Okay. I need a plan.

I got back into town at about 1:00 pm on Monday from a weekend at my other house. I ate lunch from leftovers in the fridge from at least 1.5 weeks ago (ack), and proceeded to waste much of the rest of the afternoon. While I did call some landscapers for help with our blank-slate back yard, and go to the grocery store, and make risotto and sauteed cauliflower for dinner (with leftovers!) and eat it outside, I did no *real* work - ie, work for which I am being paid. And while I should indeed have time without work in order to recharge for the next day, I don't yet feel enough on top of work that I feel I can coast in the evening. People assure me things are different in one's second year.

And, more immediately, while I can afford the odd day or weekend with little official work being done, I can easily see my lazy afternoons taking over my summer without any trouble at all. And that will be very uncool.

So how am I going to get my groove back over the summer, while also getting a research project started and 3 papers submitted for publication, and advising 2 students?

Of course, the real answer is, I don't know. But I'll start by making a list, as in my world, all solutions come from starting a list.

Time-sucks at home:

  • Aimless television-watching. Usually prompted by avoidance of work, or eating dinner alone and wanting company.
  • Internet-surfing: morning. Usually prompted by waiting for the tea kettle to boil. Replacement for newspaper which I canceled when they couldn't sort out whether I was in town or not for the umpteenth time. Plus I felt bad about wasting the paper.
  • Internet-surfing: evening. Usually prompted by procrastination of various sorts, including going to bed. (Why on earth would that be?)
  • Driving to the other house and back. We're working on moving everything to West Lafayette, so this should get better...I hope.

Productive things at home:

  • Evening writing: I find that about 8 pm I can get my writing going. Something about watching the sun going down through the window that looks onto my backyard, and writing under a spotlight. Especially with Pandora playing. I seem to get more written in the evening than setting aside the time in the mornings. But if I wait until the evening to get writing done, what if I'm too tired and skip it?
  • Time after yoga: If I can get myself onto the mat for 30 minutes, I feel much more focused afterwards.

Time-suck-busters at home:

  • Only allow intentional television-watching. Can I possibly make a plan of the programs I want to watch in advance, and then otherwise not turn on the box? Maybe unplugging it would help (including with vampire power). We can see.
  • Shut off the computer at night and don't turn it on in the morning before going to work. Spend time waiting for the kettle by making lunch to take to work, and feel virtuous on multiple levels.
  • Rather than come home and flip on any TV, even the News Hour, do half-an-hour of yoga. (Frankly, I think this will only work if I start getting home at a regular time. But maybe I can plan to do this over the summer.)
  • Not sure how to combat the evening internet surfing and email avoidance, especially if I'm xxing out TV. Maybe I could plan in 30 minutes of email, and then shut off the computer? Or should I use Firefox in the evening, and then deal with the guilt that this Meetimer provides?

Work time-sucks:

  • Being interrupted. Happens when I have my door open, or mostly open, and people pass by and pop their heads in. I find myself terribly scattered at work, trying to respond to everyone else's needs right now, rather than allowing myself to put those off and focus on whatever I was already doing.
  • Leaving research until Fridays. Many of us avoid scheduling meetings for Friday, so we can get some work done uninterrupted by meetings. But I find that I use Fridays for catching up, or for driving to my other house and then getting distracted by all the work that happens there. Either way, research doesn't get done. Somehow I have to disperse research better across the week.
  • Facebook, Chainfactor, Google Reader. Usually invoked when avoiding work.

