Pondering Stickingness

I subscribe to an e-service through which I get inspirational quotes everyday. This one, I thought, merited sharing:

"Consider the postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there." – Josh Billings

This made me think about dissertating. Over the last 3 years my dissertation has been My Main Job. I've oscillated between times when I do nothing else but my dissertation - much easier to accomplish when it's field research since that doesn't require extended periods of isolation. Alas, writing is another story. Not that I don't like being myself or that I'm one of the folks who constantly craves company. But yes, what I do find difficult is sitting down by myself for hours at a stretch to write. Some suggest working from a coffee shop but I metamorphose into Bitchenstein because people talking completely derails my train of thought. So I do have to hole myself up.

Where am I going with this? I'm unsure about where I could take the postage stamp analogy. Does "sticking to one thing" mean working pulling a DNBD (Doing Nothing But Dissertating) so that you hide out in the proverbial ABD cave for months on end and resurface for light only when you finish a chapter perhaps? Or could it mean working consistently so that your life is divided into different segments - work a little, sleep a little, play a little? My accounting teacher in grades 10-13 (O Levels and A Levels for those of you familiar with the British schooling system) always told us to divide our days up in 3 equal segments of 8 hours so that a third was devoted to sleep, another third to playing, and the last third to working. Let's call this the "3 X 8" model.

To me, the latter makes sense although there are times when I have to go into ABD cave mode. I think I generally oscillate between these two but I can't really stay in the cave for longer than 3 days at a stretch. On the other hand, the "segmented" model is one with which I also have a tough time - when I start playing the id inside me just doesn't want to stop at times and then things get thrown way out of whack. That also translates into "cave time" because I feel the need to make it up.

But what if I could stick to the "3 X 8" model? After all doesn't a postage stamp see the rest of the world even when it's affixed to the same envelope?

I'm going to give that shot starting tomorrow....of course some of the third devoted to work will have to be spent on teaching prep rather than dissertating. Yup both qualify as work but the former doesn't quite get me anywhere with The Main Job - at least not directly. Either way I'm going to make a concerted effort to stick with this for a week - I'd like to be able to do this because I generally haven't been able to find a rhythm that'll last a month (which is what I think I really need to feel like I've gotten somewhere)...maybe this a momentum I can sustain for a longer period of time. Check back with me in a week if you're interested in an update.

Adieu O Pencil Ticker!

Like I said to another colleague earlier this week, looking at that ticker on my blog was making me fairly apprehensive about coming round my own e-environs. I seriously thought it would disappear on its own after we reached the 00:00:00 point. That I didn't reach the finish line right then and that the ticker kept running to tell me how many days it had been since X was due was really bringing me down.

So it's gone.

Nopes the chapter didn't get done; but in its place I've been working on revisions since I got some great feedback from my chair on the first two chapters. They seem to be shaping up surely even if slowly.

Thought I'd share the little update. Now back to regularly scheduled programming aka Grading and then a break...after all I need to take at least a day off to recharge my batteries.

And yes I'll be posting more regularly now that the Intimidating Pencil isn't freaking me out!



The chapter that had become the bane of my (Ph.Ding) existence was (finally!) completed and submitted to my chair a little over a week ago. Needless to say celebrations and taking time off followed. I knew that I'd be relieved but I was surprised to find myself breathing easier. It's nice to have that weight lifted off my shoulder.

I've started working on one of the empirical chapters....so far most of it has been planning and reviewing of field notes that I jotted down in response to both interviews and other texts I'll be analyzing. There might even have been a specific epiphany. Stay tuned!


Seven Days, Six Nights: August 8-14

I thought I'd put this out there so that I can't back out of any of this stuff, specifically submitting the chapter I'm working on currently to my chair and the writing group of which I am a part.

Submission Deadline for chapter: August 10, actually August 9 but I might (might) need the extra day.
Friday, August 11: Start working on the syllabus for the class I'll be teaching in the fall. Catch up on other logistical stuff that I've let slide. Read to prep for the next chapter
Saturday, August 12: Continue working on the syllabus + review reading notes relevant to the chapter I've started working on. An evening event I committed to eons ago that I don't think I can get out of....even though I would strongly prefer to do anything else other than be surrounded by family friends with narrow minds (ouch!) who will either ask me why I'm "still not married?" or avoid the question altogether and simply make a viciously worded statement along lines that imply I'm a man-hating feminist who is opposed to the idea of marriage. Of course there will be one other woman, besides me, whom I know who is also single. However, the fact that she isn't pursuing a Ph.D., has had two broken engagements, and is making money rather than student-ing usually exempts her from all of this. (I probably forgot to mention that this is an event at this family friends' house that happens every year so it's kind of expected that we show up). I don't know if the whole "marriage" discussion is worse than the "well why don't you solve The Problem?" referring to The Problem (although I like to call it a puzzle) which my dissertation is about or its cousin "shouldn't you be a diplomat or journalist by now?".
Sunday, August 13: Reward self for surviving "The Event" and submitting chapter by going to the movies. There is a new Bollywood movie out that I h-a-v-e to watch. Nopes I don't think it could qualify for inclusion in the dissertation but it is sheer indulgence on my part to please the "pop culture addict" and the "girly-girl" in me who wouldn't mind meeting "Mr. Good-Enough-Is-Perfect" sometime soon and has been foregoing a much-needed haircut to continue working on her dissertation.
Monday, August 14: Work resumes again; going to try out the new schedule (see previous post) that combines regular reading + note-taking in the AM with writing in the PM as I officially begin writing the next chapter.

