Monday, June 8, 2015

Staying focused over the summer. An Early Thirsty.

Grades are in, out-of-office messages are activated, commencement is over, sweaty regalia have been deposited at the dry cleaner, and summer lies before us like a shimmering stretch of Route 66.

"Mom, I need to use the bathroom!"

How are we spending our summer not-vacation?

Teaching? Traveling? Getting sucked into uncompensated administrative work?
Like many of us, I'm going to try to get some writing done.  And I'm trying some new productivity tricks. Here they are:

1) RescueTime. I'm using the free Chrome extension. It sits in the upper right hand corner of your browser window, silently judging you until you click on the little plus sign thingy for a report:

I know, RescueTime. I know. 

2) Once I manage to pry myself away from distracting websites and pull my manuscript up, I use the Pomodoro technique. This is where you set a timer for 25 minutes and then sit down and produce until the time is up. I notice that I get fidgety about 10-15 minutes in (I know, I don't know how I made it this far either), so the timer motivates me to stick it out for another 10-15. The program I use for this is Pomotodo, which combines a to-do list with the 25-minute timer, but there are simple online timers out there as well.

3) Dispatch the most unpleasant task first, a technique known as Eating the Frog.  (During the school term, The Frog is grading. Now it's exercise, or paying bills.)

4) I haven't tried it, but I've heard good things about Cold Turkey, which straight-up blocks distracting websites.

5) This one scares me, but I thought I'd mention it. Write or Die. Its most notorious feature is Kamikaze Mode. If you dawdle, the program will start eating your work.

Two weeks into summer term, and so far so good. (Except for the fact that I'm probably killing myself with all of this sitting.)

Miserians, how do you stay focused during the summer?


  1. How I Am Spending My Summer
    by OPH

    I am spending my summer this year doing several things, which I will now tell you about. But in order to understand that, first you have to understand how I spent my year. Back in the day, I did some research, and wrote a part of a paper that I intend to publish someday. So I spent my year trying to finish the paper between other duties that I could not procrastinate as well as writing. This summer I will try to find the time to finish that fucking paper, but am pessimistic about how well that will work because of everything else that must get done. I spent my year doing a lot of teaching. It is important to understand that for every hour of teaching, there will probably be another hour or two of extra help I have to give to students. And the other thing is that for the students who are doing really bad we have these meetings to discuss whether or not they should be allowed to continue in the program and if they can continue then on what terms. I myself don't teach in the summer, so this summer I will probably do some course prep to prepare for next year, and my colleagues and myself will meet to revise the sections of the student handbooks that pertain to the stuff which is relavant to what we meet about during the year, and I'll probably get stuck with more of the work because they tell me they cant rite as good as me. I spent my year doing some traveling, which most of it was because for business. Like conferences and stuff, you know how that is. This summer I am spending some time travelling as well but some of it will be for vacation. The problem with vacation is that it takes a lot of work to prepare things at work so that they don't fall apart while you are away, and then to clean them up when you get back. Which is good in a strange way because if you could just leave and come back and everything was alright then they might start to think that they don't need you after all.

    1. I'm trying to find the minimum word count in the assignment above, but I must have missed it.

      I'm not actually much of a fan of Strunk and White (I'm more of a fan of Williams' _Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace_, or whatever they're calling it these days; the older editions are just as good, and priced much closer to what is reasonable for a smallish paperback), but this is a pretty good imitation of a student who would benefit from reading Strunk and White (and from not having minimum word counts imposed, because they're not doing much good in hir case).

    2. I would have left imprints of two of the stamps I use for grading. One of them is:

      Omit needless words.
      See The Elements of Style,
      by Strunk & White.

      The second one is:

      Avoid colloquiualisms
      or cliches.

      Two that I wouldn't have used are "Spelling error" and "Grammar error." That's why this message isn't authentic enough. So there!

