Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Develop a Daily Meditation Practice

If you want to become more creative, focused, and productive, meditation can be a great tool. Meditation will help you with focus, which will make you a more efficient writer. It will also help you to quiet your mind, which can help you access your creative potential.

There are many benefits to meditation, and no downsides I can think of, so I highly recommend you try it. This article, for example, tells us that meditation can make you happier, strengthen your brain, improve your focus, relieve stress, and make you more compassionate. And, this website says meditation helps with creativity, focus, and stress-reduction. For this reason, I incorporate meditation into every Creative Connections Retreat.

time to meditate

During the Creative Connections Retreat, we meditate together for ten to fifteen minutes each morning, just before writing. I love doing this, as it sets the intention for the day and allows us to check in with our mental state before we begin our writing.

When I get back home from the retreat, however, I often struggle with maintaining a daily meditation practice. One reason for this is that I am rarely in the house alone, and it is hard to find a good time to meditate when I won’t be interrupted. The main reason, nonetheless, is that I never made meditation a priority and thus never really figured out how to make it happen.

However, for the last two months, I have finally been able to maintain my daily meditation practice.

I think there are three reasons for this:
  1. My daughter expressed interest in meditating and we have been doing it together;
  2. I found an app I really like; and
  3. I started small, with just ten minutes a day.
Meditating alongside my 11-year-old daughter has been fantastic. Just like writing, there is the accountability factor. We agreed to meditate each evening at 8pm, and if I forget, she reminds me, and vice-versa. Also, it is much easier for me to say to everyone else in the household: “We are going to meditate for 10 minutes” than “I am going to meditate alone.” I am sure they would leave me alone anyway, but I feel more comfortable making this request on behalf of both of us. Finally, I meditate not just because it is good for me but because I know it is good for my daughter as well. So, if you have been thinking about meditating but have not yet made it a daily practice, think about getting someone else in your house to do it with you.

The other factor that has made meditating become more of a habit for me is the headspace app. Some people like Zen meditation, which is silent, but I prefer guided meditation, where someone tells you what to do. I have been using headspace, an app that comes in a sequence, and each meditation gets a little harder, a little less guided, and focuses on different aspects of meditation. I like the fact that it seems to progress in a logical fashion. The app also gives you stats, telling you how many days in a row you have meditated, what your average meditation time is, and your total time meditating. I find these numbers motivating. There are many free apps on the Internet, and I encourage you to find one that works for you. There are also YouTube videos and audio recordings that could work for you.

The final factor is starting small. There is a fantastic free online course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I have started the course several times but never finished, in part because it requires a significant amount of time. I highly recommend you try this research-based, free course to get started with meditation. However, if you have trouble completing the course, I also recommend you try something a bit less intensive to start with.

I look forward to hearing how and why you incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your life.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

How to Develop a Daily Writing Habit

You have seen research that confirms that writing every day is the best way to become a productive academic. And, you want to be a productive academic, right? But, are you writing every day? Do you want to learn how to write every day? If so, this post is for you.

The basic trick to writing every day is to develop a writing habit. New habits take a long time to form. However, if you make yourself write every day, eventually it will become a habit. Once writing is a habit, it will become second nature to get up and write every day.

Developing this habit requires writing consistently. How do you do that?

Emma Reh (1896-1982)

During the Creative Connections Writing and Meditation Retreat, everyone writes for two and a half hours each morning together. Although the writing session starts early, everyone participates for several reasons. First of all, we are on a writing retreat, so everyone knows that writing is expected of them. Secondly, we write because everyone else is writing so that creates a bit of peer pressure. Thirdly, we write because we know we will have to share our work during the retreat, thus giving us an important deadline to meet.

You don’t have to be at a retreat, however, to incorporate these strategies into your life. Here are a few suggestions to get you on track to making writing a daily habit.
  • Write at the same time every day. If you have your pick of times, choose the early morning. When you do something at the same time every day, you are more likely to form a habit. If you do it in the morning, you are less likely to let everything else you need to do get in the way.
  • Treat your writing as you would any other appointment. Make an appointment with yourself every day to write. Show up to your appointment with yourself and decline any other invitations to do other things during that time.
  • Incorporate some accountability. This can be to yourself, where you keep track of your writing on a spreadsheet. But, it is better if you are accountable to someone else, as a bit of peer pressure goes a long way.
  • Write towards deadlines. If you don’t have any external deadlines, set deadlines for yourself. Aim to get your article finished by the end of the month. Or, set a deadline for a draft of each book chapter you are writing.
  • Develop an expectation for yourself that you will write every day. If you want to become a writer, if you want to publish, if you want to finish your dissertation, you have to write. So, expect yourself to write.
I hope these strategies help you become a daily writer if you are not already. Let me know of any challenges you face to becoming a daily writer in the comments section. Also, let me know what strategies are working for you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Seven Strategies That Will Make You More Creative, Focused, and Productive

Would you like to become more creative, more focused, more relaxed, and more productive? Did you know research shows there are specific habits you can develop that will enhance your ability to be all of these things?


