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, academia.edu 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.

If you found this post helpful and are considering purchasing Scrivener, please consider doing so through the following link!

Buy Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Education Licence)

The Experience that All Researchers Share

There are few things more depressing than thinking of a great idea for a book, doing enough research to be sure that no one has written a book like it in 100 years, and then discovering a book that you didn’t see before that looks to be more or less the same as the book you want to write.

Your heart sinks, and you convince yourself that you’ll find your original idea someday.

But THEN, when you read the introduction to the book you just found, you see on the first page the words “secret brotherhood” and “Jesus.”

That’s when you know that you have discovered a book written by a crazy person.

That’s when you get back to work on your own book.

Obligatory “Most Popular Posts of 2013” Post

Another year in the bank (almost). And that means that it’s time again to look back and see why people continue to wander to this blog that (let’s be honest) has seen better years. So without delay, I give you some of the most posts of 2013, none of which were written in 2013.

  1. Using Scrivener with Bibliographic Software — This is the single most read post on this blog, receiving more hits per day than every other post in this list combined. “Scrivener“, for the uninitiated, is one of the greatest pieces of word processing software in existence. Without it, I would still be stuck in the drafting stages of my dissertation. If writing is a part of your livelihood, you need to take a look at Scrivener. This post was intended for academic authors (like me) who use Scrivener in conjunction with bibliographic software. The title is somewhat deceptive, I suppose, as the only bibliographic software I talk about in the post is Bookends, another “must-have” for (mac-using) academic authors. I hope that the amount of traffic to this post means that people have found it useful!
  2. Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness — In second place we have an entirely non-original post from almost three years ago. So far as I can tell, the reason this post is so popular is that 1) the image I have posted is one of the higher quality ones out there and 2) a few people “pinned” this post, causing it to shoot up the ranks in Google image search. Click on the link above if you have no idea who Ron Swanson is or why you should care about his pyramid of greatness.
  3. The Shadow of the Galilean (Review) — This post receives pretty insignificant traffic for most of the year, but it peaks toward the middle and end of the fall and spring semesters (when papers are due). I think I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before. My guess is that I am not the only one who assigns it for reading in a college-level New Testament class.
  4. Why Writing a Dissertation is Harder than Having a Baby — Like post #2 (above), the content of this entry is also largely not my own work. I posted this in the fall of 2010, just over a year after entering the doctoral program at Marquette. Since that time, I have written a dissertation and watched my wife give birth. I continue to find the post amusing, but I now question the accuracy of its central claim.
  5. How to Write a Paper Proposal — This is the oldest post on this list, written in the summer of 2010. As the title implies, it’s about how to write a paper proposal. I’m not entirely sure that I was qualified in 2010 to write a post like this. Truth be told, I still have some doubts. I leave it up because about once per month I receive a kind e-mail from a stranger telling me that they’ve had a paper accepted at a professional conference and that they used this post as a guide. To me, the central points in it are 1) be bold, 2) be clear, and 3) be concise. Come to think of it, those are pretty good pieces of advice for graduate students in general.
  6. Dissertations, Fonts, and Wasting Time — And finally, a post about one of the greatest time-wasters that continues to taunt ranks of graduate students like myself: choosing a font. This post was written almost exactly two weeks before I began writing my dissertation (I know that because I wrote it on the day before my daughter was born). It originated as a sort of “aha moment”/confessional. You see, I love fonts, and at several points during my graduate career I became convinced that most people cared as much about fonts as I do. Hence, I spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over which typeface to use for which paper. Does Garamond seem to flashy? Does Gentium Greek go well with Palatino Roman? Ugh. I remain convinced by the wisdom offered at the end of the post: nobody cares. The ironic thing is that people who find this post typically do so with search strings like “what is the best font for a dissertation” or “most impressive dissertation font.” As long as it looks nice (i.e., isn’t too big and has serifs), it just doesn’t matter. You will note that when I spoke of my love for fonts earlier I did so in the present tense (“I love fonts”). You see, I continue to live with my addiction. I still love fonts and I will, on occasion, allow myself to indulge. But then I snap back to the mantra that I used to overcome my tormenter: “Do your work. Don’t be stupid.”

Thanks as always for reading, and best wishes to you and yours in this new year.

Word Goals (What Are They Good For?)

…absolutely nothing? Yes and no.

In a previous post I mentioned that I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, a piece of software that was originally designed for novelists and playwrights. I have used it exclusively over the past 1.5 years of dissertation writing, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could not have written as much as I have without it.