    3. Not authentic enough? I worked real hard on that. The other teachers all praise me for my authenticity. You are dasparagusing my selfiesteam.

      But thanks for noticing the horrible style. It is actually more work for me to write that way; I literally had to remove the paragraph breaks. To help you refine your filter, here are some of the intentional spelling and/or grammatical errors I dropped in:

      *they cant rite as good as me
      *which most of it was because for business

      To use as many words as that paragraph and to make the proportionate number of spelling/grammar "mistakes" would have required too much effort or some kind of brain injury.

    4. Well it is dasparagus season (or at least the tail end thereof, in some places), and they're good steamed (though I prefer roasting).

  2. You can send regalia to the dry cleaner? This page never stops amazing me!

    What am I doing this summer? I am:

    (1) Building model rockets for my nephew. Right now I am working on one of the coolest ever, the Mars Lander. It has legs, so when the parachute comes out, it lands upright, or at least it's supposed to. Here's a video (that I didn't make) of a flight:

    (2) Writing and publishing 2-4 papers in refereed journals, so a student of mine can get into a first-tier grad school. Yes, I've told her about the job situation, enough so that she yelled at me, so I stopped.

    (3) Getting my intro-astronomy-for-general-ed-non-majors ready for publication. The preliminary edition, for my students only, was last year: this time is the one intended for national publication. It's due to the publisher on 9/15.

    Isn't that enough for you?

    1. > Yes, I've told her about the job situation, enough so that she yelled at me, so I stopped.

      That's all you can do.

      And yes, that is enough for two people.

    2. It is, indeed, enough. Presumably an astronomy Ph.D. allows one to acquire at least a few transferable skills along the way? And there will (we hope) be a need for a few new astronomers.

      Just don't let her go into debt to get the degree (getting into a first-tier school is, presumably, a pretty good step in that direction).

    3. As I tell students, although your parents will probably react with horror (Carl Sagan’s asked him, “Is it possible to make a living doing that?”), you won't starve with an astronomy degree. Astronomy graduates have a 3% unemployment rate, and Ph.D.s have a 2% unemployment rate. For some time now, many of them have been going into financial services: I know people who left fingerprints all over the 2008 financial crisis. That's why I support a vigorous NASA budget, to keep the astronomers off the street, especially if it's Wall Street.

      Nevertheless, fewer than 1 in 5 astronomy Ph.D.s are now getting jobs IN ASTRONOMY that are tenure-track or have otherwise reasonable security, such as for NASA or as staff at an NSF-funded observatory or an aerospace company. Those odds are comparable for men who survived the Titanic.

    4. I'm tempted to paraphrase the person who replied to Bill Clinton's (I think it was Clinton's) claim to have created many millions of jobs with "yes, and I have three of them." Ph.D.s are, indeed, unlikely to be unemployed, if only because most of us are pretty smart, and also have a few other useful "soft skills" like persistence and time management and resourcefulness the like (people skills may be a bit more lacking, but that varies by discipline, and often varies inversely with sought-after skills such as quantitative thinking, so there's some offset). On the other hand, as you point out, we are in some danger of being underemployed (at least relative to the usual assumptions about more education=higher wages. As one of my grad-school professors liked to say, a Ph.D. is education for downward mobility -- at least for people who started out comfortably middle-class or higher). There may be less danger of that in the sciences.

      In the early '90s, Wall Street was even trying to recruit humanities Ph.D.s I received a letter or two trying to lure me away. I still don't think I would have made a very good investment banker, but it's an interesting alternate reality to consider. At least I'm not in jail (then again, it's not at all clear that, had I become a (deliberately or, more likely, accidentally) corrupt investment banker, I would have landed in jail).

