Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Tales from the DPhil, Part One: Tips for Better Living and Working

Hello blog,

Last term, I somehow made the leap from Second-Year Slump levels of motivation and high levels of procrastination, stress, and anxiety (chiefly centred on writing) to high levels of motivation and writing.  Hence, I thought I'd write a bit about the life, working, and writing strategies that helped me out in the hope that perhaps they might help you, too.

This is Part One: Living and Working.  Tomorrow: Part Two: Writing the Thesis Like a Novel.

1.  Get a good night's sleep.  I suffered from some terribly off-kilter sleeping patterns over the Christmas vacation.  There were a few mornings I didn't get to sleep until 7 am.  This was not good for my productivity.

When I finally forced myself to wake up at 6:45 am, I discovered I was much more productive.  The days seemed so full of possibilities and I really got excited about tackling my work.  It's much better to find yourself at lunchtime with a few hours' of work under your belt than to have nothing at all.  Also, I quite like working on my novel over breakfast and coffee for my first working hour of the day.  This allows me to dedicate time to my novel revisions without feeling like I'm stealing time from my thesis.  If I put the novel off, I know I probably won't work on it later in the day.

2.  Find or create the conditions that will allow you to be productive.  I've realised over the past year or so that working at home isn't actually the best for me.  There are so many possibilities for distraction.  The internet.  The dishes.  A nap?  Last term, I discovered three ways to make my working day much more productive.

a)  I solved the internet problem (mostly) by using the Firefox add-on Leechblock, in which you can list the URLs of sites that you know you waste time on and block yourself from accessing them at certain times.  At the moment, I'm not allowing myself access to any social media, the Guardian website, YouTube, or my favourite blogs between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm on week days.  I've also prevented myself from accessing the settings in a way which I don't (yet) know how to disable.  (I could, of course, still go on Twitter on Tim's computer or my phone, but that would require more effort.)

b)  I found a great place at school to work.  The English Faculty has a newish graduate work space which is perfect - just tables in a light, bright room and an almost non-existent wireless signal.  Also, often other graduate students are working in there, which allows for much needed human interaction.  And, because it is purely a space in which to do work, my perception of my work day is much different.  At home, it can be a struggle to log the hours I'm aiming for, especially with the temptation to take breaks or a nap.  At school, however, I can be happy working away for hours with minimal breaks because that's precisely what I'm there to do.  I don't even watch the clock that much.  I work until 5:30 or 6 and then I go home.

c)  I can do this because this is a space I can work in while snacking.  I used to work at home more because I wanted access to food and drink (there is no eating in Oxford libraries).  I can snack away or eat lunch in this work room, however, and it's changed my working experience hugely.  Before, if I sat down to work in a library, I would often almost instantly become hungry, which was incredibly distracting.  I've cut many a work day short in order to go home to eat something. Not a problem when I can eat while working.

3.  Allow yourself guilt-free time off.  When I was struggling (and failing) to meet the hours quota I set myself each day/week, I felt like I was always potentially supposed to be working (unless I was on an actual vacation).  This is stressful!  You (and I) need breaks that don't involve the thesis perpetually nudging your subconscious.  Since Tim has a regular, full-time job now, I also felt it would be really nice if I also had (mostly) work-free evenings and weekend.  After a vacation slump (due to the disappearance of the term schedule), I'm back to full productivity levels, which means that I can actually have evenings to myself, guilt-free.  (Confession: sometimes I'll have half an hour or hour of work to do, but since that often involves reading Victorian novels, that's fine).  It's actually strange not to need to work.  I find I don't quite know what to do with myself.

Tomorrow, I will share with you the secret of Writing the Thesis Like a Novel.  It involves word counts.  And happier thesis writing and revision.

Reader, if you are in a commenting mood, how, when, and where do you best work?


  1. These are excellent tips! I've also been struggling with how best to manage the feeling of "I SHOULD be working" that seems to pervade every waking (sometimes not even waking) minute. One thing I've found helpful, too, is in keeping track of how many hours I work in a week so that I can feel like I've done "enough" - compared to a regular work week. Even so, your grad student work space sounds lovely and I'm a bit envious.

    1. Hi Catherine, I remember you posted on Twitter awhile back about trying out hours tracking. I'm glad it's working for you! And I agree, if you didn't have a standard to measure your graduate work against, you could theoretically feel the need to work ALL THE TIME.

      It's nice to have done "enough" - enough writing, enough work hours. Very liberating.

  2. Yes, these are great tips Erin!
    I'm also finding that mornings are my most productive time, and trying to channel them better.
    Also, Tim has a job! Congrats, Tim!

    1. Thanks, Alison. I quite like mornings, though I find I seem to work best in the afternoon (say, 11 am to 6ish). But it's nice to get the novel out of the way and some thesis work before lunch.

      And Tim does indeed have a job. Has since last August - he's doing IT work for the Dept. of Continuing Education here.

  3. Personal accounts of figuring out strategies make me feel better about my own iffy ones - if other people figured them out, I can too!

    Work space is a kind of problem for me. Our offices (which we're lucky to have) are dark, have no windows, are often too cold...Agh. I don't want to complain too much, because it's nice that we have the space, but sometimes I end up just using it like a locker and go out into the North Wing by the windows to work. Or, alternatively, Browser's; I was spending a lot of time there, but then they started renovations.

    I also feel you on the having other people around thing; it definitely helps me focus when other people are working and focused around me. It makes me feel more accountable and energized.

    Finally, ugh, social media. I've started using SelfControl, which is basically the same thing as the application you mentioned, for blocking sites - mostly Twitter and Facebook, which I just check out of boredom or habit far too often.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    (ps. Yaaaaay, Tim!)

    1. Hi Cathy, I'm glad this has been helpful in some regard. I, too, like learning about other people's writing/thesising habits, even if they would never work for me.

      I know just the offices you're talking about. I think I was awfully blessed with my MA office - it was bigger than the rest of them and very light. I miss it - but this graduate workspace isn't a bad stand-in, really. And it is really nice to be working with other people around, especially when you can chat and realize that your problems/challenges are (usually) the exact same ones that everyone else is facing.

      Also, see my reply to Alison above re: Tim's job. He's been in full-time work since August, which was fantastic, given all the doom and gloom about youth unemployment here. Much different from Saskatchewan, with its 4% unemployment rate.