Fall 2009 chicken

Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.

The Hard

  • I never got around to writing all the blog posts documenting my semester, its ups and downs—which is one of the reasons I started the blog, so that it could serve as my diary/journal for this trip. It became one of many obligations I had to ignore as the semester limped along.
  • About 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, I said to people that I wasn’t coping with school—I was trying to get to a point where I could start coping.
  • The work, oy, the work. Mounds of it. Only some it was horrendously difficult, but it was all mostly time-consuming and came pelting on my windshield in clumpy wet blotchy gusts. And because few of the work products resembled each other, there was no way to build up any momentum so that you could leverage a day’s work on 2 projects, for example. Each task was too unique. This meant thin-slicing my attention to where nothing got my full attention (I hated this condition) or waiting till a deadline or question from a stakeholder forced me to pay attention to the thing. I was never able to work ahead to my satisfaction.
  • Statistics. The homework that soaked up hours, the 56-question midterm that I could not complete in 75 minutes, the feeling that I was 4-6 weeks behind in understanding the Niagara of information washing over me, the frequent panics and dark moments when it hit me forcefully that I wasn’t getting it.  Realizing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Definitely the worst experiences of my college career.
  • Dialing down my expectations. Part of what made the semester hard was the writing on the inside of my skull that said everything had to be perfect, every page of every assignment had to be read, every commitment had to be honored. Re-negotiating my expectations for what I could realistically (as opposed to idealistically) accomplish was a major hit to the ego.
  • Letting things go—and these were assignments and commitments I was on the hook for producing. It hurt to have to drop or ignore them because I didn’t have time for them.
  • Not letting things go—the snack-information pellets I continued to read, the idea that I needed to give myself frequent breaks—the trying to hold on to the old parts of my life and personality that are holding me back from embracing what I think has to be a new part of my personality.
  • Felt like I was still using too much nervous energy, not enough smarts, to get things done. I felt that I was counting too much on the Thanksgiving break and random days off to work on or finish assignments that could have been completed in a more reasonable, less nerve-wracking fashion.
  • Always predicting disaster and failure erodes my nerve-endings and makes me no fun to hang out with.
  • Found myself leading two groups and feeling very inadequate in the role of leader and project manager. Always the feeling that that I’m not measuring up and that I’m letting people down. This is a feeling that is not going away anytime soon.
  • Guilt, guilt, and more guilt for not reading enough, doing enough, staying up late enough, accomplishing enough, being enough.
  • The hours spent commuting. Some time can be filled with reading on the way to school, but I was too tired at the end of the day to get any good reading done. Still haven’t found a good way to use that down time except to relax and mull, which is probably what I need to do anyway.
  • Felt like a whiner for most of the semester.
  • Seeing my mentor graduate with her dissertation and leave the school; hers is the face I will always see first when I think of this school. Will miss her advice and availability.
  • Flipping between two and three different time management systems through the semester, never quite finding The One.
  • Forecasting mountains of hard work that makes it easy to want to give up. I have the following coming up in the spring: helping with a 3-day event in early January, helping with a student event in mid-January, conducting actual research for my advisors and writing up a draft, writing quarterly reports for our grant, helping plan and run a major week-long event in May—and did I mention I’m taking three courses (including the second statistics course)? And there will be extra impromptu projects that arise—they always do.
  • Comparing myself to others who seem to be doing this gig more effortlessly than me.
  • Trying to find 10 hours/week for my part-time job. Sometimes I couldn’t.
  • Working against my natural rhythms—I really shouldn’t try to do hard-focus work from 2-5pm.
  • Is there a good, easy, simple way to manage multiple projects that doesn’t require spending hours feeding tasks and end dates into an application? This is another case where I’m using too much brute force and brain cells instead of trusted routines and systems. I’m convinced I can manage most of these things with pen and paper or a text file and a calendar, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Giving up the comfortable, familiar handrails of a job, of a place where I felt competent and accomplished. Struggling still with the idea of whether this academic enterprise is something I really want, or whether it wants me. The idea of a life spent working is not at all attractive to me—unless it’s work I enjoy (and that’s a new thought for me). At this point in the game, I’m still taking orders from people and struggling to meet the expectations of others, so enjoyment is not part of the agenda.
  • Fighting my distractions: YouTube, web smurfing. There’s more joy in my distractions than in the work.
  • Wanting to hide when someone suggested a new project or new task when I didn’t know how I was going to handle my current tasks. Feeling very protective of my time.
  • Discovering I’m not as smart as I thought as I was. But then, one of my goals was to get smarter, to learn to think more critically. As one of my advisors said early on, you’ll stretch and it’ll hurt.

