2010 leaving, 2011 rushing forward

2011 begins much better, in many ways, than did 2010. At this time last year, I was involved in helping to put on some events that scared me and my companions witless. My vacation time had been spent working on a paper so I could finish an incomplete. I had a full load of classes ahead of me and still no clear idea of what I was doing. January 2010 would finish with me at probably my lowest point of the entire year, wondering what had gone wrong.

The year evened out. I had the support and help of good friends and advisors and decided to leave the PhD program and finish my masters. I ticked off that earlier incomplete, staggered through the rest of the semester (which included a statistics class — blearrrgghh) with only one incomplete, and helped execute a weeklong conference that, by all accounts, went very well.

I spent the summer finishing an incomplete from the spring (I wish I could have written that paper faster, but…). I spent the fall executing a hard-copy, hand-delivered questionnaire to my neighborhood and taking a Chekhov course that was a long, cool drink of water, and for which I wrote one of my best-ever papers.

I read, in the book Dirty Words of Wisdom, a good quote from Alanis Morrisette, that everyone has times when they go through s— and that you always get through them. So don’t worry about them. Nice thought, though it’s hard to keep that perspective when reality bombards you with reasons not to get up in the morning. One of the things I learned this year were various tools to help me get through those times so that I can make it to the other side.

Other learnings:

  • Accountability gets me up in the morning. Knowing people are depending on me, or that I’ve committed to a deadline, spurs me to get stuff done. Filthy dirty deadlines — hate ’em, but they work.
  • My mentor, The Unclassifiable Cassidy, advised to commit to the deadline before you’re ready — it’s the only way to make sure you get the work done. If you wait till you have the data analyzed, the conference will have already taken place. In other words: you’ll never be ready, so just get on with it.
  • This means, setting personal or arbitrary deadlines for yourself can work too, if I make them personal enough. For my questionnaire, I knew they needed it to be delivered at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, because once the holidays started people would be too busy to respond. For my Chekhov paper, I aimed to have it done the weekend before it was due and so worked on it bit by bit over several weeks (one of the few times I’ve done such a thing). This turned out to be a good thing, as I had two great insights occur to me in the shower the day before the paper was due; I spent that evening bolstering the paper with those insights and it really strengthened the whole thing.
  • This means, relatedly, disassociating the deadline from the project’s completion, as explained by Cal at Study Hacks. He recommends starting on a project within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. I must admit, I like the idea.
  • My advisor last year had a few core principles that stick in my ind, even if I’ve not fully adopted them. Among them: it takes as much time to do a big project as it does a small project, so go for the bigger win – make the effort mean something. She also emphasized that no one ever told her what to do; she had to decide what were her priorities and what she wanted to accomplish with her energy, time, and career. It’s about being independent rather than being a student — or an employee.
  • I need structure. When I don’t have structure (as expressed by deadlines, accountability) then I flounder and flop and end the day feeling worse rather than better. This, although there’s often a voice within that screams not to be chained by these dreary and boring rules. I have not worked out trade negotiations between these voices yet, but it’s coming.
  • It has to be the journey and the destination. I heard several times during my year in the academic vineyard, that if some part of you isn’t perversely enjoying at least some of what you’re going through, then that isn’t the job for you. I’m all for delayed gratification, but it needs to come sooner rather than later in some form.

I ended 2010 way more upbeat then when I started. I spent my Christmas break reading a wonderful book and not even checking my email. There is still, at the back of my head, that niggling puritanical whisper “but you aren’t accomplishing anything.” I begin 2011 less sure of my path — say what you will about the academic experience, it’s run by the calendar and the pace ensure you’re productive. I certainly never wrote or created as much in a short period of time as I did while working full-time and going to school. (In fact, I see now that the academic expectations of research, teaching, publications, and service formally externalizes what employees are always told to do — but rarely do — in their careers: work hard, network, be active in your professional association, keep your resume updated.)

I am joining with a few other people in creating a mastermind group, admitting which in public makes me feel like I’m coming out of the closet as a Kenny G fan or Republican or something equally shunned by society as simple-brained and noxious. Still, 2010 taught me that my old ways of believing and living were not enough to cope with the stress of what I went through. I want to experiment with and play with new methods to express (and maybe form) new beliefs.

I’ve set myself a deadline of January 31 to have my masters paper drafted, with the data entered and crunched, and the literature updated. It’s an aggressive schedule and it’s the kind of spur I need to get things done. Even if I’m not finished, I’ll have accomplished more than if I’d waited for the mood to strike me.

Other goals for the year include finding work, making some money, networking, raking the leaves, cleaning my office closets from 4 years of neglect, etc. As I look at my calendar book for January, and think about what I need/want to do, I want to see how much benevolent pressure I can put on myself such that I get done what I want without stressing out too much. Journey and destination.

Another tool I plan to use is Christine Kane’s Word of the Year. I’ve not gone through her worksheet, but I want this year’s word to be ACTION. As I look back over 2010, much of my distress was caused by my worrying over a problem, journaling about it, brooding, sitting and looking out the bus window while morosely spinning dark futures about it, when only a few minutes of action was enough to dispel about 90 percent of the gloom. Taking action — even and especially — when I don’t feel like it, is what I want 2011 to be about. I want to look back on 2011 and marvel at all that I did, all the people I met, all the things I wrote, and wonder at how I did it all while feeling on top of things the whole time.

Of course, there may be a problem with FOCUS or CLARITY. If I take action on all things, large and small, won’t that dissipate my effectiveness? Maybe, but that’s a problem to deal with when I’m actioning all over the place (and it’s something I hope the mastermind group would help me to rein in).

Today, for example, I have 5 things written down that I’d like to accomplish by the end of the day (writing a blog post is one of them), yet I see that the dishes need to be washed and the clothes need to be put away. Do I put them on my list? Do the other more important things first? Whoa, Sparky, slow down. Those are my thought processes running amuck again, and not serving me. The thing to do is simply to take action — wash the dishes, put away the clothes, clean my desk, take a nap, even. Don’t let my thinking get in the way of taking action.

Here’s to 2011.

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