Category Archives: Productivity

Napping my way to a better dissertation

I read David Randall’s piece on alternative sleep schedules after waking up from my recently-adopted mid-day nap. Randall, who has written a book about sleep science, explains that the notion that people need to sleep in single, eight-hour blocks of time each day is a relatively new one, and not even all that common around the world. Evidently, folks from Chaucer’s time through the sixteenth century often had both a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” with a natural break around midnight. I gather from Randall’s article that many people find themselves waking up around what we would think of as the mid-point of an eight-hour rest–Randall argues that we should embrace that rhythm, rather than fighting to sleep through the entire night.

Personally, I find that interesting but not all that applicable to my own sleep patterns, as waking up in the night is not a problem I experience often. My sleep issues tend to lie on the other end of the spectrum: I can sleep soundly for eight or nine hours a night, every night, and still need more. In the rare stretches of time when I’m able to go to bed when I want and sleep as long as I like, I’ll drift off around 10:30 and sleep until 8 or 8:30 easily.

Saying that makes it sound like I might be habitually over-worked and under-rested, with an enormous sleep debt to make up. But though I don’t sleep from 10:30 until 8:30 every day, I do get about eight hours a night. I’m not racking up a huge sleep debt and then trying to sleep it off (which doesn’t actually work, by the way), I just need more sleep than most people.

Since I have too much going on to spend almost half my day asleep, I’m always trying to figure out ways to feel well-rested on seven and a half or eight hours instead of ten. I used to shy away from naps because I’d lay down in bed and be out cold for an hour and a half. But I’ve recently moved to a bigger, better study cube on campus that boasts not only a window (natural light does wonders for my productivity), but also a napping bench. Now, when I get the inevitable after-lunch coma feeling coming on, I set my alarm for 25 minutes and take a quick nap. I wake up feeling clear-headed and ready to do something useful with my afternoon, which is exactly what science says a good nap should do.

If I don’t sleep enough, if I don’t stop and rest when I’m drowsy and muzzy-headed, if I try to burn the midnight oil and finish writing or grading, I find that what I’ve produced is generally crap. And not only is it crap, but it’s crap that I’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears to produce. I’ve fought through my natural need for sleep, fought off all of my body’s signals that it needs rest, and made my self generally miserable, and whatever I have to show for it is generally several times worse that what I could have produced in half the time if I’d been rested.

That’s why I’ve stopped giving myself a hard time for sleeping what often strikes the people around me as an inordinate amount (“I can’t remember the last time I slept more than six hours,” says what seems like everyone). Nor do I feel guilty about my post-lunch nap. The quality of the work I produce in the afternoon has improved significantly since I stopped telling myself to just suck it up and write through the drowsiness.

Graduate school encourages a lot of unhealthy physical and emotional behaviors, but the valorization of going without sleep has to be one of the worst. And not only is it unhealthy, it’s inefficient. There’s no pride in staying up all night to take twice as long to do a crappy job on something. If you’re working on an tight deadline, set an alarm*, sleep a few hours, and then give it another go. According to David Randall, that’s what people have been doing for centuries anyway.

* Because my body wants to sleep for what seems like forever, I often have trouble waking up, even if I’ve been sleeping for seven and a half or eight hours. That only gets worse as the days get shorter. It’s been pitch dark at 6:30 for the past couple of weeks. I just ordered a fancy new alarm clock that’s supposed to simulate the sunrise by way of a gradually brightening full-spectrum light. If it makes it easier to get out of bed when it still feels like the middle of the night, it will be well worth it.

Things 2.0

Just a quick post to note that Cultured Code has released a major update for Things, my to-do manager of choice. I took a break from Things last spring because of the lack of syncing to multiple devices, but was then granted access to the beta testing version of the cloud syncing service. One of the conditions of beta testing was that I couldn’t write about the application, but now that the update has been released, I’m back to using the official app.

I don’t have anything new to say about the functionality of the application–I still think it’s the ideal combination of robust, customizable, and relatively user-friendly. I’m also quite fond of the aesthetics. The design is clean and appealing without seeming over the top (one of my complaints about Wunderkit).

