In The Chronicle of Higher Education this month, Michael C. Munger has a great article on writing scholarly nonfiction: 10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly. All 10 tips are thoughtful and great, but I do believe that this one — #5 — is my favorite:
5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. We have all met those glib, intimidating graduate students or faculty members. They are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in some bar or at an office party. They have all the answers. They can tell you just what they will write about, and how great it will be.
Years pass, and they still have the same pat, 200-word answer to “What are you working on?” It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything, except that one little act.
You, on the other hand, actually are working on something, and it keeps evolving. You don’t like the section you just finished, and you are not sure what will happen next. When someone asks, “What are you working on?,” you stumble, because it is hard to explain. The smug guy with the beer and the cigarette? He’s a poseur and never actually writes anything. So he can practice his pat little answer endlessly, through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Don’t be fooled: You are the winner here. When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you aren’t working hard enough.
While those last lines might ring harshly in the ears, I think the message they contain is actually important and positive: when you’re working on something difficult, you won’t always feel great. You’ll feel inadequate and stupid a lot of the time as you strive to comprehend and master. It’s okay — even good — to feel that way. Feeling that way is a sign of engagement and progress. And feeling that way won’t last forever! Remember: the victory at the end is all the sweeter for the struggle that preceded it. The things in life most worth doing are the hardest things to do.
Hellllllooooo, September! Walking in Season has returned, but one day late this time around. We were without internet on September 1st: contractors at the new house being built next door accidentally plowed through the underground internet cable yesterday. (The day before that, they accidentally punched a hole in our sewer line, and before that, the owner of the house used our hose but forgot to turn the spigot off — oy! Adventures in construction and good-neighborliness.)
After 24 hours without internet, our service has just now been restored. The upshot of our forced hiatus from connectivity is that it reminded us how well — and how deeply and fluidly — we work and think when the distraction of the internet is absent.
In the first few disconnected hours, we were enlightened (and embarrassed) to observe how often we would try — just out of unthinking habit — to check e-mail, or blogs, or news, or weather, or try to Google information that, most often, actually wasn’t absolutely necessary to track down at the very instant we attempted to track it down. We were amazed how often we would open our browsers before remembering, “Oh, right, no internet.” We had suspected how fragmented our trains of thought had become by such habitual actions and perpetual distractions, but had not had a mirror held to our behaviors and their effects — until the Internet Hiatus.
And so, we adjusted. (I will admit: I required more adjustment than Matt did.) After a few hours of reconditioning, we were working better and thinking more clearly than we had in a very, very long time. It made us so happy. In the end, we became thankful for the interruption of service!
In fact, we liked the effects so much that we have decided to try a new internet policy around our house: setting hours during which to take care of internet business and partake of internet entertainment, and turning the internet off the rest of the time.
I am a big, big, big advocate of removing temptations from one’s environment, rather than relying on willpower alone to resist them and then feeling doubly bad when that willpower inevitably fails. We are human, after all, and our willpower is a limited resource. Best to conserve and spend it wisely — such as, you know, by using it to force oneself to delve into the statistics manuals one has been avoiding for years, rather than to prevent oneself from comparison shopping for birth balls or reading favorite blogs. (Ahem.) The former is a lot easier when the latter options have been removed from one’s environment.
And now, without further ado (some might say, without further distraction), September’s Walking in Season photos! The full set (January-present) can be viewed at Flickr here. The photos were indeed taken on September 1, but unfortunately, at mid-day, in harsh lighting. Since January, Stop 4 has undergone the biggest transformation of all the stops, methinks: from high-water wetland to green field filled with invasive grasses.
We have begun to wonder: will the wetlands ever be wet again? It looks like Hurricane Earl, if he arrives, will bring wind but little rain…
Happy September, everyone! You have my word: I’ll report back on our Internet Hours experiment after we’ve let it run for awhile.
Stop 1. Indian summer colors.
Stop 1.5. Hazy — there was a ground-level ozone warning that day. We made our walk a short one.
Stop 3. The wetlands have become fields.
Stop 3. Cool under the trees.
Stop 4. Will it ever be a wetland again? Check out the full year’s progression starting here.
Over the next two months, I am preparing for a meeting at which my academic committee and I will finalize plans and requirements for my thesis defense next summer. Whenever I am feeling hesitant or ambivalent about completing the project, I read this poem.
Afterward, I always decide to return to tending my own personal kookaburras, with the ultimate goal of setting them free.
In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.
- Mary Oliver, from House of Light (1990)
Today, I decided to try venturing outside the house to work at the library again, after my long, morning-sick hiatus. The path to the library takes me by this garden, which the William & Mary grounds crew updates regularly with flowers of the season. (So colorful, so cheerful!) My return to the library was a good one, in part due to something called The One Minute Rule.
I learned of The One Minute Rule from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project book and blog. The One Minute Rule is this: if you face a task that will take less than one minute to complete, always do it — don’t procrastinate! Wash that dish, answer that e-mail, sort that mail, wipe that counter, load that washing machine, pick up those socks.
By good nature or by good training, my husband seems to have internalized The One Minute Rule sometime in back in childhood. He washes his dishes, he puts his books away, he answers e-mails promptly, and on trash day he brings the emptied garbage can back from the curb at his first opportunity. (Well, most of the time, anyway.)
I, on the other hand, pile the dishes in the sink (“They’re soaking!”), leave books and magazines strewn about (“I’m reading that!”), have over 1000 messages in my inbox (“Oh, I really should answer that one…soon”), and merely stare at the garbage can from the window for much of the day until guilt and a feeling of bad-neighborliness compel me to roll it back to its proper place.
