Using Timers for Productivity

One of my favorite bits of culture from The Office is the Wuphf, an initiative spearheaded by the great Ryan Howard. What Wuphf allows you to do is link all of your communication devices so that when one receives a message, they are all notified. The keepers of one Office Wiki describe Wuphf as follows:

If you send a Wuphf, the message goes to the recipient’s home phone, cell phone, email, Facebook, twitter, fax and homescreen at the same time, the idea being that if someone has a really important message they can send a Wuphf and know the recipient will receive it quickly.

I chuckle when I think about the Wuphf because it isn’t that far from reality. When I receive a text message, for example, my phone buzzes, my iPad lights up, and my laptop pings. It’s utterly obnoxious.

But even aside from the synchronized alert phenomenon (which I could turn off if I really wanted to), all of us are bombarded throughout the day by various sources of distraction that vie constantly for our attention: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, alerts, the occasional phone call (does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?), etc.

Some days, the amount of activity on the screens in my office makes it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. Some days, I can’t read, write, grade, or answer e-mails for more than one minute without being beckoned into another medium. On these types of days I find it helpful to do what I think of as a hard reboot – focus on one task, and only one task, for a manageable amount of time.

I accomplish this by using a simple timer app on my laptop. I like the Alinof timer because it is free and no frills, but really any timer will work. I choose a task for myself, be it writing, reading, grading, cleaning my office or answering e-mails, and I set my timer for 20 minutes and turn off alerts on all my devices. Until that timer sounds, I do not allow myself to do anything else outside of the task I assigned myself.

(This method is of course similar in many ways to the Pomodoro Technique, in which you divide your work into short chunks of time that are separated by scheduled breaks. The chief difference, at least for me, is that this is something I do only when I reach a point of desperation. Those who use Pomodoro tend to view it as a way of structuring all of their work time. I know several people for whom that works well, but it doesn’t work for me.)

As it turns out, you can accomplish quite a lot in 20 minutes. Assuming you keep a handle on the number of e-mails in your inbox (for me it’s a compulsion), 20 minutes is enough time to get your inbox to zero. It’s also enough to write a blog post or a page on that project you keep neglecting, grade a handful of essays, or organize your desk. When the timer sounds, I am often so pleased with what I’ve accomplished that I will set it again and keep going on whatever task I was working on. And after a few of these cycles, I typically find that I am much more focused, so much so that I eventually forget to reset the timer.

Using Scrivener to Write a Dissertation – Why I’m Glad I Did and What I Would do Differently Next Time

My younger colleagues often ask me for dissertation advice. How do you keep your research and notes straight? How do you structure and restructure your argument? How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis? How do you do all of this without losing your precious sanity? Regardless of which question I am being asked, my response almost always involves a common refrain: Scrivener.

Developed initially for novelists and other creative types, Scrivener is writing software that has earned quite the following in the academic community. In this post I would like to outline why I chose to use it while writing my dissertation, why I am glad that I did, and what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.

[N.B. — Initially designed for Mac, Scrivener is currently available for Mac and Windows. Everything in this post is in reference to the Mac version. I have never used Scrivener for Windows.]

Why did I choose Scrivener initially?

A fellow graduate student introduced me to Scrivener years ago. I will confess that while he was explaining several of its features, I found myself wondering why he was so excited. How could this software be useful to ME, someone responsible for writing serious and scholarly things? I already had Microsoft Word, and it had brought me through college and two masters degrees, right? So what, I asked, was the point? I concluded (hastily, in hindsight) that it should be placed alongside font selection as one more way that graduate students could procrastinate while still appearing productive.