The iPhone and iPad software is as fully-featured as the desktop version, and, most importantly, the syncing works beautifully. As long as I have an internet connection, I have access to the most updated version of the day’s task list. Given the number of different devices I use in the course of the day (evidence that I may have a bit of a problem, but that’s a different issue), I need my to do list to be accessible on all my different gadgets to make actually completing those tasks as hassle-free as possible.

As nearly every review of Things notes, it ain’t cheap. $50 for the desktop version, $20 for the iPad, and $10 for the iPod. And it took a long time for Cultured Code to release the updated version–long enough that a lot of folks, me included, went searching for a replacement. But as syncing was the only major feature Things was lacking, the speed of future updates isn’t as much of a problem anymore. If you’re looking to transition to Post-it note to do lists to online ones, Things is probably overkill, but if you’re looking for a robust, customizable task manager that’s compatible with Getting Things Done or other productivity systems and syncs across all your iDevices, Things has a lot to offer.

On the uses of theory

Yesterday was very hot, and last night quite windy. I had my window open and the fan on to try to cool my room down enough to sleep. But all the air moving unpredictably through my room kept pushing my bedroom door open, and each time it did, the noise would jolt me out of the almost-asleep state I was inevitably in at the exact moment the door came open.

The third time this happened, I rolled out of bed and started peering around the dark room looking for something to keep the door from coming open again. I’m staying with a friend, so I wasn’t all that familiar with the contents of the room, particularly not in my half-asleep state. No chair to bar the door with. If I’d been more awake, I would have used my suitcase, but I didn’t think of that. In my sleepy and now quite grumpy state of mind, all I could think of were books, but I’d only brought two with me, and neither was all that substantial.

Then I remembered that I’d checked Bourdieu’s Distinction out of the library the other day and stuck it on the dresser after I’d finished with it. It’s a nice hefty book with a sturdy library binding. I shut the door one last time and set the Bourdieu right up against it.

Sure enough, the door stayed shut all night. It’s the best thing Bourdieu’s ever done for me.

GTD and the weekly review

I claimed previously that Getting Things Done (GTD) was a bit more organizational system than I needed or was willing to commit to, but I’ve since found myself gradually revising that statement. There are still a lot of elements of the system that I don’t use, particularly the “tickler” file, and some of the tips that make more sense for management types than academics, but I’ve been adding more and more GTD principles to my workflow lately.

(For a quick GTD primer, see the Wikipedia entry, and Merlin Mann’s extremely helpful blog post on getting started with GTD.)

Most recently, I’ve embraced the idea of the weekly review. Lifehacker has quite a few posts on the weekly review, but this recent one is a good starting place. A weekly review used to seem a bit excessive for my academic workflow—so many of my projects and deadlines are long-term that I thought there wouldn’t be enough to review each week, particularly this semester when I wasn’t teaching. And it’s true that I don’t rely on the weekly review to keep me from being overwhelmed with tasks and appointments that I’ll forget—I’ve got that stuff pretty well under control.

What the weekly review does for me is give me a chance to assess my progress on whatever I’m working on—which right now is a chapter revision and a conference paper—and adjust, correct, and tweak my priorities and motivation. It encourages me to reflect and be more deliberate about the way I use my time, and it gives me an opportunity every week to re-direct my focus and start with a clean slate.

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More on Scrivener for iPad

Literature and Latte has a nicely informative update on the status of Scrivener for iPad. Most exciting is the explicit commitment to formatting, including footnotes. Obviously, footnotes are important to me since I do academic writing, but I’m also hoping to see support for commenting. My writing and revision process relies heavily on making notes for myself through the comment feature, and I’d lose both a lot of actual content and an important part of the way I interact with my drafts if comments weren’t supported on the iPad.

Adding an iPad to the workflow: some results

I got a lot of great suggestions for solutions to my Scrivener to iPad dilemma. Ultimately, I ended up breaking down and buying Pages. I’m a sucker for design, particularly when I’m writing, and Pages is pretty, functional, and easy to use.

I realized that there were only a few documents I was actively working on that needed the formatting preserved—my conference paper, a couple sections of my dissertation chapter, some miscellaneous notes. Those I converted to word and opened in Pages before I left for the conference. Everything else—most importantly, most of the notes and evidence for the current chapter—I exported from Scrivener to a Dropbox folder so that I could access it with Simplenote if I needed it.

