Wednesday, 28 October 2015

5 Ways to Conquer Your To-Do List

(Again, this is another post in response to the prompts from #survivephd15 run by Dr. Inger Mewburn. This week's topic was confusion and we were challenged to write a guide to something that used to confuse us. Since I'm so frequently confused, I wasn't sure what to write about. Until I recalled a twitter exchange I had with Guiliana about the perils of to do lists a few weeks ago. Ta-da.)

I feel as though every article, listicle, podcast, TEDtalk and book about time management suggests writing a to-do list. But I feel as though very few suggest approaches to writing a to-do list because they don't acknowledge that sometimes, just the act of writing down everything you have to do can make you feel more stressed and less capable.
I don't know nearly as much about to-do lists as the producers of those various media. But I do know I get distracted and disheartened easily, and I also know that I am not good at remembering what I'm supposed to be doing. So, here is my attempt to clear up the confusion.

1) I keep the to-do list in accesible, organised place.
I find I need to get my day off to a good start to work productively. Do you know what's not a good start to the day? Trying to locate and then decipher a vague to-do list you made a few days before. This is why having a set means of making a list (as well as a place to make it) is very helpful.

For me, a notebook works best: it lives on my desk and I scribble extra notes as I need to. You may prefer to use a diary; you might prefer a digital tool like todoist.
2) I don't just plan for one day, I plan for at least the next few days.
Most advice I've seen suggests a daily list. Perhaps this works well in daily life, or in a task-focused job. But for my research, I find it helpful to plan out my to-dos for the three or so days I'm in the office. I find it helpful because it means that I can pace myself over those days, and also that tasks can be moved between days if need be. I find it also minimises the time each day I spend writing the list.

3) I make each entry SMART. (But most importantly, I keep it realistic).
Again, I feel like most advice about self-improvement or time-management includes advice for you to set SMART goals. But bear with me.

So much progress in writing, reading and editing is slow and incremental: especially with writing, there is an extent to which the writing dictates its own pace.With this in mind, there's no sense in setting goals like 'write chapter 2/journal article.' For me, this sort of goal is very unlikely to happen because I don't write that quickly. By setting a goal like this, I'm just setting myself up to feel demoralised.

I feel much better if I overachieve on more timid goals, like: 'write 1000 words of my chapter/journal article.' Is this cheating? Perhaps. But it's certainly motivating.

4) I alternate the types of task.
I'm talking specifically about alternating the length of task, but also the energy the task requires of me. Alternating short and long tasks means that I feel more like I'm making progress. If my to-do list just consists of reading article after article, my concentration starts to falter. If I do too many short tasks, I feel like I haven't 'really' achieved anything.

Alternating low-energy and high-energy tasks enables me to pace myself. I find sending emails very draining because I'll agonise over what to write. I find scanning and filing notes require very little energy on my part. Depending on the book, it might be very draining (hi, theology) or energising (hi, gender). 

5) I review my progress. Honestly. 
Despite all this, there are days when items on my to-do list remain unticked. Which makes me feel ticked off. This is the time for brutal honesty. What happened? Was I too ambitious? Was I not feeling it today? Was there some obstacle/block in my thinking? Can I overcome it, or is that just the way it is? 

Only by being brutally honest about why I didn't achieve something does this exercise in writing a to-do list have any value. By noting that reason and making my next list accordingly, I am able to feel like I'm still making progress.

Are there any other list-makers out there? I'd love to hear other people's advice or tips on how they make to-do lists. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

#survivephd15 - The Curious Medievalist

(Once again, I’m using this blog as a platform to do some of the discussion for the #survivephd15 course run by Dr. Inger Mewburn.)

My thesis (in all it's six-month in glory) is actually the combination of a few elements of my life that have converged: gender, popular culture, and late medieval literature. So, in short: here is what combines to make a medieval PhD (in my case).

1) I am curious about gender because the 'rules' about gender didn't make sense to me.
 I have an older brother, who was my absolute idol when I was younger. We did a lot together but we were also treated slightly differently by our parents. Tree climbing was not acceptable for me, nor was seconds at dinner.  Later, when puberty hit me like a ton of bricks, more rules became apparent. It felt as though all the rules changed overnight - how to interact with boys, how to hold yourself, what to say, how to present yourself. 

In both cases, I noticed the rules because I wasn't always good at following them. And I became increasingly curious as to why the rules were the rules, and what the point of them was.

