Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Avoiding The Research Trap

Creating something out of thin air can be nerve-wracking, and one of the ways we try to subconsciously avoid this is by doing what Cal Newport calls "pseudo-work". While he refers to this in the context of studying, we creative professionals can recognize that this is akin to hiding behind the old excuse - "I need to do some more research".

Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with research. One of my hats is that of writing academic-style papers and books, and those are founded on solid research. However, precisely because research is so important in such projects, it is very difficult to know when enough is enough, and to stop doing research and get down to actually writing. Even in non-academic work, such as fiction, writers are sometimes tempted to read ever-more interesting, but irrelevant books on the types of wines served at the table of Swedish kings in the 18th century, when it is not really pertinent to the story at hand. Anything to avoid figuring out how the princess and the stable boy actually get past the guards to elope.

I have been facing this problem in my current WIP. It's going very slowly, which has been very frustrating. When trying to brainstorm ways to move it along faster and figure out why its stalling, I started to trace out the time spent on it so far. The book is actually an adaptation of my master's thesis, so theoretically I have already done the important research already. Why then is it still taking so long?

And then it hit me - I spent a whole month or so between April and May working on this project - which should have significantly moved it forward and got me far closer to finishing. Except that in that whole time - I did not write a single word. That's right - not one word. I did a lot of research - and I read through it all with highlighters - and I even copied out the relevant quotes. What I didn't do was add even a word of that to my manuscript. I did move paragraphs around - broke it up into chapters, reorganised it and moved the chapters around again. All that took a lot of time and I really thought I was working. Except it was pseudo-work - none of it got me any closer to a finished book.

Although I hadn't realised this, I figured out earlier this month when I got back to this (I had started working on something else in the middle) that I had to either complete it or decide to let go of the project. Doggedly not wanting to let go, completion was my only option. And I started to work on adding new writing to the WIP.

To see how much I was actually getting done, I kept a simple table in a note in Evernote - with the starting and ending words of the day. It soon became a little game with myself - to add more words than the day before - although many days I only progressed a little bit. Sometimes that frustrated me - and I wishing it would move much faster. Until that is that I realized - even adding 500 more words that day was more than I had done when I was just doing research and nothing else. At least now I was writing - some of it might be edited out, but it was progress. I wasn't deluding myself about working when I wasn't.

It's actually really easy to fall into the research trap without even realizing it. Even now, everyday I ask myself if I really need to add in any more to the current section. I know how easy it to say, but I must add in this one more fact, and then I must find that other report to corroborate it. At one point just last week I found myself chasing up obscure journal articles online, one after another, down research rabbit holes. As soon as I realized this - I set a time limit - that I would not spend more than 2 days on a section at most. Having the table showing me clearly how much progress I am making, and how many days I am spending on each section, keeps me semi-accountable. Which is one of the main benefits of tracking important metrics, something I am learning the hard way.

Is there a project in which you are unwittingly falling into the research trap?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

This week's book review is of a book that I read more than a year ago, and came across recently, and decided to read again. The book: Cal Newport's career-advice book "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love".

Rating: 4.5 stars

General Comments: The second time around I am appreciating the message of this book a lot more than I did previously. I would probably have given it 3.5 stars then. I think partly that is because the message of the book is quite different, and presented differently, and takes getting used to. In some ways, my own views on career and success have changed a lot in the intervening period, and perhaps as a result, I am more in agreement with the general arguments of the book.

The central premise of the book - "follow your passion" is bad advice, and instead of asking yourself what your passion is, you are better off focusing on becoming "so good they can't ignore you".

3 Insights from the Book:

1. Focus on honing your skills at work - become what Newport calls a "career craftsman", systematically honing your skills at the aspects of your field that are most important. The better you are at work, the more you acquire "career capital", which is a lot like other kinds of capital, and can be exchanged for creating a job that you actually love.

2. Craft comes before autonomy - most of us crave more autonomy in our work, as discussions on remote working and flexible time illustrate. However, Newport argues that more autonomy isn't possible without having a store of "career capital" to exchange for it.

