Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ten Tips for a Productive Summer*

Summertime is here! For those of us who are not teaching, or who are only teaching for part of the summer, summertime offers weeks or months of unstructured time during which we hope and plan to accomplish great things.

Many of us hope to be as productive as possible during the summer. However, having unstructured time can be a trap that leads to less (not more) productivity. To help you to avoid falling into that trap, here are Ten Tips to make your summer as productive as possible.

Tip #1: Start with a Plan
Start your summer with a set of realistic, concrete, and achievable research goals. For example, “finish book” is a bit too vague. Instead, decide which chapter(s) of your book you will write or revise, and set specific time frames for each task. The tasks should be as clear as possible, with estimates for when you will do them. One example is: “July 1 to 4: Read five articles on transnationalism and incorporate them into the literature review of Chapter Two.”

Tip #2: Write Every Day
Faculty development researchers have found that the key to productivity is writing every weekday for at least one hour. Writing from the first day of the summer will ensure that you don’t wait until the end to start the most important part of your work. While most people are resistant to this idea, daily writing provides you with the opportunity to stay in constant contact with your work and will continually allow you to generate new ideas.

Tip #3: Prioritize Your Writing
The best way to ensure that you will finish your writing projects is to make writing your top priority each day. Too many academics make the mistake of taking care of everyone else’s needs before they attend to the most important part of their work. Don’t let it happen to you.

Tip #4: Tame Your E-mail
Never check email first thing in the morning. Check it only after writing for at least one hour, and limit yourself to a couple of times a day. Remember, it is the summertime, and you are not on call. To remind everyone of this, put an auto-responder on your email that indicates you are on leave for the summer.

Tip #5: Create Support and Accountability
Join a writing support group. These groups can be in the department where your work or study, across disciplines, across town, or online. Writing groups provide vital support and feedback and make the process much more enjoyable. There are many different types of writing groups, and it is important to find the one that suits you best.

Tip #6: Build in Feedback Loops
Decide in advance how many presentations, conferences, and/or guest lectures you will give. One or two per summer are good for sharing your ideas and making sure you are productive, but too many can get in the way of meeting your writing goals. At the beginning of the summer, determine who can read your work and give you critical feedback and let those people know when you will have a draft ready to send to them.

Tip #7: Create Structure in Your Day
Develop a daily routine that works for you. I like to go to the office in the morning, coffee shop in the afternoon, and save reading for home in the evening. Whatever routine works for you and your energetic rhythms is fine, but developing a regular routine will help keep you on track, regularly connecting with others, and out of the house each day.

Tip #8: Know Your Limits
Figure out what your personal limits are. When you are writing and have few other commitments, time can seem limitless. Each of us, however, has limits on the amount of time we can spend each day engaged in intense mental labor. Determining your limits will prevent you from feeling like you are not doing enough while keeping you productive.

Tip #9: Track Your Work
Keep a log of what you do each day and how long it takes you to do it. This sounds a bit neurotic, but if you record that you wrote for an hour, checked email for thirty minutes, then read for 90 minutes, you will feel inclined to limit web surfing, and won’t end up spending ten hours in front of the computer with little to show for it.

Tip #10: Celebrate Your Successes
Reward yourself on a regular basis. Each week that you meet your writing goals, do something nice for yourself – a meal out at your favorite restaurant, a nice bottle of wine, a manicure, a ballgame, a trip to the beach or the mountains, a walk in the park, a visit to the history museum – whatever suits your fancy. You deserve it!

The clearer you are at the outset about your writing goals, and the more pro-actively you work towards creating support and accountability for your writing, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.

*Adapted from this post: Ten Tips for a Productive Post-doctoral Year by Tanya Golash-Boza and Kerry Ann Rockquemore

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Keys to Productivity: Discipline and Self-Confidence

Colleagues often ask me how I am able to publish consistently, to be an effective teacher, and to have a family. I am not sure what the exact answer is to this question, but I think it has a lot to do with two things – discipline and self-esteem. I am a pretty disciplined person when I want to be. And, I have a reasonably high level of self-esteem – at least I do not consistently doubt my own abilities and potential.

To me, it is funny to think of myself as a disciplined person. I was often a troublemaker in school and had to be “disciplined” by authority figures. On the other hand, when I want something, I have always worked for it and gotten it. In high school, I wanted all sorts of things my parents would never buy for me. So, I worked part-time to buy my own Coach bag, designer jeans, brand-name tennis shoes, and to get my hair and nails done. I never did very well in school. But, my last year in high school I decided I would give school a shot and finally earned decent grades. In college, I did miserably my first semester. But, once I decided I wanted to do better in college, I did.

