Word Count Update: August 2012

After reading Paul J. Silvia’s “How to Write a Lot” (on Inger Mewburn’s excellent recommendation), I started tracking my writing time and gross writing output.  Will write a little more this week on what has become a critical component of my workflow, but for now, here’s a snapshot of how I have been progressing in 2012:

Jacquie Tran - Monthly Word Counts, January 2012 to August 2012

I am nearing the 20,000 word mark, which I am quite pleased about!  But obviously the last few months have been relatively quiet on the writing front.  Time to get my skates on again!

Work Flows, Part 2: Staying Organised

This is the second post of a series on how I work.  I’ll be covering a range of topics including the principles that guide me in my approach to PhD work, how I stay organised and focused, the tools I use to collate and interpret literature and other content, my “product creation” process and things that help me stay sane!  Feedback is always welcome: comment below this post, find me on Twitter or send me an email: jac [AT] jacquietran [DOT] com.

In another life, I must have been a keeper of records.  If there is one word that describes how I work, that word is meticulous.  There’s comfort to be had in colour-coded schedules, easily-accessed notes, and version control!

Organising my time

Back when pen and paper were the cornerstone of my workflow (not that long ago…as recently as second year of my undergrad studies!), I carried around my planner with me everywhere.  A solid A5, day-to-a-page diary to tell me where I needed to be and when.  The trouble was, my schedule would regularly change, and I’d spend way too much time writing and re-writing the recurring events in every week.

These days, Google Calendar is my time management weapon of choice.  I’ve got separate “calendars” for PhD time, work, errands, free time, and exercise; each calendar set to a different colour so that I can tell what’s on the agenda at a glance.  I’ve also got GCal synced on my smartphone; great for setting up meetings wherever I might be.  I can pull out my phone and quickly tell where my availabilities are, or I can just as easily shuffle around other commitments as needed.  Recurring events, such as supervisor meetings, work shifts, gym sessions, and karate class, are simple to set up and adjust as necessary.  Sometimes I miss the tactile nature of pulling my planner out of my bag to schedule a meeting, but I have happily traded tradition for  simplicity and accessibility in this case.

Organising my projects and tasks

The extent to which I can stay on top of my projects and tasks changes all the time…and I’m sure I’m not the only one who would say so!  However, when I feel like things are starting to get out of control, I try to take a beat and spend time reviewing what I’ve done and what I’ve still to do.  Mind maps are a great friend to me in such circumstances…the process of scribbling and doodling helps me to think, and specifically it helps me to break through mental clutter to identify my next steps.  And my contingency plan, when all seems lost, is to ask myself, “What better task than no task at all?”  In other words, are these projects and/or tasks still necessary to complete?  If not, then I scrap the task or project altogether and enjoy the sudden freeing feeling that overcomes me.  If they are necessary, then I ask: “Do I need to be the one to see the project or task through?  Can I simplify the process?  Can I move it along today with one small step forward?  Can I delegate the task and shift ownership to someone else?”  In answering these questions, I often find that tasks I have postponed for some time have become unnecessary or irrelevant to my present direction and outlook.

Organising my notes and writing

Where would I be without Evernote?  I happened upon it in Honours, when I decided that my lever arch folder and tab dividers were not going to cut it.  The thought came to me that, in February, I might read a potentially useful article and place it behind a tab labelled “Sports Technology”, for future reference.  Come September, in the mania of thesis writing, I might want to draw from this particular article, but how to find it?  My distant memories would reveal that the paper crossed over into areas of “Athlete Monitoring” and “High Performance Sport”, conveniently forgetting my initial categorisation of the article into the field of “Sports Technology”.  A frantic search would ensue, with no outcome other than frustration and dismay.  With a projected 100+ references to cite, and many more that would be read but not included in the final thesis, I realised that I needed a system that was as accessible as possible.

Since 2009 (my Honours year), Evernote has steadily grown to become to cornerstone of every bit of “knowledge work” that I do.  I use it to store every kind of note or resource I record, whether of my own making or the work of others.  But for me, the most important feature is its extensive search and tagging features, which have shown themselves to be invaluable through every step of the research process: from development, to implementation, to analysis and interpretation.  In the context of my PhD research, I have the following 7 notebooks within a notebook stack cleverly titled “PhD”:

Article Annotations: I read almost all my articles electronically, and annotate in Adobe Acrobat Pro.  Then I upload each annotated PDF and the text from my annotations to a new note within this folder, titled in Author-Date format.  At this stage, I’ll also add tags for relevant topic areas and disciplines.

Data & Stats: Instead of keeping a lab book in paper format, my data processing and analysis notes go straight into Evernote.  Most all of my data handling requires the use of a computer, so it’s easy to keep a data analysis log in real time.

Free Writing: When my thoughts are but mere embryos, barely indistinguishable as a life-form, I like to free write to encourage my brain to connect the dots.  I set a 10 minute countdown, then write like crazy!  The unedited brain dumps that result from these efforts live in this Evernote notebook.

Meeting Notes: Writing up meeting minutes is such a time suck, but also a fairly critical activity.  Though I’ve taken to the old pen-and-paper method in recent months, I still like the idea of taking the minutes on my laptop during the meeting, but I haven’t figured out a way to engage in the meeting AND take notes effectively (including notes on my own discussion points!).

Misc Annotations: Similar to the Article Annotations notebook, but used for literature that is not peer-reviewed or “scholarly” in nature.  General literature remains an important and undervalued source of information in a profession that moves as quickly as sports science does.

PhD Blog: If I ever catch myself saying or thinking, “That would make for a good blog post…”, the idea goes into this Evernote notebook 🙂

PhD Notes: A repository of resources related to PhD skills, PhD progress, PhD frustrations, and so on!  My favourite how-to documents (e.g., “How To Write A Literature Review”) live here.

A philosophy, a process

At this stage of my studies, I’d say my system is pretty well fleshed out.  But it is always changing, and I am always open to further refinement.  The one thing that remains constant, that makes all these habits work, is commitment.  This system works for me because it matches my goals for time and resource management, but also because I commit to doing the little things that keep everything in order.  After all, a system is just a system, a tool is just a tool.

Work Flows, Part 1: My Guiding Concepts

This is the first post in a series on how I work.  I’ll be covering a range of topics including the principles that guide me in my approach to PhD work, how I stay organised and focused, the tools I use to collate and interpret literature and other content, my “product creation” process and things that help me stay sane!  Feedback is always welcome: comment below this post, find me on Twitter or send me an email: jac [AT] jacquietran [DOT] com.

When I first wrote about how I work (here and here), I took a stream of consciousness approach.  It was about getting the thoughts down, documenting my work quickly enough to publish the posts before my working habits changed.  Looking back, there are several key threads that underpin each decision I’ve made in establishing the way I currently work.  I call these guiding concepts, though I guess you could think of it as part of some sort of work philosophy.  I’ve never thought to really nail it down because it is always being refined and modified as I learn more about others, my environment and myself.  I consider these guiding concepts a snapshot of what is most important to my work right now.

Perfect versus done

It’s a funny thing to think about the common characteristics within a cohort of postgraduate students.  Typically, it is a group full of overachievers with wide eyes and high hopes.  It is only natural that the students within this group will have a number of traits and behaviours developed only through consistent achievement.  These might include pride in one’s work, or a capacity to be self-motivated, or to perfectly juggle multiple commitments, or to expect more from themselves than others.  But of course, there’s a “dark side” to these traits.  The kind of dark side that manifests from your talents, but actually blocks you from doing your best work.

My “dark side”?  I have a long history of perfectionist tendencies.  I say “tendencies” rather than just calling myself a perfectionist outright because I’m pretty sure the Honours year beat the true perfectionist right out of me 😉  The difference now is that I know well enough to be mindful when walking that fine line between attention-to-detail (good egg) and striving for perfect (bad egg).

I am constantly reminding myself to “get to done” as my first priority.  This forces me to ask the one questions I used to consider the sign of a lazy or overcommitted person.  What is the bare minimum needed to call this task DONE?  Or phrased in another way: What is good enough?  At first, I worried that these questions would decrease the quality of my work and lead me to churn out volumes of sub-standard efforts.  But I am starting to realise that my personal expectations will not let that happen.  I am (slowly) letting go of perfect and embracing done.

Absorb to create

Creative endeavours have always been a huge part of my life.  One of the constant battles I have within myself is the marriage of my experiences as a scientist and as a creative.  Both pursuits have taught me so much over the years, but I have had difficulty translating one particular lesson from my musical life into my academic life.  I have only ever become better as a musician by actively absorbing others’ music.  I would never have picked up a guitar if I hadn’t felt inspired by fellow schoolmates to do so.  I would never have continued learning piano past 14, the age at which my parents stopped forcing strongly encouraging me to press on, if I had never discovered popular jazz.  I would never have attempted to write music if I hadn’t been been moved by songwriters performing highly personal works of their own.

The lesson remains and repeats itself many times over.  If I am to create, I need to dedicate time to absorbing content.  The trouble is that I can be a bit of a contradiction as a PhD student.  I enjoy the creating and the doing, the active parts of research in sport science.  But setting me a stack of journal articles to read just sends me running in the other direction.  Alas, it is an inevitable part of the process, so when I feel unenthused about reading research papers, I try to remind myself to commit to absorbing so I can create my best work.

Commit to the system, be prepared to change

Speaking of commitment, it really is the key to making it all stick.  I am an early adopter and find myself attracted to shiny new toys all the time.    Despite all the potential uses of the latest software, app, or tool, I have to weigh up whether the system I’m already using is fulfilling its purpose just fine.  More often than not, my system holds up; there are times when I think that a process could be slightly easier, or an interface could be prettier.  But despite flaws in the system, my commitment to it has made it effective for my work thus far.  Or often, the new tool is an improvement on my current system, but it requires me to learn new ways of working.  This in itself is not a bad thing, but it can consume time that might be better spent on actually doing work 🙂

Having said that, I try not to hold onto my system or its components too tightly.  After all, it it just a set of tools.  I always keep an eye out for tools that could transform my system again to support me in my quest to do Great Work.  Commitment to a system makes it work, but the rate of technological development is such that there is something better around the corner.  Those that hold on too tightly to what used to work are the ones who get left behind.

What are the concepts that guide your approach to work?