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About two years later and after several other encounters with devotees of the software, I passed my comprehensive exams and jumped headfirst into the dissertation. And because I was a graduate student, I also began to search for clever and efficient ways to procrastinate: I started printing out test pages to determine which font I was going to use; I began experimenting with alternative/therapeutic lighting schemes and furniture/book arrangements in my study; I discovered that not all note-taking paper is created equal; and I learned that Microsoft Word is neither the only nor the best word processor for long, book-length documents. Realizing that I was deceiving myself into thinking that such pursuits were good uses of my precious time, I devoted one day—and one day only—to figuring out which font, paper, and word processing software I was going to use.

I downloaded a few options to start with: Nisus, Mellel, Bean, LaTex (which I never did figure out). After toying around with these a bit, I remembered Scrivener. I’m not sure why, but when I opened up the software for the first time something about it just clicked with me. Perhaps it was because I found the programs I had looked at thus far to be downright clunky, but Scrivener’s user interface struck me immediately as clean, well organized, and intuitive in many ways. After about an hour with it I was hooked; I took a few of the tutorials and had a detailed outline set up in no time. So yes—ironically, what began as an attempt to procrastinate ended up yielding what I now consider to be the single most important tool in my toolbox.

Why am I glad that I chose Scrivener?

Anyone who uses Scrivener on a regular basis has an opinion regarding its most useful components. Below are three of the features of Scrivener that I found to be the most helpful in the process of writing a dissertation. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

1) Outlining — One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to in Scrivener is the “binder” that is situated to the left of the text input window. The binder is divided initially into three sections: draft, research, and trash. The draft and research sections allowScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.58.21 PM you to create outlines to guide you in the process of writing and research. These can be about as detailed or broad as you want.

The outlines you create are actually systems of tiered text files. So, let’s say you make an outline for “Chapter 1.” Under this broad rubric you construct five headings, and under each of these headings you create three subheadings. The benefit of this—aside from more or less requiring you to outline your project before you start writing it—is that the system of text files allows you to skip quickly from one section to another, which helps move you away from thinking of the whole thing in strictly linear terms. Most of us don’t think in straight lines from start to finish, yet the expectation (for whatever reason) is that we need to write this way. No wonder the experience of staring at a blank page is such a common one!

Scrivener’s outlining feature certainly does not eliminate writer’s block, but it does remind you that your larger project is made up of individual components, and that you don’t necessarily have to work on them in order. In fact, the whole thing may move along more quickly if you don’t work on them in order!

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2) Automatic Writing Goals — If you know roughly how long your project should be, and you know when you want to have it completed by, Scrivener can help you figure out how many words per day you need to write every day in order to reach your goal on time. I am aware of no other program on the market that has a feature like this.

I knew that my dissertation needed to be around 65,000 words, not including footnotes, and I also knew that I wanted to finish writing it in one year (that didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). So I opened up Project Targets, entered my figures, told Scrivener to Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM“automatically calculate from draft deadline,” selected the days on which I planned to write, and that’s it. Turns out that if you want to write 65,000 words in one year, and you only want to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you can accomplish your goal by writing 414 words per day. If you set a more aggressive schedule, i.e., write on every day of the work week, that figure drops to 249 words per day. Either of these is entirely manageable and a lot easier than sitting down every day not knowing if you are ahead or behind. If you get inspired one day and write more than you are supposed to, Scrivener will update your goals so that you will write less the next time. Alternately, if you take a week off of writing, Scrivener will have you write a few more words to catch up.

This feature was valuable to me because it showed me that the only way to complete long writing projects is one piece at a time. And it reminded me throughout the process that regardless of how small an accomplishment it seemed at the time, writing 400 words was in fact bringing me closer to my ultimate goal, namely, finishing.

3) Design and Stability — One of the first things that really struck me about Scrivener was just how smart the layout is. It’s clear that the software was designed, from start to finish, by people who could imagine themselves using it on a regular basis. Nearly every aspect of the user interface, from the layout of the toolbar to the color of your backgrounds, can be easily customized to fit your own needs and preferences.Like any software, there are some learning curves. But if you are willing to spend a little bit of time working through the tutorials that come packaged with it, you will figure things out quickly.