3. Find a mission after you gain mad skills - those of us looking for a mission believe that you need to find the mission first, and then find a way to make it happen. Newport flips that order - and states that by first becoming really good and therefore knowing the bounds of your field, you can find interesting avenues to explore, which will be easier now that you also have the skills.

Although I did find some holes in his argument, or at least many possible exceptions, I do think in general there is merit in prioritising becoming good in what you are already doing rather than looking for something elusive that you could be doing instead. I definitely wish there was a book like this when I graduated.

Recommend For: Anyone wishing to gain another perspective on how to create a career that is "remarkable", especially for those starting out, or in their first jobs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

App Review: ATracker for Tracking Your Time

Today's app review is for a time tracker application that I use several times a day, called ATracker.

Application: ATracker

Main Function(s): Task and time tracking

Why I Use It: To track the time I spent on various projects / activities during the day

How I Use It: 

I had been reading a lot about how tracking your time helps you figure out what you are spending it on. I also read about the importance of deliberate practice, and how you need to put in a certain number of hours honing your skills. I already track the amount of time I spend praying, and am used to the concept that by tracking that over the past few years, I have been able to increase the time as well as see trends. I wanted to be able to track how much time I was spending on important goals such as writing and exercise.

Initially I downloaded the free version, which lets you track 4 projects or tasks. I picked the four main projects I wanted to track, and found the app so useful, I decided to upgrade to the Pro version.

The tracker is very easy to use - which is one of its primary distinguishing features. Once you set up the task (in the Pro version you can choose an icon and pick a colour), you can start and stop tasks with just a tap - which is immensely useful. I have tried out other time tracking apps, which basically just sat on my phone desktop till I deleted them, months later, since I found them too inconvenient to use. The app also displays colourful graphs - giving the percentage of the time spent on the task, as well as the total time. I personally find the percentages less useful - I am more interested in the actual amount of time spent.

What I Don’t Use ATracker For:
I have over 20 tasks set up on the app - but in order to ensure that I continue to use the app without spending inordinate amounts of time tracking everything - I only track tasks that I want to do more of. That means I track all work projects - usually when I start a project I create a task for it. I also track all exercise other than walking ( I use a pedometer app for that, and just recently bought a Fitbit). There was a time I tried to track other things like housework -- but found it too exhausting to track so many different things, and at the same time since I wanted to minimise the amount of housework I did, most of the time I don't bother tracking it.

Some months ago, I also did start to track the amount of time I spent on a certain volunteer commitment - mostly to monitor how much time I was spending and how it was spread out.

I don't however, track the amount of time spent in leisure activities, or even in checking my email, although I can see many people wanting to either monitor the amount of time spent on these pursuits, or increase or decrease them according to their needs, in which case tracking them can be beneficial.

My Workflow:
In the morning as I sit down to work, I start the tracker for the task or project I am beginning to work on, and when I have interruptions such as phone calls, or lengthy bouts of unrelated stints on the net, or I get up to make coffee, I stop the task. When I sit down again, I just tap and the task starts tracking again. This way I have a pretty accurate record of how many minutes or hours I spent each day on any given project.

Something I started recently is keeping a weekly spreadsheet of my work by project. The rows correspond to the week, and the columns to projects - and at the end of the week, or halfway into the next week, I pull up ATracker and set it for a custom range for the week in question. The data displays aggregate data for each task for that date range - which gives me totals for each project during that week. I pop the data into the spreadsheet, and calculate the total number of hours I worked on my various projects. At a glance I can see whether I put in enough hours on my most important projects, and if I'm lagging behind, there is built-in motivation to step up in the next week so I can write down a better number.

These may sound over-the-top strategies - but I have recently started to believe that while I may not be able to control certain aspects of my career trajectory - such as innate talent, and factors such as serendipity, I can control how hard I'm working, and especially, how much effort I'm putting into the work that matters, as opposed to just busy work. Tracking my time helps me to see this concretely, and ATracker makes it easy enough to use on a daily basis.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: The Right to Write

This week, for the book review, I am going back to a classic book and one that I personally love, because it helped me overcome my blocks enough to start writing what I really wanted - even though it would be some years before I could see myself as a writer.

