I have been to a few rather useful workshops in the last couple of weeks about time management, organisational skills, and writing in general. Last night there was also a rather enlightening conversation on #acwri about the worst advice you can be given in regards to writing. So this morning I though it would be useful to reflect upon something I have been doing lately in regards to my academic writing that has helped me (so far, fingers crossed) in keeping “the ball rolling”.

A few weeks ago, I had a small writing crisis. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of a hissy fit for being unable to write when I had set time to do so. Monday evenings I have a “long” block of time (from about 5 until 8) to do research as my wife is on an evening course. In those three hours, I have time to think and write, as painfully slowly as I want to. However, on that particular occasion, I was really stuck. I wrote about 10 words in 3 hours. I kept staring at the screen as if my mind was going to write the words for me. I gave up and went home and cried inconsolably to my wife with this whole “Oh I am such a failure!” nonsensical reasoning.

Her help made me get a grip of myself and move on. It was great to feel so terrible then, because in the last few weeks my writing has improved and considerably sped up. And it’s because I have been using handwriting. The same way that some people are scared of staring at a blank Word doc, my problem was (or is) that I already have a certain amount of words written on the document. I needed to pick up a place to start writing, and forget about everything else. But I could not find that particular place to start whilst staring at the screen.

Instead, I decided to print off a few pages of my chapter, and read through it superficially. I soon found something I did not like and wanted to change. I switched off the computer, looked at the printed doc, opened my notebook and just started scribbling down some notes. Those notes turned into fully formed sentences. Then they were paragraphs. Without noticing, in about 10 minutes I had sort of handwritten about a notebook page worth of content.

I did this consistently for a few days (or snack writing bits, really, but that is a post for another time). I have very limited time as a Mongrel, so I would just open my notebook, see where I had left off, and continue writing. I didn’t need much time, or much inspiration: just jotted down whatever I felt I needed to say in the next little bit of my chapter. One of the down sides of this is that then you need to type up a lot. It incorporates an additional level of useless work you could have avoided by free writing directly on a document, and it really chomps away time. The good thing is that it allows for another layer of editing before the words hit the document. So I ensure that I have looked at those words at least twice before putting them on a page. They have gone through the quality control process. And to be honest, whenever I find it really hard to write, all I need to do is start typing a particular bit… all of a sudden ideas mushroom pretty quickly, and I can go back to productive writing (at times on a Word doc, other times on paper).

The other great thing I found out about handwriting is that it helps me think at my own pace. The idea you can read over and over again is that writing helps your thinking, and indeed it is your thinking, just put into paper. Writing channels out the ideas and helps you modify them accordingly. Now, I can type fairly fast. I suppose I could say I can think really fast as well, although that is not always the case. The point is that, sometimes, I need a half a second more to make sure I know what I want to say. Typing is not very forgiving in this sense – because you can tell exactly how slowly you are typing from your normal typing speed. I have figured out that, when generating ideas in academic writing, my brain works at the same speed as the hand writes. And that is fantastic because at times I struggle to see the end of the sentence. I can also see the full sentence as it is being written and I can tell if I am subordinating too much, or going a bit ‘Spanish’ about paragraphs. Things that, you could argue, you could also do in Word. I can still visualize paragraph structure a bit better when I can scribble over things I don’t like and things that are good. It has given me a new dimension to #acwri.

This new writing situation has caused havoc in my notepad, and I have gone from using about 50 pages in four or five months to 50 pages in about four weeks. The notepad has become so confusing I have now had to devise some colour coding (green for notes to self, blue for notes from a book or quotes, black for my chapter writing) in order to make sense out of it. But on the flip side, it has become a highly successful method, and I have now surpassed the 12,000 word mark (this morning) with around 4,000 of those words coming from thoughts originally jotted down on my notepad. As much as 4,000 words in 4 weeks does not seem like a great amount, it is better than the daunting feeling of not really knowing where I am going or worst still, not writing anything.