The Good

  • I know a little better now how I want next semester to go, insofar as planning my schedule, managing commitments, dealing with technical courses, etc.
  • It’s probably just as well that I didn’t document on this blog everything that happened to me, as it would have been extremely tedious reading throughout the semester. Also, writing about it probably would have made me feel worse; I’d be spending the time practicing my angst rather than working on my projects.
  • I passed Statistics, but not in the way I would have liked. My homework partner carried the burden of the hours-long homework sets, and my contributions were minimal. But I passed. (“P’s make degrees.”)
  • Help is all around—fellow students, professors, friends, my wife. I just need to let them know what’s going on and ask for help or for some time to vent. I found that when I vented my fears in public, others also confessed their misgivings. So I’m not alone in this.
  • Things usually—well, pretty much always—turned out better than I expected. How about that.
  • Commuting via TTA worked out really well. I filled up my car maybe every other week, and rode the bus when possible. Mondays at home all day. Terribly essential when I needed big gobs of time to read or write or research. Discovering that one of our professors is interested in an esoteric subject that I’ve been interested in for years. I followed up on this with my advisor, who said this could perhaps be worked into a dissertation, but would require some massaging. The sooner I can find and define a dissertation topic, the better life will get.
  • I got through the semester.
  • I can look back and see how much work I produced at school while also mentoring a friend who took over my old job through the busiest time of the company’s fiscal year. One of the reasons for this career change was to improve my productivity, and I’m certainly doing that.
  • Having a part-time job to make up the income deficit, and being able to mostly squeeze it into the tiny gaps of my day.
  • My professor’s knack for assigning intermediate deadlines for term projects that forced me to create smaller products and thus engage with the material on a smaller scale over a longer period of time. When it came time to write the final paper, the ground had been well-broken and was familiar to me. This is a technique I need to remember and employ for myself. Trusting my writing instincts and creative intelligence—I know I don’t have to have it all figured out before I write things down. The very act of writing and sifting the material, and thinking about it as I walk or commute, creates the connections. I don’t have to force anything. It was good to be reminded of this.
  • Settling at last on Google Calendar and a page-per-day planner book with my Autofocus lists in the back.
  • The Pomodoro technique for breaking work into units. I would often start a work session thinking, “I need to get 3 pages written” or “I need to find 10 pieces of literature for the review”; instead, by allotting 25 minutes of focused time to the task—and then using as many of those 25-minute slots as needed or as I had time for—I still felt as if I was progressing. These were often useful at the start of a project, when I really didn’t know which way was up or how to get into the material.
  • Discovering I could produce a lot in a little amount of time. Parkinson’s Law should be remembered; impossible deadlines tend to elicit focused work from me in an annoyingly productive way. Don’t tell me you want it next month, tell me you need it by Friday. But can I do this for myself? To myself?
  • Deciding that going to bed by midnight was non-negotiable. For a while there, 1 a.m. was my limit, until I wised up. I hope to work this down to 11 pm in 2010, and then to simply going to bed when I’m tired. Never skimp on your sleep. Were I to fall ill, my empire would topple.
  • During my last week of paper-writing, I stuck a big post-it to my monitor that said “80%”. A reminder that perfection isn’t needed for some jobs, just a good effort, and sometimes good enough is good enough; even if the paper isn’t as perfect as you’d like, let it go and move to the next one. Don’t go crazy.

The Questions

  • Too much introspection and hand-wringing? Not enough action?
  • What if I went forward in all my pursuits with the expectation that I will succeed and everything will come out all right? How would that feel?
  • Can I schedule my distractions so that I can focus for longer periods of time? Knowing that I’ll have time to read or play, will that keep my attention from wandering?
  • Can I set myself impossible deadlines so I can get routine work done faster?
  • Can I make Cal Newport’s 9-to5 schedule work for me? Maybe on some days, not so much on class days. But in order to stem the flood of work and build in some down-time, the only way to do that, it seems to me, is to establish pretty rigid time boundaries and say, “I’ll commit to doing the work at this time for this duration, and then I stop.” Even so, I’m still at the early point in my career when I’m not as in control of my schedule as I will be in 2 years. Also, I’m way too overcommitted—but no way to get out of them for a while, so must grit my teeth…

Lessons Learned

  • Front-load the semester—do as much work as possible as early in the semester as possible. This is particularly the case for long-term projects. As the semester wears on, there is less and less time to devote to big projects. One of the old project management sayings I remember is, “There’s always more time at the beginning of a project than there is at the end.” Don’t wait; I’m kinder to myself tomorrow when I get something done today.
  • Leverage asynchronous communications. I don’t have to respond to most emails immediately, and I shouldn’t expect other people to do so. I can usually tell when a phone call will work better.
  • I experimented with one composition book per class, but that fell by the wayside for the seminar classes. I now use a single Moleskine large-format cahier to take all class and meeting notes. I date each page. As I process each page into meeting minutes or, in the case of my Statistics class, into a separate notebook where my scribbles are cleaned up, I draw a slash through the page to indicate that it’s “done.” This becomes my everything book and user-capture device. (I don’t always carry my MacBook with me, but I always have this book with me.) I also kept a separate notebook for statistics homework, but I may incorporate it into the flow of my class notes next semester. I think keeping too many things in separate buckets fragments my attention.
  • Learn as I go. This is especially true with statistics, where I trusted that I would have time and intelligence enough to figure it out later. That did not work. Next semester, take frequent office-hours meetings with the professor or TA (if the TA is helpful) starting the first week, start the homework early early early, ask the questions early, and make as much use of YouTube and web stats tutorials as I can. I believe that stats, for me, is a case of both hard-focus and lots of time. Don’t expect I can cram 14 weeks of conceptual material into a weekend. Also—I can understand things if they’re explained clearly enough and if I practice them often enough.
  • Skimming is OK to do and I can still contribute in class.
  • Feeling scared and intimidated is OK and is almost encouraged. These are feelings that have to be negotiated with no matter where you are in life.
  • The Ineradicable Cassidy’s dissertation defense illuminated what had been often said: it’s up to the student. The student drives the process because the advisor is too busy to look after him/her. The student has to dog the advisor, the student has to harangue the committee, the student has to seek help if help is needed. Also, the student has to learn to put the pressure on themselves via deadlines—send in a poster proposal before the results are in, set a date with your advisor for the draft even if you haven’t started it. Without that pressure, none of us would get anything done. And this is in part how an academic must progress in their career. (Whether you want to continually be tricking yourself this way for the next 20-30 years, well, that’s a different discussion and part of my lingering discontent with this academic project. But that might also be a part of my old self resisting the changes to my new life.)
  • When I had to push something out quickly—a lit review, research for a presentation—I was able to clear my calendar and do it. And, weirdly, the sooner I did this work, the more in control I felt of what was happening to me. The feeling of being on top of things is so powerful. There’s no reason to wait to start working on a project; some progress can always be made.