The Challenge These Days....

Now that I've developed a rhythm where I, at the very least, write during a pre-designated time on a daily basis, I've found that the biggest challenge I face everyday is opening the file for the chapter that I'm currently working on. I do feel restless if I haven't written on a particular day. Still, that doesn't make starting the task any easier. I think it also gets progressively intimidating the more time I've spent on a chapter. Or, to be more precise, this happens when I keep shifting deadlines for a particular chapter because I'm just not happy with the way it's turning out and know that something is missing but haven't quite gotten there yet.

There are days when I can just write the basic stuff that I know has to be in there. Other days I indulge the perfectionist in me and obsess like an ABD student possessed! Either way, it's a constant battle everyday to open the latest file in-progress.

Generally this is how a typical day is for me now that I've put myself on a social hiatus for the most part barring Sundays - yes I am doing the ABD to Ph.D. cave" thing 6 days a week + Sunday nights or mornings through the month of August:

Early morning to morning: wake up, eat breakfast, clean. Yes I try to get all distractions out of the way.
10ish am: sit in front of computer in an attempt to write but end up reading blogs and checking e-mail while mustering up the courage to open the file coded in red (Macs are cool like that) on my desktop - on some days I'll open the file and only manage a quick scan.
11:30 am circa: give up, go workout instead (yoga classes, gym, or if I'm pressed for time then treadmill time and a DVD it is!)
1 pm: shower, sit in front of the computer and re-check e-mail + respond, feel hungry, eat lunch while catching a re-run of a show I enjoy, quick prayer break.
2 pm: Back to work! Still can't open the file but manage to read an article or a book on most days to get myself in the groove. Or perhaps a quick phone chat with a colleague/friend to talk about chapter ideas or, if the day is going particularly horrendously, whine about PhDing.
4ish pm: Finally I muster the courage to open the file. Try to resist the urge to review what I have written if I already have an outline that will let me just plug in content. After another prayer break in between (5-10 minutes) I continue writing.
8ish pm: Since I've forgotten to consume so much as a glass of water for the last 4 hours I'm usually too thirsty and also ravenous to go any further. Call it a day even though I promised to start at 3 pm and end at 7 pm it's usually just after 8 pm that I tire myself out. Dinner with the family. Step outside to preserve my sanity; I'm glad it's summer btw! TV watching later to relax my brain plus catch up on the news.
11:30ish pm: Get ready to go to sleep.

And the cycle starts all over again the next day. What's the pattern here? That I can't seem to write before 4 pm no matter how hard I try.

Not that it isn't good that I've disciplined myself to write but I think I end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed for 2 reasons:
1. I keep trying to start earlier than I can which means I beat myself up the first half of the day.
2. There's no real systematic or regular time for planning built in. Okay sometimes in the 2 pm slot but that's not always the case. What happens then is that the referring to other books part of the deal happens in between writing - not that it's a bad thing but I think if I were to take some time out for planning and note-taking earlier in the morning rather than forcing myself to write in the mornings I'd be better off. How? I feel that reading helps jog "green points" aka good ideas/substantive points that I think of in response to an argument written by someone else. So instead of forcing myself to write during a time of day when I seem largely unable to perhaps reading at that time will help my writing tremendously by

a) Give me green points to incorporate into my writing when I do sit down in the afternoon. That'll probably add authority to my writing voice - not that I have a problem with that but it takes me a while to get there. Like all ABDs, I feel like I have to read everything to say something.
b) Currently, I tend to stop my writing in-between to refer to stuff. That can't be avoided completely but if I've read something relevant to the section(s) I plan to work on then perhaps the writing process will be smoother IMHO.
c) That I've read what I feel I need to will also minimize how overwhelmed I feel. Taking notes earlier in the day to prep for the section(s) I'll be writing will mean the stuff is fresh in my mind. Again, I won't be scrambling to find something I might have read months ago. I'll avoid feeling like I have to go into another cycle "re-reading" to be able to write and make claims which I think will probably save me a lot of time.
d) If I've read what I need to, more of those 4 hours that I write everyday will be devoted to putting down words on (virtual) paper. It sure would be nice to be done sooner than I anticipate :-).
e) If I feel prepared, perhaps opening that file won't feel quite as intimidating.