I suppose when I was reading about bad writing advice on #acwri, the worst advice I could think of, in the end, was not writing at all. There is no worse place to be than when the ball gets stuck. Handwriting allows me to keep it rolling and physically see my progress (which at times is complex when you are putting words onto a Word doc).

This is my new secret weapon, and I won’t hesitate to use it.


jjiijfeeling stuck and procrastinating about it.

I have an idea – oh crap!

It might seem counterproductive, but I had an amazing idea yesterday and I am regretting it today. Very badly as well. Let me contextualise a bit.


I am currently trying to write Chapter 3 of a five chapter thesis. That seems about right so far. I have done about eight months’ work of research on this chapter, and I have it written in my head. I am not trying to avoid the work, I am just trying to make sure I have all the necessary readings done before I start writing it down “properly”. I have already submitted the first part of the chapter for my supervisors to review and they liked it, and gave me feedback on how to improve it. So I am working with that. Keeping the rough part of that first part, chopping off and rewriting certain bits and then keep writing the second part. That’s fine.

Whilst reading, however, I have been having some trouble understanding the theory of intertextuality. Well, not so much understanding, but also quoting and citing. Who said what? Whose theories are people in that field working with these days? We have forty years worth of research after Julia Kristeva coined the word in 1967. So where is the field going and who should I be reading to 1) understand and 2) quote in my Literature Review of the chapter?

Since this was a major difficulty, I decided to start writing about what I know and the polish it up at a later date. Whilst I was doing this, I realised that I could use the polysystem hypothesis, which I have used in previous chapters, to be the theoretical framework behind my work. Why not? I feel very confident about that and I know how to quote it. So I started writing and it made more sense and when I told one of my supervisors she agreed that the changes I was proposing were good and made sense in the bigger picture, plus they give continuity to what I had said in Chapters 1 and 2. Good then.


Current plan, looking okay

But then I went to meet my other supervisor. We have an odd power relationship between us, and, since she is an older academic, I feel like every time I have an idea or I want to do something, I need to make sure I think it through and explain it very well, almost inside out, for her to understand and approve of. I feel like I do when I am talking to my mom and trying to explain a major life decision: I need to let her know that this is not rushed, that I have put a lot of thought and research on it, and I understand the consequences. Which in a PhD scenario is really good, because I discard half baked ideas and we end up discussing things that really matter and on which I have a founded opinion. It also pushes me to find that state: to work hard and explain my research in different words.


New plan, looking far more enticing

The problem is that yesterday, whilst I was in the meeting with her, all sorts of ideas came up. Some half baked, some slightly more thought through. As I was sitting there, she was asking me questions that really put me in a position to advance in my thesis writing. I had to explain how I want Chapter 5 to look like, but I had to admit that I don’t know what I want to do for Chapter 4 and that is putting a lot of pressure on me. I mean, what if I don’t find anything to write about anyway? Whilst I was there, I also suggested something else that could be in Chapter 5. And then it stroke me.


What if I bin the main writer and pick the main translator? The thesis will have a unity, Chapter 3 will become Chapter 4 as I will need to split Chapter 2 in half and expand it. My other supervisor had told me not to worry because if I could not find something for Chapter 4, I could just reorganise the structure of the thesis. But this imply a major change – thesis title change, research question change, and all, although I will be able to use a great amount of what I have already written. In any case, I will need to rewrite Chapters 1 and 2 at a later stage and improve them considerably. So why not improve them with this new focus?

Today of course I can’t think of anything else. I have promised them a sample of my writing in two weeks and a first draft in four… I have calculated the differences between the chapter I think I want to write, and a chapter that would fit into this new model. And I find the new chapter easier to work through, but I can’t just go “actually, look what I did” and send it to them without having consulted them. I am getting really carried away with this idea and it’s somewhat scary.

I think I will try to relax (I seem to go through ridiculous bipolar spikes with this research) and work through what my original idea was and then give the new one a shot. Stay tuned to find out how this goes. I might end up regretting having an idea.

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.


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.