time management

New Goals, Post-PhD Style

The first few months (okay, maybe a year or so) after deciding leaving academia, I felt romantic nostalgia for what I’d left behind. I reminisced about classmates, my research, writing in my pajamas, and having institutional library access. (Confession: I still wish I had institutional library access.) With some time and distance from academia, I now see it in a different, perhaps more realistic way, complete with adjunct exploitation, corporatization, and structural inequalities. Now I’m finally to the point in my post-PhD journey in which I’m looking forward more than looking back at what I left behind.

So I’ve decided to run towards the awesome. I’m much more interested now in finding and creating a life that works for me, rather than one the requires fitting myself into impossible boxes. I want to create the best life that I can, one that I’m absolutely thrilled to be living. I want a life that’s meaningful and filled with engaged and creative work. I am not interested at all in living a life that seems like second best or a sorry consolation prize for not getting an academic job. I want work that draws on all of my unique talents and skills, work that is a natural extension of who I am and what I value, like the kind of work that only I could possibly be doing.

I recently read some goal setting and getting books. I decided to try my hand at applying their wisdom to the post-PhD.  I learned that envisioning and creating something new and exciting in the post-PhD has two steps:

1. Defining and creating new goals
2. Attaching the goals to a structure

I like goals. Point me towards one and I’ll work like hell to get it, provided that I want it badly enough. Getting a PhD was a perfect goal for me, as it had a defined end point and clearly marked milestones. Left to my own devices, I realized that creating new goals is hard. After finishing the PhD, I didn’t feel like I had any goals. The next logical step would have been book publication, but without an academic job, academic publication didn’t feel very compelling as a goal. I also wasn’t sure that academic goals matched my personal goals anymore. I decided that any new goals had to conform to my values and the things that I love in life.

Without some kind of school or external goals, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. So I got very serious about figuring out some new goals and did some daydreaming. I thought about what I wanted more of in my life and what I wanted less of. I thought hard about personal values. They included creativity, place, community, curiosity, and perseverance. I also thought about the ideas that thrilled me the most and prioritized those.  

Turns out, I have lots of different goals.

  • Being a writer
  • Writing and publishing a novel
  • Hosting a writing retreat three times a year
  • Giving writing workshops
  • Creating a group for therapeutic writing for trauma survivors
  • Living in Mexico
  • Publishing freelance articles
  • Creating and giving a walking tour
  • Creating a study abroad program
  • Giving a TED talk
  • Teaching history again
  • Creating some kind of collective writing project

Some of the things on this list are short term goals and some are long term. Some of the goals aren’t really goals, but rather dreams. Being a writer, for example, is a lifestyle dream rather than a concrete goal. Writing and publishing a novel, on the other hand, is an actual concrete and real thing that I can work towards. But it still seemed huge and unmanageable. (I also had to make a concerted effort to not to listen to the negative voices in my head who helpfully asked who the hell I thought I was to be even thinking about pursuing dreams.) I broke novel writing down into smaller, more manageable steps. The steps include brainstorming an idea for a novel, writing an outline, completing a certain number of chapters,  finishing a complete rough draft, revising, finding an agent, getting the book to a publisher, etc etc etc. Given enough time, I could break down any of these things into little concrete tasks that are actually doable. I could, for example, brainstorm an idea for my novel. Like today. Like now.

So even though I now had a neat list of manageable steps, I still couldn’t quite figure out how I was going to get from here to there. I needed a structure that moved me logically from one step to the next. I never thought about structure when I was in graduate school, largely because it just surrounded me. (Fish don’t know they’re wet.) The structure was external and predefined by my professors, department, graduate college, and university. I created the structure for the classes I taught, but even that was defined by the sixteen week semester.

Creating my own structure felt a little scary. When I’ve tried to reach goals on my own in the past, I’ve often approached them using the strategy created by the Underpants Gnomes of South Park in their famous three phase business plan:

1. Collect underpants
2. ????
3. Profit

(Plot spoiler: the Gnomes’ plan did not work and they did not profit. Sorry.)

Working on goals this way literally never works for me because I have no commitment and no end date. I have vague ideas that I’ll keep working until “someday” I’ll reach a goal and then some other things will happen. Mostly I end up losing interest because I can’t seem to get anywhere.

Working backwards to avoid the Underpants Gnomes fallacy, I took all of my concrete goals and set dates to reach them. I tried to make the dates reasonable, but also not give myself time to NOT do them. I don’t particularly like to work under pressure, but I do find that I need to create a bit of a sense of urgency so that I get things done. In a truly terrifying moment, I then wrote the dates on my calendar in pen. Working backwards, I figured out when I’d need to do all of the little tasks in order to meet the goals on their target dates.