So, in that spirit, starting Monday morning (because today is a bit shot plus I didn't want to try to find a new rhythm to complete the chapter I'm working on currently which I think I'll be able to submit to my chair day after tomorrow if not tomorrow) when I begin working actively on the new chapter I'm going to commit to a schedule that incorporates regular reading/note-taking in the mornings and writing in the afternoons.

Now back to the dissertation.


The Abyss of Procrastination

Check out the link above - it'll take you to a video on procrastination in the life of an ABD Ph.D. candidate. [In case the link is broken or not working for some reason the URL is http://www.ingredientx.com/watch/tales/procrast.htm]

Change the figure and the narrative of the day's events in this clip and it could be my day yesterday aka The Dissertation Day From Hell. For some bizarre reason, I couldn't get anything done yesterday. Not because I didn't have anything to say/write but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Of course the house is presently spic and span but that completely threw off what I had planned for yesterday.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that today will be a better day. Update tomorrow dear blogosphere....


From ABD to Ph.D: 7 Rules that I think seem to work.

I've spent some time this morning hunting down and reading (quite closely, might I add) blogs of folks who have gone successfully from ABD to Ph.D. and blogged about the last leg of their journey since that's kind of where I'm at right now. [This exercise has been largely prompted by the realization that the chapter I was scheduled to finish today is not going to get done for no other reason than me being unable to get my butt in action for the last 3 days - not sure why but I think it has something to do with me telling folks that writing is going well and then it just comes to screeching halt...I think I'm jinxing it myself! Or to be more precise and not just shorthand it down to superstition, when I share with others the process that has been working well for me I think it sounds so much neater in the retelling that I end up setting ludicrous expectations for myself. So I'm back to square 1 - somewhat intimidated but largely overwhelmed as I wonder whether or not repeating this process will result in similar rewards. Of course it will but the neat story makes me wonder how I accomplished it in the first place i.e. I become trapped in my own neat narrative and forget how difficult and messy the actual experience was and expect myself to produce almost robotically and as effortlessly as the retelling makes it sound but isn't really the case.]

I'm happy to report that the tips and nuggets these ABD [All But Dissertation, for those of you wondering what the acronym stands for] bloggers shared that helped them just write "The-Darn-Thing" are all steps I've recently started taking and they seem to be working more often than not (when they don't it's entirely my fault for shying away and not making the effort...nopes I'm not lazy, just a bit intimidated every now and then). I'll admit that it feels kind of good to know that I've instinctively figured out some of this stuff from just doing it....of course I've probably also nagged my chair a great deal so the knowledge is not technically emanating just from yours truly.

The 7 most important realizations that have helped me gain some perspective and momentum (knock on wood) which is why I'm holding myself to them even when I don't want to. Thought I'd share with the blogosphere the rules I'm making myself obey henceforth till I defend after which I'll take a momentary break and then get back to it :-):

1. The "Good Enough" Rule:
As my chair put it in a recent e-mail exchange "letting good enough be good enough" is key. That doesn't mean I get it now - the perfectionist in me continues to want to go back and rework an existing draft multiple times. Still I remind myself of this when I notice my own obsessiveness getting the better of me. There needs to be an ongoing flow of "black words on white screen/paper".

2. The "Momentum Doesn't Just Happen, It Needs To Be Generated" Rule:
Allowing myself to stop when I still have "green points" in me has been very helpful. I was nervous initially about doing that since it is such a Herculean effort to get myself to sit down to write (as opposed to reading or taking notes for what I want to write eventually) and I was afraid I wouldn't remember the next day (my memory is awful when it comes to names or remembering all the intricacies of a thought). But if I kept going writing would almost always feel like I was punishing myself. Now I sit down each day and look at my outline to see which sections I can realistically tackle that day and just plod along. Sometimes I get it all done, sometimes it's less and sometimes more but there's stuff happening everyday.

