Monday, May 18, 2020

How Deep Work Can Enhance Your Productivity and Creativity During the Summer of the Pandemic

We are facing unprecedented times. The summer is now upon us and it will be unlike any summer we have ever experienced.

This will be the first summer in over two decades that I will stay put. When I moved to Merced, I knew the summers were very long and very hot. But, I also thought that I would be able to leave for at least a month each summer to escape the heat. Clearly, that won’t be happening this summer.

I am particularly disappointed about having to postpone our writing retreat which was going to be on a private island in Belize, but, this is our new reality and I have accepted that.

With three long, hot months ahead of me, I know I need to plan to make sure that I emerge from the summer feeling relaxed and rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever the fall semester may bring.

I also have work to do as I have grant-funded research that needs to happen this summer.

Fortunately, I know from both research and experience that it is possible to have a summer that is both productive and relaxing. Today, I will share some strategies with you that will also help you to have a productive and relaxing summer.

This will require using small chunks of focused time for deep work. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines “deep work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.”

Newport argues we have to work in distraction-free environments to reach the limits of our cognitive capacity.

The work we do as academic writers requires tremendous cognitive capacity. To publish our research, we have to create new knowledge. That requires first understanding at a very deep level the current state of the field and then having the creativity and ingenuity to create new knowledge. The work we do is not mundane. We are creating new knowledge and this requires deep work.

There are some knowledge-creators who have the luxury of going to lakeside retreats by themselves for weeks or months at a time where they can achieve a state of flow and concentration that allows them to make important breakthroughs. If you are a single person who lives alone, you may wish to try out a monastic strategy where you cut yourself off from the world completely for a week to focus on your research and writing. However, I know that is not possible for most of us. And, fortunately, there are other ways to achieve this state of distraction-free concentration.

My strategy is to carve out two hours each morning to focus on deep work. I know from over a decade of experience that focused work for two hours every day is all I need to achieve very high levels of productivity. I have been keeping track of the time I spend writing since 2007. Thus, I can say with certainty that I have written for about two hours a day every weekday for the last 13 years. I have only written more than two hours on very rare occasions and have written several books and dozens of journal articles within that time. Thus, I am confident that two hours of deep work is all I need to have a productive summer.
My Summer 2020 weekly template

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to just write for two hours and call it a day because I have lots of other work to do that is not deep work. Thus, I plan to set aside another two to three hours each weekday to manage the dozen or so employees I have working for me, to respond to emails, and to plan out and troubleshoot my ongoing research.

I also know that exercise and self-care will be very important so I have set aside time in my schedule for those activities.

I show you my summer plan here and will walk you through the logic behind my decisions. I wake up very early. I am an early riser, so this is not difficult for me. Also, as I mentioned above, it gets very hot here in Merced, California. However, the early morning hours are cooler and this is the time I would be able to get in a jog. Thus, I plan to jog for 30 minutes four days a week, first thing in the morning.

I also will meditate just before writing as I find that meditating greatly improves my focus and helps me get into the mindset of doing deep work.

Sitting for two hours is not the best thing for my back, so I will do yoga after meditating to stretch out those kinks. Then, I will take a break to have lunch and do some housework. Then, I will spend 2 to 3 hours taking care of email and meeting with my students and employees before dedicating the rest of the day to hang out with my partner and our three teenage daughters.

And, one day a week I will break up this routine and go on a long morning hike. I chose the morning time because this is the only time it will be cool enough for a long hike.

You will notice that I also set aside time for email and housework. The logic behind doing that is that, knowing that I have those activities on my calendar will make it easier for me to not get lost in email when I should be writing or decide that I really need to dust the ceiling fans during times I have set aside for writing.

How about you? Have you come up with a weekly template for your summer? Will you be able to set up an hour or two of distraction-free time for yourself?

Friday, April 3, 2020

How to make effective teaching videos for online instruction

When preparing an online class, videos may be the first thing to come to mind. And, videos can be a great idea. However, you certainly do not want to transform your 50-minute lecture into a 50-minute video.

Instead, think carefully about your learning goals for each class session. And, think about which portions of your lecture class are best suited for video format.

You can teach your learning goals that don’t require videos through lecture notes, assigned readings, discussion boards, podcasts, and online activities. (You can check out my LMS site for some examples.)

Once you’ve settled on a learning goal you think is well-suited for a short video, the first step is to do an online search to see if someone else has already made an excellent short video on the topic. There’s absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel. If you want to introduce a concept and there is a highly produced, scientifically accurate video freely available online, by all means, use that one.

(For example, I have created 18 videos for teaching race and racism, and you may find some of these useful instead of creating your own video that explains the difference between race and ethnicity or what racial formation theory is.)