The big milestones that I identified are now plotted on a multi-year monthly calendar. The little goals are now scheduled in my planner. I literally have a list of little things to do every single day to get to my big goals. Even though I created the structure and could abandon or change it at any time, it feels concrete and doable enough to compel me along towards the finish line.

I’m still doing a lot of experimenting about how, exactly, I’m going to achieve anything on my goal list (how would I could I possibly give a TED talk?), but I think I’m on my way. More on goals to come.

Writing Without Time

One of my goals this year was to write two new twelve week articles (as well as revise and resubmit the one that was rejected). Swept up in the enthusiasm of the new year, some friends and I created a new writing group. Armed with a fresh Scrivener project and a conference paper to revise (analyzing the history of archeology through the early twentieth-century excavations at the Quiriguá site in Guatemala), I’m off to an excellent start.

I expected this time around with the Twelve Week article method to be easier, as this was my second time writing a twelve week article. I was pretty sure that I’d learned everything I needed to know about article writing when I’d written the last one. I expected to identify similar obstacles to writing. However, I discovered that this time, I was facing a different set of issues. Right now, the biggest problem is lack sufficient writing time.

The editing biz has been slow for the last few weeks, so I decided to get a temp job. After years of part-time graduate school employment, I’d forgotten what it was like to work forty hours a week for someone else. Despite angst about participating in the gig economy (more on this in a future post), I remember how much I enjoy going to a regular job. I like feeling like I have co-workers. I like having an actual office. I most especially love being paid regularly.

However, there are some serious downsides. My time is now so often not my own. I’m working on other people’s projects and helping other people achieve their goals. I have little time to write.

I felt so crunched for time that I wondered if I should tell my writing group buddies that they’d have to continue without me. I felt myself succumbing to the myth that I could only write if I had long, uninterrupted stretches of writing time. I felt too busy to write.

But one of my 2016 goals was to write another article. If I wasn’t going to write an article now, when exactly did I think I would? Besides, I didn’t want to let my writing group down.   

Recalling all of my experiences from the last twelve week article, I realized that I needed to schedule short writing sessions during my small blocks of free time. When I looked at my schedule, I panicked a little bit, horrified to realize how precious little writing time I really had. I ruled out writing during my lunch hour, as I’m trying to squeeze more walking into my life. I didn’t want to write after work, either. I’m tired after work. I don’t feel motivated to work on my article after staring at someone else’s computer screen for eight hours a day. I can only imagine how people who have demanding jobs and small children to care for must feel about their lack of writing time.

I realized that I would have to schedule my writing sessions early in the morning before leaving for the office. Sure, I’d love to have endless blocks of time to write. However, I’ve often only got thirty to forty minutes in the morning before I have to start getting ready to leave home at seven, so I have to take full advantage of that little window of time. This week, I scheduled my writing time from 5:15am to 6am, Monday through Friday. I planned my writing time on my calendar and then tracked my actual time with Toggl. Much to my surprise, I stuck to my schedule.

In other words, I was accomplishing actual writing despite feeling like I was too busy to write. Magic!

Writing first thing in the morning has had the unexpected advantage of literally making my writing my first priority. As I wrote about in this post, I often struggle with the idea of prioritizing my writing because I’m really struggling with the idea of prioritizing myself. When I leave early in the morning for my temporary office, I feel good knowing that I’ve already accomplished the most difficult part of my day.

Writing first thing in the morning has also done wonders for the anxiety I feel whenever I’m staring down the barrel of what seems like an overwhelming writing project. As always, it’s the act of not writing that causes shame and anxiety; the act of writing is the cure. If I have learned one thing about being a productive writer, it is this: write a little bit every day.
Seriously, those people who say we need schedules for writing are absolutely right. 

Research =/= Writing

I hate writing, I love having written.
— Dorothy Parker

Several years ago, as I struggled to write my dissertation, I made a startling discovery.

Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Call me naïve, but I felt as though I'd experienced a revelation.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we academic writers often fall down rabbit holes of our own making. A tiny moment to look up a small fact to support our main argument turns into a full-blown wild goose chase to find some obscure shred of evidence.

