2008 Fall Semester Wrap-up

@1125h: Checking mail, backing up
Image by Angela Sabas via Flickr

Follow-up to my fall break posting.

  • I spent the last two days deleting 1000+ emails from my Gmail “read this later” pile, deleted all unneeded emails from my fall classes, and deleted from my hard drive all the working files and drafts I used to create my various homework assignments. I keep only the final versions that I hand in and only the emails that included those files as attachments.
  • The semester, as usual, ended oddly. One feels that there should be more emotional celebration when you turn in that final assignment, but it’s not a race where there’s a clear winner and the outcome is unambiguous. I’m usually just restless and antsy and give me whatever grade you feel like giving me, I’m too tired to care. Fellow students comment on how we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves and all this free time. It’s a feeling I remember from when I used to act in community theater; we’d spend 6 weeks of evenings and weekends rehearsing, and when the performances and parties were over, we were generally glad to be done with this show that we were now thoroughly familiar with (and, consequently, sick of) and ready to move on. We talked about what we’d do with these acres of now-free time. After two weeks, we were back auditioning for the next show.
  • I expect this odd feeling--all revved up and then looking around at an empty landscape wondering where everyone went--will recur when graduation eventually rolls around. :)
  • I am pleased to report that I got high marks for both classes, which means I have a complete set of high marks for all of my classes thus far. La, how jolly.
  • Looking back, I probably could have handled both classes more easily had I not been severely distracted by the whole Ph.D. question. All that questioning, research, writing the essay, and pulling together those threads really distracted me from my everyday assignments.
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No Heroic Efforts

I meant to add this time management rule to my previous Fall Review post. I  can't remember whether it originated with Mark Forster or David Allen, but it goes something like this: At all costs, avoid heroic efforts to get things done. Examples of an heroic effort would be pulling an all-nighter or shoving all other obligations to the side to totally focus on The One Project that needs to be done by tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. As I said in the Fall Review, yes, some projects do need hours of uninterrupted time so you can make progress. But I think the ideal is that you plan that work well ahead of time -- staging its component pieces in the days leading up to it -- so that you can approach the work or project mindfully rather than in a panic. And, so you can leave your desk at a decent hour feeling that you're on top of things and get a good night's sleep.

Forster's "little and often" and "continuous revision" rules can help here if you start early enough and if you're consistent in applying them.

Unfortunately, because I had not used my time wisely on Sunday (I chose to work on a project whose deadline was further out and I underestimated how much time the looming project actually needed), I had to launch an heroic effort on Wednesday to meet a Thursday deadline. This effort took 8 solid hours of time and attention and I was left quite depleted afterwards. And it's the aftereffects, the post-partum hangover, from an heroic effort that must be avoided. It can take a while for your tanks to refill; in the meantime, other projects are backing up.

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Fall Review

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During 2007's fall break, I took a breather and penned (odd word for a blog post, but I'll use it) an update on how the semester was going and the changes I was going through at that time.

A question from Brother Thomas and my friend Rani's firing up of her own blog about her academic struggles and successes compelled me to do another mini-review of how the semester is going. So, some random thoughts in random order:

