What's ahead for ol' Mikey?

Inspired by Rani’s post about her upcoming work (hope that’s going well for you, Rani), it’s probably a good idea for me to look at the months ahead.

  • The spring semester starts tomorrow. I’m spending today cleaning up my office, recycling pages and pages of article printouts, putting away the CDs we used for the road trip, filing away end of the year stuff, etc. I’m working this project a little at a time.
  • I noodled on the fellowship essay over the Christmas break, trying to find my way into the material.  I want to work on the essay this weekend, also. I was advised to emphasize that I want to teach and also talk about my research areas of interest. The former is easy, the latter is more difficult. Digital curation covers a lot of conceptual and technical ground, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a conundrum that will never be solved, only chased. Still, I find actually having to write out and make a case for myself forces me to confront many of these still-nebulous issues. The thinking and writing also provide me with the words, phrases, and thoughts I need when talking to advisors about my plans.
  • I’m taking the Research Methods class; generally, you take this the semester before you work on your master’s paper (which is usually your graduation semester), but I wanted to take it early. I have an idea for a neighborhood survey and wanted to get it started.
  • I’m also taking an independent study to be supervised by my friend Carolyn. We opted to go for the 3-hour option, which means about 9 hrs/week of outside work. We decided to go for a research study; I did some reading, sent her some ideas, and we’ll discuss them next week. The goal is to create a paper, a poster, or a product of some kind that can be published. I’m hoping the Research Methods class and the independent study activities dovetail. I view the independent study as a road-test for my interest in research and in digital curation; if I really have to flog myself to get to the end of the track, then I should reconsider the PhD in this field.
  • UNC is hosting two conferences this spring I want to attend: the iConference and the DigCCurr 2009.  The former is interesting to me as a place to see academics in the wild, so to speak. and how I resonate to their discussions and concerns. Same for the DigCCurr, though I’m more interested there in talking to folks, introducing myself, and getting a general buzz from the attendees on the state of play in the field. Since I'm targeting that field for my doctoral studies, I need to get familiar with it. I registered for the iConf and volunteered for the DigCCurr, but am wondering whether registering for the latter would give me more free time to roam and mingle.
  • I opted not to sign up for the full-level of coaching this year, mainly because I didn't have the money. I will have enough, though, to sign up for a lower-level membership that still gives me all I need. Since starting my coaching in 2006, I’ve noticed big and small changes in myself that I can’t imagine having made on my own and so I want to continue my association with PJ Eby, especially with the book he’s writing that seems to be drawing together into a single narrative all of the myriad tools he’s refined over the last two years. PJ has the goods.
  • I’m beta-testing Mark Forster’s latest time/task management scheme, dubbed AutoFocus. You can sign up to be a beta-tester here. It’s not an application, more a set of instructions and simple rules to create a structure that balances the rational and intuitive parts of your mind to help you decide which tasks to do next. He recommends implementing it via pen and paper (which I prefer) but many users on the forum are describing electronic ways of implementing it. All that's needed is a lined notebook or journal. Radically simple and I’m finding it very effective for shaking loose a lot of tasks I’ve procrastinated on. The danger that some of the beta-testers are experiencing is in overthinking the system, adding more rules, creating exceptions, etc. Will be interested to see how it copes when school starts!
  • And I suppose I need to think about the PhD, too, don’t I? Yes, well. I’m hoping the independent study and my general immersion in study and research this semester will illuminate things for me. I’m going to have to make some decisions very soon, perhaps by February, that will affect what happens to me in the fall.  My manager and I expect that by June the wheels will either be in motion for me to leave my job and start my doctoral studies, or I’ll have decided that a PhD (or this PhD) is not for me at this time. After spending the last 2 years getting to this point, I am still unsure of what I really want out of this experience and where I will be when it’s over. I do still struggle between the academic and the practitioner roles; they seem to be at loggerheads, though they shouldn’t be. But there seem to be more days when I want to be the latter than the former.
  • I'm noticing that lately I say "no" to myself a little more easily when it comes to spending discretionary time to read another news feed or do a web walkabout. I'm foreseeing the next 5 months being as intense as I want to make them. So if I can't wholeheartedly say "yes" to something, I'm inclined to turn it down.
  • Assuming I do leave my job, then our household income takes a mighty hit. So we're starting to hunker down and get frugal, in preparation for the lean times.
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What I'm doing on my Christmas vacation