One final point of praise, related to design, is that Scrivener is a remarkably stable program. In the two years that I spent using it to write my dissertation, it NEVER CRASHED ONCE. Anyone who uses Word will marvel at that last sentence. Go ahead. Marvel. I imagine there are ways to crash Scrivener—the point is that you are going to have to work at it. Even if you did crash it, however, Scrivener automatically saves your work every two seconds. So even in the unlikely event that you throw more at it than it can catch, odds are you will lose maybe a total of five words.

What would I do differently next time?

By now you can tell that I’m a huge fan of this software. I could certainly have written a dissertation without it, but the task would have been much more arduous. To close out this post, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what I would do differently next time. While I will never (ever) have to write another dissertation, I have recently started work on another project in Scrivener that should keep me entertained for at least the next year. So what am I doing differently now?

1) Use the research section of the binder more — Scrivener is first and foremost a writing tool. But it also sports a number of features that can help you organize the nuts and bolts of your project. One of these is the research section of the binder (mentioned above). This section can support pretty much any sort of file that you can imagine. In the project I’m working on currently I am keeping images and article .pdfs in the research section as well as outlines and notes. Scrivener’s split screen mode makes switching between your writing window and .pdf viewer unnecessary; you can have both open at once. While I am still using bibliography software for citations, I’ve found that using the research section is helping me stay more organized.

2) Take more snapshots — A snapshot enables you to save a version of your project that you can later go back and compare against newer versions. It is similar in many ways to Word’s “track changes” feature, though more smoothly executed (surprised?). I knew that this feature existed when I started using Scrivener, but I didn’t start using it until I was Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.00.18 PMfinishing the final chapter and beginning to edit. To be sure, the editing phase is the point at which snapshots are most valuable; if you find that you were a bit too zealous in your cutting, you can always go back and retrieve what you have chopped out.

In the project I am working on right now, the first thing I do EVERY TIME I open the file is take a snapshot. It takes seconds, and I have peace of mind knowing that there is a limit to how bad I can screw things up if I’m having a bad/off day.


3) Use the scratch pad. This is a feature that I rarely spend time telling others about because I don’t think all that many people would understand the idea behind it. The scratch pad is tucked away in Scrivener’s “window” menu (I think it is also possible to assign a keyboard shortcut that will open it). When you select it, a little text entry window appears. In this window you can do some free writing, record a stray thought that may have entered your mind, or sketch an idea you have about reorganizing a chapter, etc. You could use it to write out a grocery list if you want.

What the scratch pad does is give you a blank document quickly, before you have to waste a whole lot of time deciding where to type whatever might be on your mind. It’s akin in many ways to keeping an index card and a pen with you at all times, just in case something pops into your mind and you don’t want to forget it.

What makes the scratch pad different from all other text entry windows (as I understand things) is that the text you enter in it isn’t really linked to any project in particular. If you have a Scrivener file set up for your dissertation, another for your blog, and another for, say, teaching resources, all of these would share a scratch pad. So, if you are in your dissertation and open the scratch pad to make a few notes, those notes will be there when you open up the scratch pad while you are working on your blog. I use this feature when I am in the middle of writing for one project but have a thought related to another; the scratch pad lets me record that thought quickly without worrying about getting too sidetracked or forgetting where I put the note to myself.

At the end of the day, being a successful writer, i.e., completing what you set out to write without losing your mind, is as much about having the determination to sit in one place for long periods of time as it is about anything else. But coupling this determination with the right tools can make your task a little more pleasant.

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On Rabbit Holes and Writing Styles

There are two ways of writing a dissertation, broadly speaking. The first is to do all of the research that you will need to do before you even think about putting pen to paper: outline your argument, cover your bases, and then begin. The second is to start writing before you have completed your research: get a sense of where you’re going, be ready to change your mind, and write what you can when you can. Each approach has significant benefits and drawbacks.