The book - The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, by Julia Cameron, author of best-selling creativity book The Artist's Way.

Rating: 5 stars

General Comments: The book is written in an easy-to-digest style, with short chapters. Each chapter is about one aspect of the writing life, with an essay, and a prompt, to get started writing. I normally never do writing prompts from books, but I went through almost all of the ones here, and found them insightful and fun. It's easy to read the book in an afternoon if so inclined, although you might want to pause to digest the information. It's also one of the staples on my shelf that I turn to over and over, for inspiration and wisdom.

3 Insights From The Book:

1. No separation between life and writing - one of the fundamental insights of this book, and one that I need reminding of often, is that there is no need to separate writing into something big and important, that you 'do', with a lot of pomp and ceremony. You can fit writing into your life as it is now, in between looking after children and dinners with friends and doctors' appointments. Julia makes it seem so simple - as if writing is as natural as breathing.

2. Just let yourself write - don't wait for the right time, or mood, or environment to write. Let yourself start where you are, how you are, without judging. This too is something that is easy to forget - because we often think, I need to figure out what I want to say, or I'm disturbed about what's going on around me, or I'm not really in the mood right now to produce great work. Sometimes, even when you think you can't get anything done, you can surprise yourself and write something you might not otherwise have done.

3. Time isn't the problem - a lot of beginning writers or would-be writers (and I was definitely in this category, actually I sometimes still am) think that you cannot really write unless you have a lot of time - at least half a day stretched out in front of you, or a few weeks (or months) of uninterrupted time to really flesh out your book (or other piece of writing). Julia points out, and this is something that I can attest to, that having a lot of time designated at "time to write" can actually create more blocks, as you suddenly feel pressure to do something amazing, or feel stressed that you have to spend so much time writing. On the other hand, sneaking in bits of writing here and there with a few spare minutes is exactly that, sneaky. Your inner perfectionist steps aside when you are only writing for a few minutes, because its not "real writing". That doesn't mean that having large amounts of time isn't helpful, it just means a lot can be accomplished even with just a few minutes here and there with patience and persistence.

These are just a few insights - the book contains indispensable and insightful advice on every page - advice that will help you reclaim your own right to write, and call yourself a writer, if that's what you really want.
Recommend For: This book is meant for anyone who wants to be a writer, or who wants to write anything. I would also say that it should be called The Right To Create - because really it applies to anyone who wants not only to write, and is blocked, but to any artist of any sort. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to write either fiction or non-fiction, for their own pleasure or publication.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When the Work Feels Like a Struggle

The last few days, in fact, the past few weeks, have felt like a struggle. I couldn't really put my finger on it - some days I was accomplishing a good amount, some days not that much, but each bit of work felt like I was hauling a heavy bag up a steep hill. Sometimes I would get tired and put the bag down, sometimes it slipped back a bit, sometimes my feet simply refused to move.

I tried various strategies - go for a walk, have a snack, call my mom for a quick chat. Sometimes I would feel just the same when I got back to work, and some days, I felt worse. I was distracted, disillusioned with my work, and on the verge of feeling just a little depressed.

The worse the work went, the more I started to cut myself off from everyone. I couldn't meet anyone, I had to buckle down and work. I started getting snappy on the phone with my mum, hurrying her off so I could go back to work. I procrastinated in every way I could think of, when just the week before I had started to feel that I had a handle on my procrastinating habits. I employed every strategy I have written about on this blog - but since nothing worked, I came to the conclusion that I was lazy and just needed to work harder.