There are many myths prevalent in academia that make it difficult for many of us to imagine we can be creative, focused, relaxed, and productive. These myths include: “Some people are geniuses;” “the only way to be successful is to work all the time;” “some people are gifted writers;” “I can only write when I feel inspired;” and “a balanced life is impossible when you are on the tenure track.” These myths are counterproductive and prevent many academics from reaching their full potential.

Instead of believing in these myths, I believe that anyone can become a great writer by practicing their writing; that you can be successful and have a life too; and that there are specific strategies you can learn that will help you tap into your creativity.

Developing new ideas, which is at the core of academia, requires being creative. Your ability to tap into your creative potential is severely limited when you are frazzled, stressed, and overworked. Thus, although it might seem contradictory, being productive requires setting limits on how much you work.

I am sure you can think of a few writers you admire for their craft. I am also sure that those writers did not just wake up one day with the ability to write. Instead, they developed that skill over many years. The good news is that you can do that too. You can develop the ability to write clearly and convincingly, by practicing and honing your writing skills.

There are many strategies you can learn that will help you to become less stressed, more creative, and more productive. Seven of my favorite strategies include:

  • Daily writing
  • Unplugging
  • Spending time in nature
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Connecting to others via conversation about your work

I incorporate all of these strategies into the Creative Connections writing retreat I co-facilitate a couple of times a year. However, anyone can incorporate these strategies into their daily life. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss each of these strategies. I will explain their benefits as well as give you suggestions for how you can incorporate them into your life.

I look forward to sharing with you some of my ideas about how to be more creative, productive, focused, and relaxed.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ten Ways to Support New Faculty

(Reposted from Vitae.)

As we near summer’s end, many colleges and universities are looking for ways to support new faculty members arriving on campus. Administrators and senior professors often realize that the old system of de facto mentoring — with older faculty casually showing their new colleagues the ropes — has its limitations.

Linus Carl Pauling (1901-1994)

Institutions usually start upgrading their faculty mentoring in two basic ways. First they formally assign a mentor to each new faculty member. Second, they set up a series of workshops on how to be successful on the job.

The system of assigning a mentor to each new hire is an important baseline. However, it has some of the same pitfalls of the de-facto system in that not all senior professors are good mentors, and many times they do not relate well to the challenges faced by new faculty. And it’s unrealistic to expect one faculty member to meet all of the varied needs of a junior colleague. Likewise, workshops on “How to Write Your First Book” or “Getting Your First Grant” can be indispensable, but many new faculty need support beyond a few one-hour, one-shot seminars.

Those two approaches are certainly better than nothing. However, there are many other, more creative ways of mentoring new (and older) faculty. I offer the following list of 10, none of which cost more than a few thousand dollars, and some of which are practically free.

Organize family meet-and-greets in a campus gym.

New faculty with small children often find it difficult to attend an evening event, and are also interested in meeting other professors with kids. Organizing a family-friendly meet-and-greet in a fun place like a gym can be a great solution. Make sure there are organized activities for the kids or even a few giant yoga balls to toss around.

Offer small grants to junior faculty to travel for off-campus mentoring.

In addition to on-campus mentors, newcomers to the profession often need to build their network by finding mentors and advocates outside of their home institutions. Departments can help by setting aside money to help faculty members defray such travel costs.

Give small grants to new faculty to invite senior scholars to campus.

The idea here is to ask visiting scholars to critique the work of new junior faculty. This often takes the form of a “book workshop” where a new faculty member invites three other academics to campus to discuss and critique the junior scholar’s book manuscript. I know faculty members who have done that, and found it a very valuable experience.

Sponsor campus discussions of books on writing and good work habits.

There are tons of amazing productivity books out there that new faculty should read, such as How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Even better than just reading a book is to get together with colleagues to discuss the book. That not only ensures that the book doesn’t just sit on the shelf; it also gives people the opportunity to share pointers, work through challenges, and hear about other helpful books.

Reward stellar on-campus mentors.

As I mentioned, not all faculty members are capable mentors. By establishing a mentoring award, the university can both honor people who are good at mentoring and establish role models for other faculty who would like to be better mentors.

Create training workshops for faculty mentors.

