Hello anxiety

Yes, that is a plug for Guineafowl.

Indie music aside, it’s been a helluva week, and study tools #2 is being set back ‘till next week’ yet again.

You see, yesterday, I had my thesis proposal seminar.

I’ve got some pretty mixed feelings about the whole process. So mixed that you could probably drink them for breakfast as a smoothie.

On the one hand, I can understand why my institution wants to make sure they haven’t been waiving my program fees for nothing (no thanks to the Abbott administration, but we’ll leave that one alone for now). I can also recognise that it’s a good idea to force graduate students to actually organise their ideas and research objectives, and that milestones are an important and necessary means of forcing hermits like me out of their offices and into the local academic community.

On the other, apart from acting as exposure therapy for my phobia of public speaking, I’m not sure it was very useful. I work somewhere in the amorphous disciplinary bubble of history, literature, and translation studies. I’m only six months into my translation, and it is most definitely Not Finished. I don’t even have a complete first draft yet. The longer I spend with the damn thing, the more certain I become that the reason no one’s ever done it before it because it’s HARD. I’m not even entirely sure what it’s about.

So for me, it was more of a necessary embarrassment than a seminar. I suspect that if I had simply sat there and dribbled at my audience, I would have been a little more eloquent than I ended up being. It was sort of amazing, actually: I’m not used to that sense of disembodiment. The things that can come out of your mouth while you’re busy trying to convince yourself that you’re not going to die of shame…

Actually, I probably shouldn’t joke about that. I can be glib now that it’s over, but the fear and anxiety that were building up beforehand were quite severe, and very unpleasant.

In case you hadn’t quite gotten the impression that I hate public speaking, let me make it absolutely clear: I hate public speaking.

I’m not sure what it is about standing up (or even sitting down) in front of a group of people that makes me so deeply uncomfortable. As it turned out, at my seminar, I knew almost everyone there on a first-name basis. They were all people I liked; people who were interested; people sympathetic to my project and ideas. Yet their eyes settled on me, and I felt The Fear.

That evening, my patient and long-suffering girlfriend brought home a cherry pie to congratulate me on confronting The Fear, and, stuffing my face with cherry goodness, I proceeded to whine about my hatred of presentations.

She listened thoughtfully to my diatribe, and, when I had finished, she nodded and said, ‘You should probably lecture.’

And I think she’s right. I probably should, because public speaking, like any skill, is something you get better at through regular practice.

I am at the other end of the spectrum—that was the first presentation I have given in at least two years.

I want to put it out there that I’m relieved that it’s over, but I don’t think it went very well. I had a great turn-out, but I spoke poorly; I had some excellent questions, to which I couldn’t give satisfactory answers. But I guess that’s kind of the point.

I haven’t exactly been filled with the flames of passion for public speaking. I’m not ready to trot out onto a stage and have at the three minute thesis competition.

Brace yourselves—I’m going to finish with a motivational quote. You know, the one Stanislas Wawrinka got tattooed on his left arm. Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

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Taking care of yourself

It’s been a busy week, and I haven’t finished the second half of my study tools review, so here’s a little interim post on self-care. More on study tools next week.

Yesterday was one of Those Days.

You know the ones. You make it to about three thirty in the afternoon, but then it happens: you flop, and become sad, tired, and unmotivated for no apparent reason.

In my experience, there usually is a reason for the fizzle-out, hiding somewhere in my subconscious. But other times the flops are genuinely random and inexplicable. You may not know which it is, though, and you may never find out.

Anyway, yesterday was one of Those Days.

I used to have Those Days more often than I do at the moment, because I’ve developed a technique for dealing with them. I’m not a mental health professional or a life coach or anything, but this is my personal, unprofessional recommendation:

When it happens, don’t sit there doing nothing. You’ll just feel guilty. You’ll feel guilty for feeling bad, you’ll feel guilty about not knowing why, and you’ll feel guilty about not working.

My advice is action.

Go somewhere else.

Go have coffee.

Go read a book.

Go home and do all the housework that’s been piling up, or have a shower, or have a wank—do whatever, as long as it isn’t sitting there marinating in frustration, fatigue, resentment and/or boredom.

Be nice to yourself. In spite of what you jokingly tell people, if you’re researching, you probably genuinely care about your research. Not all days are going to be productive, and if you’ve hit a wall, you’ve hit it.

Let’s stick with that metaphor for a minute:

It’s a wall. No matter what it’s made of, it’s real enough that it might as well be physically present, and no matter what it’s made of, if you just slammed into it, you’ve already proved to yourself that you won’t be able to move it with force.

Not right away.

So give yourself a little bit of time. When you’re nose to the wall, you’ve got no real perspective on it. Take a step back, and once you’ve regained your eyesight, you’ll be able to get a sense of the wall’s actual dimensions. 

Chances are you’ll find you can walk right around it.

New Tools: Planning

All things are not equal, and one tool is not the same as another.

Any tool can be useful in the right context, of course.

On top of which, I’m sure there’s something to be said for the old adage: ‘it’s not what you’ve got: it’s how you use it’. Not to mention ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. The things you can do with a paperclip, if you have to…

On the other hand, I firmly believe that different things work for different people. There are as many ways to approach a task as there are people to make the attempt.

We live in an age where there is a lot of variety, and we have the good fortune to be able to choose our tools. Some of the stuff on offer isn’t much more sophisticated than a paperclip at all. But every now and then, one happens upon something great.

I tried two new things in the past week. One was free; the other cost money. Although it’s early days yet, I highly recommend both of them. I was originally going to deal with both in this entry, but ended up writing rather more than I intended, so I’ll split it into two parts. Both are new tools I am experimenting with, and both relate generally to planning.

This entry is on the topic of planning and time management, and I’ll be talking about my new favourite tool for it:

http://weekplan.net/

This is possibly the best form of productive procrastination that I have ever come across.

I looked into it after developing a deep-seated hatred of my fat, squashy, uncooperative day-to-a-page planner, and I’m a little bit in love.

I’m used to weekly planners in book form, and I like them a great deal. But I bought an awesome 2012 journal in Japan: it had a layout of vertical columns, rather than the usual horizontal design, and since then, nothing has ever seemed quite as good.

2012 was the year I was writing an Honours thesis, so I really did get a lot out of putting pen to paper, although looking back on it, most pages just say things like ‘shit’ and ‘I’m totally fucked’, with the bottoms of most pages blacked out for alcohol consumption. It’s also got authentic coffee rings at irregular intervals—fortunately, I take my coffee black, and they are aromatic rather than malodorous.

2013 was not such a great year for journals. I had two of them, but I guess I faltered after the organisational bliss of the vertical layout in the Japanese one. The freebie from the tertiary course I took at a vocational institution is almost completely naked, in spite of the fact that every page offered friendly advice in that slightly awkward way that seems to prevail in all verbal efforts to communicate with ‘youth’. (You know: ‘sitting up the front makes me cool’, ‘Take notes and pass the class!’, ‘Binge drinking is bad for you’, that kind of thing.) I appear to have owned another journal at the same time, and used both with great inconsistency. The most ink in both of them appears at the start of the year, followed by weeks and weeks of nothing, followed by a midyear glut of busyness in my non-vocational journal as I briefly took on four part-time jobs to feed myself.

Thankfully, soon afterwards I completed my scholarship application and was accepted into my Masters program. Strangely, after that my efforts to organise myself using journals seem to have lapsed entirely. The occasional things written in the latter half of the year are mostly reminders of social commitments.

Cue Attitude Overhaul.

I told a few people that I wanted a journal for Christmas, and then for my birthday, but I ended up deciding that waiting until two months into the year to buy one was a bit stupid. Even so, it wasn’t until sometime in the middle of February I bought one for myself. It was about $10, so it didn’t break the bank, and I thought it might be worth trying something new.

I can safely conclude that day-to-a-page journals are not my style. The pages are too small to write on, exacerbated by the fact that the spine of the book is too thick. It won’t stay open. Maybe if I was able to endure using it till the middle of the year I could destroy the spine enough to convince it to do what I want, but I have been sufficiently deterred. I tried something new, but it wasn’t for me. Lesson learned.

So I found myself on google and amazon this morning, running the search term ‘weekly planners’ through their search engines, and wondering if I should just suck it up and go buy a week-to-a-page moleskine or something. I may very well still do that, but weekplanner also popped up in my google search, and I figured I might as well take a look at something free and there instead of walking across our unnecessarily spacious campus to spend money on something I don’t technically need.

Weekplanner is a calendar, a weekly planner, and a to-do list all rolled into one. The layout is fluid and gives the user a lot of autonomy, including a great lot of choice in how extensively you use it. Each task may be described in as much or as little detail as you like: you can give individual tasks a time slot, or create internal checklists for them; you can view your tasks by day and arrange them by their urgency and importance; you can relate them to appropriate categories that you create to suit your personal needs (although it starts you off with the important stuff: self, friends & family. I’ve added study, relationship & health). You can drag and drop tasks from day to day as evening approaches and you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or forgotten to post that letter or email your supervisor with that draft—just pop it over to the following morning. And when you check off your tasks the application sends little congratulatory pop-up messages your way.

It appears that if you ‘go pro’ (whatever that means), additional options become available, like synching with google calendar and this sort of thing. I’m not quite at the point of spending money on it yet, but as a visual and highly customisable planning space, I highly recommend it.

If at first you don’t want to do something, try relating it to food

Let’s be honest.

We don’t always want to do what we’re supposed to.

For example, this blog post.

No sooner do I make the Great Decision to start a blog and set myself a goal of posting weekly than life happens, events unfold as they will, and I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon feeling surly because I just don’t want to. No subject: whatever it is, I don’t want to do it. At this particular moment, though, I don’t want to write a blog post.

On Thursday afternoon I wrote a post for this blog. But I didn’t like it, so I never uploaded it. Friday was busy, Saturday was lazy, and now, late on Sunday afternoon, I am so full of pudding that I was incapable of doing much more than sitting down in front of my laptop, so I heave myself into my desk chair, start her engine, and, first things first, check my email.

Up comes the little reminder that my weekly blog post is due.

Oh yeah.

That.

Crap.

Why bother?

What on earth can I talk about this week? Plenty has happened, but how to extract one strand of coherent thought from the milieu and convert it into text for a blog post?

I tried to talk about A Thing when I tried to write on Thursday, and I didn’t like that, so we’re not going back there again. No, I’m not ready to talk about Issues. I need to start slow. Go gently. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m tired. This state of post-pudding consumption is no state to try and think about things in.

On the other hand, like I said last week, this blog is supposed to be a sort of study tool, and an important part of studying is self-discipline.

So I don’t want to, but I will.

See, the thing is, I’m not sure there is a trick to writing and research.

Self-discipline and consistency are crucial, but these are not tricks: they are skills. 

Self-control is learned, not innate.

I just ate about half a kilo of pudding, so I’m confident of this. The urge to indulge is strong within us. So is the urge to do things we like to do, and the urge to avoid things we don’t like to do. Some people, of course, like challenges. Such is the infinite variability of the human race. But I suspect most people would prefer to eat pudding.

It was a marmalade and chocolate croissant pudding, if you were wondering. I don’t want to focus too much on the pudding, but it seems as good a topic as any, and man is it making this post easier to write.

In a convoluted sort of way, I am working towards the sage and unoriginal observation that PUDDING IS GOD—no

Well, maybe

But also: we should be nice to ourselves. Encourage ourselves. Set goals and work towards them. When they are too big, break them down, or try looking at them in a different way.

Ah! There it is! The recurring theme. 2/2.

Perspective.

There I was, ten minutes ago, glaring at my ‘post a thing on your blog’ reminder and thinking I have nothing to say this week. Nothing. I won’t even try.

But then I started thinking about pudding, and here we are, a few hundred words later, and I’m done.

I can tick that one off this week’s to-do list.

See you next week, and let me know if you want to try the recipe.

Productive Procrastination

So, six months into my Big Scary Masters Project, I finally decide to stop tormenting myself and start writing about it.

I’ve already started writing the project itself, of course, but writing about it is something else entirely.

It’s almost more difficult.

I reached the conclusion that writing about something is harder than writing the something early last week, when I was scrambling through the chaos in my head, trying to pull out threads of thought in a coherent manner so as to belatedly submit them to my supervisory panel in PDF format, as a thesis proposal.

I had been torturing myself with that process for two whole months. Constantly questioning myself, getting caught up in the imperfections, wondering if what I was doing actually mattered, and whether I was even capable of doing it.

Which begs the question, why bother?

But as soon as that quivering mass of doubt that sits in the back of the collective mind of perfectionists started to shift and stir, it provoked a disturbance elsewhere. Further to the front, but mostly in the middle.

It was my knight in shining armour. A calm and a patient fellow, who rose up from his slumber in response to gentle summons from my closest friends and family members.

He mounted his horse, faced the murky mass in the back of my mind, and said, gently but firmly, “Don’t be an idiot.”

(He has since gained the material form of a small fluffy toy rabbit—a gift from a friend, who listened patiently while I had a panic attack an hour before submitting my proposal. He now sits on my desk, a sage and comforting reminder of the real world.)

It was a timely reminder that there’s nothing quite like asking yourself “Why am I doing this? Should I just give up?” to really bring it home.

I’m doing this because I want to, because I enjoy it, because I believe my project is worthwhile, and, yes, also because I have been fortunate enough to be granted a stipend by means of which to do it.

So I need to maintain perspective. I’m working on a reframe, because the big picture is where things get overwhelming, but it’s also where some of the most important changes can be made. Probably the most important change is my attitude.

Now, I didn’t know I had a knight in me. I’m a short man of an intellectual bent and not terribly much physical strength, so acts of heroism are not something I identify with.

And I guess it may seem a little extreme to describe putting things back in perspective as an act of heroism.

But the anxious perfectionists among you will probably recognise the domino effect: doubt overpowers the desire to succeed, the fear of inadequacy overwhelms logical thought, and the result is pulverisation as the monster wakes from its slumber and begins to move.

So finding my little knight prepared to meet it head on was a pleasant surprise.

Even more surprising was the fact that the monster looked at him, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and went back to sleep.

I could move again.

As a record of my research process, this blog will no doubt become labyrinthine: a complex map of tunnels and catacombs as I attempt to carve my way through the unhewn rock of my project. Like as not, it will become cobwebby, and at times be frightening, desolate and poorly lit. But I hope that if I mark these passages clearly, I will be able to prevent myself from sabotaging my own venture. I will also publish it here, because I personally have learned as much from watching the mistakes of others as I have from making mistakes of my own, so I hope that I will be able to provide you with something of interest or assistance or at least productive procrastination.