After a row with my mom over my impatient behaviour, and a crisis regarding one of my promotional campaigns, I decided to take a break and meditate. I realised that I was trying to do too much. The project I was working on had stumped me several times before, so in an attempt to ensure it got done, I was trying to pressure myself to complete it in a very short period of time. Additionally, I had sublimated all aspects of my life to getting work done - compromising on exercise, time with family, and activities that were fun and re-charging. I wasn't even taking the time to make nutritious meals for myself, only eating well when my father cooked me some good meals.

Actually that's how I realised what was missing - over the weekend my father took over the cooking, and we had a relaxed couple of days where I basically took a break, watched some movies with him, and just had some good conversations. Even though I did go for a meeting for an organisation I volunteer with, and managed to squeeze some work in, I chose to do both those things, and gave myself no pressure in terms of how much work I had to do. I actually got more work done in less time than I had in the past few days, and it didn't feel like work at all - since I only put in short bursts of work. The rest of the time I didn't think about my project at all.

The difference in how I felt over this weekend, and how I have been feeling the last few weeks, (and incidently also how I felt on Monday as well), made me realise that the solution to stop struggling in this instance wasn't to simply force myself to work harder and faster. Maybe I simply needed a psychological break - to allow myself to make room for all other aspects of life other than the book.

This is something I'm not really good at. I like to set what I call "high standards", and then I procrastinate so much, I raise those standards, and keep raising them, till I complete my project. I had cut back on this tendency recently, and thought that I had turned a corner, but in my haste to prevent delays in this particular project, I reverted to my old ways.

I still have a few weeks to go on this project, and I don't want to fall back into the same trap. I realised to prevent that - I have to ensure that I include time for exercise, time for catching up with family without an eye on the clock, and time for "unproductive activities" like taking time to read a good book that is not related to my work.

I would love to hear from you - what strategies do you use when your creative energies are flagging and the joy is lacking from the work?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: Your Brain At Work

This week's book review is on a book I just finished reading - Your Brain At Work by David Rock. The subtitle sums up what the book is about: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Rating: 5 stars

General Comments: The book summarizes neuroscience research to explain why we sometimes find ourselves frustrated at not being able to do what we need to, and how to use the insights from this research to become more creative and productive at work. Since this blog is about just that, I thought it was a perfect book to review.

The book is really easy to read, and quite smartly, presented as scenes in a play. The problems of a married couple, Emily and Paul, are presented, as they go through daily challenges to solve problems and give their peak performance both at work and at home. Each chapter presents a specific challenge during the day, strategies for solving that challenge, and an example of how they could have done it differently. The examples really bring home the lessons, and caused me to have several "a-ha" moments while I was reading.

3 Insights From The Book:

1. Limited amount of processing power - our brain can only hold a few concepts or ideas at a time. Certain activities such as planning, deciding, choosing between options - these all require large amounts of cognitive processing power, and the more things we force our brain to consider, the worse job it will do of it. The way I understood this was, the brain is a bit like my computer (which is a bit old), and if too many programs are open at once, it starts to hang. After shutting all but the ones I am actively working on, it starts to work properly again.

The best way to work is therefore to a) save the brain power for important tasks, and not waste CPU space by trying to remember too many items - just write things down; and b) since we can only focus on a few concepts at a time (max 3-4), it's best to simplify complex issues down, or work with only a few issues at a time.

Thus, the optimum way to work is to write down what you need to accomplish, write down your main few goals / points of focus at any point (for yourself, or for a group of people), and then use your brain's processing power to focus on those few high-level items.

2. Embedded routines are easier to perform - the brain creates pathways for tasks or routines that have been done before, which is why even after doing a task 2-3 times it starts to become easier. And why the first time you do something, you have to really focus and concentrate. Given that we want to save our processing power as much as possible for the really important tasks, it pays in efficiency, to make as many aspects of your job an embedded task (i.e. it becomes part of your long-term memory and almost automatic) as possible. This will help you focus your brain's power on those aspects that are more challenging.

The flip side to this point is that we automatically do the same things over and over, and making a chance requires consciously doing something different each time. For instance, if your natural instinct at 4pm is to eat a doughnut, and you are tired, it will require a lot of energy (which you don't have available when tired), to resist eating that doughnut and eat an apple instead. Unless of course you make eating an apple a new embedded routine - which is when it will become your new automatic response. This means making change is just something that is better done one at a time, and with patience.