  • The semester's academic work is going just fine, though I do always seem to be about a week behind, with two large projects looming like giant looming things. Despite all the work that's piling up, I feel mostly on top of it all. I have the 500-Human Information Interaction class (the "intellectual fun" class) and the 523-Introduction to Relational Databases class (the rock-logic technical class that is torquing my intuitive English-major brain). They're a good balance of subjects for me to have. And both of the teachers are excellent.
  • The index card trick alluded to in this post didn't survive. It duplicated the hardcopy monthly calendars I keep in my binder; also, it's too easy to check the class reading schedule on the web. I prefer the calendars since I can see a bigger swath of date-related information at a glance; my planner book tracks my daily to-dos. Small piles of index cards were just one more thing I didn't want to track.
  • The binder, by the way, is my secret weapon. It holds a master academic calendar, all the syllabi, assignments, class notes, etc. for both classes, with tabs separating things here and there. I take notes on generic grid paper, hole punch it, and add it to the binder later. I should probably re-write the notes to really cement it all in my head, but -- no. No, I won't be doing that.
  • My day job sucked up all life, space, time, and peanut butter pie out of my life during September, which made completing the schoolwork esp. challenging. Fortunately, I faced this predicament last year and prepared better for the crunch this year, so it went as smoothly as it could go. But there was still no peanut butter pie.
  • My time management changed at some point this year; I can't pinpoint where or when. I've rather quietly (to me) adopted the injunction to "start early." This is the secret weapon of accomplishing grad-school work. I think it happened when I looked at my master calendar and saw that I had multiple major deliverables due at work and in both classes during the same week. But look at all that empty calendar time just sitting there the week before! So I've started pushing this stuff out earlier. Even if I can't get it finished early, I can at least get it started early and so the ideas compost while I do other things. So going back to the task is more a matter of keeping the ball rolling, rather than getting it started.
  • Starting early also helps my projects "to accrue" rather than "to be worked on." I found myself doing this last spring and am doing it as often as I can this fall. A time management tactic by Mark Forster is this: when faced with projects stretching out for some time ahead of you, start work on the most distant project first. It sounds counter-intuitive, but getting that big project started early gets your subconscious involved in sifting and shaping the material, solving the problem, etc. If I can touch the project regularly over the coming weeks, I find that I add a little more to it each time with very little strain. (This is very much a blend of Forster's continuous revision and little and often processes.) There are inevitable hours-long work sessions, of course, including the finishing of the piece, but I get more satisfaction out of those sessions knowing that good-sized chunks of the work have already been done.
  • I recall a week when the deadlines were so lock-stepped that I had to finish a task or project before resuming or even starting the next project. Had I gotten sick, or dropped one of those projects, I'd have never caught up and my empire would have collapsed.
  • At times like that, I remember my co-worker Richard's advice. He'd finished a hard 2 years getting a master's in bioinformatics, and sometimes took unpaid leave from the day-job to get his schoolwork done. When my manager and I started our master's programs, he said: "Don't skimp on your sleep; you can't afford to get sick and fall behind." And: "Just accept that no one will get 100% -- not school, not family, not home, not work. If you can give them 90%, you're doing outstanding."
  • I saw my mentor, The Improbable Cassidy, in the hallway and, teasingly, asked her how many groups and committees she was a member of this semester. She shook her head and said if she stopped to think about it all, she would freeze. We agreed that denial is an often underrated coping mechanism.
  • Cassidy has a new baby, The Wondrous Anastasia, and what with feedings and naps, Cassidy has adopted the "work when you can" method and testifies herself to be more productive even than before. During crunch times, this is a good strategy and, though it's a filthy habit, it does work. I find myself using it with distressing regularity.
  • Speaking of Cassidy, she persuaded me to join the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (cc:ASIS&T) as the Program Chair. I felt I owed her some tremendous back-payments on favors she's done for me the last 2 years, and that's a large part of why I agreed to do it. Also, I felt it was time to start getting a little more involved in the life of the school and meet more of my peers. (I've volunteered on special projects in the past, but have never held a board position before.) Since joining, I've sent out typical Mike-Brown over-the-top emails (rather like these hideously long blog posts that are dinosaurs in the Twitter Age) on program and publications ideas, disgorged a flurry of emails to help organize a recent talk, and spent several hours creating an event-planning template to make these things go a little more smoothly in future, I hope. (Slow-learner that I am, I finally twigged that "program chair" = "event planner.")
  • A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For the last two semesters, I've parked in a park-and-ride lot and taken the bus. This semester, after sampling the parking deck behind the post office (only for dire emergencies at the beginning), I'm now parking there regularly and willingly paying the $3 for 3 hours. No more waiting for or missing the bus, and I can now linger for after-class conversations or meetings. And if I don't linger, I get to the office a half-hour earlier, which more than pays for the parking fee.
  • No. Exercise. At. All. Apart from walking across campus or up stairs and, sorry, they don't really count. A 45-hour-per-week job, with school -- plus the homework and the commuting to and from -- as basically my second job, crowds out exercise time. I started the Hundred Push Ups program but did not make it past the first week. I'm such a marshmallow.
  • The Beauteous Liz, as per usual, minds the store at home and picks up the slack of household management since my attention is always elsewhere.
  • The Ph.D. Oh Lord. That's another blog post. Maybe later.
  • In the past, while waiting for the bus, I'd pull out cards and write to friends, since I don't have time to write long letters anymore. (They'd be happy with long emails, but I think cards and letters arriving in the mailbox are more fun.) This semester, I've not had time nor brainspace to write any cards at all. I hope to get back to this soon, before Cara & Andy leave Seattle for NC in November and before Sue & family leave California for Sweden very soon.
  • Last fall, I stopped my banjo lessons because it was one rock too many. I restarted the lessons in May with a new teacher and have continued them through this fall. Music lessons are a metaphor for lots of things related to life and learning and growth, and my teacher is an excellent guide for all of those things. The learning is hand-eye, rhythmic, and uses different parts of my brain than the verbal/technical parts that are way overused. I can feel myself getting better as I practice, and that's a good feeling. Also, good practice requires total focus, which helps distract me when the black dog of melancholia follows me home.
  • I started this program officially in Spring 2007. Now, I find myself recognizing more folks in the halls, chatting with them, getting their stories. It's socially comforting to be recognized. It's happening slowly for me, given my schedule, but it's happening.
  • Viewing that paragraph on cc:ASIS&T and this exponentially expanding blog post should tell you that I must not be busy enough. It's all, as Rani sez, "structured procrastination."
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My big fat learning experience

I started the fall semester a younger and more idealistic man than I am here at the halfway point (fall break). Still, I survived (and thrived) and things are looking up. September was my transition month from going to grad school to being a grad student: that is, I can say now that if the task or decision before me has nothing to do with 1) my job or 2) school, then its value is marginal and I have to consider whether to spend time/energy on it. (The beauteous Liz, of course, excepted.)