The digest-sized
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  • Packed about 15 books (about half of them small cartooning or graphic novel-type books), of which I expect I’ll read 1.5. Right now am knocking back about 40 pgs/day of Lewis Shiner’s Black and White, which makes excellent use of its Durham background and locale.
  • Was up till about 2 am the other night troubleshooting my brother-in-law’s computer setup. I brought my Apple Extreme Router with us, thinking I could set up a wireless network so Liz and I could maintain the filthy computing habits we wallow in at home. Discovered that his modem already had wireless routing built-in, so spent most of my time getting our laptops to recognize the network.
  • Was up till 2 am this morning reviewing 1000+ emails in my “to read later” pile on Gmail. Decided that this cannot go on, as it falls squarely in the not urgent/not important quadrant. So have been unsubscribing from RSS feeds and newsletters as they land in my inbox.
  • Writing in my journal about what I want less/more of next year -- less input, more  output. Less fat, more muscle. Less spending, more saving. That kind of thing. (I’d actually wanted less computering and more reading over my Christmas break, but that’s not happening :D )
  • Playing with Phil’s kitties, Luke (aka Stinky Pete) and Zorro (aka Sweet William). Luke is now splayed across the dining room table, flicking his tail.
  • Decided I’d like to accomplish just 3 things a day, and they’re all the same things: 40 pages in Lew’s book, one blog post/day, some exercise every day. Anything else I accomplish above that very low bar is gravy. (One of those things being messing around with MacVim, for some unknown reason.)
  • Continue with thinking about the independent study, about how I want to organize myself and my time in the spring, and in general unplug myself from the all the web feeds and inputs I bombard myself with. While I enjoy the novelty of this intellectual snack food, I want space in my day to sit and think and mull and process what I’m consuming. Fewer diversions, more time.
  • My coach has asked us at recent seminars what qualities we want in our lives right now. I’m extending that to include what do I want in my life everyday in 2009--a little exercise, a little reading, a little quiet time, good social interactions, a better sleep schedule, etc. Part of what I’m doing now is wondering/imagining/picturing how that would work.
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Spring 2009 - Independent Study

Different types of peer-reviewed research journals
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I was not terribly interested in the spring courses being offered, and The Ineluctable Cassidy suggested an independent study might be an option.

I poked around and discovered that another friend, Carolyn, could supervise it. Because Carolyn is a doc student of some years standing in the school’s digital curation discipline, knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly savvy about making the most of opportunities, this is a tremendous way to jump-start an academic career. I hope to learn as much about how she looks at life and work as I do about digital curation.

Anyway, she is an excellent guide to this strange new world of academe and to this field. We decided to work on a research study and she sent me several links to follow up on, read, and think about; suggested I start a research journal; and asked me to suggest some possible areas of interest where we could do some work. The output will be an article, or paper, or poster, or something that can be put on a CV.

This research was, in fact, another drain on my attention as I tried to finish up my fall assignments. I barfed out some ideas an in email to Carolyn but they struck me as too big, too vague--showing, no doubt, my unfamiliarity with the field. No matter. That’s why I’m doing the research.

When January comes, I’ll be taking the Research Methods course and the independent study. We decided the indie study should count for 3 hours credit, which means about 9 hours/wk of work. Because I’m not having to travel to campus for this extra class, I expect that should fit into my schedule OK.

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Status of the Ph.D.

  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions--Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?--that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn't fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

2008 Fall Semester Wrap-up

@1125h: Checking mail, backing up
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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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Late night thoughts on getting a Ph.D.

Aquatint of a Doctor of Divinity at the Univer...

Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad, It wearies me: you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuffe 'tis made of, whereof it is borne, I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me, That I have much ado to know my self.

(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)

OK, OK, it's not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I'm sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.