With the first, the benefit is that you have charted a more or less clear path through the argument you’re going to be making. You know where you’re headed, who has been there before, and the path you’re going to take to get there. At least in theory, this approach makes the writing itself easier. The drawback to this approach is that it allows you to postpone the writing process indefinitely in favor of more research and reconceptualizing (a fancy term for procrastination). That is, if you’ve decided to do all the research before you begin writing, it is difficult to tell when enough is enough.

With the second approach, you discover much about where you’re headed while you’re on your way. You know where you want to go, and you have a vague idea of what the path you’re going to take looks like (or at least what you want it to look like). But because you are granting that you will uncover many things in the course of your writing, the second approach requires a degree of flexibility. And therein lies the drawback: you have to be willing to change your mind or alter your course after you’ve already begun.

Regardless of which approach you choose (I myself prefer the second), you will at some point encounter the phenomenon that some refer to as the “rabbit hole.” The rabbit hole is comparable to discovering a loose thread on a sweater. You see the thread and you pull it. Sometimes it will be an inch long, and you can remove it without difficulty and forget about it. Other times, it is much longer, and continuing to pull at it will undoubtedly destroy a portion of your sweater (if not the entire garment).

The same is true for rabbit holes. When you see such a hole, you have no idea how long the tunnel behind it is or where it leads. The only way of determining the nature of a rabbit hole is to dive in and take a look. You may discover that it leads nowhere, that it is little more than a shallow crevice. Or, you might find yourself in a veritable maze of new, unexplored territory. The question, of course, is whether to include what you find in your dissertation, to save it for another venue (an article, presentation, etc.), or to simply ignore it (not a smart choice).

Rabbit holes can be frustrating for a number of reasons. If the material you discover is relevant to your topic, then you have to make time (and space) to incorporate it. If it contradicts something you’ve already said (or planned on saying) then you may have to defend or alter your position. If it is truly interesting but simultaneously irrelevant to what you’re trying to say, you might have to find another outlet for it. To be sure, resisting the temptation to “say it all” is a challenge that all dissertating students share.

But rabbit holes can also be invigorating. If you are researching a topic in order to confirm a hunch (or a “thesis,” if we are being fancy), then you may uncover material that confirms your hunch in a way that you didn’t expect.  That is, you might uncover a path to your desired location that is different from and perhaps better than that which you intended. If this is the case, the challenge becomes determining what to do with the path you’ve already charted. Does it continue to exist as an alternate, albeit less-desirable route (i.e., in footnotes), or does it simply fall by the wayside? The latter of these two options is painful, to say the least, as it involves essentially trashing what may amount to weeks (or months!) of research. Yet even paths that end up being “less good” are valuable in the grand scheme of things, as we learn much from the roads we travel, regardless of whether they end up being the most efficient.

Qualifying Exams as Boot Camp

Preparing to take one’s doctoral qualifying exams is a unique experience for the graduate student. I’m not sure what these exams are like for students in the sciences, but for the humanities, the amount of reading involved is grueling. In the theology department at Marquette, the examinee compiles five separate bibliographies with five separate professors. The bibliographies typically range in length from 1-3 (single-spaced) pages, including a nice mixture of articles and books. I once heard from a fellow student in the department that each bibliography was supposed to include roughly 1,500-2,000 pages of text. I never bothered to count the pages in my bibliographies, but this estimate seems accurate.

Opinions are varied with respect to the ultimate goal of qualifying exams. Some will say that they afford you the opportunity to synthesize material from your coursework, while others will say that they allow you to demonstrate your mastery of the field. Some will say that they provide one final chance for your professors to put you through the ringer (before the dissertation defense, of course). I would argue that they do all of these things.

Preparing for qualifying exams has an additional function which can only be seen in hindsight: the process trains you to write a dissertation.

