My tips for productivity

One of the most significant non-academic things I learned during my first year as a PhD student was how to be productive even in moments when I really didn’t feel like it. In fact, I had a pretty good handle on this throughout college as well. I think as a society we tend to over-glorify productivity, and I have definitely done this myself in the past. While it feels great to accomplish many things, it is also important to take time to rest. However, for the times when you have no choice but to be very productive, here are some of my best tips.

  • Have a pre-work ritual. For me, this usually involves cleaning off my desk and lighting a candle; there is just something about candles that puts me in the zone to do work. But your ritual could be using some essential oils, washing your face, making a cup of coffee, changing into a certain type of clothing, etc.; just something to remind your brain that it is work time.
  • Be clear on what you need to accomplish. Seems obvious, but many people plunge right into the work they know they need to do immediately without considering what their next steps will be. This often leads to mis-allocating time and completing things at the last minute. Take 10-15 minutes even to review your to-do list, and decide what needs to be done this month, this week, today, and even this hour. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to do it. That way, you won’t make excuses like “well I’m not going to get this done by 5 pm anyway so I might as well just wait to start it.”
  • Similarly: calendar blocking. This may seem unnatural, but so are our expectations of productivity at times. I learned this tip from Amy Landino. It’s nothing extremely novel, but I do think this is a superior approach to time management than a simple to-do list. When I make such a list, I still end up with various incomplete tasks at the end of the day. When I use calendar blocking, I literally force myself to get things done within a certain amount  of time. Then, if I don’t finish a task, I am forced to move to the next task and/or re-allocate the rest of the time for the day. I actually wouldn’t recommend living every day like this, but on busy days I definitely do this.
  • On that note, I recommend using Google calendar in general. I will talk more about this in my post on useful apps for students, but my life changed when I began to use Google calendar creatively in addition to (and eventually instead of) a paper planner.
  • Wake up early. Or stay up late! Or go to a coffee shop without your phone for a few hours in the middle of the day. Whatever works for you, but the point here is to find a solid chunk of uninterrupted time in an environment where nobody will be bothering you. Usually early in the morning works because it is before most people are awake so you are less tempted to check email, respond to text messages, etc., and the same is true late at night. Some friends recommended going to a coffee shop without a phone — I  haven’t tried it yet, but I think it sounds like a great idea!
  • Use one of those social media blocking extensions on your internet application. I never believed this would work until I tried it. I actually didn’t think I checked social media that much until I added an extension that gave me a 20 minute limit per day (on my computer), which was helpful because instead of being derailed for half an hour to check twitter, I kept getting the “shouldn’t you be working?” page.
  • Say no! I never feel guilty saying no to something that will hinder me from achieving what I need to for myself. Whether it is a social activity, a work opportunity, a request for help (obviously exercise discretion on what is actually more important), little interruptions can really hinder your productivity. Again, not a general rule but something to be strict with yourself when you really need to be productive.
  • Coffee, because obviously.
  • Exercise! When you are tired from a great workout, it suddenly becomes 10x easier to sit still for hours doing your work at the computer (if that’s the kind of work you do). It’s good for the brain, it will help you think more clearly, and just generally improves your productivity.
  • Last and most important tip, which I’ve alluded to already: minimize interruptions. A two second interruption from a quick text or someone knocking on your door can actually turn into a 20+ minute interruption because of the way it disrupts your focus. We as humans actually can’t multitask, no matter how tempting it can be to believe that we can. Focus on one task exclusively before moving on to the next, and you will develop a momentum that allows you to actually finish projects and move on. Resist the temptation to do everything at once.

Do you have additional tips for productivity? Or even tips you have tried and that didn’t work for you?

-AK

Pros and cons of the academic world

This is a topic that deserves more than one post, and given that I still consider myself a beginner in the “academic world” having only completed one year of grad school, I am sure I will have much more to say in the future. So I’m sure I’ll revisit this list one day with a more mature perspective, but I thought it would be interesting if I shared my observations, at this point, on the pros and cons of the academic world. (Another caveat: as I’ve shared before, I am a political science student. This could and probably does vary among fields.) With that being said, here is what sticks out to me.