Ever since I started grad school, I've collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I've been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it's a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:

Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you're there. You're on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.

The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, "Stop laughing! I'm serious!"

My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.

And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, "I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you." For whatever reason -- my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe -- I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don't.

But ever since I've started grad school, my reply has been a firm "No." The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?

Some of my friends and advisers are saying, "You think too much. Just do it." That's a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.

I have many reasons why I should say "Yes."

  • My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I'm very much out of step technically and methodologically.
  • My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
  • I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
  • The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I'm a known quantity and I'm sure I would make a strong candidate.
  • Honestly, I'm in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I've acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
  • I've always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
  • The friends I'm starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I'm not going into this alone.

Why am I hesitating?

  • Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I'll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
  • Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I'm having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I'm a slow learner).
  • It's hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there's the fellowship, but I'm not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There's our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
  • My coach had a great question for me when I started this master's project. He asked me what my goal was. "To get my master's degree," I said. "No," he said. "That's what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That's your goal." I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I'd decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
  • I'd long decided that I'd graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I've been advised (and it's good advice) to skip the master's, transfer in the hours I've already completed, and I'll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I'm traditionally ill at ease when things don't go according to plan or I feel that I'm rushed.

One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors -- friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.

There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it's building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.

That said -- why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now -- why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I'm not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because...

Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual...

Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that's any different from the workplaces I've experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I've worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.

As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I'll benefit from what the experience can offer.

Update: "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it." Also: "Ride the horse in the direction it's going."

Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post...) NCSU (my alma mater -- LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.

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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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Nirvana, or something like it

My friend Rani left me the following intriguing comment:

Mike - would love to know how the life/school/work balance (or juggle rather) is going. Have you been able to obtain equilibrium at all? What about nirvana?

I was going to reply as a blog post that night but spent too much time working on an assignment. (Cue the irony strings.) I wish I had something pithy to impart, as I have no coherent thoughts on this, so I'm afraid I bejabbered a long and rambling discourse to her in an email. But this is what I do, so we must perforce accept what we do not wish to change since it has worked pretty well for us so far.

Anyway, I've taken that long and rambling discourse to her and tried to pull out the nuggets to create a letter to myself. If anything, it's a snapshot of where I am today.

  • I agree with my friends Rani and Cara that balance is a myth. Instead, as Cara said, the best you can do is to achieve integration of all your facets every day, no matter how brief those episodes may be. Work, life, family, self-care, meditation -- cram it all into one day. There's just what needs to be done now, today, but thinking also about what will I be glad I did a month from now, a year from now. Flipping back and forth between the detail and the big picture instead of being stuck in one mode for too long.
  • I work with a personal coach. One of his favorite sayings is "life is every moment." Meaning, of course, that nirvana is every moment. Right now, as I'm writing this, is IT and it deserves my full attention and as much of me as I can bring to it.No, I don't hit that moment every time, but I remember another saying (that's all I do, is remember things, I never think of anything original to say on my own), a Zen one, "Try, try, for a thousand years." Lately, I'm working on focusing my attention on one thing a time without trying to keep up with all my RSS feeds, email, etc. simultaneously. I find that when I can focus for an hour or so on a single project (work or school), I get more done and derive more satisfaction from it.
  • I feel very fortunate to be doing all this work at this point in my life. I've got good time management habits, I understand and am more friendly with my thinking and creative processes so that I'm not fighting them as often, my health is good (I don't get enough sleep, though), and I've been hacking my mind for the last two years with my coach, so that I'm not as plagued by self-doubt or anxiety as I used to be.This month, for example, is a train wreck. It's the end of the fiscal year for our customer, so I have about 5 documents due, I have to make a presentation at the end of the month on a project I've not touched for 2 months, I have major homework assignments (they don't tend to be hard, but they take a lot of time), monthly reports will take 2-3 days to write, etc.

    Funnily enough, I'm not paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Instead, I'm looking at it all rather coolly (if a little frazzledly) and calculating when I have time to get things done, what's the highest priority, where can I slack off, when can I sleep late, etc. I turned in an assignment a week early so I could work unfettered on the assignment for my other class, focus on my work projects, and free up an evening so Liz and I could attend a concert (meaning, no homework time that night!).