  3. Mostly, I'm teaching -- a 7.5-week online course, which is about 3-4 weeks longer than the summer courses I usually teach, and is probably more pedagogically responsible, but I still feel the loss of "real" summer time. If I took the "you must be available 2 weeks before and after the official beginning and end of the semester" part of my contract(s) seriously, there would be barely a week this whole calendar year (with the possible exception of the week between Christmas and New Year's, when the entire university shuts down) when I wasn't technically contractually obliged to be "available" for university commitments. Fortunately, the members of my department who are likely to make such demands/requests are both humane and realistic about their ability to get people to do things during such periods, so I'm probably still free to turn on my vacation message and disappear, virtually if not physically, for at least some of that time. I did get a week or so to relax and regroup, in about equal measures, in late May, and I should be able to arrange a true week to 10 days off, and perhaps another week to focus mostly on non-school household/logistical stuff, and still be more or less ready for the fall semester.

    When not teaching, I'm trying (with mixed success so far) to spend less time online, and more time doing stuff in the physical world, inside and outside my apartment. To that end, I, too have been experimenting with tools to keep myself focused when working at the computer (which seems to be a difficult workspace precisely because we get into the habit of doing so many things, productive and un-, in the same "space"). I actually created another user account on my main work computer, and installed leechblock (a cousin to RescueTime and Cold Turkey) on the browser in that account, and set up a very minimalist desktop, to see if that would help me focus. It works, but managing files and various other programs across the two accounts is a bit complicated, so I suspect I'll use it more to retrain myself when I'm falling back into bad habits than as an all-the-time solution. I also read somewhere that Windows 10 (coming soon to a computer near you!) will have some sort of a provision for setting up different desktops for different purposes, so I figured I'd wait and see what the early reviews for Win 10 look like before I experiment any further with making this experiment work in Win 7.

  4. I am teaching this summer. So, I must be productive those days. On other days I nap and try to clean the house or something, but I keep reading "fun" books. I just get sucked into plots...

    I keep waiting to hear from a job interview I had a few weeks ago. If I get an offer, I will accept and then I will need to stop napping and start planning to sell a house and move.

    Happily I did get one job offer, but I had to decline it. I got the offer in the midst of a close family member having a major medical issue followed by surgery. They gave me two days to decide. I explained my situation, but they could not give me more time. I was not comfortable making a major decision while so many other things were happening in my life. Perhaps I made the wrong decision? Time will tell.

    1. " I just get sucked into plots..."

      I can't help the gentle jab that you say that like it's a bad thing. Like serious books aren't supposed to have plots.

    2. Without the influence of "Wolf Hall" (book and TV series) I would have gotten so much more done.

    3. Getting sucked into plots is, indeed, a good thing (and even, I'm pretty sure recent brain research suggests, a useful antidote to the ill-effects of distraction/multitasking). I have not, however, been able to get into _Wolf Hall_, much as I would like to. Maybe I was just *too* tired/distracted, and needed to get drawn into something lighter and shorter first. I will have to try again.

      Good luck on the job search, Frenna, and condolences on the coincidence of the family medical crisis and the short-deadline job offer. For whatever it's worth, I suspect that if it had been the right offer for you, you would have felt comfortable accepting the offer even on short notice/while somewhat preoccupied (and/or they would have been more sympathetic to your situation; the job market is tough on both ends, with many departments afraid that failed searches won't be allowed again next year, but there should still be some room for humanity). There are plenty of bad (or not-the-right-fit) jobs out there, and taking one simply because it's a job isn't necessarily a smart move.

    4. Frenna, I have said in at least one other comment (e.g., here) that they did you a favor in letting you know what to expect if you actually worked there, in this case by making you uncomfortable and being so irrationally inflexible. I hope this provides at least some comfort and confidence in your decision.

      Good vibes for the other offer still in the works.

    5. "Getting sucked into plots," is ALWAYS a good thing! I am one of those people that gets so immersed into a story that when a character dies or something major happens I feel it. How can the world go on when character X is dead? I love books!

      I realize the job may not have been the right fit for me and their lack of flexibility is telling. I will let you guys know the results...