How do you start work?

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Apr 18, 2005, 4:47:50 AM4/18/05
I'm a grad student in a foreign country, spending most of my time alone
in an open plan apartment (back to the kitchen) with all those
distractions and the internet calling out to me as I try to push
through reading theory or grading papers.

My question is: how do you get yourself into working mode?

I've been trying to establish a "here we go" ritual of making tea. I
fill the water cooker/boiler and while it works I, I put away clean
dishes/neaten up house, getting those things out of the way until water
is ready. then I make a cup of tea and sit down to "work." It's kind
of effective, but I'm still very easily distracted.

Any tips?


david meadows

Apr 18, 2005, 5:39:27 AM4/18/05
I'd suggest that your 'here we go' ritual will not work because it
really isn't connected to your work directly. It also ties your 'getting
to work' mentality to your kitchen. Much of the ritual looks like it's
designed to procrastinate (I was/am a grad student ... I know the
process 8^)). Start by going through your inbox and/or next actions and
plan your next few hours. Don't turn your computer on until you're doing
a task that actually requires it ...

... at least that's what I do ...


Jeffrey Windsor

Apr 18, 2005, 7:20:10 AM4/18/05
After ten years in industry, I've become a grad student myself, and boy
howdy I can relate. Getting started is 90% of the battle. Maybe more.

I'm up at 4:30 because that's part of my solution. I get up long before
anyone else and spend these first few hours working. Nothing else. I do
not clean. I do not surf the web. I do not do anything besides work.
(OK, work and check my email and respond only when it's really, really
important and intriguing. After I send this message, I'm setting my
Apple Menu > location to "no connections.")

Honestly, the web is the absolute worst possible thing which ever
happened to grad studies. I wasted three hours reading old threads on
Crooked Timber last night. What a stinking wasteland of blowhard
intellectualism. And I read check it multiple times everyday.

Anyway: starting work? The bigger picture for me includes a few
techniques from Fiore's _The Now Habit_ (eg unschedule). But in the
immediate sense I have two suggestions, both of which are modifications
from Joan Bolker's excellent (and surprisingly relevant for those
outside of graduate studies) _Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen
Minutes a Day_. My process is:

1) Spend fifteen minutes freewriting
2) Park on a downhill slope

OK, so it's not much of a process. I shall explain.

The fifteen minutes of freewriting is a dual purpose exercise. First,
it loosens up my intellectual muscles and puts some positive progress
on whatever project I'm working on. In that fifteen minutes of writing
(uncorrected, non-stop, spew) there is always at least one idea worth
pursuing, or integrating into a current project. It just comes.
Sometimes my freewrites are on the computer, sometimes they're by hand
on a yellow legal pad. (Added bonus: I teach composition and assign it
to my students, and doing it myself gives me the moral high ground:
"Yes, I do it too. Every damn day. Shut up and write.")

The other benefit is that it signals my brain that I'm getting into
work mode. Since my work is largely intellectual/theoretical (as
opposed to experimental) the thinking that occurs in the freewrite is
like playing scales on a piano, or jogging around the track a few
times, or [your favorite warm-up ritual here]. Yes, it's mostly empty
blather, and frequently the good ideas are dead-end ideas. But it works
for me.

Parking on a downhill slope is actually a practice which takes place
when I end work the day before. Each day, when I wrap up whatever I'm
doing, I jot down (on paper when I remember, otherwise I do it mentally
with lesser effect) exactly where I need to start. And that is usually
a question I'm still pondering/researching. Last night's question, for
instance, was: "Does Allan Woodcourt's presence at Jo's death as doctor
and priest say anything about his relationship with Esther?" (What I
actually have is "Woodcourt {Priest Doctor} @ Jo's death -> Esther" but
that doesn't make any sense to anyone but me. Since it wasn't for
anyone but me, it was plenty effective.)

At first, the practice was disconcerting. I'd have a question to answer
and then walk away, and I really wanted to sit back down and wrestle
with the issue. I wanted closure. However, having a rich issue upon
which to start makes starting so much easier, the discipline came easy.
(OK, came somewhat easy. Well, not really all that easy at all, but it
did come and that's what matters.)

Parking on a downhill slope eases the transition into work because
you're not starting your session with a dreaded task, but an
interesting one. It's easy to start your work. You want to start. Yes,
you will still have to grade those papers (I have 120 of them waiting
for me right now), but they're what I do later, after I've completed
more interesting stuff.

Honestly, quite a bit of planning falls away when I'm doing my
studying. The processes are so intertwined that reading, writing,
research all take place almost simultaneously. How do I plan that?
Undoubtedly, I'll read a few of the articles I've found, which will
open up new questions for which I'll have to go back to the text and
then find new articles to consider, and revise, revise, revise. And
then research some more. It sounds like a great life to me. Beats the
hell outta software development (for me at least).

