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Tools and ideas to improve academic efficiency

Divide and conquer… your workweek

I was recently re-inspired by this post over at Academic Productivity. I had tagged it ages ago, but never gave serious consideration to putting the work schedule into practise. My schedule has changed significantly over the past year, and I now often find myself concentrating so much on the day-to-day minutiae of academic work to the point that I too often get distracted from my long-term projects.

This post by Cal Newport is entitled How Do the Best Professors Work?, and tries to demystify the structure of a working day of some productive scholars.

The take-away message that I found most helpful was the idea of The 3 + 2 Graduate Student Work Week:

a) Designate one day each week to be your Administrative Nonsense Day

Spend this entire day taking care of any work on your plate that doesn’t directly connect to the task of conducting research and writing research papers. This is when I fill out forms, return library books, hand in reimbursement paperwork, call the cable guy, and add new publications to my web site. You get the idea…

b) Designate one day each week to be your Big Idea Day

Spend this entire day doing literature search and brainstorming on that research project you’ve always day-dreamed about, but have been to afraid to mention to your advisor. If you don’t set aside this time, you will get stuck in the rut of happenstance papers — the projects you fall into out of convenience or advisorial coercion. This work is fine. It’s how you earn your research stripes. But some time along the way you have to be fighting to make your own mark.

c) Use the Other Three Days to Get Your Normal Work Done

Most of what we do as graduate students is working on various stages of the paper-writing process. This spans cleaning up numbers in Excel to editing the related work section of a journal submission. Use these three days to get this work done. Because you isolated the administrative nonsense on another day, you might be surprised by how much gets accomplished in just 60% of the week. I like to make my Admin Day on Monday and my Big Idea Day on Friday, so this work can happen consecutively in the middle of the week; but preferences differ here.That’s it. A simple structure. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that yield the most consistent results over time. This approach, of course, gets complicated by classes, group meetings, and collaborators who don’t know about (or, frankly care) that a certain day is your big idea day. So it will never apply perfectly. But even the attempt can make a difference…

[from How Do the Best Professors Work? ]

In the discussion following, commenter mom suggests an alternative, though similar, type of time-grouping:

Great in theory, except that administrative nonsense doesn’t behave sometimes… I am a young prof at an R1 and I save 3-5pm, my least productive time of the day, for administrivia, coffee mtgs, etc. I’m on leave so now I do it 5x a week, but when teaching I do it 3x a week, and have office hours on the other days during the same slot.

This approach is supported by a recent post over at Signal vs. Noise, 37signals’ blog (the makers of my beloved Backpack!):

And the primary observation that comes out of all this is that multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity. Things suck when you don’t give them your full attention.

I’m not thrilled with the work I’ve been doing lately.

This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s just a reminder. If you want to do great work, focus on one thing at a time. Finish it and move on to the next thing.

[from Multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity ]

So: divide, time-block, conquer… and theoretically have weekends free. Sounds good; let’s see if this works.

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Filed under: Academia, Advice, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Research, Time Management, Writing

Metafilter Roundup: the Dissertation/Thesis edition

Dissertation Corner
Photo by: multifinality

Helpful Guides for Writing a Dissertation

How to plan a daily schedule for a dissertation?

Dealing with Academic Writer’s Block

Thesis Writer’s Block

How do I write a thesis?

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Dissertation, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Thesis, Time Management, Writing

24 Hour Buddies

24 hr
Photo by: oknovokght

Mike over at Getting Things Done in Academia suggests that we should all cultivate our 24-hour buddies.

He’s not advocating incredibly short-term friendships. No, he’s making the case for creating a group of academics (preferably with different specialties) who are willing to read and informally review each other’s papers on with a 24-hour turnaround. It sounds like a great idea to get speedy feedback and light a fire under yourself when necessary.

Cultivating your 24-hour buddies
[ from Getting Things Done in Academia ]

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Colleagues, Motivation, Research, Writing

The Carnival of GRADual Progress

Working on thesis
Photo by: OldMainstream

The Carnival of GRADual Progress is a monthly roundup of blog posts of interest to grad students. Hosted at a different academic blog every month, the posts range from helpful to simply hilarious.

There are six carnivals so far:
1st Carnival
2nd Carnival
3rd Carnival
4th Carnival
5th Carnival
6th Carnival

Warning: to be approached with extreme caution. Definite time-sucker.

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Computer, Grad School, Motivation, Online, Reading, Research, Thesis, Time Management, Web, Writing

Learn how to get up early

Getting up with the sun
Photo by: idreamofdaylight

When the sky is dark, the days are short, and it’s cold outside, I lack the motivation to get up out of my nice warm bed. In an attempt to get more out of my day, I’ve tracked down some good advice from fellow bloggers:

Waking up early and consistently
[ from Dave Cheong ]

Surefire Way to Wake Up Without the Snooze
[ from Glen Stansberry at LifeDev ]

How I trained myself to get up earlier in the morning
[ from Matthew Stibbe at Bad Language ]

Filed under: Advice, Motivation, Organization, Sleep, Time Management

Love and admiration in academic tasks

As academics, we can often get stuck working on projects that we care little about. No different than non-academic jobs– except that, somehow, there is a larger expectation that we do care about what we’re working on. We’re not supposed to be monkeys working for the man– we’re supposed to be intellectual monks in a modern world, feverishly pursuing further knowledge. Okay, maybe not monks, but you get the idea.

Yet we do get stuck doing projects that we care little about– or occasionally heartily despise. A few of these projects won’t hurt you; maybe they’ll even build a little character, who knows? But consistently working on projects that we loathe, or see little point in, isn’t good for our happiness, mind, or motivation.

Dave Cheong has an excellent post about choosing things that you love doing and admire. His emphasis is on the second part of this equation.

He says, “Why do you have to admire what you do or the people doing it? If you only love what you do (and not admire it), then you may end up doing the wrong thing… If there is nothing to admire, why change? What’s the incentive to become better?”

Do something you love doing and admire
[ from Dave Cheong ]

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Grad School, Motivation

Overcoming Academic Writer’s Block

I admit, reading Metafilter discussions is an excellent way to procrastinate doing actual academic work. However, this particular thread might actually have some productivity payoff for anyone struggling with a big project (thesis, book, etc).

Academic writer’s block: tips, strategies, experiences?
[ from Ask Metafilter ]

Filed under: Advice, Grad School, Motivation, Research, Thesis, Writing

18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work

As the academic year begins once more, it can be difficult to get back into the grind. Dave Cheong offers 18 ways to stay focused at work. Though he’s writing from the perspective of a software engineer and entrepreneur, I think that many of these suggestions are highly applicable to academic life.

18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work
[ from Dave Cheong ]

Filed under: Advice, Motivation, Time Management

10 tips for keeping your desk clean and tidy


Tidy Desk by bripirie

I’m always a little suspicious of articles with titles like these: they usually seem to be written by those irritating people who naturally keep their desks clean and neat. It’s an in-born ability– they’re usually morning people, too.

However, the author of this one sounds like he’s been down in the trenches with the rest of us slobs creative folks. He says, “when I started wasting more and more time looking for lost items instead of being a brilliant creative person, I knew I had to do something.”

10 tips for keeping your desk clean and tidy
[ from LifeClever ]

Filed under: Advice, Files, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Time Management

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Academic Lifehacker provides hints, tips, tools, and software recommendations for scholars, graduate students, and researchers.