Work time-suck-busters (over the summer):

  • Schedule meetings for one day a week. Don't schedule before 10 so I can still get something written before going in.
  • Clean up desk at home, set it all up for writing.
  • Get ass out of bed at a reasonable time over the summer, and use the time before meetings as writing time.
  • Use coffee as a bribe to get writing done in the morning. If I make coffee, I must do some writing.
  • Schedule writing time for the evening too. This will mean making dinner at a reasonable time, which will be easier without the time-suck of television.
  • Ignore (work-related) or delay (friends) IM distractions. Sorry, friends.
  • Break down goals into hour-long chunks of time, whether they get finished or not. My list has recently consisted of "Grant 1 IRB; Grant 2 IRB; Paper 2 draft submitted" on a yellow post-it -- guess how many I've finished? :-S Clearly this doesn't work.
  • Start the brain static list again. Maybe this will help me stay focused through the interruptions too.
  • Get enough done during the week that I feel I can take weekends "off" and focus on the fun things, which are...

Fun things, dammit:

  • Gardening and cooking.
  • A couple of trips - St. Paul, Cincinnati, Washington DC, Davos, London, Paris, Isle Royale. Some of those are purely for fun, some are conferences. Remember to have fun while on the fun trips. :-)
  • Exploring kayaking possibilities in the area (or is that too much to hope for in my corner of Indiana? Any suggestions, anyone?)

Well, that's enough to get me started. Probably too much, actually. How long do you give me? A week? A day?

While I'm still trying to make progress on my new year's resolutions, I think I am learning that we can use all kinds of dates as deadlines to challenge ourselves to change. So maybe I can have a renewal every Sunday or something...

What are your goals for staying focused over the summer while also renewing yourself? Give me some good ideas, please!!

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Thanks for the link to meetimer; I hope it'll help me to curb my internet addiction :) Have you considered ditching the tv? I really love life without tv, and there are a bunch of tv shows available online for when you need mindless entertainment. One other suggestion: I've found that it helps when my list includes not only the to-do items, but also how long I expect each to take...then, when I've got free moments, I can accomplish things that I've estimated will take very short amounts of time, but will push my data analysis/writing that much further along (and, I kind of like the challenge of trying to do something more efficiently than I anticipated I could).

Summer days are too nice to miss out on. How about rewarding yourself for days when you've accomplished useful things at work by giving yourself an hour outdoors when you get home -- time for puttering around the yard (yard work = exercise) or even just reading in a lawn chair? That might also help you be more productive after dark.

It's the curse of an academic, isn't it? I have yet to figure out a way to avoid squandering my summers. My latest tactic is to try to be productive in May- when we are out, but my daughter is still in school, then do less intensive things later in the summer. It really is tough, though. I wish you luck- I'll be curious to see what works for you!

I've been struggling with disappearing time myself. I tried implementing a new rule in February that all electronic devices have to be shut off at 2100, because I found myself sucked into TV/surfing later than I intended which disrupted my sleep schedule (I can't sleep in, so staying up late just means I'm tired/cranky/unproductive the next day). It's taken some discipline, but it's been pretty successful. I have found that I have to organize my life around the basics (eating and sleeping) because, like a 2 year old, once I let those go, I get totally out of whack. I tend to live by the "discipline brings freedom" motto--if I'm disciplined about my basic facts of life, then it gives me the freedom to think clearly and do my best for today.

That said, while I'm certainly busy and stressed (thesis defense in 5 weeks!), I'm not attempting anything of the scale you are! It's pretty apparent to me that I have given a lot of things up in life because I can do only so much in a day so I have to choose carefully. It also means that I have ruled out some careers because I can't sustain that level of productivity. I guess that's not very helpful to you, though!

Back to tips:
I finally admitted to myself that I can't work continuously for hours on stuff (especially technical writing), and rather than just have the document open pretending to work, or surfing the net and feeling bad, I've decided to embrace the fact that I work very productively in very short bursts--I write a couple sentences and then I read a few blogs as a treat. In the end, I'm more productive by being realistic about my internal workflow than I am by announcing I'm not going to surf the net all day (and then sit there having arguments in my head all day).

I'm with you on lists. I also like to re-evaluate every couple of months about where I've spent my time lately, and ask myself if that's really what I want to be doing. I've decided that, for example, I really do want to be spending time reading blogs every day--to me it's like a free magazine subscription.

