Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What would your ideal day look like? Lessons from Barbara Sher

There are lots of ways of getting what you want in life. The first step, however, is to know what it is you want in life. This, for many, is the hardest part.

Nearly three years ago, when I was on vacation in Portland, Jamaica, I read a book by Barbara Sher called Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want.

The book came highly recommended by the amazing Kerry Ann Rockquemore and I found it carried many important life lessons. In Wishcraft, Barbara Sher offers a strategy for figuring out what you want in life. Part of that strategy is to imagine your perfect day. Not your perfect vacation day, but a regular day in your ideal life. Once you know what your perfect day would look like, it makes it easier to imagine your perfect life.

Enthralled by the idea of a perfect day, and, of course, a perfect life, I began to think about how a day in my ideal life would look.

My ideal day

My day begins with me waking up at the crack of dawn to the sound of ocean waves crashing on the shore. The first thing I do is get up and go for a walk on the beach.
Here we go again!

After walking, I do some strength training or yoga on the beach, and then go for a dip in the ocean. I go inside, take a shower, and then have breakfast on the patio overlooking the ocean with my husband and children. My breakfast includes a café latte, a mango smoothie, and yogurt with granola and strawberries.

My children walk off to school and my husband gets busy doing what he loves – practicing music or making jewelry. I sit out on my patio or at a huge window at my writing desk and write for two hours. After writing, I answer emails and update my blog. Then, I get ready for lunch.

I walk a few blocks from my house to a nice restaurant and have lunch in the garden with inspiring, engaging, smart friends. We enjoy a delicious, healthy meal and wonderful conversation.

After lunch, I walk up to campus, where I either prepare my class if it is a teaching day or do library research if it’s a research day. When I teach my class, it is to a room full of engaged, socially active students who are thrilled with learning and with ideas. I leave campus feeling fulfilled and walk to my children’s school to pick them up.

In the afternoon, I take the kids to an outdoor or cultural activity. This might be theatre practice, horseback riding, nature hiking, or swimming at the beach.

What Have I Done?

Or, it could be the day we all go to zumba or dance class together. After our family activity, we go home and prepare dinner. The kids do their homework while Nando and I make dinner.

A couple of musician friends come over for dinner, which we enjoy on the back deck. The food is delicious and the conversation is lively. After dinner, my husband, Nando, and our friends play a few songs. I listen from the hammock on our back deck.

I read books with the children for a bit before they go off to bed. Nando and I relax on the couch for a while before going to bed. I fall asleep, relaxed, and sleep until I am ready to start a new day.

What will make you happy?

The next step in this exercise is to figure out what kind of life you want to lead on the basis of this ideal day. And, to figure out which things are necessary in order to be happy, and which are just frills. As I think about this for myself, I have realized that I do not necessarily have to live on the beach, but do need access to the beauty of Mother Nature on a regular basis. I love going for long walks and doing outdoor activities, so living in a warm climate is a definite plus for me. Another of the most important parts of my day involves having good friends around. So, I also want to live somewhere where I have access to a great community.

One great thing I got out of this exercise is that I have chosen the right profession. Working as a college professor allows me the flexibility to be able to spend my mornings at home writing, and my afternoons engaging with the wider community. I am too social to want to be in the house writing all of the time, so I do enjoy being able to teach and to speak publicly.

How Does Your Ideal Day Look?

What about you? What would your ideal day look like? What things are most important to you in life?

Here are the instructions from

EXERCISE 9: Your Ideal Day
With pen in hand and as much paper as you need (or a tape recorder if you prefer to dream out loud), take a leisurely walk through a day that would be perfect if it represented your usual days—not a vacation day, not a compromise day, but the very substance of your life as you’d love it to be. Live through that day in the present tense and in detail, from getting up in the morning to going to sleep at night. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? What do you have for breakfast? Do you make it yourself—or is it brought to you in bed, with a single rose and the morning paper? Do you take a long, hot bath? a bracing cold shower? What kinds of clothes do you put on? How do you spend the morning? the afternoon? At each time of day, are you indoors or outdoors, quiet or active, alone or with people?