I spent a lot of time reading, and I spent a lot of time on the internet. And when I discovered feminism, it gave a lot of these rules a name: patriarchy. But, more importantly, it also opened up my mind to all of the ways in that the 'rules' are constructed, and what purpose they might serve. As I read more and more books from varying time periods, I realised that the system had changed over time. So I now realised that the rules that I'd chafed against weren't universal, or constant over time, and that they were made in lots of different ways.

2) I am curious about popular culture because it isn't 'just a film/tv programme/magazine.'
I am a feminist. I am also a lifelong pop culture junkie. I am a pop culture junkie even though pop culture has the potential to be all sorts of other things that make me deeply uncomfortable.

I could (and can) still consume media which I know are questionable. But that lens of feminism doesn't get switched off when I watch TV or listen to music. And - and this is the key point - once that lens was on it made me realise that the 'rules' around gender weren't just made by my parents or teachers or dress codes: they were also made on my TV and at the cinema in the music I liked.

4) I am curious about the medieval period because I’m an accidental medievalist.
This element is the hardest to explain. Unlike most medievalists I know, I didn’t ‘discover’ the period through popular media. I was aware – dimly – of the period, but I didn’t have a specific interest in it.

When I went to university, I was on a very traditional, medieval-heavy course. Which included medieval romances.  And I was hooked: I loved their complexity, I loved their humour, I loved discussing them.

By the end of my second year, I wanted to do an MA. And in my MA I did a fantastic Gender and Sexuality module. It was like these three strands (gender, popular culture, late medieval period) suddenly came together perfectly. The module never felt like work; the essay wrote itself. 

Evidently, I wasn't satisfied with that one essay. Because now my two lifelong curiosities are all wrapped up with another that I only discovered in my second year of university. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Serious PhD

Hark a Vagrant 332

This is a confession.

I am not a serious PhD student. That is to say, I love the irreverent, the flippant, the funny and the absurd elements of my research. 

It's very rare that I read a new primary text without the little irreverent voice piping up in my mind. Are pilgrimage narratives a little like asking your insufferable travelbug friend about their trip to Thailand? Maybe.* Would Lybeaus Desconus be a good basis for a magic-based RPG that satirises the idea of the hero by having 'fair Elaine' actually defeat each enemy without Lybeaus realising? I think so.**

I have another confession. 

I don't tell many people about these absurd little asides. And, increasingly, I realise that this is partly out of an awareness that there are enough reasons for others to consider me not a 'serious' academic. I'm part-time. I'm self-funded. I study popular culture for goodness' sake. Very often, I feel as though my credibility doesn't need yet another blow.

But as funding opportunities dry up, and as I see academics bringing their research to less 'serious' (read, less overtly academic) spaces, the more I want to interrogate this idea I have about what constitutes a 'serious' academic. Particularly, the ideas of funding and popular culture.

Let's start with self-funding. Funding opportunities are few and far between. Given the changes that are being made to the structure and funding of HE, I don't believe that it's very long before PhD loans become a reality. But unless the application process is academically rigorous, can anyone taking on additional debt be considered as having secured funding? And does this lack of funding directly dictate the quality of their research? (Short answer: no.)

Secondly, popular culture. Poor, poor popular culture. We are increasingly moving away from scholarship which dismisses the vast majority of what actual Late Medieval people were reading as 'minor' poetry. Yet. So many chapters on romances, ballads, comic pieces and lyrics are at pains to stress that the author is only studying this inferior tripe because people actually read and enjoyed it. There's a real sense of distaste that pervades a lot of this writing and which - in my opinion - can weaken the arguments that are made.

Rarely, there is an acknowledgement that even something that isn't poetically brilliant might have constructed meaning for its audience. Even more rarely, an attempt might be made to unpack these meanings.  For me, it seems obvious: if people were reading these works, they had a relationship with them; they took meaning from them; they engaged with them. And how exactly that relationship worked can tell us a lot about a given context.

Perhaps, at heart, the very method and subject of my studies is linked to my love of the flippant, the absurd. For starters, the absurd is in my subject matter: popular culture is of its time, and can sometimes translate as [un]intentionally amusing. Secondly, I have to have a lot of love for my subject to approach it the way I am (see funding, above). And this, fundamentally, is why I wanted to write this post. Because I find my subject deeply, deeply interesting. And I love it. I doubt very much that 'loving' your subject is enough to get a PhD. But I ultimately have to believe that even the most serious academic is driven by a love (or a passion, or an interest) in their subject. Otherwise, what's the point?

* More than maybe. Both accounts will be slightly breathless, overlong, and probably contain some sort of spiritual epithany which you sort of had to be there for.
** This could honestly be a blog post in itself. I have a plot worked out.