As systems go, it worked pretty well. I got some writing done in the airport and some more done the day before the conference. The Bluetooth keyboard from my iMac worked seamlessly. As is always the case, once the conference started all my plans to work on my chapter went right out the window, but given what I managed to accomplish before and after the conference, I wouldn’t call it a complete wash.

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Adding an iPad to the workflow: initial observations

After dithering back and forth and weighing the options for literally two years, I finally bought an iPad. Not the fancy new one with the crisp screen and the camera that I would never use, because who wants to take a picture with something the size of an iPad?, but the old iPad 2, smallest capacity, no 3G, and refurbished to boot.

This thing is the perfect device for browsing the web while sitting on the couch, scrolling through RSS feeds, and keeping up with Twitter. I’m particularly fond of the Twitter app. The virtual keyboard is big enough and user-friendly enough that I’m actually able to reply to emails, something I do rarely with my iPod. The iPad, then, eliminates the need for me to cart my laptop around with me. That might sound minor, but the laptop weighs several pounds and I almost always have it with me when I’m going to class, meetings, the writing center, etc. It’s unwieldy and a bit disruptive at times, and I suspect it’s the root cause of the chronic shoulder soreness I experience when I’m on campus regularly.

So far, so good, and pretty much what I’d expected the iPad to deliver. What I didn’t expect, though, was the monumental effort it would require to integrate the iPad into my writing workflow. I’m still trying to figure out how best to make that work.

I’d initially expected that I’d buy Pages and be done with it. But before I got around to it, I learned that Scrivener is finally, blessedly developing an iPad app. If it were available right now, I’d buy it and be done, because what I want from an iPad writing app is for it to play nice with the way I draft on my desktop and laptop. I don’t need it to produce spiffy pamphlets, or even print anything, I just want it to let me pick up whatever work I’ve been doing in other settings and advance it a bit. And since I do almost all of my writing in Scrivener, Scrivener on my iPad would pretty much solve all my problems.

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Frustrations and false starts

I’ll get back to reception some time soon, but right now I’m forcing myself to write something, anything, and publish it to the interwebs, because it has been a day full of denial and procrastination over here. I have a writing group deadline on Wednesday that I’d very much like to make, but right now all I have are some barely-strung together summaries of the relevant criticism and document after document of stream-of-consciousness notes.

Generally speaking, that’s about par for the course in the early stages of my writing process. As long as I continue to work consistently, the stream-of-consciousness notes will proliferate, but eventually I’ll reach a point where I see how to turn them into a coherent whole. The problem is that I’d like to hurry this process up. I’d like to get some feedback before I have a complete zero draft. But what I have now is not so much, and it’s not so good, and the anxiety-ridden perfectionist in me does not want to send it out to my writing group, even though they’re not going to think the less of me for sending them an incomplete, mediocre draft.

The advice I want to give myself is, “Just write.” That’s what I say to students, colleagues, overwhelmed consultees in the writing center: Just write, and deal with making it good later. Get something down, because having written something, even if it’s not perfect, always feels so much better than having something you need to write.

But there are points in my writing process, like right now, when what I’m writing is just dreadful. Not rough and in need of polishing, but bordering on useless. I must have scrapped twenty or thirty pages of potential introductions for the last chapter I wrote. And even if that’s necessary in the long run, it’s frustrating when you’re in the middle of it.

That’s all that I have to say. Just that things are going like molasses in January here, and it’s frustrating.

On the importance of pleasant spaces

One of the major benefits of being on fellowship is being able to write from home every day, rather than in my tiny windowless basement cubicle on campus. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t able to write at home, either because they don’t have enough space or a space that feels sufficiently work-like, or because they need people around them when they’re working. The latter folks tend to work in coffee shops and often find that the presence of other patrons, even if they are strangers, provides a sense of accountability that keeps them working. The former folks work in on-campus offices, even on days they don’t have to be on campus.