That's my system: freewrites and be parked on a downhill slope. It
ain't pretty, but it works.


Jeff Harbert

Apr 18, 2005, 9:17:19 AM4/18/05
I like the downhill slope idea. I'll have to give that a try.


Apr 18, 2005, 11:29:51 AM4/18/05
I tend to spend a bit of time setting up my work area to start off
with. Gather the books, notes, whatever that I need. (Often I do a
quick inbox processing as well.) That ensures that I'll have minimal
need to get up and break the flow once I'm into working mode.

Then I turn off my network connections (unless the work I'm doing
requires them, in which case I just quit IM/Email/anything else
distracting). Turning them back on is enough work that I feel guilty
doing it, and that helps me not do it.

If I'm really having trouble getting started, I'll turn off phones and
anything else that might distract. Then I try to do some quick
jotting/brainstorming just to get the juices flowing. If that doesn't
work and I can afford the time, I'll go do something else (productive)
and get back to it later when I'm in a better mindset.


Michael Langford

Apr 18, 2005, 12:03:24 PM4/18/05
I second the idea those tasks look like they're designed to keep you
from working. When I was in college, I termed those tasks
procrastatasks. That is a task that you wouldn't do if you had free
time without other motivation, but its less painful to do than what
you'd really should be doing.

It's why my office at work is often spotless, and my house looked like
a model home when I was going through finals weeks.


PS: However this idea is VERY useful however in the other direction.
Your dissertation is suprisingly easy to work on when 'doing your
taxes' is the task you're avoiding.
Michael Langford --- 404-386-0495
The people who get what they want in this world are the people who get
up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find
them, make them. --George Bernard Shaw

Brock Tice

Apr 19, 2005, 2:09:07 PM4/19/05
I think my father said those 'procrastatasks' are termed displacement
activities in psychological circles, but I could be wrong. That was
probably almost 10 years ago now.


PS - I'm new (to the group), hi!


May 5, 2005, 12:38:50 AM5/5/05

Thanks, for the tips Jeffrey! I'm a grad student too and Niel Fior's
book The Now Habit was sooo helpful to me, and you are right on about
the internet being a time waster. (Like, ahem, right now.) I'm going to
add Joan Bolker's book to my wishlist.


May 5, 2005, 1:22:28 AM5/5/05
Ritual is very powerful and can be a big help. Others were right to
point out that the ritual can end up being a distraction, but a
well-maintained ritual can help trigger your brain to go into the mode
the follows the trigger. If that mode is actual work and not more
procrastination, then you are in good shape.

I've taken to using timers to place a limit on some of my home
puttering time, but it is too early to tell how well it works. If you
try it, I'd like to know the result.

It's hard in a student apartment, but the more you can create a
separation of work and leisure space, the better off you are. Perhaps
you could do the bulk of your work in a library or cafe.

If you must work at home, then the arrangement of the physical objects
can signify work. For example, if there is a reference book you use
frequently while working, keep it close at hand when you are working
and put away (or even out of sight) when you are not. Perhaps there is
some furniture you can put in a different place while working.

I find that music can help me to focus, but not just any music will do.
A brand new album from my favorite artist is too distracting. For
much of high school I listened to the same two albums repeatedly
whenever I wrote English papers. As a professional programmer, I find
that music with a strong, relentless rhythm like techno or heavy metal
can get me in the zone quite readily. Jazz is too distracting and
makes it hard to concentrate on work, perhaps because I associate it so
strongly with leisure. Music with a prominent vocal is distracting as
well. Your ideal working music may be completely different from mine.

The basic idea is that you are doing what psychologists call "classical
conditioning." The more you come to associate a particular ritual or
environmental element with the work mindset, the more it will trigger
the mindset.

Of course, if you end up associating something with procrastinating and
saying "Oh, shit. I'm not working." Then it will still trigger a
mindset-- just the wrong one. One way to help avoid that is to stop
the music, replace the book, etc. when you stop working.

David Chua

May 5, 2005, 10:51:45 AM5/5/05
My method of "starting work" is really when I make my freshly brewed
cup of double-shot latte. The whole motion of setting my machine up,
letting it heat up, get out my portafilter, my filter basket, my
grounded coffee, extracting the coffee, frothing the milk, actually
helps me get into the rhythm.

Find something you like to do, and do it as a ritual. Remember to keep
a positive mind at all times. Just tell yourself, I'll get my work
done today, but there's no rush.

And I mean it. Don't rush yourself. The more you push yourself or tell
yourself that something needs to be done. The more stress builds up in
your head and you'll feel put off.

Hope this helps :-)
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