It is also funny to think of myself as disciplined because I am also quite rebellious. I have always done what I want to do. I think, for me, the trick to being disciplined is convincing myself that I am the one who wants to succeed. If I really want something, I do not see it as a sacrifice to work to achieve it. This is important, because I do not like to sacrifice anything.

At this point in my career, being disciplined means that I sit my butt in front of the computer first thing every morning and write for at least one hour. Most mornings, I write for more than an hour. As I write consistently, I have a lot of material to work with, and am constantly sending things out for review. That is how I publish so much.

However, I think that the other element – self-esteem – is equally important. I am not sure why I have high self-esteem. However, I have come to notice that I do not doubt the quality of my work as much as many of my colleagues seem to. Or, at least, I am not that worried about what others might think about my work.

I think that my relative lack of concern over what others think is due to the fact that I have been through a lot in life. I have not had a hard life, but I have had a very full life and have seen a lot – both as a youth in Washington, DC and traveling around the world as a young adult. I spent most of my adolescent years hanging out on the streets in DC – going to clubs where shootings were common, attending friends’ funerals on a consistent basis, seeing the effects of crack cocaine on my neighborhood and on my friends’ parents, and watching many of my friends go to prison. When I was fully immersed in the life of the streets, self-confidence was a tool for survival. If I let my guard down or appeared weak, I was at risk of being jumped or at least being the butt of jokes.

I only spent about five years hanging out on the corner, going to go-go’s, and cruising around DC looking for fun. But, those were formative years – from about 14 to 19 – and many of the lessons I learned there have stayed with me.

Once I decided to focus on college and to leave that life behind, I found myself embarking on a whole different voyage. I began to travel all over the world. I spent a total of four months in Nigeria, a year in England, a year in Paris, and eight months in Lisbon. I also spent seven months traveling around Latin America just before beginning graduate school. By the time I got to graduate school, I felt as though I had lived and learned a lot. I was 25 years old, yet I spoke four languages and had lived on three continents. I saw myself as a person with a lot to contribute to sociological debates, and was not easily convinced otherwise.

The first year in graduate school was hard. It was not the haven of social justice I had imagined and my life experiences were not valued in the way I had expected. But, I made it through the first year and slowly found my allies. The few professors in the department who supported me did so fully and I took their encouragement to heart.

I was not particularly prolific as a graduate student. But, I was reasonably fast – I finished in six years even though I had three kids and did a year of fieldwork in Peru. With one publication on my CV and a half-written dissertation, I was lucky to get a job when and where I did.

Before getting my job, I had already begun to submit articles for consideration at journals. My first year on the tenure track, I began to apply for grants and fellowships. Many people wait until their article is “perfect” or their grant application is “impeccable” before they begin to submit. Not me. I send articles out when I finish them. I send grant and fellowship applications out when the deadline comes around. I am not careless about this; but, I have never let self-doubt get in the way of me submitting something. If I am not sure about the quality of something, I send it to a colleague and ask for honest feedback.

I get rejections – all of the time. But, I have learned that this is part of the process. You write an article; you submit it; it gets rejected; you submit it again; and you repeat this process until it is accepted. The same with grant applications. One of my colleagues just got a very prestigious grant – she told me it was the seventh time she had applied with the very same project. Her fantastic project was rejected six times. Confident it would win one day, she kept applying.

Self-esteem also helps a lot with teaching. I almost never over-prepare for class. I am very fortunate that I teach classes in my field. This means that I am teaching material I know very well. I know this and I know that I do not have to read and re-read tons of background material to prepare for class. Two hours before class begins, I sit down and review and/or revise my lesson plans. Then, I go to class and teach. It works every time.

Being productive, you see, is not necessarily about being brilliant. It has a lot to do with being disciplined enough to sit down and work and self-confident enough to submit your work for publication and/or funding.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Three children and a PhD in six years

I had three kids while I was in graduate school, yet managed to finish my MA thesis and PhD in six years. I think that many of the lessons I learned by being a graduate student with a family continue to be crucial to my success today even though I didn’t exactly plan to have three children before getting my degrees.

