enough. As much as what I write is part of who I am and undoubtedly integral to my research, those words were not said to attack me at a personal level. There’s nothing wrong with me per se, it’s just the assertions I was claiming to be factual were perhaps too risky. And it took a bloody long time to get that paper written in the first place, and then rewritten to a standard that my supervisors felt it was adequate. So being torn apart by an external reviewer hurt a lot. But it was nothing personal. The moment you understand that it’s not really an attack on your research, but ultimately a way to make it better, you will be able to move on having gained resilience in the process.

5. Stick to your priorities and your plans – but be ready to embrace change at a really short notice!

I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted my PhD to go before I even started it, and of course that went out the window when I didn’t get any funding. Then I have made up probably a million plans – writing plans, research plans, idea plans and thesis plans… They have all changed several times, and adaptability has been the key. Reducing full time hours to part time hours and readjusting to having more (outside) responsibilities was also an important step.

The key learning here is that plans are there to help you get towards your goals, but they are not rigid structures: planning is essential but plans are useless, according to the Vitae website. This is good advice. You need both overall vision and minute planning, but as research (and other life events) goes along, you have to be ready to change all your plans at very short notice. In recent times, I am trying to follow an idea that I had after chatting to one of my supervisors. I have already spoken to other two people and tried my new proposed structure and change my conception of the original idea several times. This might change the entire focus of the thesis. And I am zero worried about that.

6. And finally, keep the ball rolling, no matter what.

There is nothing in life (and in PhDing) you can’t put behind you and learn from in a positive manner. Life won’t stop because your proposal was rejected. Reinvent yourself and move on – give it another try, why not. Just keep the ball rolling. And above all, be resilient.

Time management from Mongrels: Smash it!

When do you PhD?

Someone asked me that the other day. Seems like a very reasonable question, given I try to tell people that I don’t do my PhD full time but have a full time job instead. When you add to the equation that I play and referee basketball, which takes up the best of two nights a week and a full day during the weekend, things get difficult to understand.

Do you have a life?

I have not been asked that one, but it is read all over the face of people who wonder when do I actually get to do some PhDing. I have been told by many people before that they have “no time”. There are many self-help books out there negating that in principle. I would say I have very restricted time, and because of that, I have become very protective of the very necessary minutes here and there that make up my PhD.

I don’t do crazy wake up times. In winter, I struggle to get out of bed before 745. I am lucky (to a point), because Glasgow is a lovely place over the summer – the sun never goes down, being so far up north. So when it’s bright outside, I find it difficult to sleep – all I want to do is be all outdoorsy (maybe not at minus three degrees like today, but you get the picture). So in the summer I do get an extra thirty to forty-five minute block of activity before the wife is even up. It is normally reduced to about 20 minutes of actual productivity – by the time I have a coffee in my hands and the computer is on, is almost 720.

In this first block, I work by instinct. Did I leave something urgent to write or think about the day before? Had I scheduled myself to write a certain amount of words? Do I need to read something? At that time of the day I work in oximorons: I am still half asleep and some of my ideas feel half baked at times, but I have uninterrupted concentration on the task, so at least I *have* ideas. Later in the day I reassess whether that idea was okay or if it needs more work or just to be binned and started over again.

I don’t allow myself many distractions, but I know how dangerous they are. For weeks at a time I used to make myself wake up at 7 against my body’s will and ended up checking Facebook or the news. I reconsidered my time wastage against my body’s needs and decided that I would assess my readiness to work from my bed: Am I going to get up and waste my sleeping time? Don’t get up then. Sleep for another 45 minutes. Your body will thank you. I now set a quiet alarm (my watch has one, and it’s so nice and soft and marvelous!). I am normally not fast asleep by then. Today, for example, I did set the alarm, but I was too tired to get out of bed, so turned around and slept for another 40 minutes. And right now I feel refreshed.

Another thing I have changed since working in an office environment is the time I leave the house. I now try to leave at the same time as my wife, even though it takes me twice as much to get ready. This is not due to vanity, it’s because putting on cold clothes and preparing my lunch are activities I dread and I delay them as much as possible. She gets on with them and is ready to go by 815. I enjoy having my coffee and a blank stare for ten minutes whilst my mind wonders, so I am always late.

Leaving at the same time as her (or at least trying) allows me to get to work half an hour before I am meant to start. My office space, the one I have for PhD things, is just around the corner from my work office. In there, I enjoy a good 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted activity again. I have noticed that working there is actually more beneficial than I initially thought. I used to go to the office for two hours before work when I worked in hospitality (9-11), and I always managed to do lots of writing and reading there, but having reduced the time I can spend in that office space has pushed my productivity-per-minute. I sit down, open my notebook and put my thoughts on the pad. I have to do it that way because in that small window and having a computer from the 80s in that office, it is really not worth it trying to open a word document. But normally I have been working on something just before at home, and I somewhat remember what I wrote before.