3. Build awareness of your own mind - it isn't easy to observe ourselves falling back on unconscious patterns or ways of thinking or behaving that may not be serving us well. However, the research indicates that the more we practice observing our thinking, the better we get at it, and the more control we have over our own mind and its processes. We can become more efficient at work, more in control of our emotions, and even create better relationships, at work and at home. This is isn't easy, but with practice it can become much easier.

For instance, I caught myself getting angry at my project today, and realized that the biggest problem was that I wasn't making as fast progress as I would like - partly because its a difficult and fact-laden project, and partly because I was being a perfectionist. I may not have been able to change the outcome yet, but just recognizing this thought process helped me to realize I had choices in how I dealt with this, rather than feel helpless and frustrated which is how I initially felt.

It was hard to pick just 3 insights - because each chapter is full of revelations about how we think and how our brains work. One major takeaway for me from this book was that a lot of my limitations that were frustrating me before, I could start to see they were merely biological limitations, and just acknowledging that has made me brainstorm other, more productive ways to approach my work. Some of those approaches I have already blogged about in the past, and reading this book helped me understand scientifically why those strategies are effective.

Recommend For: Anyone who wants to be more productive or efficient at work, who wants to find ways to manage their teams better, who wants to improve their relationships or who simply wants to understand themselves and their minds better.

Monday, July 7, 2014

App Review: How I Use Scrivener

 I am starting a new feature – reviewing applications that I use pretty regularly in my work, and talking about how I use them for my work. I know someone else using the same software or application would probably use it quite differently – I am sharing what works for me in case it gives ideas or inspiration to someone else.

Application: Scrivener, by Literature and Latte.

Main Function(s): Word-processing software with a twist – it promises to hold your research, help with outlining, and even compile into various formats.

Why I Use It: For organizing my writing.

How I Use It:
So Scrivener is supposed to be an all-in-one tool if you choose to use it that way – from conception of an idea, through all the drafts, store your research, and then compile. If you read some of the reviews online, they rave about the all-encompassing virtues of the software.

When I was first considering trying it out (there is a 30-day free trial, for 30 separate usage days), I read many reviews, and asked myself what I would use it for. The main advantage of Scrivener over plain-old Word is its ability to make working on a longer document much easier – writing a novel or long piece of non-fiction such as a thesis quickly becomes cumbersome in Word, with all that scrolling up and down. In Scrivener, you can break up your work in as many bits as you want, and join them back again later. I did try out Scrivener – but only used it for a few days of the trial, and then it languished in my computer. I picked it up again during Nanowrimo last year, and still didn’t really find it too useful, mainly because I quickly gave up on my novel and Nano.

And then I discovered its real use to me – for organizing my writing.

I realized the reason I didn’t really make use of it properly before was that I was a bit overwhelmed by all its features. There are books you can buy to understand Scrivener, but the ones I previewed on Amazon seemed equally difficult to me. I did read that some authors used only a few of the features, but I felt that if I were to buy it, I should use all the features.

Then I started to struggle with some of my projects – which were organizationally a nightmare, and I was finding it difficult to get my head around the sheer quantity of information in front of me. I first used it for a project where I was co-writing a chapter, and had to pull together information from a previous project we had done. Trying to keep all the strands together was difficult, which changed when I moved the info to Scrivener. This took a bit of time, but once it was done, it was easier to visualize everything.

I really became a fan of Scrivener however, when I applied it to my longest running and most obstinate project – obstinate because I won’t give it up, and it refuses to come together. By this time, I had accumulated numerous notebooks of notes for the project, which I had transcribed. Some of the notes were only tangentially related to the project, some could be used as is. Not every notebook was organized thematically – I just wrote what occurred to me at various times. This writing itself was done over several years.

