Friday, 30 November 2012

AcWriMo Reflections

AcWriMo wraps up today! On the whole, I followed my time-based goals and am very satisfied with how it went despite not meeting most of my project-based goals. In my last post of AcWriMo, here's an overview of what did and did not work for me.

I can't imagine setting goals based on numbers of words. I read a blog early this month (that I can't seem to find again - please provide me with a link if you know what I'm talking about) which pointed out that "writing" isn't necessarily the putting of words in a document. The writing process also involves fact-checking, revising, reformatting, and all the little things that are required to turn thoughts and results into a polished work. Since I don't have any analyses finished and ready to write up for a final manuscript, I needed to make the most of my multiple projects at various stages. Time-based goals worked well for the nature of my projects and for my preferred style of working, which is very routine-based. As for my specific projects.

Manuscript: I wrote a very detailed outline and part of the introduction. I also made a detailed conceptual map of my testable hypotheses which helped when writing the introduction and will keep my objectives focused as I run analyses. I didn't get as far with the methods or with ideas for figures because my analyses are lagging.  I went from essentially 0 words to 2871.

Conceptual map of testable hypotheses for my first manuscript

Supplemental material: I wrote an outline. This project became lower priority during the month as I focused increasingly on analyses for one of the reports instead. Since I haven't finished the analyses for this project, I haven't finished writing it. I went from essentially 0 words to 400.

Preliminary report:  I wrote the introduction for the report and outlined the remaining sections. I also outlined some extra details for the eventual manuscript version. I was unable to finish it due to the fact that my analyses are not finished. I went from 0 words to 1194 for the report and 898 for the future manuscript.

Database report: This report has been stagnant for nearly a year. I resurrected it from the grave and made significant progress. This is probably the best example of not being able to commit to a word count, since I spent most of my time revising, reformatting, and deciding on how to present the information.  I surprised myself by spending most of my writing time on this project. I became more eager to work on it as I breathed more life into it.  I have some work before it is finished - including the creation of  hundreds of figures - but I came a long way and I'm much happier with the new focus and organization.  I went from 4851 words to 6448.

Blogs: I wrote a few AcWriMo blogs and then three long collaborative blogs on the topic of Twitter.  This was the easiest project for me to work on, so I tended to fall back on it during my third pomodoro of the day when I was feeling less discouraged or less eager to write. Since blog posts typically don't depend on results or other information, it was easy to finish a blog post in a single day (or sometimes two). This ability to complete something stands in stark contrast to my "real" academic projects, which are all inching along, waiting for me to finish some analyses! There's likely a psychological aspect at work here, where I obtained a greater sense of accomplishment from blogging than from fiddling around with outlines of manuscripts. Total words in blogs: 5915, although some of those were contributed by a collaborator.

In reviewing why I fell short of my goals, it's obvious my biggest obstacle was that I lacked results to write about.  I was in a bit of a dry spell with my analyses this month due to some coding trouble. I'm not a computer programmer, and the consequences of my inefficient coding were starting to show. I finally saw the light and revamped my technique, which involved re-writing much of the old code required for my manuscript and my preliminary report. After that, I shifted focus to analyzing data for the report, since I have a stricter deadline for the that than I do for the manuscript. So I haven't moved too far with actual analyses for my manuscripts, but progress moving forward will be much faster due to better coding practices. I also started and have nearly completed the analyses for my preliminary report, so I'll have some material to write about shortly!

One unexpected obstacle to completing analyses was a sense of light "burnout" or "laziness" I experienced after completing my writing pomodoros. I set up my schedule each day so that writing was the thing I did when I saw down at my computer: three 27-minute chunks with 3-minute breaks. I ended my writing with a quick walk on campus (in Qu├ębec) or in my neighbourhood in Markham. But my schedule was empty after that... just blank whiteness.

Early AcWriMo schedule

And without something scheduled for after my walk, I tended to waste a lot of time trying to find something to do. Maybe I'd even *gasp* go on Facebook for a bit. I identified this problem within the first week but only found a completely satisfactory solution after reading this post about deep work. I recognized that I treat my schedule as authority; once something is in my schedule, I'll typically start and keeping working on it until my time is up. So I added two more things to my schedule: 1) make daily goals, and 2) snack and hot beverage. After my walk, I immediately came back to my computer and decided the next set of activities to work on for the day. Then I allowed myself a snack and a coffee before I sat back down to work.  Because I had already decided what I was working on, I didn't waste time reflecting on what needed to get done next. 

Late AcWriMo schedule

I'm not the only one who reflected on guilt during AcWriMo (see links below). Every time I chose to work on a blog instead of one of my other projects, I scolded myself for taking the easy way out.  Eventually, I struck up a deal with myself to work on a harder project during the first pomodoro of the day and then easier projects (such as formatting or blogging) during the remaining ones. This compromise managed the guilt but also allowed me to be more academically productive.  Ultimately, one of my major goals during AcWriMo (although I didn't state it explicitly) was to to get some practice writing again! I haven't done much writing so far during my PhD, so my skills got a bit rusty.  Thinking about some of the revisions I did this month, I can tell that I'm back in the game.

Moving Forward
Writing every day works for me. It prevents me from getting rusty and from needing to write full manuscripts or reports in limited time - which is mentally draining at best and impossible at worst. While I'd like to write for 1.5 (or more!) hours per day eventually, I can't keep it up right now because it's taking too much time away from analyses.  Instead, I'm going to stick with 1-2 pomodoros each day to keep the creative juices flowing. And as it was during AcWriMo, writing will be followed by a 20-minute walk to refresh my mind and get some exercise.


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