I am preparing a presentation for one of my supervisor’s modules, and I was asked to put together some thoughts about this translator. I wrote 1,000 words about it yesterday. Today I just opened the pad as I got in – I was late, and only had 15 minutes. In 15 minutes I managed to write a full page (roughly 200 words?) and lay out some points to continue later on. This is still quite surprising to me when I think about it, but it must have something to do with the comfortability that that space provides me with, and the good “me time” with my pad when I have one sole focus. Of course I wish I could stay there for a longer window, maybe an hour or two, but I will take what I can and run with it.

Once I am at the office, PhDing is left at the margins of tasks. There are a lot of every day things that your degree needs that are solely admin. And I work in admin. It is easy to write up some minutes to a meeting, prepare an agenda, schedule when to write, schedule the week workload, write up scholarship applications and other boring tasks when pretty much that is part of your daily job. So I try to get those done among the other admin tasks. I find it easier and quicker to do that as part of the daily routine as my mind is already thinking in admin terms. Believe me, it is easy to write in “minutes to a meeting” language once you have done three in a row…

After work, I am now trialing having another block of writing. I still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work as I can’t establish a pattern. Sometimes I go to my office space, sometimes I go home, lay on the couch and read. I normally have until 6ish, but then again it is hard to do any work after 5 o’clock. I normally just read. It is something that one cannot help but doing when PhDing.

pollard

Finally, the controversial point: I don’t work on weekend. I physically can’t. I need one full day of rest doing absolutely nothing to enjoy with the family, which is normally Sunday. Saturday, I combine resting with refereeing here and there and everywhere. And yes, on occasion I take a book with me – since I don’t drive, they make excellent company on the train. But I normally get very little done, no matter how hard I try. And I have stopped trying hard.

I do get in the end about 10 hours of work a week, if I am lucky. It is not a lot, but it’s a good as part-timing goes. I think that, considering the time I actually spend working on my PhD, I get quite a good productivity-per-minute ratio. Of course this cannot be recreated in longer time periods: the more you work, the least you will get done in percentage. It’s like Test cricket v Twenty20. I think the Twenty20 analogy is very useful for me: you have very few overs, so smash the ball to the boundary as much as you can and get all the runs you can.

I will soon be also trialing having a day off from work per month to full immerse myself in writing activities. I have not yet thought through how that would work out, but I will give it some thought, do it, and then write about it. I am thinking of modelling it in a “thesis boot camp” style, so it needs a fair bit of planning (just to make sure I have food at the ready at all times and a stress-free environment). We’ll see how that goes.

Ps. I only got into cricket over the Christmas period. Look at me talking like I know shit.

Alone

I have to confess I worked one morning during the holidays. Wow, I know. Two hours of full dedication to my PhD. That is more than I have dedicated (continuously) for nearly a year and a half. I mean, the way I have to chip in at my poor Mongrel PhD, I may have been able to work for three hours or so some days in the past few months, but never continuously. Not that I want to – that is something for another post. But you get the general gist.

I came to an agreement with my wife and my sister – we would all go to Barcelona: they would go get a dress for my sister, I would go to the library. And so we did. I actually finished before they did and had an additional half an hour to spare to sort out my thoughts and fears about the whole process.

In the library I had access to three books that are pretty much essential for what I am writing at the moment. I took some scans and copied some paragraphs, took some samples and made plenty of notes. I was pretty satisfied with myself because this was the equivalent of a field trip to collect data – finally something tangible to write about! So when I had the chance to write my thoughts about how the chapter is going, a few issues came up.

I have been using Katherine Mansfield as an anchor to introduce the influence of Anton Chekhov on Merce Rodoreda, the Catalan writer I am studying. But the more I got my ideas organised on paper, the more I realised that actually, I have no clue about English literature, and introducing Mansfield was a liability for the whole content of the chapter in particular and the thesis in general. In terms of space in the chapter (Mansfield takes up 3,000 words) and congruence with the topic (she is not a Russian writer and I am making a case about Russian literature), in my head, the decision was taken: Mansfield has to go. My supervisors don’t seem to agree and they think it’s a tough call to make, but seeing the amount of data I had obtained on Chekhov in Catalan, for me it was obvious.

I also put together other ideas on how to organise the chapter. In all honesty, I think that if I had had another hour or two, I would have started rewriting the chapter at that point, and I would have been bloody good. But I didn’t, and it was fine. I was still pretty chuffed with myself: a great feeling of having done something productive and having advanced, even if only mentally, in the right direction.

When I left the library, I was happy and all smiley. The wife asked how it went and I said it was good. We lost ourselves in Barcelona and other things. I forgot about the library, and the PhD, and Chekhov. Other things were more important.

In the evening, we were getting ourselves ready for dinner, and then she asked further questions, something on the lines of what I had found and how it had actually gone. I ranted for about ten minutes about my state of mind: how Mansfield needed to go, how I was going to restructure and rewrite the chapter, how I found some things that were funny but really interesting, etc. It did not occur to me at that point that she was being nice and I was going too technical about things. All of a sudden I felt less confident about dropping Mansfield and said that I wasn’t sure how that was going to go down with my supervisors. She was very supportive within the limitations. I think I may have asked for her opinion, but of course, that was not particularly a great move from me. It’s my PhD, she can only support me, not provide in depth analysis of what I need to be doing. I started to doubt myself: how am I going to write this chapter after all? And then it hit me.

