To kick off the first meeting of the academic year, we discussed our daily activities and exchanged ideas on tackling tasks that everyone seemed to be struggling with completing. Here’s the result of our first brainstorming on the types of activities we engage in daily:
Activities that are circled represent ones that take up most of our time or like a time-sink, starred represent those that people often procrastinate, ones with sad face were activities that did not feel fun, and happy face were activities that were fun.
Some activities had overlapping happy and sad faces, like funding applications (writing is painful, getting it is joyous), mentoring (there are highs and lows), and data analysis (great if results look good, sad if results cannot be interpreted). While grabbing coffee with friends or chatting/bonding with lab mates were listed as feeling like a time-sink, it made us feel good; and feeling good is an important part of being productive and wanting to contribute, according to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Go coffee breaks!
Our enemy number one was managing emails. Here are some key problems and potential solutions to email-related issues:
– Distracted by emails: Blocking the browser from accessing your email account (Chrome: Stayfocusd, Block site), using the Self-Control app, turning off notifications on your phone for emails, using Priority Inbox to organize emails are some of the ways you can avoid being inundated by the stream of emails throughout the day.
– Forget to respond on time: Get into the habit of writing responses immediately, or at your assigned email-time, and use Boomerang to send out emails that are better to send at a different/later time. One approach that was recommended was to write out the response immediately, but set Boomerang to send it later so you do not end up in a back-and-forth discussion over email.
On the topics of emails, use of internet, particularly social media, was also listed as a common problem. Stayfocusd or Block site are both useful to block specific websites for certain hours of the day. Another trick was to log off all social media accounts on your computer and phone to prevent you from checking them easily.
Academic enemy number two was writing. Everyone had some story about a piece that needs to be written that has been put away for the time being, for different reasons. Some common problems/ potential solutions included:
- Lack of inspiration: Engage in outside activities like going on a jog or taking a walk could help with inspiration and motivation. Another was to have a notebook handy or record your thoughts when they come to you, whether you just got up, or are commuting.
- Perfectionism: Feeling like the first draft needs to look good can be a deterrent to keep writing. Shitty first drafts and How to write a lot inspired WiLD members to not obsess too much over the quality of the first draft. Even when you think you have a well-written propose, it’s ok to delete it or re-write it, because as Stephen King says, “kill your darlings.”
- Being consistent: Writing first thing in the morning for 20 minutes can help you stay on track and keep writing. Another trick is to lower the activation energy of the writing task by stopping when you know you can write more, so you can easily pick it back up the next day, a trick from the author Haruki Murakami
- Staying focused: Apps like OmmWriter can help you focus only on the task of writing. Placing yourself in writing-focused spaces, such as going to the library or coffee shop and training your brain to associate those rooms to writing can improve focus. Forming a writing group with friends, or attending the UC Davis Grad Studies Writing retreat can help you stay motivated.
It was striking that everyone in attendance, including tenured profs and first year graduate students, struggled with similar problems tackling email and writing. Thanks everyone for participating in the discussion!
Didem P. Sarikaya