Many faculty members have no idea how to be effective mentors, but they can learn. In training workshops, award-winning mentors can provide tips on their most effective mentoring practices.

Hold monthly problem-solving lunches.

A free lunch is an inexpensive, easy, and much-appreciated way to get academics together. A monthly lunch for new faculty gives them an opportunity to both make friends and talk through common challenges.

Organize writing feedback groups.

All academics need feedback on their writing. It can be challenging, however, to find people to critique your work. One way around that problem is to organize small writing groups with four members who meet four times during the semester or quarter. At each meeting, one person gets feedback on their work from the rest of the group, so hat by the end of the term each participant has gotten their work critiqued.

Organize writing accountability groups.

Writing feedback groups can be great when we need critiques, but sometimes we just need encouragement and support. Institutions can help faculty members by organizing four-member writing accountability groups that meet once a week for an hour. That helps motivate the group members to keep writing and also gives them a place to talk about productivity challenges and successes.

Provide a faculty-only writing space on campus.

Many academics have trouble writing in their offices because of constant interruptions. One solution is to create a quiet space on campus where faculty members can go to write. If the space has coffee, even better!

At many institutions, a cultural shift in mentoring practices is needed. A place that has long had a de facto or nonexistent mentoring program can be transformed into one where a positive mentoring culture exists. Mentoring programs will not be successful if they are “one size fits all.” However, by offering a variety of options, colleges and universities can support their faculty members and build community while they are at it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!

We all know that it is a myth that tenure-track and tenured faculty do not work at all during the summer. However, it does not have to be a myth that we work less in the summertime.
I know some of my colleagues take pride in bragging about how much they work during the summer – probably to push back against the myth that we don’t work at all. However, I neither brag about overwork nor do I actually work that much during the summer.

Summertime should look like this!
Scaling back on work hours is one of the great privileges of having a tenure-track or tenured position, or even a lecturer position that pays enough during the year to be able to avoid teaching during the summers. Of course, if you are in a position where you have to work as a lifeguard during the summer to make ends meet, this post won’t apply to you. However, there are many faculty members and even graduate students whose summers are taken up by research and writing. If that describes you, then this post will help you to think about how to have a productive summer by working only four hours a day.
My summers always involve a two-week vacation where I do no work at all and recharge my batteries. This year I will do that while camping in the Pacific Northwest. During the rest of the summer, I try my best to stick to summer hours – which, for me, means only working before lunch. I have stuck to that routine most summers for the past decade, and have been quite productive.
The summer begins for me, as it did last year, with a writing and meditation retreat in Yosemite.
Last summer, my husband spent six weeks in Peru, and I stayed in Merced for the first half of the summer with our three kids. During that time, I finished and submitted an article, wrote and submitted a book chapter, submitted a major grant, developed drafts of two articles, and finalized two syllabi for my fall courses. I did all of this working just in the mornings.
I met my goals by sitting down and working on my writing projects every weekday for about two hours. During this time, I turned off email and social media, and told my kids to leave me alone. Since it’s only for two hours, and often before they even wake up, they were happy to oblige. Once I finished with writing, I had to take care of emails and other work-related tasks. Before lunch, I closed my laptop and called it a day.
With this routine, the rest of the day is mine to enjoy and to take care of myself, my family, and my house. I go to the gym most days – a unique summertime luxury. I cook most of my meals at home. I clean the house. I watch television with my kids. I grocery shop and drop the kids off at their various activities. I read novels. I go swimming. I listen to podcasts. Basically, I do whatever I want to do in the afternoons – which I dedicate to rejuvenation and renewal.
If you dedicate your mornings to writing, and resolve not to work after lunch, this allows you to be productive in the morning, and to feel as if you are having a real break each afternoon. Spend your afternoons taking care of yourself and your family – taking your kids to the pool, hanging out with your friends on patios and in backyards, going to the gym, taking long bike rides, reading books, and checking out that yoga class. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where there are summer festivals, take advantage of them.
If your children are too small to leave you alone for two hours in the morning, arrange some activity for them and use that time to write. You can sign them up for camp or drop them off with a nanny. I enjoy having the summers to spend more time with my kids – but that doesn’t mean I need to spend every single minute with them.
In addition to taking your afternoons off, plan to take at least two weeks of full-on vacation. Your mind and body need to recharge. Taking a vacation is the only way to feel as if you have had a break from the normal stresses of life and work. If you can’t make leaving town happen, you can have a staycation by spending your time reading novels, taking long walks, watching your favorite television shows, getting a haircut, or even making those long overdue visits to the doctor and the dentist.
It might sound crazy to you to take it easy during the summer, but the best way to be productive and sane during the year is to use the summer months to rejuvenate. There is a good reason why countries in the European Union all have a minimum of four weeks vacation for workers. Intellectual work is hard and we need to rejuvenate in order to be consistently productive.
If you also are fortunate enough to be free from teaching and administrative responsibilities during the summer months, you can dedicate these months to research and writing; spending time with loved ones; and rejuvenation. Each of these is equally important.
If none of this is possible for you because you are spending the summer teaching or doing paid administrative work, then it may be time to ask yourself if there is any way you can make ends meet next year without relying on the extra summer salary. Of course, this is not possible for many people, but it’s worth thinking about the balance between short-term financial gain and long-term physical, mental, and emotional health.
Summers are one of the best things about being an academic and I hope you find a way to enjoy yours.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Steps to Getting Grants for Graduate Students