I am alone. I am walking alone.

It is unreasonable of me to ask my wife those questions because only I can answer them (or try!). And I can argue my case with my supervisors, but they cannot answer it for me either. I have questions that go down to the bones of my chapter and my thesis and I am finding it difficult to put the pieces together, and there is no one out there who can help me. There is guidance on the process, and advice on how to deal with things, but no one can answer for me how I am meant to drop Mansfield and reintroduce her later in the chapter, and no one can advice me on what short story by Rodoreda there is more of an intertextual connection with one of Chekhov’s stories. And this is very daunting.

Since the Christmas break, I have had a meeting with my supervisors to discuss the whole Mansfield conundrum. Whilst one thinks that I should keep her, the other is leaving it up to me to make a decision, stating that it is actually a tough call. At this point in time, with a chapter in shambles, and still trying to piece things together (who would have thought intertextuality would be so damn difficult to understand!), I can understand their concern. It still makes sense in my head, but I haven’t written what I want yet, and the chapter is far from reaching its full potential. I am concerned too. I feel less alone now, but still fairly alone when it comes to opening the document and facing the blank page (or the full page, mind that).

I suppose it happens to all of us but only at this point I see it for myself. Maybe the solution is to keep walking and embrace being alone, and cherish the fact I am not lonely.

Work on weekends?

Every so often I reminisce about the very first days of my PhD. Two weeks into it I had managed to secure a job in hospitality, so that I could pay the ridiculous bill that the accommodation services was charging me to “work for them”. I felt I had to work every second of my life, both in hospitality and in my degree to (a) go somewhere with it and have hot food on my plate and a roof above my head, and (b) to kill all the time that I had to spare because being social was not much of an option since my wife was back in Australia for the year.

Back then I did not have an office, so I had to go to hot desk spaces that the College of Arts had in campus. They were alright, considering that at that very beginning I barely had any books to carry around yet. I did a lot of work in my room too – having lived in private accommodation for years, going back to student halls (and with a position of responsibility) was like being 21 again, trying to nerd myself to death. And the library was my second home.

Needless to say, then I had a lot of basketball games in the weekends. Having to pay plenty of bills, any cash rolling my way was much welcomed. But when I got home after long travelling around Scotland, I would sit at my desk, get myself a coffee, and read/write/research in general. I also worked some times at night. I was the Queen of Unsocial hours. I am not very surprised now that, looking back at that time, I had managed to (1) get so much work done, compared to the work I have done ever since becoming a Mongrel, and (2) got myself sick with a suspected stomach ulcer at the end of my first year.

Well, this all changed when I became a parttimer Mongrel and the wife moved back to Glasgow. Now I had things to do and fill in my weekends with outside of games (although I still do far too many), I don’t feel like working in the evening, and ever since the winter started, I have issues with getting up early to do any work. It is just so cold outside and in the house it is just not nice to be working! And I am barely awake at 8am, imagine at 7… So I only occasionally work unsociable hours. And for the past year, I have not worked a single weekend. I just can’t.

Now not working on weekends has many advantages, I have experimented. First, there is this terribly daunting feeling that every PhD has that there is always some work “that I should be doing”. Once you finish a section, there is always something else to read, to write, to look up, to think about, etc. It’s the student loop. But undergrads, for example, when they go on holiday, they don’t really need to take with them the burden of assignments that they will have when they come back. PhDs take that burden everywhere, like a suitcase or a passport. And I feel that I needed to drop that burden off my weekends.

I don’t feel guilty for not working. I feel awesome!

There is of course something I should be doing at all times, but I have forbidden that from weekends. It is a no-go area. I am not allowed to think about my PhD. I need to reconvene with myself and my partner on those days, and I need to pay full attention to trivial tasks like going for a walk, do the shopping, and mainly lying on the couch catching up with movies, telly, or anything we care to watch. It is an awesome deal that I recommend to everyone.

Lately, however, I have started feeling concerned about this lack of activity. I don’t want to work on weekends and I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize the very necessary resting time my body and mind need. I also don’t feel guilty for not opening up a book on an average of 100 days a year. I am part time, after all! Increasingly, however, I feel I need more time (and effort) to catch up with where I left off the week before on Monday mornings, and Monday mornings I am barely a person for a sustained amount of time, which makes it even harder. I feel that that has disconnected me from my project one weekend at a time, and I feel that perhaps, if I only worked on it for a block, for a 20-minute block, I would be facilitating the process on Mondays and eliminate the catching up process. To this day, what I find most difficult of the writing process, for example, is going back into it after more than 48 hours have passed since I last closed a document. So maybe a quick refresher on both Saturday and Sunday will help?

I am unsure about this. I am not sure whether it will be genius or fall on its arse, and I am not sure whether it is worth a try. Right now it all seems a bit useless since holidays are literally a few days away and I will be gone (from the UK and my PhD possibly) for a full three amazing weeks. Maybe it is an idea to consider after the holidays, or when winter starts fading away.

I will see how that one goes. #BeaMongrel