Classically Inclined

August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
Tags: , , ,

Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.

The second thing I had underestimated was the difficulty in gaining traction at the start of a new project. You are reading all sorts of things to see if they’re relevant or if they help, and they might do, or they might be useless, but you’ll read it because it looks like it’ll be interesting, and you don’t get through as many books as you think you will, and what about this one over here… yeah. That phase of research through reading cool-looking stuff, made doubly exciting by the fact I’m working on reception material and so have multiple fields to get familiar with. I totally underestimated how long doing this groundwork would take me for Mazes Intricate, and found myself getting very frustrated at my slow progress through books in the British Library. Well, your reading speed is different when you’re concept-forming and when you’re refining and shaping specific ideas that you’ve targeted your reading for. I had forgotten this, if I’d ever articulated it this clearly to myself, because it’s been a long while since I’ve started any projects completely from scratch.

So, the Grand Plan has gone out of the window, and I’m trying out something a bit different. When I realised that my castle in the air was destined to remain just that, I vented at my other half, who brought up the idea of agile management. I’d come across this as a phrase, as something people can be trained to do, but I’d never looked into it more. I came away from that conversation with two very helpful ideas. One was not to plan more than a fortnight ahead in terms of what you wanted to achieve; the other was to allow oneself a week to work out ‘what do I need to do next to get this thing accomplished?’ or a similarly vague task. So this week is down as a week of ‘general Monster book reading’, because I need to get my head around some of the theoretical background stuff, and that seems to be what I need to be doing right now. I tend to review my objectives and upcoming obligations on a fortnightly cycle anyway, so giving myself permission to not set targets for All Of The Weeks is probably psychologically helpful in meaning I stay present at this stage of the project and don’t worry about taking the time I need to think.

The other change to my usual practice is that I have found a use for Pomodoros. Now, in the past I have tried Pomodoros, and not got on with them at all. They felt artificial, unnecessary and unhelpful, because when I was writing my PhD I found it quite easy to get into the groove, and I had different strategies – when I was in a writing phase, I set myself a daily 250 word minimum and a 1,000 word goal, and found that these worked as overall motivational targets and got my drafts together. But for Mazes Intricate, I ended up with a very moth-eaten draft with lots of [INSERT STUFF HERE] and yellow highlighting, and found it extraordinarily difficult to get the motivation to make the changes I knew needed making and had indeed marked up on a paper copy with my trusty red pen.

Enter the Pomodoro or, as I should call it, the modified Pomodoro (technically you should use periods of 25 minutes; I find 20 minutes works better for me). No excuses, no checking Twitter or Facebook or e-mail, just settle down and do 20 minutes of Making This Manuscript Better. It worked. I think it took away the pressure I felt to fix everything at once, and instead gave me a 20 minute window of focus that I could pat myself on the back for. Once I’d got through the first half or so of the manuscript in this way, suddenly it got a lot easier to do the rest without feeling totally overwhelmed by it all. So while I doubt I’m going to become a Pomodoro junkie, it’s certainly proved itself to be the right tool for this particular job.

Times, they are a-changin’. And I’m hopefully changing with them.


  1. There is so much useful stuff in here. I agree about Pomodoros. They are not a one size fits all thing. They need to be a length of time that works for you. And they are GREAT for that kind of task.

    Also, only planning a couple of weeks out makes a lot of sense. Any system that has you feeling behind a lot of the time is a bad system. You need something that feels like you are succeeding. And the reality is that you need to start to know what exactly needs to be done anyway. Things change as you go along. (I am also increasingly of the opinion that it is a bad idea to get a book contract at this proposal stage, for similar reasons. By all means start the book, but don’t commit yourself to it having a particular form so early in the process.)

    Comment by Jo VanEvery (@JoVanEvery) — August 11, 2016 @ 9:16 am | Reply

    • It’s been so long since I had a task that a Pomodoro would help for that I was pleasantly surprised that they did what I needed them to!

      I’m not too worried about the shape of this book, as I sort of have a handle on where it needs to go and what it needs to do – it’s for a general audience rather than an academic one, and I’m happy with the outline I came up with. I also feel quite happy that if my proposed outline changes, I will be able to shift things appropriately. But I need to be gentle with myself and the fact it is taking me a while to get properly geared up.

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 11, 2016 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

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