I was one of the panelists at a grant writing workshop for graduate students at the American Studies Association meetings this past fall.  The panel was convened by Kritika Agarwal and included three panelists:  Maile Arvin, Monica Martinez, and myself.

This post is a summary of the best tips provided during that meeting and will provide you with guidance and food for thought as you prepare your grant and fellowship applications.

Britney Spears - Taste The Victory

Step 1: Figure out where you are going to apply.
To figure this out, you first need to identify your needs. Do you need a grant – which will provide you with cash to do research or a fellowship – which will pay your salary as you focus primarily on writing?

Graduate students can use grant funding for a variety of expenses, including visiting archives, paying research participants, transcribing interviews, and completing fieldwork. Fellowships, in contrast, are primarily used to subsidize the time you spend writing your dissertation. Instead of having to teach to support yourself while in graduate school, a fellowship allows you to focus all of your work time on writing your dissertation.

There are large granting agencies that have funding for graduate students including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. However, there are also a plethora of smaller granting agencies that are specific to your field of study.

If you are at a PhD granting institution, there most likely an office on campus where you can get assistance with finding grants. Many times, this office will work with you to come up with a list of grants and fellowships that you can apply for. Many universities also have online databases that you can search to look for funding opportunities.

Kritika made the very practical suggestion that you look at the CVs of people in your field to find out what grants and fellowships they have been awarded. Maile suggested that you ask around in your program to find out what opportunities other students have sought out.

It is important to complete a comprehensive search as sometimes there are societies and archives that offer grants or fellowships you may have never heard of.  For example, did you know that the German Historical Institute offers fellowships in African American History? Or that L’Oreal USA offers fellowships for women in science?

Once you have your list of places to target, you can develop a timeline for applications based on their deadlines. You will need to plan far in advance – up to a year before the application deadlines.

Step 2: Prepare the Proposal
Think of your proposal as an argument for why reviewers should recommend your project for funding. Most well-formulated proposals will have the following six components:

1) An opening that draws attention. This often takes the form of an anecdote, a powerful statistic, or a compelling question.

2) A concise statement of what your project is about. The reviewer should know exactly what your research is about within 30 seconds of picking up your proposal.

3) A review of what we already know about the topic. You need to make a case for why your research is necessary. This requires showing that you have done your background research and demonstrating how your study is novel.

4) An explanation of how current literature leads to your research questions. Don’t just say: “No one has ever examined Polynesian birthing practices in this village.” Instead, draw from the current literature on Polynesia and birthing practices to make a case for how the current literature leads up to your research questions.

5) A description of how you plan to answer your questions. Now that you have set up your research questions, explain exactly what your methodology is and why it is the best methodology to answer those questions.

6) A timeline for completion. A successful grant proposal is compelling, creative, and feasible. You need to show that you have thought your whole project through and that you have a reasonable timeline for completion. Reviewers will find it hard to believe that you will write the last four chapters of your dissertation in a one-week residential fellowship, for example.

Competitive applications are crystal clear and free of jargon. They also render it clear how the project is related to the goals and missions of the funding agency. They are convincing in terms of the need for this project as well as the feasibility of the project. They make a clear contribution to research. Finally, they are aesthetically pleasing in terms of the page layout, margins, font, and headings.

If you know someone who has won the competition you are applying for, you should ask them if you can read their proposal. That will give you a good sense of what a successful application looks like.

Step 3: Prepare for Submission
You should never submit your proposal without having at least one person look over it. Ideally, you should get feedback from several people. You can get feedback from your peers, from your adviser, from the grant office on campus, and from friends who are not in your field.

Before you submit, review your application to make sure that you have followed the directions exactly. Have someone with a good eye for style and grammar review your proposal to make absolutely sure that there are no stylistic or grammatical or typographical errors.

