Common Questions about the Viva Round-up

Last post for the week, and another little summary of things that I was doing towards the end of last year. The posts that I wrote based on the common questions I get in Viva Survivor workshops seemed to be really interesting to people (and when I remember to look at what people are viewing from time to time these posts keep on coming up). As I said towards the end of the year, these posts have lead to my next book, which I’m in the process of writing now – hence these recap posts!


Acronym Post Round-Up

When I started blogging regularly back in the autumn I started with a series of posts about my favourite acronyms. Acronyms sometimes get a raw deal, mistaken for being trite or silly – but actually I think they can be really useful in summarising valuable ideas. In working with researchers for the last six years I’ve shared many (hopefully!) helpful techniques using acronyms. The posts I’m collecting here are eight of my favourites.


The Reset Button

The Christmas break is a pause for work, hopefully. And then there is the New Year, and along with that comes the language of change and resolutions. Instead of just pressing a pause button for work, we need to press a reset button as well – on our practices.

I’m thinking about this a lot. I’ve mentioned before that I like to experiment with my productivity, and I can see that some habits and processes have had a benefit to me:

  • altering email client software to check less and less frequently;
  • starting the day with the same playlist to cue me in to creative work;
  • switching to decaff after 2:30pm.

I can see a danger though (for myself at least) in constantly searching for that trick, that thing which will help you work more productively. Research, skills training and creative work in general are taxing: they demand a lot. I know a couple of my goals for next year, but I have no resolutions as such, save for hitting the reset button: I’m going to stop and review, what I do now and what I used to do. I’m going to see if I can observe a real difference in my work patterns – otherwise I’d best do something else!

What about you? Over the break are you hitting pause, reset or both?

This is the last regular post until January 5th 2015 – I currently plan to do an end of year post on December 31st and a look ahead post on January 1st, but I’m not guaranteeing either!

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)


Holiday Info-Diet

It’s all very well and good to do a bit of work to wind down correctly, and to have something in place for your first day back at your PhD, but what about the world unfolding around you? Surely there are things that are happening all of the time while you are having a break, eating mince pies, watching the Queen’s Speech and wondering whether or not the Doctor Who Christmas Special is going to be better than most of the recent series.

(it has to be…it just…has to be!) (please Santa, I’ve been good this year)

Checking and rechecking Twitter and relevant newsfeeds, bookmarking things and reading on the sly and so on – they will interfere with your break. And chances are, if you even remotely suspect that you need a break then you really do. Reducing the value of that break is only going to be harmful in the long run. But what can you do to keep tabs on articles and so on? How can you avoid missing them?

Fortunately, with a couple of bits of internet wonderfulness, you can have simple archives created over the Christmas break, and then review it in your first week back. No distractions, no constant disappearing down a rabbit hole. In the same way that you will not check your inbox until at least January 2nd – promise me you won’t! – create a news inbox to review later.


Four Steps to Winding Down Work

Yesterday I wrote a little about my pre-Christmas and post-Christmas experiences at the start of my PhD – they were the best of times, they were the worst of times – and also shared the kernels of a few ideas for ways to make your pre-break shutdown and New Year restart the best they can be. In today’s post I’ll go into those four points in more detail. Ready?



Winding Down

Christmas is coming! We love Christmas in the Ryder house, and while I still have work to do this week, we’re definitely slowing our pace at home (except for increasing pace when it comes to wrapping presents, preparing edible gifts and so on). I don’t have to go and deliver any workshops until January, so there’s definitely time for longer lunches and little breaks for Christmas movies.

Ten Years Ago

During my PhD, especially in my first and second years, at Christmas I was just bouncing off the walls excited. A legitimate break! No guilt for two, or possibly three weeks! No work! Woooooooot!

Perhaps I had the wrong attitude?

In our department we downed tools and just turned up to chat and go for lunch, to swap presents, watch movies in now-empty lecture rooms and just have fun. It wasn’t wrong, and isn’t wrong, to think about and feel excited by a break. The thing that WAS wrong for me was to think only about the break and forget that there is a day coming, possibly a Monday, when I would have to come back to the office or the lab or the library, sit down and get back to work.

And that day SUCKED. Not because I was no longer on break, not because Christmas was another 352 days away, but because all of my projects and work were in complete disarray.

But that first day back does not have to suck. It could have been fine – and your first day back to your PhD after Christmas could be just fine – if you leave your work and projects in a good state before you go.


To-Do Lists: Odds and Ends

So far this week I’ve shared some thoughts on to do lists, why they didn’t work for me, some experiments that did work for me and how I have tried to keep organised. Today’s post is a sort of collection of related points and ideas. As you can probably tell, I’m still thinking my way through a lot of things like this. Experiments to see what works for me are the key – so I have to keep experimenting and finding what is effective.

Effective and Efficient

I like Tim Ferriss‘ distinction between actions and behaviours that are effective and those that are efficient. The definitions of these – as he gives them – are totally objective, but their applications to individual circumstances could be subjective. Effective actions are actions that deliver results for a goal better than other actions that are aiming at that goal (and the award for bad paraphrasing goes to…); efficient actions are just that, they do things well – but crucially with no thought as to whether or not the actions need to be done at all.


To-Do Lists: Pseudo-Scheduling

In yesterday’s post I introduced a few little experiments that I had tried as a means to hack the to do list: putting tasks on separate pieces of paper, using dice as a means to prioritise and also using a nail stuck to my desk with blu-tack! These have all worked well for me at different times, I use them in rotation; some weeks I have a gut feeling that dice will be more helpful than the spike – I guess I like variety in my task organising.

Another piece of the puzzle

All of these things help me with the day-to-day, but it can be a bit of a chore to sit down every day and write anew my to do list scraps. And while it helps me organise on a particular day, it can also still mean that I reach the end of the week and find that not everything I wanted to achieve has even been considered. This thought helped me to start looking ahead – not in the long term, but on a weekly basis.


To Do Lists: First Experiments With Scrap Paper

Yesterday I talked about how I started using to do lists during my PhD; I mentioned how they didn’t work that well for me and why. When I started working for myself I fell back on to old habits, but earlier this year I decided to do things a bit different. I had an instinct that to do lists were helpful for my work preferences…I just needed to make them work for me.

First Things First

The most useful thing that I realised – I think it was after leafing through Getting Things Done again – was that I was way too optimistic about the scope of work that I could get done. In particular, I was often too focussed on the outcome to the detriment of seeing all of the steps in a project. My to do list would have “Book 2” written on it to get me tuned in to the big outcome, when what was much more helpful was to be specific about what I needed to accomplish that day.

Obvious in hindsight, right? By being really clear about the tasks that you want to do, you’re more likely to be able to engage with them. If you put the headline down, which has fifty-seven steps to get to it, you’re unlikely to tick it off that day.


The To Do List

Last month I wrote a few posts about time, the PhD and habits; while my own habits now are aimed at me being productive in my current work, I can’t help but think back to my PhD – and I wonder if some of the little experiments that I’ve done in the last few months might be of interest to postgrads? Over the next few days I guess we’ll find out!

Making a List…

During most of my PhD I was a to do list devotee. I had one every day. I would load up a sheet of paper at the start of each week with the things that I wanted to do, and each day would choose – like choosing from an a la carte menu. I would write down the people who I needed to correspond with, the outcomes I was aiming for, make a note of specific appointments that I had on each day. It was great to feel so busy, I was doing lots of work.

Except I wasn’t very productive.