I use a digital recorder gizmo with my TV--I never watch live shows, so I never have the TV on aimlessly. And I execute another hobby (knitting or spinning) at the same time, violating my own "do what you are doing" rule....

Wow Alice. That is a long list there, maybe start simple and attack each time suck at a time. I agree with CG that you should ditch the TV. I haven't had cable since college (10 years now) and about 2 years ago finally donated the TV. You can rent seasons of shows and then won't waste your time with commercials. Or instead of TV you can do google reader, facebook for company. Also, when I feel alone I turn the radio on. I have a few other suggestions for you. Don't get rid of your morning internet time at home, otherwise I think you will be prompted to get that morning fix at work. If you are spending hours then get a timer (if the tea pot isn't enough) and give yourself a 30 min limit for news, e-mail, ect. in the morning. I would suggest a similar plan for the evening, get home, give yourself x mins online then make dinner, do yoga and get your 8pm writing done.
Good luck and keep us updated.

I found that getting a DVR (Tivo-like digital video recorder) completely eliminated aimless TV-watching. When I feel the need to watch some TV and veg out, there's always something that I *like* available, and I can skip the commercials, and then it's done and doesn't automatically segue into some other time-sucking show. Getting a show on DVD and watching one episode at a time that way is also a good alternative. Internet is harder to limit, since it doesn't come with distinct boundaries between "entertainment units," but a timer might help. I do stick to a pretty strict bedtime -- after 10 PM I stop whatever I'm doing and get ready for bed. I'm allowed to read in bed for a while if I'm not too sleepy, but no electronic gizmos permitted.

As far as at-work time sucks... I'm useless; ScienceBlogs is one of mine.

Of course, the real answer is, I don't know. But I'll start by making a list, as in my world, all solutions come from starting a list.

Reason #101 that we are perfectly-matched co-bloggers! :)

Thanks for the link to meetimer. I might give that a try. One thing I've been trying lately is making iTunes playlists that are a set amount of time - say 45 minutes. I turn on the playlist and make myself only do work during that time. When the list ends, I use a shorter (15 minutes), peppier one to give me a break. But often, I'm finding that after 45 minutes I'm in a groove, and I keep working when the music stops.

I solved one of my not-accomplishing-anything periods by keeping a log of how I spent my time over a period of two or three days. I found that my perception of how I was spending my time and the fact of the matter showed little correlation. Read a book on planning which advocated as much planning as you can stand to end up with a prioritized list of tasks. The idea being that the tasks at the bottom either move up or vanish. This works, but I modified it into a flow chart of activity for the day, which rearranged the tasks for convenience and efficiency.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

Wow! Thanks for sharing - I thought only I felt this way!

I use RTM for task lists, and it's been great. I would ditch the TV, but I think Husband would go through withdrawals :) Morning writing times are the best, and time outside on the weekends is the best incentive yet!

So much of your post resonated with me - thanks!

Thanks for all the additional suggestions! sciencegirl, I use RTM too. Also the Printable CEO, although less lately. SW, I like the idea of iTunes playlists, I'll have to give that a try. But I'm sick of all my music, which is why I like Pandora. Guess I'll have to download more music... :-)

I would ditch the TV, except that I love PBS. I laugh, I cry, I even learn stuff. I love even the ads. That's the only reason we have (very very basic) cable, 'cause otherwise we wouldn't get PBS. (Of course, this love does not stop me from channel flipping to other channels with TOTAL CRAP on them, which I then rot my brain by watching... I'm thinking about TiVO.)

Good luck with the defense, Andrea! And thanks to those who advocate gardening as exercise. I'll have to post a photo of the backyard soon 'cause it doesn't quite look like this anymore...

Please keep the ideas coming!!

Maybe your lists need smaller tasks. Also, scheduled writing time each day, like advocated in How to Write A Lot might help you keep on top of research related work.