Once you submit your proposal, congratulate yourself for having formulated a proposal and plan for your research.

Writing a clear and concise statement of your research project and plan for moving forward will help you with moving your research forward, regardless of whether or not you win the competition. In addition, you can repurpose that statement for other grant and fellowship applications. You also are likely to be able to revise that statement and put parts of it in your dissertation – particularly in the introduction.

It is always fantastic when you are awarded a grant or an application. But, it is also important to keep in mind that the only way to get a rejection is to put your work out there. Every rejection you get is a signal that you are stretching your boundaries. It also means that you are one less rejection away from reaching your goals!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Daily Writing: How Prolific Scholars Do It

I am most productive as a writer on days when I wake up before the crack of dawn and get an hour of writing in before everyone in the house is awake and and, most important, before checking email or social media. I know several highly productive academics – some of them chairs, deans, and provosts – who do the same thing. For people with administrative duties, that is often the only time they have to write.

You don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. to be a prolific scholar. You do have to write however. And nearly all of the prolific academics I have met are daily writers. Daily writing is one of the most important strategies I can recommend to boost your productivity. Theresa MacPhail calls daily writing a “no-fail secret to writing a dissertation.” That advice is just as crucial for new (and older) faculty.

It’s also backed up by research.

A study by Robert Boice, reported in his book, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing as well as in this article, provides concrete evidence that daily writing produces both more writing and more ideas. Boice conducted an experiment with 27 faculty members who wanted to improve their productivity. He divided them into three groups and examined their writing progress for 10 weeks.

Boice instructed Group No. 1 – the abstinent writersnot to schedule any writing sessions but to write only if they felt compelled to. He also asked them to keep a log of creative ideas to write about. The thought behind planned abstinence was that these writers would have a list of creative ideas ready when they finally did feel like writing. Result: The abstinent writers produced an average of 0.2 pages a day and had one creative idea a week.

Boice told Group No. 2 – the spontaneous writers – to schedule writing sessions five days a week for 10 weeks, but encouraged them to write in those sessions only when they were in the mood. They also were asked to use part of the scheduled writing time each day to come up with a new idea to write about. Result: The spontaneous writers produced an average of 0.9 pages a day and one creative idea a week.

Group No. 3 – the forced writers – agreed to a strict accountability plan. They scheduled five writing sessions a week for 10 weeks, and kept a log of creative ideas to write about. To ensure they would write every day, whether or not they felt like it, the members of this group each gave Boice a prepaid check for $25, made out to an organization they despised. If they failed to write in any of their planned sessions, Boice would mail the check. Result: The forced writers produced an average of 3.2 pages a day and one creative idea each day.
I first heard about this study in 2006 from Kerry Ann Rockquemore. When I saw the results, I was convinced I wanted to be in Group No. 3. I have been a daily writer ever since, and recently submitted my fifth book manuscript for publication.

If you are not a daily writer, but are producing as much writing as you think you should, then there is no reason to change your habits. However, if you are unhappy with your productivity and would like to write more, my experience as well as the research show that daily writing is very likely to work for you. Here’s how.

Pull out your calendar and schedule writing sessions five or six days a week. Writing experts Patricia Goodson and Wendy Belcher both recommend that you start with 15 minutes a day if you have never tried daily writing before, or if you are overwhelmed with other tasks. Patricia Goodson recommends that you start with 15 minutes and increase your writing time by one minute each day until you reach your desired level.

If you are not sure what counts as daily writing, check out this list of 10 ways to write every day.

Nearly all writing experts agree that you should not schedule more than four hours for a writing session. My colleague Anthony Ocampo says that if you push yourself too far, you might get a “writing hangover.” If you have one day that you can dedicate to a long stretch of time for writing, you may want to schedule four hours for that day. On your busiest days, set aside at least 15 minutes – even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier in the morning.

Once a writing session is on your calendar, treat it like any other appointment. By that I mean show up for it and schedule your other obligations around it. If you have scheduled a writing session from 10:30 to 11 a.m., and a student emails to ask if she can come by at 10:30, tell her you already have an appointment at that time and to come instead at 11 a.m. It might seem odd at first to be making appointments with yourself, but, over time, you will get used to it. In fact the busier you are, the more crucial it is it schedule your writing time and stick to it.

Once you start writing every day, it becomes a habit. I will admit there are days I don’t get my writing done, but I notice it when I don’t. I notice it so much that I make sure to write the next day.

My preference is to write every morning from Monday to Friday for at least an hour, but usually for two. What about you? Are you already a daily writer? How long have you been at it, and has it made a difference in your productivity?

Re-posted from: