Break? What break? Don’t you know I’m a grad student?

It’s hard to believe Winter Break is nearly at an end. Like most graduate students I use the term “break”  rather loosely. Contrary to popular perception, the life of a graduate student is a far cry from the life of an undergraduate. Graduate students have a much larger workload, never really have nights and weekends “off,” and are forced to constantly assess and reassess the value of their endeavors to their field of choice. Throw in the heart palpitation-inducing issue of the current job market and the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding funding, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty stressful lifestyle — unless, that is, one learns the importance of balance and adopts habits that serve as healthy stress valves. Readers familiar with my blog know I personally look to regular exercise, meditation, and family time to center myself, but I’ve also discovered that work itself can exert a calming influence.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shifted into full-time comprehensive exam preparation mode and it’s been a relief to do so. It was difficult to establish a regular routine of comp preparation in the Fall semester since I was (1) gone nearly the entire month of September on a whirlwind of back-to-back travel that included the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, (2) was working as a teaching assistant in an area outside my discipline, and (3) was responsible for teaching three recitation sections each week on top of the standard t.a. grading responsibilities. Winter Break, while not a genuine “break,” has nonetheless allowed me to realign my history mojo and return my focus to my personal goals. Spending time out of one’s regular routine (and particularly away from campus life every now and again) can be very beneficial to re-recognizing the importance of long-term goals over day-to-day responsibilities.

Daily life will always bring interruptions and distractions. Meetings will demand your time, grading will demand your attention, students will need your help, the kitchen floor must still be mopped every now and then, your spouse might wreck the car, family members could pass away, friends may encounter crisis. But, as you enter the New Year, take some time once in a while to “do you.” Remember why you do what you do and center yourself around what you need to do to accomplish your goals. Be a little more selfish with your time when you can, visit your family, don’t overcommit, take care of yourself, be kind, don’t worry so much about what others think, don’t let the unkindness of others ruin your day, and recognize that imbalance will always come back to bite you eventually.

Next week, I’ll post on some of my strategies for preparing for comps. Have a happy and healthy New Year.

Meditation can help you with that

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “the feel and appearance of a book when combined with a literate person in a straight chair can create a spiritual condition of priceless depth and meaning.” He was referring to the experience of reading. After a foray into Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 1960s, Vonnegut realized how similar reading and meditation are. “When I read an absorbing book,” Vonnegut wrote, “my pulse and respiration rate slowed down perceptibly, just as though I were doing TM” (Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death, 188). Any avid reader can attest to this effect, even if they’ve never experimented with meditation, and any academic will tell you that the experience of writing produces similar results.

Within the last couple of years I’ve begun meditating and doing yoga on a regular basis, at first in a desperate search for a cure to my insomnia and now for regular stress relief, peace of mind, and increased concentration. While I wouldn’t characterize writing as “scuba diving in lukewarm bouillon” (which is how Vonnegut described TM), I would say that the experience of quieting the mind via meditation and via writing are similar. The practice of each reinforces the other and it takes quite a bit of practice to become adept at either. I have several favorite guided meditation routines–here are a couple I highly recommend if you have trouble with insomnia–but if you’ve never attempted meditation and want to test the similarities between the experiences of reading, writing, and meditation try this simple routine for five or ten (or twenty) minutes:

  • Sit or lay in a quite room in a comfortable position.
  • Consciously relax your body and close your eyes.
  • Try your best to pay attention to nothing but your breathing. Focus on how the air feels cool as you breathe in, and warm as you breathe out. Feel the air travel from your nose, down your throat, and into your chest. Feel how your chest rises and falls with each breath in and out. Concentrate on nothing but your breathing.
  • Recognize that your mind will wander but that you can control whether or not you follow those thoughts that skitter across your mind from time to time. As soon as you notice your attention drifting, refocus on your breathing. Imagine you are breathing a mist of relaxation into your body and exhaling any thoughts. Continue for as long as you like.
  • Over time, try to increase the length of your meditation practice.

Over the next couple of posts I’d like to explore the craft of writing and examine other (professional) authors’ best methods for consistently producing writing of high quality and clarity. I’ll be especially interested to see what advice is offered for cultivating healthy writing habits and writing in a manner that engages a wide variety of audience types. Below is a list of works I’ll be focusing on. Please feel free to make additional recommendations. Thank you to my colleagues Jason Heppler and Brian Sarnacki for their suggestions.

  • Writing Well: The Essential Guide, Mark Tredinnick
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great, Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published, Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato
  • How to Write History that People Want to Read, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath
  • The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White

Productivity is tricky

Being consistently productive is a balancing act. Sadly, my best intentions to maintain a robust and active blog fell prey to the oft overwhelming forces of the dreaded end-of-semester chaos. First there were papers to write over spring “break” (as I always refer to it). Then I traveled to Milwaukee for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), paired with a research trip to the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison. And before I knew it, the end of the semester was at hand. My life became a series of seemingly endless meetings with students fretting over their course grades and the impending final exam, followed by evenings of reading, writing, and grading, and several weeks of less exercise, less sleep, and a far less clean apartment than I generally prefer.