Academics are, by profession and by nature, curious and inquisitive people. We live to find the perfect source, document, or photograph. Doing the research is the fun part of any academic project, whether a dissertation, book, or journal article. We're at our best because we're in our field sites, our archives; we're in our elements. Conducting research often feels like hunting for buried treasure: each new discovery leads to a discovery more wondrous than the last. The chase feels exhilarating. Research allows us to be the heroes of our research journeys, linking fragments of clues together until we arrive at the exact place where X marks the spot.

Armed with our research—our hard-won documents, interviews, and data—we begin to write.

And then we become bored. To quote B.B. King, the thrill is gone. We grapple with our findings, arguments, and conclusions. We struggle to translate our ideas into written words. We write terrible first drafts. We struggle to craft topic sentences. The act of writing threatens to overwhelm us with emotions we’d prefer not to experience: shame, anger, frustration, and anxiety. We wrestle even more with the writing.

In the middle of our writing, we suddenly find holes in the evidence. Relieved to have an excuse to stop writing, we dive into the rabbit hole of research for hours on end. We wonder why we don’t seem to make progress with our writing. We’re frustrated that nothing has been written.

When I first began writing my dissertation, I would sit down to write and yet always found myself doing more research. I wondered why I wasn’t making better progress. Then I made the amazing discovery: research and writing are distinct activities. They are not one and the same. Research is research. Writing is writing.

Here’s what no one will tell you: research is fun, while writing is generally unpleasant, even for people who like to write. Writing will trigger every unhealed childhood neurosis you thought you’d dealt with in therapy years ago. We feel anxious, angry, and ashamed that we can’t write. We don’t want to feel all of these negative emotions, so we avoid writing. We procrastinate, which only causes more anxiety, shame, and anger. We neglect our writing. We feel like failures.

Here are some steps to help:

Acknowledge to yourself that writing is hard. Turning ideas into words is difficult, but writing is also hard because we so often feel under massive emotional pressure while doing it. Realize that you’re probably going to feel unhappy and stressed while writing. Your feelings are valid. However—and here’s the kicker—you’ve got to keep writing through the emotional yuck. You need to keep writing despite your anxiety and frustration. Cry if you must. No, it’s not fun. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Keep writing anyway.

Set a timer. Feeling like a total failure as a writer and human being is more tolerable if you know that you’ll only feel that way for a set amount of time. Once you’ve completed your allotted writing time, you can stop writing and go about the rest of your life like the competent adult you are. Many people have great luck with the Pomodoro method and write in many small twenty-five minute periods. Other people need longer periods of writing time to get the ideas flowing. I find that I need to write in hour-long periods—any less than an hour and I haven’t had enough time to work through the bad feelings that get in the way of my good ideas. Give yourself some scheduled time for writing and your feelings.

Separate writing from research. Your writing time is for writing, not falling down research rabbit holes (or, *ahem*, watching hours of kitten videos on YouTube). If you need to look up a date or fact, put some dummy text in your writing to hold your place (e.g., some person named XXXXX did thing XYZ in year YYYY) and keep writing. You can look up this particular fact later. Get back to writing.

Make a research to-do list. When tempted to jump down the research rabbit hole, control yourself. Every research urge you have should go on your research to-do list. Jot it down, know that the item is safely on your to-do list, and return to writing. When you’re done with your scheduled writing for the day, figure out some time to pursue the items on the list. The advantage of this method is that you’ve now scheduled time to fall down that research rabbit hole on purpose. You now have permission to be the hero of your own choose-your-own-adventure research quest while still making writing progress.

Set goals and rewards for writing. Writing can be a whole lot more enjoyable when you receive tangible rewards for hitting certain milestones. Challenge yourself to write more than you think you can, but be realistic. You’ve crawled over hot coals and written 3000 words? Finished a chapter? Revised your article? Congratulate yourself with something fun or a present. Giving yourself some real rewards for writing sometimes makes the pain of writing feel almost worth it. Little tangible rewards along the way mean more than distant and intangible ones like, “When I’ve finished writing my dissertation, I’ll have a PhD.”

Meditate. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: regular meditation is a powerful productivity tool. Training your mind to focus intently on one thing primes it for the focus and attention that writing demands. Just like meditation is a practice, so writing is a practice. Meditation also allows you a safe place to work through any bad feelings about writing. Be mindful. Write a journal. Do yoga. Do tai chi. Practice something that requires intense focus and reflection

In sum, if you’re not making enough progress with your writing, evaluate your writing practice. What’s getting in the way? What would happen if you devoted your entire attention to your writing on a regular basis? What if you did less research and more writing? If you’re using research to avoid writing, separate these activities from each other. Research is not writing. Writing is not research. Research to research. Write to write.