The trouble, though, is that a cluttered home is stressful to me. When I realized that most of the clutter around our house was mine (not Matt’s!), and that mostly it was due to my habit of not finishing things that I start (on scales both small and large), I concluded it was time for action (and action on a daily basis, not action in the form of my usual sporadic whirlwinds of decluttering).
“Start small!” I thought. Holding myself to The One Minute Rule seemed like a good beginning. And I must say: it works. Committing to tackling every project that can be completed in one minute gives a person both a feeling of forward movement and an emptier inbox and a cleaner kitchen counter.
The Rule has also nudged me in the direction of breaking down larger projects into smaller, more manageable ones that can be done, if not in a minute, then in ten or fifteen — a habit which leads to a nice sense of progress, rather than a perpetual feeling of running, without moving, toward a far-off goal. (Like the completion of a dissertation — hence, my progress at the library today.)
Try it out! I’m still pretty new to the rule, but already have seen what a help it can be to little ol’ procrastinators like me. Color me happy about it.
Have a happy weekend, everyone! Tomorrow is the first full moon of summer — perfect for a moonlit stroll in the cool of the evening! Enjoy it!
Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.
- Jean de la Bruyére, from Characters (1688)
On a time-crunched day, this quote always comes to mind.
Wishing you a Wednesday filled with the best possible uses of your time!
Productivity 501 is a helpful resource for all of us looking to — as the site’s name indicates — increase our productivity. Today, they blogged about a key trait of successful people: the ability to finish things. From the post:
Success is a matter of producing things of value. That doesn’t mean everything you create and finish will be a huge success, but if you don’t finish it, you’ll never get to the point that it could be a success in the first place. We often see the value of our work based on how much time we’ve put into something. How long you spend doing something is meaningless if you don’t finish. Which is more valuable – a great book that has never been printed or a good book that has been printed and is available for sale? It doesn’t matter if the great book took 10 years worth of effort. If it isn’t finished, its value is insignificant compared to the book that is only good, but is done.
Click here to read the article in its entirety. (And then, of course, return that attention to that unfinished project!)
You might not recognize it, but this is what the end of six years of procrastination looks like.
Today, I finished a huge block of data entry that had been on my permanent to-do list since 2004.
(Remember when I wrote about the link between procrastination and perfectionism? Yeah. I’m a perfectionist-in-recovery these days.)
There’s still much to be done with and to these data, but the data entry part — which, for very complicated reasons, was the most difficult hurdle for me — is complete.
Thanks are due both to this coffee shop and also to my forgotten laptop power cord, the combination of which taught me (through repeated lessons on several occasions) that the only way I’m likely to finish this PhD is to get myself out of the house and away from an internet connection.
The coffee shop is free of the distractions of home, and without a power cord, I cannot get on the shop’s wireless internet because doing so drains my old laptop’s battery too quickly. No internet equals no e-mail checking, no blog reading, and no following my random, stream-of-consciousness thoughts through the interwebs.
For example: Working working working working. Do-de-do. Then, suddenly: “Hmmm… That plant’s genus name sounds kind of like that Greek goddess. What was her story again?” Googling. Distracted by Greek mythology… Fifteen minutes later: “Well, that was edifying. Kind of. Now, where was I?”
Yeah, the internet. A dangerous, dangerous thing for those of us in the “Drudgery” steps of this brilliant graphic from this AAAS T-shirt (thanks, again, mcmurph, for discovering The Six Steps):
Yesterday, this surprise arrived in the mail from my mom-in-law:
Perseverance, secret of all triumphs.
Such lovely (and needed) encouragement!
And with a Red-Bellied Woodpecker to boot! They live in our trees here, and ooooh, how wonderful they are.
Thank you, M — I love it!
Wisconsin author and small-farm owner Michael Perry is a delight. Especially for those of us with aspirations to raise BOTH children and livestock someday. The Chicago Tribune has said of him, “Beneath the flannel surface of this deer-hunting, truck-loving Badger is the soul of a poet.” And it’s true.
For Christmas, I received his Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting. Both Matt and I read it with relish: the family stories (from Perry’s farm childhood in an obscure Christian sect he has since left behind, to the recent home birth of his youngest daughter, to the early death of a loved one), the farm animals (especially pigs Wilbur and Cocklebur, and the beloved runty chicken, Little Miss Shake N’ Bake), and, of course, the farm machinery. (Okay, I’ll admit it: MAYBE Matt enjoyed the farm machinery details more than I did. Maybe.)
In the last week, this passage from the book has kept coming to mind:
My plan had been to get back at the work waiting in the office, but I dive straight into fencing the garden. The rabbit population around here has been exploding. With no barrier they’ll decimate our vegetables. And the planting season is nearly upon us. At least these are the things I am telling myself. There is some truth to it, but there is an unquestionable element of escapism. When I get way behind on deadlines and responsibilities as I am now, I rather perversely throw myself into physical labor, which yields palliative sweat and tangible progress even as I fall farther behind.
(Empathetic sigh.) Do you see yourself in there, too?
Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia), New York Mountains, Mojave National Preserve,
San Bernardino Co., California, USA. 23 March 2005.
2005. The rainiest year in Southern California since 1969.
Everything — EVERYTHING — bloomed. Oh, what a year that was!
Over spring break, Matt joined me in my fieldwork to witness the splendor.
I don’t remember which of us snapped this shot of a flowering Joshua Tree.
But I do know that if you find yourself next to a wild Joshua Tree, the Mojave Desert is the only place you could be.
If you’ve never seen one up close, you might think about doing so soon.
With climate change, they are dying. And with their natural seed disperser — the Shasta ground sloth — extinct, they cannot move to more favorable climes.
Too soon, Joshua Tree National Park may be without its namesake plant.
Let’s all cross our fingers for a United States commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, shall we?