    That kind of thing. Starting early, giving myself time.

  • My mgr and I have noticed that when we focus on schoolwork, our day job suffers, and vice versa. So it sloshes back and forth between the two.
  • One of my coach's points is that, when we decide what our territory is, we then have to decide 1) what are the costs and 2) are we willing to pay the price for it. In my case, that has meant lots more communication with Liz so she knows the state of my mind and emotions, ensuring that she understands why I don't have time to do stuff like go to the movies. Our current rule is that we can have one outing per weekend -- it can be out to lunch, or lunch and a movie, or seeing friends for dinner -- but the rest of the weekend is for me to do homework and reading.
  • I am keeping up my banjo lessons with my teacher (who doubles as another coach, in a way). I only have time to practice for about 10-15 minutes/day, in the morning, in between getting home from work and starting my evening studies, or in between study sessions, but I think it's good for me. It gives my brain and hands different work to do and is a good mental break. Also, since I don't have my fiction writing as an outlet, this keeps me in touch with my creative, performing self.
  • My coach says that it isn't good to work for hours at a time; it's analogous to stretching a rubber band at full tension without relaxing it. If you work at full tension for too long, you'll snap. So you absolutely need to build in relaxation time where you don't think about work or assignments. For me, last weekend, it meant watching Doctor Who episodes on my MacBook.
  • I also spent this past summer not doing any schoolwork. Instead, I made a conscious decision that Liz and I would spend more time together. So we took a tap dancing class at 9th Street Dance, we started entertaining more on the back porch, we sat on the porch after work or before bedtime and talked about our lives and our plans. We both knew once the fall semester started, that I would not have that kind of loose time anymore. So I tried to compensate for that beforehand. And fortunately, she's very understanding. She knows that I'm fully stretched working full-time and doing school; and we both know that this is a temporary condition, and not forever. (Well maybe -- I'm thinking about getting a PhD.)
  • Every Sunday morning, we go for a 30-min walk in the neighborhood and talk about the week, what's coming up, etc. (Well, she talks because she's a lark, and I stare at the ground because I'm an owl, and owls don't like the morningses.) I also, when I can, read to Liz before she goes to sleep or we sit on the porch and have supper. Time to just sit and mull things over is very important.You know, little everyday things like that do take time away from my studies, but it's those little everyday things that we tend to remember and cherish the most. Little kindnesses. (Remember that Japanese movie, "Afterlife"?)

    Also, Liz was there before the degree, Liz will be there after the degree. Praise be to the Liz.

  • My systems analysis teacher's law was, "Never fall in love with anything -- system, process, gadget -- that cannot say 'I love you' in the morning."
  • So if there's an answer to Rani's vague and open-ended question, it's that I work at it every day and every week. Wednesday, for example, is an early and late day. I try to get to work by 7:30 so I can log my 9hrs by 4:30, so I can get to my class by 5:30, and then get home about 8:45 at night. I see Liz briefly in the morning and briefly again late at night. I call her about 4:30 to see how her day has gone (I try to call her from work once a day).At the office, I endeavor to get ahead on my work projects so that I'm not the bottleneck (my personal metric is that I want to be so organized and efficient at work that I scare people). In class, I just listen to the lecture, take notes, and jabber as I am wont to do. I focus on work, school, and home to varying proportions, as needed.
  • When possible for my manager and me, school comes first. It's finite, it's directed short-term assignments, and paying the price now yields a bigger payoff later. But, school doesn't pay the bills yet. So there are times we have to focus on the day job, take work home, catch up on the weekends, etc.
  • Every day, I try not to think about completing everything all at once, but can I at least feel on top of things for today? (That's a Mark Forster idea.) I went to bed late Sunday night, but I felt on top of things Monday morning. That feeling never lasts, of course, but sometimes I'm surprised at how little I really need to do to feel on top of things.
  • Talk about equilibrium -- see the movie "Man On Wire". Fabulous!

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.