As you go through the hours of your fantasy day, there are three helpful categories to keep in mind: what, where, and who.

What are you doing—what kind of work, what kind of play? Imagine yourself at the full stretch of your capacities. If you’d like to sing or sail, and you don’t know how, in this fantasy you do know how.

Where—in what kind of place, space, situation? A London flat, an Oregon farm, a fully equipped workshop, an elegant hotel room, a houseboat?

Who do you work with, eat with, laugh and talk with, sleep with? You will undoubtedly want to write some of your favorite real people into your fantasy; you might also want to include some types of people you’d like to be surrounded by—writers, musicians, children, people your own age, people of all different ages, athletes, Frenchmen, financiers, simple country people, celebrities.

What about you? How do you envision your ideal day? How close are you to achieving it? What is one thing you can do today to get you closer to your ideal life?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How Smart Do You Have to Be To Become a Successful Academic?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, he argues that success is often the product of hard work, combined with timing, luck, and ability. He also contends that superior intelligence is not necessary for success; you just need to be over a certain threshold. (This threshold theory of intelligence was proposed by Ellis Paul Torrance, and popularized by Gladwell.) Academia would certainly count for one of the areas where a certain threshold of intelligence is required.

I think the threshold theory of intelligence is interesting for two reasons. First, we can honestly ask how you know whether or not you are over the threshold. Secondly, once you are over the threshold, you don’t have to worry about how smart you are: you just need to work hard and hope that your timing is right.

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker (1901-1957)

Are you smart enough?

A few weeks ago, Jonathan mentioned the threshold theory on his blog. He argues
if you have a PhD from a respectable school, if you've published an article or two, if you've been engaging in the actual work in a way that's intrinsically satisfying to yourself, then you are over the threshold.
I agree with Jonathan, but I suspect he places the bar a bit too high. I think that anyone who is accepted into a graduate program at a school that consistently places students in tenure track positions and who is able to complete an M.A. thesis is likely over the threshold. I am tempted to put the bar lower, but will leave it there.

If that describes you, then we can presume you are intelligent enough to become a successful academic. You see, you don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you are the brightest in your cohort or the current star on the academic job market. You just have to be over the threshold and then work hard enough towards your success. If that does not describe you, then you might still be over the threshold, and just need to develop the skills to complete an M.A. thesis.

A Meritocracy?

It is funny to listen to myself say that if you work hard you will be successful, because I know we do not have a meritocracy in the academy, or anywhere else for that matter. However, I also know that many academics are plagued with doubt about their abilities and that these doubts keep them from being successful.

One aspect of being a successful academic is that it requires a certain set of skills. And, these skills can be learned and honed. As Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Mayhew argue, you need to have a certain level of ability to become a successful academic. But, as they both would likely agree, there are many more people with this ability than those who actually become successful academics.

Learning the Skills for Success

Focusing on learning and teaching skills for success is a more democratic project than attempting to identify the most intelligent people in the world. A focus on skills also will lead to more knowledge production. I am in favor of the production of knowledge and believe that our knowledge base will be substantially enhanced if we are able to draw from as wide a pool of knowledge-producers as possible. Malcolm Gladwell points out that Canada could have twice as many hockey stars as it currently does if it allowed for two leagues: one league for players born between January 1st and June 30th and another for players born on or after July 1st. Academia could probably have many more brilliant scholars if we could convince more people early on that academic success is not based on superior intelligence (a fixed trait), but on learning and mastering a set of skills (a learned trait).

In addition to describing these skills in this blog, I teach a writing and publishing class each Fall at the University of Kansas. In that class, I do my best to teach second year M.A. students the skills they need to become successful academics: time management, daily writing, planning, editing, critical thinking, and analytical skills. One semester is certainly not enough to teach all of the skills, but my intention is to create a situation where students to understand that the completion of an M.A. thesis is dependent upon learning a certain set of skills, not on being the smartest person in the room.