Pros:

  • Smart people. You are surrounded by them! It is inspiring. You have professors and mentors and even people who share no interests with you but whose intelligence and passion for their subject is so evident that it motivates you with your own work.
  • Learning. This should go without saying, but many people, particularly those who actually aren’t in the academic community, forget about its most straightforward goal, which is learning. It’s not just about writing the current paper or finishing a project or getting through the semester, it’s about taking in each learning opportunity like a sponge and continuously building on your own knowledge and expertise.
  • Learning for money. Yes it’s about learning, but if it is your job, it is also about money. And my experience, at least, is that I am receiving financial support to receive an education that I will later use to continue enjoying all the “pros” on this list. Isn’t that cool? (Note: I’m not saying this to brag. However, I actually think too many people complain about the low salary of graduate students. While it is nothing to write home about, you are literally being paid to receive an education while many others with similar credentials are taking out loans to attend Masters programs or law school. So it seems like a good hand of cards to be dealt.)
  • Intellectual stimulation. Some might argue that this is the same thing as learning, but I actually don’t think that is true. There are aspects of research that require creativity, problem solving, analytical thinking, brainstorming, and sometimes it can generally feel like a giant puzzle. Even in the moments when not a lot of material learning is being done, other kinds of stimulation are likely going on.
  • Some level of autonomy. While most people in the academic world work within a college or university, there is still a degree of freedom (although it varies depending on one’s field, institution, level of seniority, etc.) when it comes to one’s teaching and research endeavors. That sounds a lot more appealing, to me at least, than being told explicitly what to do by a superior.

Cons:

  • Smart people… You are surrounded by them. Yes, this is beneficial, but it can also be a negative thing. Smart people can be great, or not so great. They can be kind and helpful, or rude and condescending. You don’t know which it’ll be, you just know that they are intelligent (at least enough to ~make it to where they are in life~).
  • Self doubt. It’s not a coincidence that most grad students and professors are familiar with the term “impostor syndrome.” This is sort of a result of the social environment of academia, but it is also just something that naturally happens when you are inundated with tons of high level material and attempting to stay above water with it all.
  • Work-life balance. I’m struggling to decide whether this is a pro or a con when it comes to academia, but at this moment I am going to place it on the “cons” list. Here comes a mini rant if you are interested in why:
    This entire blog is about my endeavor to find a balance between work and life that feels effortless. I recognize that it will never feel completely effortless, but I do strive to live my life in a way where work and “play” complement, rather than compete with, each other. There are definitely some positive aspects of the work-life balance of an academic as compared with some other professional routes. One’s time is somewhat flexible, and we can often choose, aside from a few pre-scheduled commitments, when we want to do our work. This doesn’t decrease the workload, but it allows scholars to exercise discretion in how they’d like to complete the work. On the other hand, there is a certain culture of overworking ourselves and signing up for various projects and constantly engaging in self-improvement exercises (like learning more and better methods, writing more and better papers, networking, etc.) and just generally always being “on,” that it can feel wrong or even guilt-invoking to take some time off. That’s why, at this moment, even though it is the middle of summer and I have the most freedom with my time that I have had in actual years, I’m currently seeing the work-life balance element as a “con.” However, I will say that every single day I work to foster a mindset that resists that norm, and that I hope to be vocal in opposition to the idea that we need to overwork ourselves to an unhealthy extent in order to be successful academics.
  • On the flip side of having a certain level of autonomy, it can also be problematic to work within a field so reliant on “the institution” as academia is. You’ve heard of “the ivory tower.” And if you know anything about working in higher education, you are also likely aware that it has many bureaucratic elements to it. You can sometimes feel like just one cog in a larger machine, one that you have little to no control over. The extent to which this is a problem basically depends on your outlook, although it does impact some practical realities of life as well (such as when one experiences problems with their pay, health insurance, or some other aspect of life that there is a lot less bargaining power over than there might be working for a private firm of some sort).
  • The job market. I researched the benefits and downsides of attaining a PhD extensively before I seriously considered it. The only reason I was comfortable entering this process was because I knew from the start that I was very open minded about the kind of job I would pursue in the future; if I thought I would only be willing to use a PhD to become a professor one day, I would certainly have tried to dream another dream. According to Google, the prospects aren’t getting better soon. 
  • It’s never ending. Now if you enjoy the lifestyle of an academic, then this is not really a problem. But what I mean by this is that, as one of the advisors at my institution shared in one of the first meetings we had as new students, your first day of graduate school is your first day on the job. Sure, you are still in the formal schooling portion of your journey, but when you receive your degree and go on the job market, there is no magic switch that will be flipped and turn you into a full-fledged professor. I am very keen on the power of manifestation so I try to act like I already am where I want to be in all aspects of my life, so this is actually something I love about the process. But if you feel overwhelmed as a graduate student, you can see the road ahead, and you are just perpetually waiting for that step in the process that you think will bring you fulfillment… Well, then the outlook seems bleak, my friend. It is unrealistic to think that you will enjoy the process later if you do not enjoy it now.