I don’t want people around when I’m working. I don’t even want music, or noise of any kind. The only company I’m willing to tolerate when I’m writing is the cat, who doesn’t really give me much of a choice:


As I’m fortunate enough to have an office at home, that’s where I prefer to work—it’s where the books are, after all. But when I only worked at home once a week, my desk would be piled with books, papers I’d brought home to grade or file, bills that needed shredding, and a sizable accumulation of cat fur, since both cats think the desk is placed where it is to provide them with a prime outdoor-viewing spot. And when I had only one day a week to work at home, there were always pressing things I needed to do with that time, so cleaning the desk, not to mention the office, was never much of a priority.

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Ducks in a row

In addition to setting some goals, the beginning of the semester also seemed like an opportune time to re-assess and re-configure some of the tools I rely on to make those goals happen. I started things off in the most indulgent way possible–by buying a new computer.

My MacBook just hit three years, and is starting to show its age. Rather than drive it to exhaustion and then replace it whenever it finally gave up the ghost (a decent, if inhumane, strategy that’s seen me through the last three laptops), I decided to switch to a desktop for most of my work, prolonging (I hope) the life of the laptop and giving me a beautifully expansive screen to write on.

That means I now have (and this is sort of embarrassing, but bear with me) an iMac, a MacBook, and an iPod touch. Assuming my laptop continues to chug along, I’m planning on using it for on-campus work once I’m back to teaching next semester. This means I need to keep my desktop and my laptop synced up so I’ll always have the most recent version of whatever I’m working on.

I’d been using Spideroak to back up my important files to the cloud, but their file management application freaked out when I moved my data onto the new computer, and after several unsuccessful attempts to unfreeze the program, I threw up my hands and went hunting for something else. In the process, I tested out nearly every cloud backup service out there (at least, every one with a free plan). There are a lot of good options. I’ve used Dropbox in the past, but I don’t like having to move files into the Dropbox folder. I have a fairly meticulous (or compulsive, depending on who you ask) file architecture, and I don’t want to have to mess with it by constantly moving things into and out of the Dropbox folder.

Syncplicity looked promising, since it lets you select folders to sync, rather than making you move files somewhere else, but the folder selection option was all or nothing–that is, I could sync my entire dissertation folder, but I couldn’t unselect the subfolders that I don’t want to keep synced (several of the research subforlders have some pretty enormous pdfs that will quickly exceed the 5 gb limit).

I finally settled on SugarSync, and so far I’ve been really happy with it. SugarSync starts you out with 5 gb of free storage, which is pretty standard right now. They’ve got an iPhone/iPad app, as well as an Android one, if you’re into that kind of thing, and a fairly user-friendly desktop management application. You choose which folders you want to sync from each machine you add, and you can unselect subfolders that you don’t want to have synced. There are features for sharing folders, although that’s not something I tend to need. I understand SugarSync lacks some more advanced features that Dropbox offers (more on that here), but all I really want is something that will keep the files I’m working on current on both machines, and SugarSync seems to fit the bill.

Having three devices that I use on a regular basis has also forced me to finally abandon my beloved, but limited, Things (more on why I love(d) Things here). As many of its fans have bemoaned for quite a while now, Things has no cloud support. This wasn’t much of a problem when I only had the one computer and the iPod–I just synced the devices via wifi whenever I needed to. But syncing three devices to each other is considerably more complicated, and borders on a pain in the ass. I wanted something that would do that for me.

Enter Wunderlist. Does almost everything Things does (the biggest shortcomings: no repeating tasks, and no sublists), looks good, has iPhone and desktop apps, syncs to the cloud, and, amazingly, is free. Things has been promising cloud support for well over a year, and when (if) that finally comes through, I’ll consider switching back, but right now I’ve found Wunderlist a strong substitute. And on top of that, the folks at 6Wunderkinder are getting ready to release an even more robust task-management platform called Wunderkit that looks like it’ll support all those things I’ve been missing (along with a bunch of social networking stuff I don’t need, but I’m reserving judgement until I see it).

I’m still in the honeymoon phase with the new computer, but so far the extra screen real estate has been something of a revelation, as has the improved ergonomics of a desktop. Being able to look up and ahead at what I’m writing, rather than down toward my hands makes a significant difference. I’d also forgotten how nice it can be to use a mouse. If only this thing could do the writing for me…