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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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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