If, on the other hand, there is nothing available that conveys exactly what you’d like to teach, it’s time to make your own short video.

How to make own videos for teaching

Making videos for teaching can be fun, although making high-quality videos takes a lot of time. I took over a year to make those 18 videos, and I had a lot of help. Here are a few simple steps to follow to make your videos.

Step 1: Write a script.
Your script should be between 100 and 500 words. It takes about one minute to read 100 words, so that will keep your videos at an ideal length of 1 to 5 minutes.

Step 2: Decide on the media for each sentence.
Look at each sentence in your script and decide on the best way to convey that sentence. There are at least four possibilities: 1) live-action; 2) still images; 3) slides with words; and 4) pre-recorded videos.

Our brains use two primary channels to take in information – audio and visual. We can use both channels simultaneously but can only take in input on one type of channel at a time. Both listening to and reading words are on the audio channel. So, we can listen to audio and look at an image. But, we can’t listen to audio and read words at the same time. Thus, if you show words on the screen, use the same ones you are speaking, and keep the words minimal.

Step 3: Create a story board that assigns media for each sentence in your video.

I use PowerPoint for my story boards, but you should use whatever technology is easiest for you. Some people like to use Excel sheets for story boards, for example.

Photo of Woman Holding Brown Book With Her Child
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Step 4: Start with still images.
There are tons of free images available on sites like pexels, unsplash, and flickr. You can also find historical images in wikicommons. Try to find images that add value to what you are saying. If you are talking about emotional bonds, for example, you can show a photo of a mother and child. The image reinforces the message. Look at each sentence and decide if it can be conveyed using an image.

Step 5: Add in one or two pre-recorded videos.
Pexels and other sites also have free videos available that you can record your voice over. The use of moving images instead of still images can keep the viewer entertained for longer periods of time. There may also be concepts that are better captured through movement such as the movement of boats across water to discuss migration via sea routes.

Step 6: Add in slides with words, phrases, or figures that are critical.
Your slides with just words on them should be minimal. But, if there is a definition, concept, sentence, or figure students need to see, include a slide with that concept.

Example of a slide that includes a definition and an image.

Step 7: Include some live-action
Live-action involves you speaking. When students see your face, it creates a human connection. So, having some live-action is useful. It can be a good idea to include some live-action at the beginning or in those places where you can’t find an image that works well.

As should be clear, making good videos takes a lot of thought and time. So, only make videos for your classes if you have determined you really need them. Otherwise, use alternative methods of conveying information.

Monday, January 6, 2020

How to Have a Productive Day Working from Home

It seems as if it should be straightforward – if you have the whole day to work at home, you should be super productive. Just work all day, long, right?

If you are able to consistently have days where you sit in front of your computer and write for hours on end, then kudos to you. I, on the other hand, find that if I am not mindful about how I spend my time, a day that is free of appointments can end up being a frustrating, unproductive day.

I love my home office!

My very best writing days are the ones I have at my annual writing retreat, where I am in a beautiful location, surrounded by amazing women writers. I try and replicate that experience about once a month by meeting up with friends at a mountain cafĂ© and then going on a hike with them afterward. Alas, I can’t do a mini-retreat every day or even every week.

I can, however, work my schedule such that I have at least one day where I work from home. And, how I cherish those days!

Here is my recipe for a productive day of work from home:

Wake up: 5:45am (I know … I am an early riser)

5:45-6:00am: Prepare my almond milk latte and sit on my couch and savor it.

6:00am-7:00am: WRITE!

7:00-7:20am: Take my daughter to school (We live in a small town so I can do a round trip in 20 minutes)

7:20-8:30: Go for a run and have breakfast.

8:30-9:30am: WRITE!

9:30-10:00am: Shower and get ready for the day (I always need a little break after a long writing session)

10:00-11:00am: Reading and/or data analysis

11:00am-11:30: Lunch prep (I do love putting things in my Instant pot and then getting back to work).

11:30-12:30pm: Reading and/or data analysis.

12:30-1:00pm: Lunch

1:00pm-2:00pm: Email (It is important to avoid email for most of the day to stay focused but I can't ignore it all day, so after lunch is a good time to check it.)

2:00pm-3:00pm: Review papers. Take care of administrative business.

3:00pm-3:30pm: Youtube Yoga session

3:30-4:30: Meet colleague for tea or have phone call.

4:30-5:00pm: Final email check of the day

5:00pm: Shut down work for the day

If you are counting (and I know some of you are), that’s 2 hours of writing; two hours of reading and/or data analysis; 90 minutes of email; one hour of meetings; and one hour of administrivia.