I spent the summer after my second year of graduate school with my fiancĂ© in Brazil – learning Portuguese and doing preliminary research on the construction of race in Brazil.

While in Brazil, I found out I was pregnant. Soon after returning to North Carolina to begin my second year of graduate school, I learned that I was pregnant with twins.

My twins were due in March, so I asked my advisor if she could give me a flexible job assignment during the Spring semester. She gently suggested to me that I take the semester off – having twins would be a significant interruption in my life. I had not considered the option of taking a semester off, but decided to ask my mother if I could move in with her for the semester. Taking the semester off meant I would have no income, so I would not be able to afford to pay rent. You see, my fiancĂ© – Nando - was still in South America, waiting to get a visa to come to the United States.

So, I packed up and moved back to my parents’ house in December and got ready for the birth of my twin babies. I took plenty of reading material to prepare for my comprehensive exams (which I never touched). Caring for twin infants turned out to be a lot more work than I expected!

As I was unemployed and uninsured, I was eligible for the state health insurance, so I did not have to worry about the costs associated with the birth of my twins. As a person who strongly believes in universal health care, I was all too happy to have state-financed health care, even if it was just for a few short months. Plus, technically, I paid for it, with all the taxes I have paid over the course of my life.

Nando’s visa finally came through and he arrived in time to witness the birth. Luckily, he also was able to get a job so that we would have money to buy diapers and other essential items for the babies. With generous friends and family, however, we did not have to buy much. When the twins were five months old, in August, we made our way back down to North Carolina, and I began my third year of graduate school.

Nando and I agreed that I would go to school and work each day from 10am to 3pm and that he would stay home with the children. At $1,000 per child for month for daycare, we figured it was better for Nando to stay home and take care of the babies. Plus, we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for our twin daughters to bond with their father.

As I had limited time at school each day, I was very focused and was able to complete nearly all of my work between 10am and 3pm. I often had to catch up on reading in the evenings, but I could do that after the babies went to sleep or on the weekends. I defended my M.A. thesis in the Spring and then began to prepare for my comprehensive exams, which I passed the following year.

For me, having my kids in graduate school had several benefits. Firstly, it meant that I was less likely to fall into an existential crisis. As I clearly divided my time between home and school, I had plenty of time when I barely thought about school and did not allow myself to be consumed with the minor crises and daily drama in graduate school. For me, this continues to be a benefit – I rarely talk about work with my husband or children. This gives me an emotional and mental break from work when I am with them. I think that is a good thing.

Secondly, having children meant that when I was at work, I focused on work and did not allow myself to spend hours chatting in the hallway about random topics or gossiping in the computer lab. Of course, it is crucial to engage in dialogue with your colleagues, but my limited time mean that I was judicious with regard to how much I allowed myself to participate in the hallway conversations. Learning to focus and get my work done in a limited amount of time is a skill that has been useful throughout my career.

If you are an academic woman and are considering having children, I think my story points to a few things you should consider.

1) Do you have a supportive partner and/or community? I have the great fortune of having an extremely supportive partner, family and community. A supportive partner is crucial. However, I also think that single mothers and women with partners with demanding jobs can find ways to make sure they have the time they need to get their work done by building support networks.

2) When you have limited time, are you able to focus and get things done? If you have trouble with this, there is no reason you can’t start practicing now. Make a conscious decision to complete your most important tasks for the day between 8am and noon and then reward yourself with an afternoon off. Being able to focus and get things done in a narrow time frame is crucial for being a successful academic parent.

3) Are you comfortable with seeking out help when and where you need it? Delegating tasks can make life as an academic parent much, much easier. Instead of spending hours verifying your bibliography, are you willing to pay a student to do it? If you really need Saturday mornings to catch up on reading, will you be willing to hire a sitter? Instead of poring over Strunk & White yourself, are you willing to hire a professional editor to get your manuscripts ready for submission?

4) Do you have the option of taking some time off or greatly reducing your workload when your baby is born? Having a baby is a tremendous task. Your body needs time to recuperate after the baby is born and it will be months before you get enough sleep. The good news is that all of this is temporary. Nevertheless, the whole process will be much easier if you can take at least three months off after the baby is born. As academics, many of us have the luxury of taking eight months off – if you take off a semester, you also have the summer before or after it. If that is a possibility for you, I highly recommend it.

After my twins were born, I went on to have my third child while I was conducting dissertation fieldwork. But, that is another story!