Those are my observations so far, and please don’t take this list as an indication that there are more “cons” than “pros.” If I had to sum up all I’ve learned about this journey so far in one sentence, I would be sure to make the point that almost ever positive aspect has a negative side to it, and vice-versa. This could be discouraging, or it could be a great thing depending on one’s ability to selectively focus on the “good.”

Do you consider yourself to be a part of the “academic world”? Have you shared some of these experiences, or are there other elements I missed? Comment below!

-AK

End of PhD Year 1, Traveling, & Other Plans

I have been woefully inactive on here recently, so I thought I would do a little update. It’s almost like grad school takes up a lot of your time! Actually, though, I am a firm believer that if you want to make time for something, you can, and it has been one of my goals to make more time for blogging and other aspects of my creative life. I’m hoping that if I create that habit now, it will be easier to maintain when life picks back up again.

But, life is moving at a bit of a slower pace now, because it is summer! I finished the first year of grad school! This year, my mind was stretched in ways I never knew it could be. When I was apprised of the existence of 4 (+) – dimensional graphs, I felt like a whole new dimension was added to my brain as well. In a sense, the transition to grad school from undergrad wasn’t all that drastic for me. At college, my classes were also small group seminars and I took it really seriously so the workload, while more challenging now, wasn’t too different either. But, I definitely feel like I am learning how to “think like an academic,” and I now see what all those gradcafe threads meant when they referred to the academic socialization process. (Note: this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think it is kind of inevitable when you get a bunch of smart people together focused on the same goal.) (Note also: if you are a prospective grad student, save yourself and don’t even go on gradcafe.)

Anyway, while it feels like an accomplishment to have finished this year successfully, there is still a long way to go. As a PhD student, one eventually must figure out what their own research will be about. I have a very amorphous idea of what I want to study long-term (and this is a generous characterization). So, this summer, one of my goals is to take time to read a lot of the literature in my area of interest (media/ political communication/ political psychology, etc.), given that not everything makes its way to my class syllabi. I think doing this will help me solidify, or rule out, what I think I want to study. Also, we underestimate how important regular reading is for our mental acuity. I.e., I took 2 weeks off for vacation and to relax, and I tried to read an academic article and my brain was like “what is this?” — so I am going to try to avoid that.

Speaking of vacation, I went to Punta Cana! My boyfriend, 2 of our friends and I all went as a sort of graduation celebration. Here are a few pictures. It was very awesome. If I could live in a tropical climate year round, I totally would.

 

 

In terms of the rest of the summer, here are some things that will be taking up a lot of my time:

  • fitness — I was getting in pretty good shape prior to vacation and, well, you can guess how that turned out 🙂
  • moving!
  • writing — whether for this blog or for potential research projects
  • cooking and baking — I am hoping to have some new summer recipe ideas to share
  • music — I have had an on- and off- relationship with my guitar, but I miss the days when I played every day. It is therapeutic.
  • exploring DC museums that I have not visited yet
  • pool — yes, I really am just trying to pretend I’m still on an island somewhere, but you have to do what you have to do to make reading about selective exposure interesting in the 80 degree weather.
  • more reading, but for fun! I have not had this much flexibility with my own time for over 7 years to be honest, so I want to indulge in books I haven’t had the chance to get to.

Of course, I am sure Netflix will make its way into this list somehow– it always does. But I feel energized and motivated to try new things and also make this a productive summer, so I am looking forward to sharing what that looks like.

-AK