Upping my game

It’s November again, and I am diving into the daily blogging commitment of NaBloPoMo once more. In fact, I got a head start. I decided to blog daily in September. (Uncharacteristically, I did not declare it). And then I kept on going through October. I haven’t been able to put much time into writing, and, as ever, there are many posts in me that I still hope to write. But I have had fun working my way through my hoard of photos and sharing them according to my whims. This month, I have no particular goals beyond spending a bit of time each day doing something that I enjoy.

I also need to up the pace of my research. Things have been so very hectic with parenting and the new house that I have rarely managed to get in more than my minimum time commitment to my research on a given day. Conference deadlines are coming up, and the time has come for me to get cracking on the last push for my degree. I need to find many more hours each week in order to reach my goals. To that end, I hereby declare that for the month of November, I am upping my daily minimum of time spent on my research to 2 tomatoes. Day in, day out. No time off for good behavior. (Or Thanksgiving.)

Wish me luck!

a tomato a day

This year has been a bountiful year for tomatoes where I live, and given my CSA membership and friendship with a successful gardener, I am certainly supplied with an abundance of tomatoes. But this post is not actually about that kind of tomato.

The tomatoes I’m talking about are chunks of time: I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique to get my work done. I’ve mentioned before that I have found this method of working in timed stretches to be helpful to my productivity.

A little more than a year ago, July of 2013 to be specific, I started to meet regularly with another PhD student from my program to commiserate and work on goals together. One goal I set was that I would work at least one tomato, that is a 25-minute stretch of time focused on the task, on my own research.

With all my other obligations for group research as well as parenting and home commitments, my own research had been regularly getting pushed to the back burner. While I’d work in impressive bursts for upcoming deadlines, such as when preparing for conference submissions and presentations, l would regularly go days or even weeks without looking at my own research when the other obligations had their own crunch times. I might make reasonable progress during the week, but a busy weekend or school vacation would come up and push all thoughts of my research out of my head. A family crisis or even a fun time like a family trip would come up, and even longer would go by. When the time would come for me to dig back into my research, it would feel alien to me. I actually had the experience of reading papers I’d written almost as if they had been written by someone else. (I’m happy to say that I did at least find them to be interesting and well-written!)

Since making the commitment to myself to do at least a tomato a day on my own research, I have made much steadier progress. There is much greater continuity, and I feel connected to my projects. Some days I manage to put in more time on my research, but I’m happy to say that I have always managed to get in at least one tomato before bedtime. (I had to give up on getting the tomato in before midnight at some point–there were days when I was travelling when it just wasn’t feasible.) Friends and family have come to know about my daily tomato.

Over the past year, there have been times when I have really wanted to just go to bed, or at least just goof off, at the end of a full and exhausting day, but I have not let myself off the hook. Even when travelling. Even when falling asleep at my laptop. 25 minutes is always an amount of time I can fit in. Even when the work is not my best or most focused, the gains to my sense of continuity have been immeasurable. I can much more easily pick up where I left of the day before.

I am feeling connected to my research every day in a way that I haven’t before.


With the start of summer comes the end of structured school days. While there is lots of fun to be had, I still need to squeeze in time for my work. Picnics and visits with friends and fireworks and trips to the zoo don’t mean any less cooking, or food shopping, or laundry, or cleaning, (and in fact often mean more) and there are days when I find myself feeling squeezed. I optimistically promised my advisor that I’d get him a large chunk of writing done while he was away on vacation, but I foolishly did so without looking at my calendar, and observing the small number of child-free hours on it in those 2 weeks. When I find a 4-hour chunk of time to focus on my research, my thoughts start to get organized, but then comes the next over-full day and my thoughts scatter. Really, I’ve been enjoying the summer fun, and the extra time with the kids, but just now find myself wishing I could just do one thing or the other for a sustained time. Today I have maybe a 6-hour chunk to do squeeze out as much writing as I can while both kids are out of the house. (Just now I am trying to squeeze out this blog post as the kids eat breakfast. I have only been interrupted roughly 14 times.)


Starting next week, the kids will both be in camps and childcare more-or-less full-time, so hopefully the squeeze will feel less tight. But if I’m actually going to finish this degree, I have to be prepared to keep on the tight squeeze, long-term. (Hold me.)

The Accursed Book Review

Once upon a time there was a young graduate student, or if not young, at least one who as yet had no gray hairs on her head, who embarked on her journey towards the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy with great optimism and arrogance. She was confident that she would not be one of those for whom large numbers of harvests would pass before reaping the Golden Fruits of Doctorhood. Her hubris angered the gods of Mount Academia, who saw fit to place a curse that the student would forever make progress, forever see the end in sight, but forever get distracted by Other Things, until such day as her hair turned gray and her University turned her out.

Back when I started my PhD program, I imagined that I’d work through my various pre-dissertation requirements in a timely way. I mean, everyone knows it’s hard to finish a dissertation, right? But the other stuff, well that’s not such a big deal. I was already ahead in terms of course requirements, and in having completed my Master’s, had a head start on some other major requirements. Practically a Mere Technicality, the Book Review was to be something on a par with a course project. All you had to do was pick a relatively recent linguistics book, read it, and write a 12 to 15 page review.

Officially, according to the program requirements, it should be completed in the first year of PhD studies. (Not that most do.) Having received my Master’s in the fall of 2004, that was when I officially started the PhD program. I was on a reasonably reasonable schedule, picking my review book in that first year or so. I set to reading it. Slowly. Very, very slowly I read it. At some point, I lost it. Then found it. Probably realized I didn’t remember what I’d read. Started to reread it. Come 2006 I had read the book, but hadn’t yet written anything, when I experienced what might be considered a distraction from my studies. At some point later, John (my husband) tried to talk me into getting a Kindle. As a selling point, he told me about some books he found that were available. “They even have that one you keep falling asleep reading.” Yeah, that would be the Damned Book Review book.

A couple of years and another distraction later, my advisor and I agreed that I should pick a new book for the Damned Book Review. We picked a newly released updated edition by a noted person in my field. I plowed in diligently, being sure to take careful notes this time as I went. I was Determined. But then I realized along the way that reviewing a new edition should involve comparing it to the old one, which I had read before, but years earlier. I’d have to go through it again. The task went slowly. I got demoralized, thinking that I wasn’t really a great person to review the book. I mean, I had met with and corresponded with the author, who, as I said, was a quite well known person in my field. Who was I to criticize?

Come late 2010, I switched once more to a more recent book, this time by an author I’d never met! Who worked in my field, but a different analytic tradition! Yeah, I could critique that. I dug in. But I don’t know, other things came up along the way that were a higher priority. I’d read a chapter or 2, and then get caught up in some new wave of work deadlines or family crisis. Back in April or so I was provoked to make a new push to get through some more of my requirements, including the Damned Book Review. (Remind me to tell you about the Form of Shame.) I finished reading and had amassed 40 pages of notes. I was getting so freakin’ close. But not quite close enough. I had to switch gears to get ready for my trip to China and my presentation there. Next thing you know another couple of months and several new crunches and deadlines have passed before I got myself back to the Damned Book Review. Last week, suddenly free of other pressing deadlines, I dug back in.

And you know what? Today, while sitting in my in-laws’ basement and keeping Theo company while he rode a vintage tricycle around in circles and played with a pile of vintage matchbox cars, I reached a point that could be considered…good enough to send a draft to my advisor.

So, maybe not done. But 3 books and 8 years later, damn if it isn’t doner than it’s ever been.