There are many reasons to use software like Scrivener for longer writing projects. One of these is that it allows you to set a word goal and due date for your project. After you have done so, it tells you how many words you must type each day in order to reach your target on or by your deadline. If you write less one day, the daily word goal increases slightly. If you write more, it decreases. As you come closer to your goal, the status bar changes from red to orange and, finally, to a lovely shade of green. This is what popped up as I was writing yesterday:

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM

It was accompanied by a simple message: “Your project target has been reached.” I paused, overcome with joy. After 1.5 years or so, I had finally reached my goal of 65,000 words (which does not include footnotes — I’m actually closer to 90,000 if you include those). My (almost) daily diligence had paid off, and I had finally arrived. I had written a dissertation.

Then reality hit. Had I actually written a dissertation? Not really. I had written something that was as long as a dissertation, but my dissertation wasn’t finished…not by a long shot.

As I watched the status bar turn greener and greener over the past few months, I convinced myself that it was actually telling me something about my progress. That is, I came to believe that the bar would finally reach its telos as I typed the final sentence of my conclusion, and that when it did, I would be done. But this isn’t what happened. I actually hit my project target while I was in the middle of touching up a fairly insignificant paragraph in chapter 3, and I haven’t even started writing my conclusion yet. And I still have to write a section of chapter 1, not to mention go back through and edit the sucker. There is much left to be done.

But I have not lost total faith in Scrivener’s project target feature. I have simply come to think about it differently.

It is extremely helpful for those of us who have difficulty thinking in terms of page counts, and who prefer to break up larger projects into more manageable chunks. By allowing you to stipulate a word goal and deadline for your project, the target feature encourages you to see your project as something that you are going to work toward gradually.

Too often, graduate students set bad goals for themselves: “Today, I need to write 20 pages,” or “Today, I need to write.” The former is unreasonable (for most of us) and the latter is amorphous (are you just going to write until you pass out?). It’s really not all that surprising that so many of us experience writer’s block and/or burnout.

With Scrivener’s project target feature, what you get is a daily goal that (assuming you have set a reasonable deadline for yourself) is manageable and typically on the short side. Over the past 1.5 years, my daily  goal has fluctuated between 200 and 500 words, depending on the deadline I had set (this changed at several points in the process). That’s about 1-2 pages a day. Couple that with writing 3-4 days per week (every week) and you’ve easily got 300 pages in a year.

In sum, the project target is deceiving if you think of it in terms of “this many more words until I’m finished.” If you simply stop writing as soon as you hit your target, you are likely going to end up with some lacunae (maybe this is why the Gospel of Mark ends so abruptly?). But it is invaluable as a time management tool, a rough guide that will help you see how much you need to accomplish each day in order to stay more or less on track.

Now, back to work.

 

Why I “Loeb” the Salzmann Library

Lately I’m a bit obsessed with the Loeb Classical Library. There, I said it. For the “uninitiated,” the LCL is a collection of texts spanning about 1,000 years (from Homer to Bede). Each volume contains a citable Greek or Latin text with an accompanying English translation. For students of ancient history, it is an indispensable resource. As each of the exegetical chapters of my dissertation necessitates some engagement with classical Greek and Roman authors, I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year pouring through the Loebs.

I’m fairly certain that the Raynor Library at Marquette has most if not all of the volumes of the LCL. The only problem is that their collection is that it is spread over 5 floors of other books: the Iliad and Odyssey are with works pertaining to Homer; Herodotus’ Histories is located with other comparable ancient works; and (for reasons I have yet to understand) Strabo’s Geography exists alongside books related to travel in modern Greece. Because they are classified according to the Library of Congress rubric, the distribution of the Loebs in Raynor makes sense. But for those of us who need access to various different volumes of the collection at once, a great number of stairs and hunting through stacks awaits.

Enter the Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. Located about 10 minutes south of Milwaukee, Salzmann is a quaint place, just far enough off the beaten path that it doesn’t attract droves of patrons (at least not that I’ve seen in my limited time there). It has a friendly and helpful staff, a respectable reference collection, some journals, and a fantastic reading/study space (with large windows, which is a nice change of pace from my dark cell at Marquette).

But the main reason that the Salzmann library is awesome (at least from my current perspective) is summed up in the following picture:

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That’s right: the Loeb Classical Library, organized according to author, all in one place. Beautiful, no? Now, instead of trekking throughout the Raynor library in search of the volume(s) that I need, all I have to do is saunter over to this shelf, take a volume, and go back to my workspace. The other day I was able to consult 10-15 different volumes, and I didn’t even have to look them up in the catalogue! As I am nearing the point where I will need to go back through all my citations to make sure I’ve gotten the translations and references right, this resource alone is going to save me days if not weeks worth of time.

Thank you, Salzmann!

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.