I used Scrivener to organize all this material – by notebook, and then using labels and colors, by timeline and context. I could see the project coming together – I could see patterns and themes emerging. Without Scrivener, I would still be drowning in all the material. I am still not finished with the project – but I have now written several drafts, and am coming to grips with the material. Scrivener is where I have stored all these drafts – again using labels and colors to indicate connections and context.

What I Don’t Use Scrivener For:
Scrivener is a powerful software and can do many things. While initially I tried to use it for all those purposes, now I have narrowed down my use. So I don’t use it for the actual writing, for that I still prefer to use Word, simply because some of my projects are co-written with others and Word is commonly used, and we need the track-change feature to see what changes have been made, and by whom. Also, in my personal projects, I like to use track-change to be able to confidently delete and move things around. Scrivener has a snapshot feature, that allows you to capture previous versions, but I prefer my own method.

I also don’t use it to store research. You can keep all your research in a separate folder inside the software itself, but here again, I prefer to stick to my own well-established workflow. I like folders and sub-folders and sometimes use shared folders with colleagues for research – so again keep that part separate.

My Workflow:
By now you might ask – why then use it at all? Because the organisational ease itself justifies using it. At one glance, I can see my project broken up hierarchically, and move pieces around effortlessly. I can also see all versions in one place, broken up by structure, so its easy to compare drafts. I simply start a new draft below the old one, and can see how its changed.

I tested my need for Scrivener last week, by not using it for my latest project. It was a short book of poems, and I thought I wouldn’t really need much organisation – after all there was no hierarchy to it. I printed out the poems to edit on paper, and then entered the changes in Word. I soon realized, I couldn’t get a sense of the whole work – and found it hard to make decisions about which poems to include, and in what order. I remembered Scrivener in time, on the verge of quitting and putting the project aside. I used Scrivener to lay out the book and decide what to include, using labels. I then decided the structure by easily moving the poems around (using the notecard / outline view). Once I had the structure finalized, I moved it back to Word.

Even adding in the extra time of moving my drafts back and forth between Word and Scrivener, I work much faster now than before because I can ‘see’ my projects better – the structure, the connections, how it all fits (or doesn’t). I revise my outlines several times during projects – as it evolves and I understand it better. My work is mostly non-fiction, and good outlines are crucial to presenting the ideas coherently. Scrivener has really helped me with this.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: How To Write A Lot

This week's book review is on a book I read earlier this year - How To Write A Lot by Paul Silvia. It's a short book and a quick read, but packs in a lot of useful insight in its pages.

Rating: 4.5 stars

General Comments: The author's style is engaging and humorous - so much so that I found myself laughing out loud while reading this book - a first for a book written by an academic! The book is aimed at helping academic writers get more research published - and the examples refer to academic writing - however, the insights are useful for anyone wishing to write more.

3 Insights From The Book:

1. Create a writing schedule - this is the central insight of the book. As all of us are busy, even though we want to write more, it becomes difficult to consistently make time for it. The author recommends creating a schedule and keeping it as strictly as any other appointment - starting with 4 hours a week, and adding in more if appropriate. A schedule ensures that the work gets done regularly, without undue stress. Using a writing schedule, the author of the book has published numerous books and academic articles. (In fact, his CV is several pages long, and I found going through his list of publications was making me feel incredibly inadequate.)

2. Write by schedule, not inspiration - waiting for inspiration is counter-productive. The author cites research which has shown that waiting for inspiration doesn't work. Those who write on a schedule produce four times as much as those who wait to feel like it. This is pretty motivating - especially as waiting for inspiration seems to be quite often the primary strategy of those wanting to write more.

3. Monitor your progress - merely tracking one's progress often produces behavior changes. Also seeing your progress can make your goals seem closer and more attainable. The author suggests a database to track the progress in each writing session, but even writing each day's accomplishment in a notebook or dedicated word document, or tracking with an app, could be beneficial.

Recommend For: Anyone who is serious about wanting to write (or create) more. It is astonishing how something done in small chunks on a daily or regular basis, can add up to impressive amounts.
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