For me, that would be a super-productive day at home. What is most important to me about this schedule is that I get all of my focused work done in the morning. In my experience, the single most important thing I need to make this happen is to avoid email and social media before finishing all of my focused time. The second most important thing is to have a clear cutoff time for email – where I stop checking email for the day.

Having this schedule is also helpful because, when I am writing, I might start thinking: “I really should put a load in the laundry.” If I have some light housework on my schedule, I can just tell myself that I will do it at the scheduled time. Likewise, if I remember an email I have been meaning to send, I can make a note and then send it when my email time comes around.

I also will schedule phone calls in the afternoon of my stay-at-home days because I often can take those calls while going on a nice walk around my neighborhood. Having this schedule in mind makes it easier for me to time those phone calls well.

How about you? What does an ideal work-from-home day look like for you?

PS: We have had a couple of cancellations for our retreat in Belize this June. Apply here today and we may be able to get you a spot!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Don’t Check Your Email in the Morning

Woman in White T-shirt Holding Smartphone in Front of Laptop

You likely have heard this advice before. You may have even followed it for some time. You may have even read the book: Never Check Email in the Morning. But, if you’re anything like me, you tried avoiding email in the morning, and it worked for a while before you slipped back into your old habits.

We tell ourselves all kinds of stories for why we have to check email in the morning. Here are a few things I tell myself:

  • It’s efficient to check and delete emails from my phone while drinking my morning coffee.
  • It’s important to know what’s coming for the day.
  • There may be something urgent I need to respond to.
  • I can quickly scan my emails and then move on to other tasks.

Despite what I may tell myself, I am not that important. Nothing will happen if I don’t check my email all morning. And, although it may seem efficient to scan my email in the morning, it is not.

I recently read this great book by Cal Newport called Deep Work. In that book, he describes research which reveals it is harder to focus after checking email or social media. He explains that any activity you do affects your level of focus in the next activity you engage in. Thus, even if you take five minutes to scan your email or scroll through Twitter, that experience will leave a residue. The “attention residue” from email or social media is detrimental to your ability to focus on the next task. Email and social media are particularly detrimental to activities that require a high level of focus such as writing.

You will be able to achieve a higher level of focus and clarity in your writing if you get your writing done before checking your email and social media accounts.

I am Department Chair this year and I have to respond to lots of emails in that and other administrative capacities. During the Fall semester, I was able to handle those responsibilities while also getting my writing done in September and October. In November, however, I added three out-of-town trips to my already packed schedule and my writing fell by the wayside. Looking back, one of the main reasons I got so little writing done in November is that I began my days responding to emails. Once I opened my emails, it was difficult to achieve the focus I needed to make progress on my writing.

When I couldn’t focus on my writing, I turned to social media, which was a further distraction from my writing.

Thus, in the coming Spring semester, I am going to avoid email and all social media until I complete my writing tasks for the day. Then, I will limit both activities to specific times of the day.

My plan is to wake up at 6am, write for one hour, take my daughter to school, go for a run, have breakfast, and then sit down for my second writing session. Once my second session is over, I will check my emails. I then will close my email and check it again at the end of the day. At 5pm, I will log out of my email and close the program until the next day. In Deep Work, Cal Newport also recommends having an official end to the workday to allow the mind time to reset and refocus.

I also set up my phone so that I am limited to a total of 30 minutes per day on social media. I will only engage with social media once I have finished my writing and will avoid social media after dinner. This will allow me more time to spend focusing on my family as well as reading great books.

It should not be difficult for me to keep this routine during the month of January, as my semester does not officially start until January 14th and classes don’t begin until January 21st. Thus, no one expects a quick response from me during this time. My hope is that I will be emboldened and inspired by my writing productivity during the month of January and that I will thus keep this up for the rest of the semester.

How about you? What will it take for you to get your email and social media habits under control?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Seven Strategies to Help You Become a More Creative and Productive Writer

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?

Imagine writing in this environment!

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: “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 these myths, I know 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 conversations about your work

  • You can find ways to incorporate these strategies into your summer writing routine. For example, have you considered writing every morning before connecting to the Internet? Have you tried meditating? Are you using the summer months to catch up on your sleep? Are you enjoying the beach or the mountains this summer? Have you considered taking a walk without your phone in the evenings?

    If you would like some help thinking about how to do all of these things, I incorporate all of these strategies into the Creative Connections writing retreat I co-facilitate every year. If you are interested, we have a few spots left for the June 2020 retreat. Participants find that this retreat is the perfect way to refresh and start their summer.

    The Creative Connections writing retreat for women academics is based on the idea that there are four elements that lead to enhanced creativity: 1) focused writing time; 2) spending time unplugged and in nature; 3) connections via conversations about our work; and 4) meditation and mindfulness activities that enhance focus and allow us to tap into our creative potential.