3. "The Sky Doesn't Have To Be T-H-E Limit" Rule:
Part of the problem, especially if one has a tendency to procrastinate, is the notion that if no work got done on day X we'll make up for it tomorrow. It never works and the guilt continues to mount. So even if you know you're insanely behind draw up a new schedule that's actually realistic and stick to it. Once there's momentum I think one ends up working more than originally budgeted for but if we're setting ourselves up for failure writer's blocks will be fairly frequent and the vicious cycle of being stuck in ABDland will persist. Whenever I plan these marathon writing sessions I fall further behind because a) they're unrealistic, b) not conducive to good or, for that matter, any kind of writing, c) invitations to screw up so dissertating feels like even more of a pain. And so the vicious cycle spirals even further out of control. On the other hand, setting modest goals seems to work. If I finish what I've done for the day I look forward to the next writing session. Perhaps even get ahead. And eventually it starts to pile up so at the end of the week I feel like I've actually accomplished something. In other words, baby steps. For example, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon might not seem like much but that's definitely 2 hours more than what I would do if I plan to write for 8 hours. In the latter instance, nothing really happens. But 2 hours does happen and at the end of the week I've put in 12 hours, tackled the chapter section by section, and have a whole lot more to show for it.

4. The "There's Life Outside The Dissertating Cave" Rule:
Some folks can live and breathe their dissertation. I am not one of them and shouldn't aspire to go that route because I can sustain it for a couple of days after which I need to be "bad" in a manner of speaking. I should just stick to #3 above...I also think that works for most ABDers much better than the "retreat to the dissertating cave" strategy and resurface only when it's done. I say hiding in the cave a few hours a day is a good thing but that's about it. So do other things on a daily basis that make you feel good, that are fun, and have nothing to do with your Ph.Ding existence. In fact I think this is key because writing, unlike field research, is a very solitary endeavor. Staying in that state for prolonged periods of time at a stretch is, IMHO, unhealthy. Adding other activities to one's daily routine will make the dissertation feel less like punishment, especially if you happen to enjoy human contact. That could be chilling out with loved ones, cooking for your family, exercising, going for a walk, going to the gym, a spa visit, watching TV, going to the movies, calling your pals, going to the museum....whatever you like so long as you do something else during the day besides eat, sleep, and dissertate.

5. The "Sorry But I Can't" Rule:
Even though hiding in the cave for what might seem like an eternity isn't a good idea, saying 'no' to loved ones, friends, colleagues, acquaintances every now and then is necessary if it's getting in the way of writing. I'd say again that balance is key. So becoming a hermit isn't the solution but avoiding contact [read: distractions] during one's most productive hours is definitely a good idea. In that vein, I'm going to go on a daily social hiatus between the hours of 1 pm - 7:30 pm (EST). I've noticed that I work best during those times so I need to dedicate those hours to my dissertation during the week.

6. The "Small Steps" Rule:
Thinking about an entire dissertation or chapter is important when planning the argument. But when you're writing, I've seen that making an outline and then breaking it up into sub-sections is much more manageable when it comes to trying to make sure a certain amount of progress is made everyday. Of course it's extremely time-consuming to make an outline in such painstaking detail but I say this based on personal experience - it makes the actual writing of the chapter a gazillion times easier. Plus getting it done bit by bit, or let's say word by word or section by section, does wonders....it keeps you focused on what you've accomplished rather than what remains.

7. The "Don't Stop, Just Keep Going" Rule:
Yup things come undone. In fact, you can bet on it every time you figure out the neat version of your argument. Don't be afraid. If you need to start any part of it over, do it. If you need to walk away because you're confused, do that. Just remember to come back to tame "the beast" even if it seems uncontrollable.

As I review the 7 rules, the realization that hits me even harder is that while getting from MA to ABD requires more ability than discipline getting to the Ph.D. is a completely different animal. As far as ABD to Ph.D. is concerned, I think each candidate has already proven by the time he/she defends his/her prospectus defense that the project is worthwhile and that they're smart enough. All that remains is starting and finishing it. So the 'road to Ph.D dom' definitely requires substantive amounts of discipline in the vicinity of 99% discipline: 1% ability.

On that note, I'm going to plod along this chapter for the next few hours and see where I'm at. I have a social obligation that I probably shouldn't have committed to since it's bang in the middle of my "productive time" and the deadline to submit my first completed draft to my committee is imminent. But now that I have I'm just going to enjoy it....plus I'll get to celebrate a birthday, reconnect with friends I haven't seen in a while, and also meet up with some even older school friends whom I haven't seen since I graduated in 1992. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to enjoy some time off during the long Independence Day week-end as we're going away. When I come back I'm going to make sure I keep these 7 rules in mind. So to readers whom I know "In Real Life", if I disappear Mondays-Saturdays between the hours of 1-7:30 pm (EST) don't panic or get mad - I just really need to do this. Of course exceptions will be made if you need me for some reason and/or if you're visiting me :-). Overall, I'm dedicating July to the beginning of the end of ABD-hood. [Note to chair and committee members: this means that the chapters I've promised to e-mail you this month will be making their way to your inboxes for sure].

And so, in that spirit, here's to a productive July. And of course, Happy Independence Day in advance to those of you celebrating. Cheers!