Fruit of my brain

Hellooooooo!!! (she calls from the bottom of a deep, paper-lined well).

I've been hunkered down, trying to finish my two Qualifying Papers (40+ pages each) and my Qualifying Portfolio for my Review coming up. Well, sing Hallelujah, as of about 4:30 this afternoon, it's done. Isn't she pretty?


Let me tell you, mine is a brain that does not take kindly to hunkering down. Usually I give in to my dilly dallying with a shrug, in a kind of wild-horses-can't-be-broken kind of way, but turns out wild horses don't get a lot done.  They definitely don't get doctorates. Humph.

I did manage to find a few techniques to keep myself focused. I was chatting with my friend and fellow mom/PhD student, Melissa, and she offered to send me a procrastination questionnaire from her work with students. The aim of the questionnaire was to figure out what type of procrastinator you are so you can use specific tactics to overcome that particular brand. Well, hello! I was 5 of the 6 kinds and that was even when I fudged a little to save my self respect.  I am a perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, crisis-maker, overdoer procrastinator. Nice to meet you.

It did help to think about all of these patterns and avoidances that become part of my daily habit (thank you, Melissa).  I came up with a few aids of my own. They're probably obvious and what you already do. I think I'm also a late-blooming-idea procrastinator.

1. Garbage pail. When I cook, I always grab an empty bowl to put all of the little pieces of trash (egg shells, apple cores, peelings, etc.) while I prepare the food. So I decided to set up a garbage pail list next to me on the desk. In the past, every time I had a thought flit across my brain ("oh, I need to call ____," "is the laundry done yet?") I would use that as an excuse to get up and disrupt my work. Now I said, "Brain, this is not the time to deal with this. Put it on the garbage pail list and you'll deal with that later." Totally worked.

2. Timer. 50 minutes of work, 10 minutes of break. Repeat. Turns out what works for a 3-year-old works for me.  Not that I made our children work 50 minutes at a time when they were 3, mind you. Just using the timer to aid better behavior is a very 3-year-old thing.

3. Lay out the day in 2-hour increments. I think I got this from About A Boy*. I don't know why, this just helped me stay realistic about how much work I really could accomplish and kept me from getting overwhelmed. It takes me a while to settle down to writing so I really do need a nice chunk of time. Mine looked like this:

5:30-7:30  Take Maddy to seminary, to high school, go back home, say goodbye to G and Sam

7:30-9:30  Shower, get ready, tidy up the house, make calls

9:30-11:30 Write

11:30-1:30  Lunch, run errands, answer emails, etc.

1:30-3:30  Write

3:30-5:30  Chat with kids as they come home, help with homework & practicing, etc. Maybe write a little if everyone's all set.

5:30-7:30  Dinner prep, eating, clean up, family time

7:30-9:30  Relax, family devotional, maybe a little more writing

9:30-11:30 Get ready for bed, reading, watching, sleep

Scheduling to the minute makes me really rebellious. I've tried that before and I end up feeling too bossed around and I go to a matinee movie instead (That's probably the dreamer+crisis-maker procrastinators in me teaming up right there.) This gave me enough flexibility and structure to stick to it.

4. Parking lot. Sort of like the garbage pail, this is a document open on my computer screen while I write. Sometimes I'll get little jolts of ideas for another place in the paper so I found that if I had a parking lot for them (rather than suppressing them or running with them) it kept me productive and yet still able to use the inspiration that came (and trust me, I needed all the inspiration I could get).

Anyway, that's what kept me sane while I pushed through to the deadline (and, admittedly, the deadline got pushed back along the way. Just keeping it real here, folks.)  Do you use any tricks to get yourself on track? Or are you of the mysterious non-procrastinating variety?

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p.s. I was really moved by my advisor/mentor Fred's obituary in the Boston Globe today. I think it captures him beautifully and I feel lucky that I knew him. I've still been sad about his loss and a bit bewildered about how to move forward.  Today I came across a lovely, generous letter of recommendation he wrote for me a few years ago. It gave me a pep talk and soothed my soul. Thanks, Fred.

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*"I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It's amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I'd ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?" (Hugh Grant as Will, About a Boy).