Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On productivity techniques I find useful

People think that I am quite a prolific writer -- for a philosopher at least. Objectively, I can see why this is the case, because I can compare my CV with the CVs of other philosophers at my career stage. But subjectively I find this perception very strange, because the view I have of myself, I'm rather haphazard and unorganized, and a lot less disciplined than I should be. I'm really good at starting things. I'm moderately good at getting things to about 90% finished. I'm really really bad at finishing things, unless there is a deadline involved. I'm also really good at justifying doing anything other than writing. Which is why when there was a suggestion in an academic FB group I'm a member of to form some summer writing groups, I decided to put my name forward. Maybe some external accountability will get me to be more organized and more disciplined. Our group just got going, and involved the five of us outlining what we hoped to get done over the summer, both the realistic goals and the pie-in-the-sky goals. I was nervous putting out my goals at first, because I'm sticking with the resolution I had in 2014 (which worked great for 6 months and then I interviewed for, got, moved for, and started a new job, and everything quickly changed), namely, to try to submit one item per month. Five months in, and I'm already up seven items for 2016, so things are going well so far -- but generally when I articulate this resolution to other people in my field, they react with shock: How on earth can I even imagine completing that much?! It makes me wonder if I'm being unrealistic, if my view of what is an appropriate level of productivity is somehow skewed. (So I was very glad when some of the other ladies in the group had similar goals to mine: I'm not (entirely) crazy.)

The truth is probably somewhere between my perception of myself and other's perceptions of me. I'm probably neither as prolific as they think, nor as unproductive as I think. I'm probably neither as unrealistic in my expectations of myself as they think, nor as realistic in my expectations of myself as I think (I would not be surprised if the system broke down around (a) July when I'm heading to Australia for two weeks or (b) October when classes start again, as I'm taking on yet another new course). But between some conscious articulations in the writing group about my goals and expectations, and the request from a friend on FB to say something about how I organize projects and get them done, now seems a natural time to sit down and say something about the productivity techniques that I find useful. Maybe some of them will be useful for you. Maybe some of them won't be. I don't know.

When I was first in grad school, one of the things that I found mysterious was how people came up with ideas -- not only for seminar papers (there at least we got guidance) but for journal papers. How does one come up with an idea for a journal paper? How does one know which ideas are journal-worthy and which aren't? I hadn't a clue, and also got very little guidance on the topic. Three years into my PhD programme, I packed up my cats and my husband and our lives and moved across an ocean to start in a different programme, and it was about a 6 weeks into that programme that I discovered medieval logic, and very quickly after that the ideas started flowing. This was one of the first hints that I had that this was the right field for me: Suddenly, coming up with paper topics didn't seem the mysterious and opaque process it had previously been. I took my first idea, and started writing it up over Christmas break, when my supervisor asked me one day a question that both surprised me and ended up becoming one of the most important encounters of my PhD trajectory. He asked me what I was writing the paper for, a conference? A journal? I looked at him blankly. I had no idea what he meant. I was just writing a paper. He pushed back on this. Never write without a goal in mind. Never write into the void. Always have a venue in front of you, to tailor the paper as you go. This had never occurred to me, and it has become the bedrock of my writing process: Every single piece I write is written with a specific goal in mind. (The flip side of this is that sometimes I can have a good idea, and want to write on it, but if I don't know where it's going to go, I can't get things going until I figure that out. As a result, I have a few things that have been languishing for far too long). So that's technique no. 1: Always write with a venue in mind..

One of the things I found endlessly satisfying about working in medieval logic is the diversity of material, and not only the diversity of material but also the diversity of techniques. Sometimes I'd be transcribing a medieval text and translating it from Latin into English. Other times, I'd be building formal models and proving results about them. The consequence of this was that whenever something was going poorly, I could switch to something very different and immediately (usually) become productive again. Stuck at the crucial stage of a proof, unable to get that necessary lemma proven? Set aside the logic and pull out the grammar book. Those pesky gerunds and gerundives causing you to weep over your translation? Set it aside and pull out the theorems again. Oh, look, the answer to how to get to that lemma is perfectly obvious, now that I've spent a few days or weeks away. This process of alternation has become an integral part of my process, and I have generalized it in two ways: (1) I always have multiple (say, 10+) projects going on at any given time; some may be somewhat less active than others, but they're all active enough that I can pick up any one of them and, in an hour or two, get back into the groove of working on them. This means that there is always something to do when something else is not working. (2) I have systematically incorporated a second, substantially different, research agenda into my ordinary life. This may be the diary of Doctor Logic (who, I'll have you know, is a superhero; her side-kick is the awesome Power Girl, the biggest cause of non-productivity in my life :) ), but Dr. Logic's alter ego is an onomagician (i.e., someone who does magic with names). The summer that I was finishing up my dissertation, worked on that hard-core during the day and came home and worked on onomastic projects in the evening; this was my way of feeling productive and accomplished without being drained by too much work on my main research. This was how I relaxed and recharged. The result of this is that I ended up with not only a 250 page dissertation in medieval logic, I also ended up with a concurrently completed 150 page draft book on bynames in Middle English. In the years since then, I've turned the onomastics from a hobby into a real research programme (i.e., I now allow myself to work on it during the day!). I was leery of doing so, because if it became part of the job instead of just a hobby, maybe it wouldn't serve the same purpose in providing me with a productive break from my day-to-day research. Two years or so in, I haven't found this to be the case. (Thank goodness!). So technique no. 2: Always have something else you can work on.. (See also Structured Procrastination, something which has resonated strongly with me. It works quite well. Look! I could be writing a journal paper, but instead I am writing this blog post. :).