What was so different about this semester?

  • I started with one class that met twice a week, but when I added a second class (on the advice of my advisor), the extra class's workload was such a shock to my organizational systems and my schedule that my legs are still quivering.
  • Last spring, I had two two-hour classes: one met Tuesday morning, one met Monday evening. It was very easy to accommodate my work schedule, my writing group, and still get schoolwork done.
  • This fall, I have two morning classes, each one is 75 minutes. One meets on Mondays-Wednesdays at the relatively decent hour of 9:30 a.m., the other on Tuesdays-Thursdays at a tremendously inconvenient 11 a.m. The latter class means I don't get to work until after 2 p.m. Since I work a mandated 45-hour week (if I work less than 45 hrs, I get paid less), this means staying at the office till 9 or 10 p.m., meaning all that I can do when I get home is have a late supper, unwind, and go to bed. (Unless I have homework due the next morning, but that's another story.)
  • The extra class disrupted my usual commuting and parking habits. I missed one session driving around looking for a parking space. Lesson learned: as much as possible, reduce the randomness of finding a parking space. I was lucky early on in the semester, but the luck didn't hold. So, I was tipped to a park-and-ride lot halfway to Hillsborough, which is further out from campus, but there are always plenty of spaces. However, the extra distance means that I'm now commuting via bus and car about 8 hours a week.
  • The start of the fall semester coincided with the end of the federal fiscal year, and I had a stiff schedule of deliverables to meet with a hard deadline of September 30. Of course, a major 10-15 page paper was also due on September 25. Criminy. And the first half of October was spent helping my team recover from a major project meltdown. So I couldn't sneak any reading or research at the office--when I was at work, I worked. Big blocks of time for schoolwork can only happen on the weekend.
  • The paper was a literature review, which I'd never done before. I got some great advice from my friend and mentor Cassidy and some great tips (especially from Cal Newton's Study Hacks blog) on smart ways to research and write such a paper. The main thing is, it took a lot of time to learn how to manage the overall project, then it took time learning the subject matter, then it took time pulling it all together. I used a vacation day on Sept 24 (my 46th birthday, as it happened) to relax and go over the paper. I discovered to my horror that I'd written an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review. So I totally recast the paper that day and evening (a loverly way to spend a birthday) , got to bed at a decent hour, and succeeded in getting an excellent grade. Note to self: learn RefDesk or Zotero to format citations!
  • Along the way, I learned to make use of the interstices of time available to me. The posts on scheduling time by Cal and Proto-scholar helped me really leverage Google Calendar more and visualize my commitments. I decided to routineize my schedule as much as possible. So, even though my Tue/Thu classes happen later than my Mon/Wed classes, I still rise at the same time every day, get to the bus stop by 8:30 a.m. at the latest, and use the block of time spent on the bus and slurping coffee before class to do my readings for that day or that week. (I always print out the next week's readings on Thursday or Friday.)
  • During my lit review, I fell down the rabbit hole of technology by spending an afternoon messing with CiteULike, which, to be fair, did lead me to some articles that I used, but that I finally saw to be not as useful to me as I had expected. I also spent my first research afternoon tweaking my Windows setup, trying out various programs, etc. Total procrastination monkey. That's when I simplified my methods (remember the Extreme Programming motto, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work"). I will be trying Cal's new method of using Excel as a research database (again, Proto-scholar adds to the conversation) for my current paper, whose themes have been pre-defined by the professor. I'm also trying out Zotero, to see how it does with citation export (though this may violate the "do the simplest thing" principle).

My manager, who's getting his MBA, had a teacher who often repeated the motto, "Don't wish it was easier--wish you were better." I thought of that often during my transition period--I can't change my deadlines, I'm not going to drop the classes, I can't make the buses run faster, I need to maintain my 45-hour work schedule so I can meet my financial obligations.

And so, at some point, I realized that all this meta-thinking and self-management is part of the learning experience. I've had to re-frame a typical workday from 8a-5pm to 12pm-9pm. I have to dedicate some portion of the weekend to making up time I miss from the office, which means getting better at scheduling. I had to drop my writing group and my banjo lessons, so I could focus my disposable time on school. Many of the habits and routines of my old life that I thought immovable I now see as malleable and, in many ways, optional. Liz has been great about taking on some of my old chores and agreeing that some chores (like yardwork) will have to wait for my attention until the semester is over.

I've also discovered that, even with this tough schedule, I like taking 2 classes at a time. I find that jamming together the class readings causes me to see connections that I would miss were I taking each class on its own. There's also the pressure of trying to meet my obligations that obliges me to make faster connections and discover new ways to re-frame current problems or speed up time.

When I eventually signed up for next semester's classes, I picked one 3-hr class that meets on Mondays, and then picked a Monday-Wednesday class that meets in the morning. I've cleared it with my manager that I will be out of the office on Monday but will make up the time on Saturday and throughout the week. It's an unconventional schedule, but I'm living an unconventional life right now, and that's also something I needed to learn.