If you are working towards becoming a successful or more productive academic, I suggest that you think of those areas where you can improve your skill set. What are the skills you need to be successful? How can you learn them? Focusing on improving your skills as opposed to raising your IQ is much more likely to help you to become more successful.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing while enjoying life: How to make the most of your day

This blog is about being productive and enjoying life at the same time. I know sometimes the blog posts sound like I am just writing about being productive. But, my hope is that, by implementing some of the strategies you read about here, you will have more time to enjoy the good things in life.

pacific morning

In this post, I will talk about how to structure your day to maximize productivity while also leaving time for other things that are important in your life: your health, your family, exercise, eating well, etc... One strategy that works very well for me is to work in relatively short, concentrated bursts, and to make sure that I complete my most important tasks first thing in the morning.

Slow and Steady: Writing For Two Hours a Day

This summer, for example, my strategy has been to get in two to three hours of writing as early as possible in the morning, and then to dedicate the rest of the day to other tasks. I have had quite a bit of success with this. Using this slow and steady method of writing two to three hours this morning, in six weeks, I have been able to:

  1. Complete a Revise and Resubmit
  2. Complete the revisions for a short book manuscript (25,000 words) and send it out for review
  3. Put the final touches on an article and (almost) send it out for review
  4. Finish up a chapter for a textbook and send it out for review
  5. Analyze 4 of my 63 remaining interviews.

My system has been working. It has allowed me to make progress on my writing, while also permitting me time to enjoy my summer in Europe, and make some headway into new research projects here in Spain and France. Most of my new research has entailed me getting out of the house and finding out what is going on, so it has been most enjoyable. At this point in the summer, with just over a month left before classes start, I feel completely relaxed and as if I am making the most of my summer.

New Situation = New Strategy

But, things are about to change, meaning I need to implement a new strategy. On July 14, our European work-cation will be over. I will spend a few days in my hometown, Washington, DC, and then will go back to Kansas, where I normally live and work. For my last month of the summer in Kansas, I will need to switch gears and ensure I make progress on four fronts:

  1. Writing for my deportation project
  2. Analyzing my deportee interviews
  3. Preparing my tenure dossier
  4. Preparing my syllabi for Fall 2011.

To get these things done, I will use the same principle: Allocate tasks to different times of the day and leave plenty of time for breaks. Here is my new plan.

Each morning, from 8am to 10am, I will go to a coffee shop near my house and write for 90 minutes to two hours on my deportation project. Making progress on my writing is my most important priority, and it is the task that requires the highest level of concentration. So, that goes first.

After my writing and coffee, I will go home and have breakfast with my family. My children will not be in summer camp or any other organized activity. After breakfast, I will help the kids get ready and take them to the public library with me. I will set the kids up in the library with one activity or another and then get to work myself.

From 11am to 1pm, I will analyze at least one deportee interview. I am hoping this part of the plan will work, as it could fall through if my kids don’t want to go to the library or if they begin to argue amongst themselves in the library, making it difficult for me to do my work. But, I know that I can be interrupted while checking an interview transcription and pick up where I left off without a problem. So, we will try this strategy.

After our library trip, we will go home and have lunch and relax for a bit.

From 2:30pm to 4:30pm, I will go up to my office and complete the tasks that require me to be in my office and connected to a good Internet connection. I will check and respond to emails for about 30 minutes. Note that this is the first time I will check email in the day. (I hope I can do this!!) Then, I will spend the remaining 90 minutes working on my tenure dossier and/or preparing my syllabi.

I will be home by 5pm, and can take the kids to the swimming pool or the park and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with them. Depending on the weather, I also will figure out a way to work some exercise into my afternoon. If it isn’t 100 degrees outside, I will go for a long walk. If it is too hot, I can take a short walk to the nearby community gym and get on the elliptical. Alternatively, I can do my 20-minute Jillian Michaels “Making the Cut” video.

The idea behind this plan is to consciously break up the day into times of work and relaxation. I know that I cannot work for six hours straight, but that I can get in five to six hours of work between 8 am and 5pm if I take long breaks between. I also know that this will be a lot less stressful than if I stayed in my office from 8am to 5pm. And, believe it or not, I also know that it will be equally (if not more) productive.