    This retreat will use a combination of these proven techniques to create a space that not only provides for productivity during this week, but that also teaches participants valuable skills they can use for the remainder of their careers. Producing cutting-edge scholarship requires imaginative and creative abilities and this retreat is designed to maximize creativity and productivity.

    The retreat is already 50% full. If you are interested, apply today to secure your spot.

    Whether or not you are able to join I wish you a creative, productive, and relaxed rest of your summer and look forward to hearing in the comments the ways you use to tap into your creativity.

    Thursday, October 25, 2018

    Why Daily Writing Leads to Productivity

    I began developing my daily writing habit in December 2006 – over ten years ago! Since then, I have written almost every weekday, except for vacations, of course. And, I have written a ton. I also have published a lot.

    In 2006, when I began to write daily, I had two published articles and a dissertation. Today, I have published five sole-authored books, over 50 articles and book chapters, and dozens of blog posts, online essays, and OpEds.

    A few years ago, I wrote a post about how to write every day.

    This post is about why daily writing works.

    I have writing on my calendar every morning. I write for two hours a day most days, and I get in a minimum of 30 minutes of writing on days when my schedule is packed with teaching and/or meetings. I thus write for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of two hours every weekday.

    At the beginning of the week, I decide what writing tasks I will work on, and which days I will focus on which tasks. Sometimes, I have no pressing deadlines. This means I have to think ahead to figure out which writing tasks I should focus on.

    For example, I have an article due November 15. But, my co-author is working on it. I need to wait to hear back from her before I can work on it again. I also have been working on a grant proposal due in January. But, I don’t want to work on it now because I sent a draft to two readers. I am waiting to hear back from them before I get back to revising it. This means I don’t have anything to work on right now that has a deadline in the next couple of months.

    I thus am writing today only because it is a habit – not because I have an upcoming deadline.

    On Sunday evening, I pulled out my task list for the year to see what I can work on.

    I have three pieces due at the end of February 2019. For two of them, I have to wait for co-authors to do their part before I can move forward. But, there is one of them that I can work on. I thus am likely to finish that piece way ahead of schedule. And, that is great because I have two other pieces also due in late February.

    I think this is one of the main reasons daily writing leads to high productivity. If you set aside time to write, you will write regardless of whether or not you have an impending deadline. And, if you wait until you have a deadline to write, you might find that your deadlines are stacked together, making it difficult for you to meet them.

    My preference is to write daily, but the most important thing is that writing becomes a habit. If you set aside two days a week to write and write on those days no matter what, I suspect you would find the same thing – that you write because it’s on your schedule, not because you have a deadline.

    What about you? Have you developed a writing habit? Have you ever found yourself writing even though you don’t have an impending deadline?

    Thursday, May 31, 2018

    How to Restart Your Writing Practice: A Few Ground Rules

    Are you looking for a reset after a long year of teaching? Are you struggling to get back into your writing for the summer?

    Many academics are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted at the end of the academic year. So, the first step is to intentionally take some days off. At a minimum, take the weekend off. And, make sure you have some summer vacation planned, as you will need a real break. I plan a two-week vacation with absolutely no work every year. This year, after my writing retreat, I will spend that vacation in Peru! I hope you are also planning a vacation for yourself this summer.

    Once you are ready to get back to work, one strategy that might work for you is to set some ground rules for yourself to get back into your writing practice. I set ground rules for myself and adjust them according to the season. I find they are helpful to keep me on track with my writing.

    Here are some examples of ground rules for getting your writing done:

    1. No social media before noon on writing days.
    2. Don’t check email until writing is complete.
    3. Complete two hours of writing before doing any other work or household tasks.
    4. Take the weekend completely off.
    5. Get some exercise 3 days a week.
    6. Spend at least one afternoon a week enjoying nature.
    7. Read fiction at least 30 minutes a day.

    You may notice that only one of these sample ground rules is actually about writing. The first two are about what not to do before you write and the last four are about self-care. That is because, in order to ensure you write every day, you also need to take steps to avoid distraction as well as take time to refresh. And, summer is a great time to get back into fiction reading. (I am currently reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - what's on your list?)

    What do you think would be good ground rules for you? What do you need to do to keep up your writing practice this summer?

    If you want to be a super-nerd about this, you can do what I do, which is to create an Excel spreadsheet with your ground rules and give yourself a gold star for each week that you meet all of them.

    Also, keep in mind that it is perfectly fine - even recommended - to change your pace of work during the summer. I talk a bit more about "summer hours" in this post.

    I wish you a productive and relaxing summer – at least for those of you in parts of the world where it is summertime!