After all of this, of course, came the inevitable desperate race for the finish line: a final paper, final meetings, the final exam, hours of tedious grading, decisions about final grades, my last meeting as HGSA president, and…the glorious conclusion of the semester. Then came the reward of (gasp!) several nights of decent sleep as well as the now traditional brain drain/layabout/revitalization break. My husband and I managed to take the second vacation of our adult lives. My routine is back on track, I have significantly reduced the ick factor of our apartment (AND made a few bucks on eBay while decluttering), my history mojo is restored, and I’m looking forward to the steaming through my final couple of years of graduate school.

Although I have remained productive in other ways, I will be bumping up my efforts to write and post regularly. My next post will conclude my blogging on my research into the history of hygiene. I am also looking forward to sharing a few insights I took away from the 2012 OAH meeting, delving into the craft of writing, and sharing the pain of my preparation for my comprehensive examinations. Here’s to the balancing act.

What is it about productivity?

My blog has experienced a significant dry spell recently. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Or perhaps, if you happened upon my blog and considered following me, you decided not to when you noted this dry spell. My site stats bear this theory out, and the thought occurred to me many times during the dry spell. Each time I told myself I needed to just sit down that day and write out some of my ideas (which were plentiful, if half-formed). Then, inevitably, I would turn my attention to one of the many other items on my never-ending to-do list. (There are actually multiple to-do lists.) What is it makes some of us so consistently productive and others, well, not so consistently productive? I’ve turned my attention to this question increasingly over the last couple of months in an effort to increase my own productivity. After all, the dissertation is lurking and it isn’t going to research and write itself as I finish my coursework and prepare for comps. I’ve discovered that all of the things that interfere with productivity are connected to the patterns of daily life us humans build up over the course of our lives.

The occasional news article and blog post contain some useful pointers (see especially the blog Zen Habits), but one of the resources I’ve found most helpful in my effort to recognize and change my daily habits to the benefit of my personal productivity is Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Although the book contains sections that are geared primarily toward aiding students of psychology, most of it is beneficial for anyone seeking to get more done–academic nerd or not. Silvia begins by telling readers they are lying to themselves when they offer excuses such as “I’ll just binge write to make up for a lack of regularity” or “I need to do a little more research before I begin” or even “I need to get a nice comfy office chair before I begin writing on a regular basis.” The number one method Silvia argues in favor of is devising a regular (i.e. daily) writing schedule and sticking to it, no matter what. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is a heck of a lot harder than it sounds. There always seems to be something that demands I subvert my writing schedule and give it immediate attention. But Silva utilizes a variety of psychological studies and findings to help readers along.

Among the most useful tips are (1st) Give in to the fact that you need to have a regular writing schedule in order to be consistently productive. As a recovering binge writer, I often find myself trying to weasel out of my writing schedule with the temptation to “make up for it” later by writing a lot all at once. Of course, not only is this no fun; it also doesn’t always happen, which naturally carves a big, fat hole in my productivity and writing goals. The same goes for sticking to a regular study schedule. Over time, I discovered I was edging away from (i.e. avoiding) my writing schedule by doing study work “first” such as grading quizzes or reading for seminar. Granted, I was still getting work done, but not my writing. This goes along with Silva’s (2nd) most useful tip in my eyes: track your productivity and daily habits.

So this part seemed really, really anal to me at first but I probably wouldn’t have owned up to the ways I was avoiding my writing schedule without it. Silvia recommends tracking your writing progress by creating a spreadsheet for your daily goals. I’ve applied this not just to my writing schedule but to other healthy habits I wish to develop too, such as doing yoga every morning, indulging in a calm breakfast reading the news before rushing off to campus, taking time for afternoon meditation, and so forth. You’re probably thinking this sort of personal monitoring via spreadsheet sounds silly too, but Silvia cites behavioral research studies that illustrate that “self observation alone can cause the desired behaviors” (Silvia, 39). Think of monitoring your personal productivity as a strategy comparable to that of developing a monthly budget. I’ve noticed that whenever I have not met a daily goal and have to enter an all-caps “NO” into my spreadsheet, I work extra hard the next day to be sure I don’t repeat the undesirable behavior. And I remind myself that it isn’t about the spreadsheet: the daily habits I have listed are personal goals that, if achieved, I know will improve areas of my life.

Silvia goes on, in other chapters, to offer other tips for motivation and even some suggestions on improving your writing style. But there is one thing he doesn’t discuss that I would like to see addressed: the ways many academics keep their methods for personal productivity to themselves–like some closely-guarded secret that, if divulged, would somehow bring the world down on their heads. Maybe this is because we all assume people should, by the time they reach graduate school or enter a career, already know how to be the most productive they can be. I suppose this could be true for some people, but I don’t think it’s true for most and there’s almost always room for improvement. I think the true reason many academics–and graduate students in particular–don’t or won’t discuss their productivity tactics is because they fear it will lead to more competition. But I’d rather compete for funding and jobs with the kind of people who openly try to help me be the best I can be than with those who are only looking out for themselves. So I’ve shared some of what I’ve found useful here, and I’ll also be promoting an upcoming workshop for UNL history graduate students on the topic of “Maintaining Sanity as a Graduate Student: Organization, Study Habits, and Stress Relief.” And, as always, I welcome your comments, dear reader, on how we can all be more productive. See you next week.