So far, this is just a plan, so I will let you know how it goes.

A Caveat

I also will point out that this plan works for me because of various factors in my favor. 1) I live in a small town and thus getting from one place to another takes about 15 minutes by foot or 5 minutes by car. A person with long commute times would have to come up with a different plan, such as finding ways to take long breaks without veering too far from the office or working at home for at least part of the day. 2) My husband will be at home this summer as well, and thus he can cook while I take the kids to the library or go grocery shopping while I am with the kids at the pool. If you are a parent without childcare during the summer, you would have to be quite a bit more creative to find time to write. 3) My kids are aged 10, 10, and 7, and thus quite independent. At these ages, I can expect them to entertain themselves for an hour or two in the public library. When they were smaller, this plan would have never worked.

How have you been structuring your days this summer? Is it working for you? If so, great! If not, how might you change your structure to be more productive and have a life too?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to become a better, faster writer

If you are an academic, and you think you do not write very well or very fast, you are not alone. Most academics think this way. But, this blog is not about sharing gripes: it is about providing solutions. And, the problem of not writing well or fast has a solution. You can become a better, faster writer through deep practice.

The idea of deep or deliberate practice has been around for a few decades. Proponents of this idea argue that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice make an expert. This does not mean just spending 10,000 hours, or 2 hours a day for ten years, doing something, but doing it purposefully, always pushing your limits. Scholars and popular writers such as Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.) and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success) have used this idea to explain chess prodigies, Olympic swimmers, and phenomenal musicians. The good news for us is that deliberate practice can be applied to a wide range of activities, including writing.

Helene Kirsova, ballerina, ca. 1947 / photographer unknown

You can become a better, faster writer through deliberate practice.

How do you improve your writing other than to just sit down and write, write, and write some more? Proponents of deliberate practice offer some suggestions. Daniel Coyle, for example, offers this advice to become an expert, using the acronym REPS.

R stands for Reaching/Repeating.
Element 1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating? How many reaches are you making each minute? Each hour?

E stands for Engagement.
Element 2: Engagement. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?

P stands for Purposefulness
Element 3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?

S stands for Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.
Element 4: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. In other words, the learner always knows how they’re doing — where they’re making mistakes, where they’re doing well — because the practice is telling them in real time. They don’t need anybody to explain that they need to do X or Y, because it’s clear as a bell.

As writers, we can use these suggestions for deep practice by testing out new waters in our writing, fully engaging in our writing, writing with purpose, and receiving consistent feedback. I can imagine these concepts being used in a wide variety of ways in terms of writing, and will offer a few examples to show how we can use this idea.

Deep Practice Element 1: Reaching and Repeating.

Writing is the process of conveying ideas through words. One way to “reach,” then, would be to use a new word every day. Just before you begin to write, pick up a journal article in your field and find a word you do not use very often. Not a jargonistic word, but one that is useful, like “complement” or “corroborate.” Try and use the word at least twice in your writing for the day.

Element 2: Engagement.

When you write, concentrate on what you are doing. When you edit, think about the extent to which every sentence in the piece you are writing is necessary towards your argument. Be engaged and passionate, and cut out anything that is excess.

Element 3: Purposefulness.

Purposefulness is about connecting tasks to your goals. Here, our goal is to become a better writer. Reading well-written books and articles can improve your writing, but this method works best when you pay attention not only to the content but to the style. Thus, when you read with an eye to improve your writing, pay attention to how the authors you admire construct their sentences and choose their words. Read with the purpose of becoming a better writer.

Element 4: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.

Getting honest, critical feedback is essential for becoming a better writer. Getting strong, direct immediate feedback does not mean that you write an article in isolation and send it to a journal when you are finished, but that you get feedback at every stage of the article. Get a trusted friend to read early drafts, and ask experts in your field to read later versions. Get feedback early and often.

Worried you will never be a good writer? Well, worry no more, after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will be among the best. And, if 10,000 hours sounds like a long time to wait, fret not. You probably already have quite a few hours of practice under your belt, and you will see immediate results once you begin to practice your writing on a daily basis.