Graduate-level coursework teaches you (or at least should teach you) how to compile sources. After you have chosen a topic for your term paper or research project, you journey to the library and begin sifting through the sources with which you need to be in dialogue. When you begin reading these sources, you ultimately encounter more sources that you add to your list. This skill is of course invaluable when constructing bibliographies for the qualifying exams. Yet, the knowledge of how to put together a bibliography does not necessarily translate into the knowledge of how to read a bibliography. When I first began studying for exams, I was confident that I knew how to read. After a few weeks, I realized that I was mistaken. I knew how to make sense of words on a page (obviously), but I had yet to master the type of reading required for writing a dissertation (or taking qualifying exams). That is, I had yet to learn that it is impossible to read every word of every book or article that you’re going to reference. The key is learning how to make your way through a text efficiently, gleaning the relevant points and leaving aside the “fluff.” There are certainly some texts that require closer reading than others. Many, however, demand little more than a cursory overview (on this point, see Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book). Because you are subject to a deadline while preparing for your exams (assuming you set a deadline for yourself), this type of reading emerges from the sheer force of necessity.

Preparing for qualifying exams also teaches one how to take and organize notes. Graduate coursework introduces one to this rudimentary skill, but the qualifying exams sharpen it. When you are dealing with roughly 10,000 pages of text, you have no choice but to get and stay organized. Sink or swim, I suppose. Only when I began studying for my exams did I realize how awful and disorganized my note taking and organizational skills were. The problem was that I began each semester of coursework with a different “strategy” for staying organized. I tried three ring binders, legal pads, word files, etc. Nothing really seemed to work. In the process of studying for exams, I realized that I needed to pick a method and stick with it. I gradually moved toward a system that worked for what I was doing. I made a folder for each of my “topics,” and everything related to those topics went into it’s proper folder: articles, notes, observations, question drafts and the like. I still use the system for organizing my dissertation chapters: each chapter gets a folder.

Preparing for qualifying exams also helps you learn how to get words on a page. This last point I suppose varies with the student. When I was studying for exams, I spent at least an hour a day practicing writing. I knew that in the end I was going to have to sit, by myself, in front of a computer for two full (six-hour) days, without notes, and produce something intelligible and (mildly) intelligent. My daily writing practice involved choosing a random topic on which to ruminate by writing. The topic didn’t really matter. Sometimes it was as broad as, “Give an overview of the current status of biblical studies as it relates to Christian ethics.” Other times it was as specific as, “Compare and contrast the viewpoints of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on Christology.” (Ok, so I never wrote on the latter topic, but you get the point.) The goal was not to produce polished prose, but rather to begin synthesizing the material I had read and what I already knew from previous work. It was somewhat akin to “free writing.” The result was often less than stellar (I feel confident that no one will ever take interest in my practice writing sessions). All the same, at the end of an hour-long practice writing session, I often had 5-7 pages of text that I could reread, learn from, and often expand. Sometimes, you may even stumble upon an insight not previously seen.

I began work on the dissertation not long after I passed my exams, and I was shocked to see how much my work flow had changed. I never thought of my studying as some sort of habit-building activity, but this is precisely what it turned out to be. If you are entering the qualifying exam portion of your graduate career, you are embarking on a journey about which you will have mixed feelings. Part of the journey is obviously learning the material you have been assigned. An equally important part, however, is learning how to perform efficiently the craft of scholarship. You don’t have to love the journey, but you would be crazy not to learn from it!

Pumping a Dry Well

Every writer I’ve ever spoken with has experienced times in which they feel as if they have nothing to say. Writer’s block, they call it. The vision is there – you know what you want to write, but for some reason, the words just won’t jump out of your brain onto the page.

I once read a book that outlined a few possible causes of writer’s block. One of them was perfectionism, the feeling that you needed to get every syllable “right” before moving on. Writers who suffer from perfectionism write slowly because they feel as if writing an imperfect sentence is somehow a betrayal of the craft. I myself do not suffer from this. I tend to just sit down and get as much on the page as possible, knowing that the editing process will afford me an opportunity to fix things later. Another cause of writer’s block, according this particular author, was a lack of research and/or understanding of the subject on which you’re writing. That is, you feel like you have nothing to say because you actually have nothing to say. The remedy for this is simple: you take a few days, read as much as you can, and then return to writing.