But how do you keep multiple projects "fresh", or even kept track of? I have a relatively simplistic solution here. I have a word document called "projects" which has two columns: the first is for ideas that I've had, no matter how fleeting or how ill-thought-through. The second is for dates: Deadlines for things I've committed to writing, dates of completion, submission, acceptance, revision, publication. It helps me keep track of what I have in the pipelines at any given time, and it also gives me no excuse along the lines of "But I don't know what to write about". Some of the things on the list have been there a very long time. Some of them may eventually be removed without being acted on. But things go onto it with very little vetting. A few months ago, it had just over 50 items on it. As of the other day, it had 44, as a number of things in the pipelines have shifted to the "published" stage, at which point they're removed and put onto my CV. One drawback about the projects.doc method is that one has to go to the file, open it, and look at it. Last summer, I cleared off my white board and put everything from the projects file onto the whiteboard, and then spent three months looking at the list on a daily basis. This was highly motivating! Especially as I color-coded the dates and could see genuine progress over the summer. Unfortunately, this summer I think I will be using my whiteboard for logic purposes, but I'm toying with alternatives so that I can put the todo list up on my wall, large and easy to see. That's technique no. 3: Put anything that sounds interesting on your todo list. Don't worry about whether its feasible.

A 44 item todo list can seem overwhelming. If I didn't add anything to the list and continued at my "1 item a month" rate, it would take me four years to get through all of it. And this is where technique no. 4 comes in: Collaborate. This is something that is becoming more common in philosophy than it had been, but it's still viewed with some trepidation. (Thankfully not really in logic treated as a scientific discipline, which is the context in which I got my PhD, so it's the context I'm comfortable with.) Co-authoring is a great way for foisting all the bits that you either don't like doing or don't have the time to do onto someone else. I recently completed a book chapter on how (and how not) the names in the Game of Thrones books and TV series are medieval; I co-authored it because I knew I didn't have the time to extra the relevant onomastic data from the books and shows myself (I haven't seen any of the series, and it's been a decade since I was caught up on the books), so I put out a call for collaborators and got two excellent co-authors who fed me all the data I needed. This sort of partnership is unheard of in some circles of the humanities, and is really, really useful. There are also more informal ways of shedding the burden. A few years ago I started a Facebook group for Medieval Logic -- I did it out of purely selfish reasons, wanting to have a place where all my medieval logician friends on FB could be accessed in one place for translation help, questions about secondary literature, etc. The group now has more than 1000 members -- how amazing is that? I also joined twitter about a year ago, and regularly making use of the #logicians, #twitterstorians, and #medievaltwitter tags to solicit recommendations for readings, etc.

Technique no. 5 is simple: writing breeds writing. The more you write, the more you will write. I give myself a lot of low-stakes opportunities for writing, via blogs. There's this blog, of course; but I also write on a regular basis for the blog for the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, the M-Phi blog (though less frequently there than I'd like), and to give myself a way to exploring some of the ideas on my list of projects that aren't necessarily going to end up as real papers, the newly created Medieval Logic and Semantics blog. The latter has been an interesting exercise; it's a group blog, but I've committed to having a post on it every Thursday, so if someone else hasn't, I have to. This discipline has been a useful one for me, so far. Blogs are great, because the stakes are much lower. You can explore ideas without having them fully formed. You can think of your ideas as you write, instead of having them in advance. This post has been a good example of this: I wasn't entirely sure what I had to say on the topic before I got started, and now I've written more than 2000 words. (That along with 1000 on a new draft paper, 1300 on feedback for an essay, and 5000 on beta-reader comments for a novel coming out in fall means that today was TREMENDOUSLY PRODUCTIVE.)

Finally, technique no. 6: Take your breaks without any guilt.. Doctor Logic is signing off, because it's time for her to go and fetch Power Girl from nursery. No more writing! (For now.)

1 comment: