Saturday, May 24, 2008

Offer Summer Classes to Yourself - and Attend Them

Photo by: Greg Reser

"I really gotta read up on that sometime."

"I've been meaning to review that subject."

"I'd really like to have at least a basic understanding of how that works."

These are things I catch myself and my peers saying all the time. I'm a grad student in the natural sciences and there's always more that I "should" know. Fundamentals. Specifics on a new research area. Some random thing I want to learn more about. But, where is the time?

Summer, that's where. You know how classes force you to learn stuff that if left to your own, you would never get around to studying? Yeah, that's useful. As much as we feel we're so above classes now, so much cooler than classes, that we learn everything we need to know when we need to know it for research, you have to admit that if it wasn't for the fact that you had to attend class to pass, you'd always have a list of other more important things to do that would prevent you from learning the subjects on your own.

Why it's Worth it to Know "Random" Things

Obviously, the things you need to know that are directly relevant to your primary research subject are taken care of when you are "working on research" (whatever that means). So let's not worry about that. What I'm talking about is classes that push your comfort level or broaden your base. Why are they useful? I have one simple answer: You won't be studying the same single, narrow, subject for the rest of your life. Surely you must have noticed how the brightest and wisest in your field seem to know the basics behind everything remotely related (the lucky ones observe this effect in their adviser). I whole-heartedly believe this characteristic is simply a result of having very strong fundamentals. They have reviewed the basics in their field multiple times throughout their life and now have that foundation to work on. Then, when expanding their research frontier, they feel less lost, they are able to look for help in the right places, and as a result they continue to push their own boundaries. They have exposed themselves to the basics of many different subjects throughout their career instead of always focusing on the narrow topic they are studying at any given time.

What class should I offer myself?

First of all, get your Leo Babatua on and offer yourself just 1 class to start. It can be easy to fall into the trap of "Oh I'm gonna learn about this, that, and that other thing!" and have a calendar so filled with scheduled classes you just skip all of them to do more important things throughout the week. Don't do that. Pick one thing you want to learn about but "haven't gotten around to" and offer yourself that class. The best place to start is a subject that is peripherally related to your primary research objective. That way your mind can't play the "you have more pressing things to do, when are you ever going to use this information?" game with you. Or at least, your mind has less of an argument if it tries.

What's the Class Schedule?
Whatever it is, make sure it's not heavy. That's the only rule. The goal is to make sure you attend class. That's it. Just show up, the learning then comes automatically I find 3 hours a week is good. MWF for one hour. Put it in your calendar and don't skip it! A strong recommendation is the morning because the deeper into the day you get, the more likely something will come up. Just walk in on MWF, spend an hour at class and then get on with your day. Try doing this without checking your email first. It's damn refreshing. It gets you in the mood of doing real work instead of pretending to do work by "processing" emails.

What IS the Class?

So what happens during class? Do you stand at a chalkboard and lecture to yourself? I don't, but by all means do whatever is necessary. Realistically, these self-classes almost always mean you, a book, paper and pen, and some peace and quiet. If you're in the sciences, do the problems or think of problems (related to your research is great) and do them to avoid getting caught in the blind note-taking and derivation trap where no information is processed. If you're in the humanities, check out Study Hacks for various note-taking and study tips to, again, avoid blind note-taking.

Final Thoughts

The point is to expand your horizons or widen your base of fundamentals. To do that, you need to simply dedicate the time to sitting down regularly and reading and the summer is a great time to do this. Let's end with some simple arithmetic that shows the power of repetitive behavior. Say you want to expose yourself to the first 3 chapters of a book called "Introduction to VeryImportantIdea". The first 3 chapters are 80 pages, which include non-trivial math and physics and some example problems scattered throughout. Say in one hour you can get through 5 pages at a pace that really lets you learn the material. You'll finish this class in a month and a half on the MWF 1 hour schedule suggested above. That means over the 3 month summer, you can fit in two of these classes. That means checking of two items on your mental list of "stuff I should know." Think about how many items you checked off of that list in the last three months. Give it a shot!

Monday, May 19, 2008

How to Act Productive Tip #10: Bring Massive Amounts of Work On the Plane

Photo by: Ma1974

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and
you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

Summer is often a time of travel. Weddings, reunions, vacations, you name it. In non-summer months, travel for many grad students involves conferences and other work related trips. Common to most trips: flying. Flying is such a time-suck, right? Wrong.

You always know who the most successful people in planes are. They're the ones working. They've got their laptop out, the overhead light on, some papers, TPS reports, their briefcase within arms reach, a pen in their mouth, and a glass of red wine in a plastic cup on the corner of the tray table. When you see this and you look down at your "pleasure reading" or worse yet, The Office episodes playing on your iPod, recognize that you will never make your parents as proud as Mr. Productive in the seat next you will. Just a fact of life. The good news is, you can change your ways today with just three simple starter tips:

1. Bring papers. A good grad student doesn't go anywhere without scholarly journal articles handy. Resist the temptation to buy People Magazine at the airport and stick with articles that will get you ahead in life.

2. Use your computer. Productive people and rich people use laptops on planes, so get used to it if you want to be like either of them.
3. Never let nighttime deter you. The most successful people have the light on when everyone else is trying to get some sleep. This should be you. When they wake up, you'll be a good 2-3 hours ahead on life.

Start here. Don't take it too fast just yet. When you've mastered these tips, send me an email, we can then talk about more advanced tips like caffeine sources for red-eye or international flights.

Lastly, when you're flying in a group, make sure you ask everyone how much work they brought, and as I've always said, use their answer to spring-board into talking about how much you brought. "What'd you bring to work on? Man, I brought so much stuff, I'm gonna get really caught up on work."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Have Confidence

Photo by: chris.merwe

I’ve noticed a pattern. A large amount of productivity literature, blogs, and “hacks”, in the end tell a single story: Have the confidence to jump right in to your work. Often, they notice that there are certain barriers (self-created, or not) that are blocking your confidence or clouding your judgment so you simply cannot see clearly enough to have confidence. They then proceed to provide some tips on getting rid of those obstacles and get you back to jumping right in. That is, they modify the above phrase to: Take care of that garbage, then jump right in.

Let’s look at some favorites in the GTD, Lifehacky, blogging, and student communities and see what obstacles to confidence and getting started they wish to clear:

  1. Getting Things Done – David Allen: David Allen’s whole philosophy is based on “knowing what you’re not doing.” Another way he’s phrased it is having the confidence that what you are doing right now is exactly what you should be doing. Keeping list after list of next actions and projects is simply a way to make sure that when you’re performing a certain task, that’s exactly what you should be doing right now. Unfortunately, many of us get so enraptured with the process that we forget the doing altogether. Don't do this, it's deadly. You think you're being productive, while you're really just wasting your time. The obstacle is uncertainty due to a massive amount of "open loops", clear that quickly and get start working on something as soon as you can.

  1. The Now Habit – Neil Fiore: This book is a gem and is all about having confidence. Niel Fiore, however, is not removing the hundred and one day to day obstacles that are cluttering your head like David Allen, but rather reaching for things deeper ingrained: the constant feelings of self-doubt, guilt, and fear that lead to procrastination. He advocates not pretending to be working all the time and scheduling in guilt-free play as ways to have more confidence to start and finish your projects (by habitually starting).

  1. Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann – 43 folders: In the same style as David Allen, Merlin argues that clearing your inbox (most often email inbox) and properly processing all the input, leads the way to clarity and confidence in what the hell it is that we should be doing in this email-ridden world. Massive email in your inbox is a huge confidence shaker as all the messages keeping nagging at your brain, trying to convince they contain the true tasks to be done right now. Clear the inbox obstacle, but then don't sit there and come up with a million crafty ways to filter your email world so a monkey could process it, just get started.

  1. MITs – Leo Babatua – Zen Habits: I of course love the idea of having a small number of things you need to do each day and write these tasks on my notecard for the day. Leo likes this idea too. This idea is simple, know what the absolute most important tasks of the day are and simply do them. Don’t do anything else until they are done. This is hardest when you don’t have confidence in the outcome. That’s why having them clearly written and immediately accessible is a useful tool in helping you not find other things to do to feed your fear of your most important tasks. Again, clear the obstacle of uncertainty and doubt ("I have so much to do, where the hell do I start?") by consciously deciding on the most important tasks, and starting on them as soon as possible.

  1. Fixed Schedule Productivity – Cal Newport – Study Hacks – I’m quite envious of this schedule: 9-5 M-F and a few hours on Sunday. Really? That’s it? I seriously have trouble believing this post, and I don’t mean that as an insult at all. I doubt he’s lying, it’s just that impressive. I try every week to do this and almost always fail. Inevitably I’m not as productive as I wish to be from 9-5, and convince myself that I “should” or “have to” work in the evening and/or the weekend. This of course leads to a cycle of feeling overworked and thus working less efficiently. It’s miserable, I know. Sometimes, however, sometimes, I succeed. I’ve found that the days I do are the days I do not hesitate with what I should be doing. I simply grit my teeth and get started. The best part is, that invariably I don’t have to grit my teeth for long, for as we all know, formidable tasks are like bullies, once you stand up to them, they quickly back down. The part of Cal’s post that should tip you off to needing confidence is that he “starts early”. In other words, he doesn't waste any time before telling you to "jump right in." That means there’s no time for tossing around ideas of what you’re going to do for days to weeks before actually doing it. You gotta have the confidence that you won’t suck.

How Easy Would It Be to Start If You Knew You Wouldn't Fail?

I fail to understand why I still worry about the outcome of so many projects instead of just diving right in. I should give myself more credit. Invariably when I’ve dived in and started working, I’ve realized that the bully is actually a coward, that I have some good ideas, that I’m not the only one that doesn’t understand, or that it really won’t take as long as I thought. I imagine your experience is the same.

There's simply no alternative to having the confidence that you won't suck at the impending task. You either push aside doubt and start, or you don't start at all. Decide whether the second option is realistic, if it is, hooray, you've identified an unnecessary task. If it's not, recognize from the above 5 examples and any others you can think of that all time management and hacky literature says the same thing: get rid of obstacles to confidence, and immediately get started.

The faster you start, the more worrying you skip, and the less stress you get for a given project. If you broke down the causes of stress for a given project, how much would be related to actually doing the project? Unless the project involves an uncomfortable conversation or working with that one annoying bastard in class, usually very little. The stress comes from thinking about the project while you’re not doing anything. So if our goals are to minimize the overall stress a given project imparts on us, why not skip the thinking without doing, skip the worrying and self-doubt, get our confidence on, and get right to the doing?

How to Act Productive Tip #9: Get Pissed Off

Original Photo By: bubblemonkey

Here at Grad Hacker, we feel that simply being productive is not enough. What good is your inner, clandestine, productivity, if your bosses, colleagues, and you yourself don't really know the extent of just how unbelievably productive, busy, stressed, in a rush, and important you really are? For these, reasons, each weekend we will provide you with a tip on how to act productive.

This post goes out to one of the inspirations behind the How to Act Productive Series: George Costanza. (The other, and primary inspirations, however, are two individuals in the department that always walk fast. They seem so damn productive.)

George discovered the secret to looking like he was working hard while at the Yankee Organization: looking pissed off. This piece of advice is such a gem. If you're juggling one measily project right now, why on earth would you have a reason to be frustrated or annoyed? You wouldn't. But if you've juggling 15-20, you don't want anyone giving you lip. And if they do, you give it right back to them. And don't just look pissed off, get pissed off; might as well blow off some steam while you're acting productive.

Often, having your friends help you on your quest of acting productive by being pissed off is useful. When you walk away having said something cold, they can add "You know, he's just under a lot of stress right now." "This has nothing to do with you, he's just really busy." People will stop bothering you. But most of all, they'll look up to you.