I am currently suffering from writer’s block, and it is unbelievably frustrating. What is truly frustrating is that I am neither a perfectionist nor one who suffers from lack of research (at least not in this case). Earlier today, my wife offered what seems like some good advice: take a break. I shall let you know how this turns out.

Pacing vs. Sprinting

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons I love Scrivener is that it assists you in formulating writing goals. You input your target word count, due date, and how many days per week you want to write, and the software takes care of the rest. My project targets window currently looks like this (I’ve yet to write anything today obviously):

One of the entertaining things about this feature is that it will automatically recalculate your daily word goal if you write too little one day or too much the next day. Last Friday, I had a tremendously productive writing day – I surpassed my word goal by three times. I giggled with delight as I opened the window the next day and saw that my feat of strength had shaved off 8 words per day off my daily word goal.

Nice, right?

In a way, it is nice, but I’ve begun to realize lately that (for me) the benefits of a steady pace far outweigh those of occasional sprints. The occasional sprint is of course a nice way to make you feel as if you’re really plowing through your material. It makes you think that you are getting somewhere. However, the occasional sprint can also leave you fatigued and without much steam for your next writing session.

I imagine that most people do not sit down to write their dissertations having already done all the research. True, you know a general direction for your project, and you might have already collected the requisite pieces, but you are likely going to assemble them along the way. You read, you take notes, you outline, and then you write. Failure to strike a balance between these four things can I think lead to a certain level of despair. On the one hand, if all you do is read and take notes, then you will feel as if your research is not really taking you anywhere. Yet, without reading, you can only outline and write so much. On the other hand, if you write too much without making sure your research and outlining are keeping up, then you reach the dreaded writer’s block.

The feeling of not having anything to say is indeed a nasty feeling, especially when you’re talking about your dissertation. Balancing your research and writing in such a way that you always have something to write on is a skill we would all do well to learn, and maintaining a steady pace in your writing is I think the first step.

Location, Location, Location

This post is not so much about writing per se, but about the location in which one feels most comfortable writing.

Over the past few months I’ve read a couple of books on the topic of dissertating and writing in general. One of these books (I can’t remember which), suggested that you carve out a specific spot for your writing, be this on the couch, desk, coffee shop, etc. The familiar surroundings, this author argued, can help to send your brain into “writing mode.” This is not unlike the advice often given to insomniacs: “Train yourself to sleep in your bed by not doing anything else there – don’t eat, drink, read, journal, etc.”

When I first started graduate school, I needed to be in some sort of public place in order to get any work done (generally a coffee shop). Working from home was absolutely impossible — too many distractions, I’m sure — and the library was only somewhat helpful. When I sat down with my cup of coffee, however, things started moving. This more or less continued for years.

Last summer, something about my work habits changed. I was in the middle of studying for qualifying exams, and out of sheer force of necessity, I needed to learn how to study and write anywhere. I needed to work every day for around 6-8 hours, and I could simply not afford (financially) to spend all of that time in the coffee shop. After a couple of weeks, I found myself dividing time between home, the coffee shop, and my research carrel at school. Surprisingly, I found that my productivity in all of those places was starting to increase.

I’ve continued to divide my time between home, the library, and the occasional coffee shop. In the past few months I’ve advised the younger graduate students in our program to learn how to work everywhere, and to not convince themselves that they “can’t get anything done at home.” Being able to work anywhere, I think, saves you time in the long run (i.e. you don’t need to go to the coffee shop if you find yourself with two free hours on a Saturday).

I’m of course sure that this is not universally good advice, and I’m curious to hear what others think.

Do you find that limiting your work space to one location enhances your focus or do you work well in multiple spaces?