My return

January 18, 2017

This is a quick post to announce that I intend to start blogging again. After several years of being really good, I overcommitted to things last week. I also overcommitted to things this semester, but I am trying to build several things into my schedule anyway.

Here are the ways that I am overcommitting.

  1. My school is completely re-doing our general education program. I have been third-in-command of the effort, and that took enormous amounts of time last semester. This work will continue this semester, but I think it will be less work.
  2. I am assistant direct of our honors program this semester. Our goal is to consider re-shaping Honors according to what they learned from program review.
  3. I am in charge of program review for the Department of Mathematics this semester.

I will write more about this in coming weeks.

More Social Media (for now)

May 4, 2016

The end of the semester is here, and my thoughts are turning to planning next year’s courses. This means that I will likely be on social media a bit more for the planning phase. The feedback is invaluable, I love hearing other people’s ideas, and I miss you all!

That said, the norm for me is now going to be “no social media.” It was really nice to not have to cede a small portion of my brain to wondering about it, checking it, and wondering when it is going to get its next hit of dopamine. I think the on-going plan will be to be on social media (really, Google Plus) for May and part of June, and off for the rest of the year.

Deep Work: Imperfection

February 25, 2016

This is another part of the series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one, this one,  and this one).  I have been swamped the last couple of weeks with meetings and grading.

This week was particularly busy.  In addition to 11 hours worth of meetings, I had a total of 120 student screencasts to grade.  I have been very good about not working at home, but I broke down and graded about 60 of the videos on Tuesday night after the rest of my family went to sleep.  I am glad I did, although I am a little disappointed that I broke the separation of work and home.

This led me to wonder how sustainable Deep Work is.  There comes several points in every semester where things get really busy.  However, I really think that it actually is sustainable.   Things are abnormally busy for me this semester because I am teaching an extra class and on a committee to basically re-do our general education program (and I am very involved in this committee—I do more than just show up for meetings).  In spite of this unusual level of busyness, I have only had to work from home once this semester, and the semester is already halfway done.  Moreover, I have had the following number of hours of Deep Work for each week of the semester:  9.5, 7, 6.5, 8.5, 4.5, 2.5 (this week will be between 2 and 4).  So the last few weeks have been down, but they are still above what I was doing for the last several years—and this is particularly busy semester.  I think that I will be able to continue doing 6–9 hours per week in future semesters.

Deep Work:

February 11, 2016

This is another part of the series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one and this one).   I wanted to reduce distractions, and email is a pretty big distraction to me.  The first thing I did to reduce the amount of email I read is to raise the requirements for me to even open and email.  I now immediately delete much more email if I am sure that it is not interesting to me.

The second thing I did was to finally switch to to book my office hours.  For the last eight years or so, I have not had scheduled office hours.  I did this because I wanted to retain flexibility for scheduling other things (research groups, service, etc).   I had students email me with their schedule, and then I would find a time that works for both of us.  This wasn’t too tough, but it took time (I also hated this scheduling, so it just makes me happier to eliminate this bit of scheduling from my life).

My new plan retains most of the flexibility, makes me more accessible to students (I think), eliminates me having to do the little bit of scheduling that I don’t want to do, and cuts down on email time.  Each Friday, I schedule for the next week roughly one hour worth of office hours each day at a time that is convenient to me.  I run this through, and students can access this website through our course management system to sign up for office hours.

If no student has signed up for a time slot during the office hours, I can simply change the office hours to accommodate my schedule as I see fit.  If a student has signed up, then I simply schedule around the student.

Additionally, I delete all unclaimed office hours for the day each morning.  That way, I don’t have to worry about continually checking my computer to see if anyone has signed up; the students who are signed up by the morning are scheduled, and there will be no new ones for the day.

Deep Work: Broken Internet Addiction

February 9, 2016

This is a continuation of my thoughts on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one).  One unexpected consequence is that I have no internet addiction anymore (I used to have the normal amount, rather than some sort of unusual obsession).  I have been clean for forty days now.

I think it is fair to say that Newport is anti-social media (see here, here, here, here, and others).  I don’t share that idea, but I have been trying to cut back on social media recently.  I was starting to slip with Facebook and Twitter last fall, mostly due to a couple of ongoing Scrabble games on Facebook and missing some of the people I only know on Twitter.  This semester, I decided to make a clean break.  I no longer check even Google Plus.  The only thing I allow myself to check is my RSS feed full of blogs, which I intend to continue checking.

Here is what happened:  I am no longer distracted by this.  I am completely—COMPLETELY—out of the habit of going to the computer to just check, say, Google Plus.  That portion of my brain has been completely freed up.

Combining this with the fact that I almost never use the computer at home means that my recreational computer time is close to zero.  This has had several consequences.

Good consequences:  I am more productive at work, and I stick with problems longer (Deep Work!).  I am more attentive to my kids at home.  I am reading more books at home (rather than reading page one million of the worst book ever on the iPad), and I get more sleep.

Bad consequences:  I used to pride myself on being aware of the news and pop culture.  I am no longer in the loop.  I almost forgot that the Superbowl was on Sunday (I wasn’t planning on watching it, and didn’t.  I watched The Incredibles with my kids instead).  In fact, I wouldn’t have known who won the Superbowl until today had I not heard how “Superbowl winner Peyton Manning” had plugged Budweiser on NPR Marketplace on the drive to work on Monday (I do get some information from NPR and some podcasts).

On balance, I am very happy with how things are going with this.  I like not being a slave to the iPad at home, and I like getting more done at work.  If I want to be more in the loop, I can schedule a weekly scan of news and pop culture (although I am not planning on it at this time).


Deep Work: Aborted Plan

February 2, 2016

This is a continuation of my thoughts on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea.  Very briefly, I am going to describe a plan that I didn’t follow through on that would have worked really well.

I get up at 6:30 am each morning.  My plan was to get up at 4:30 am instead, work for two hours on deep work before my kids got up, and then continue with my day.  I got up early before when my older child was a baby, and it worked well.  This would have the added advantage that I would come home from work an hour earlier (since I worked two hours in the morning), giving me more time with my family.  On top of that, I like to run to and from work, and my biggest barrier to that is Daylight Saving; I live up North, so it gets dark early.  I run on a highway, and it is not safe to do so in the dark.  By coming home an hour earlier, I would be able to run home pretty much right now (if I can get over my wimpiness about running in the cold).  This also means that we spend less money on gas.

So why I am not doing this?  There are two main reasons:  in order to get enough sleep, I would go to bed two hours earlier.  Night-time is the only time for me to have alone time, which is important to me.  Also:  morning is the only time that my wife gets alone time.

So I my best plan is to try to carve out as much time during the work day as I can, and resign myself to the fact that I won’t be able to do deep work every day.

Deep Work: Lead and Lag Times

January 28, 2016

This is part of a series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea.  I usually like to link to something that he has already written on his blog, but today I am making an exception because it is an idea that he took from Clayton Christensen.

The idea is that there are lead indicators and there are lag indicators, and that people tend to focus on lag indicators when they should be focusing on lead indicators.  One example that Newport uses is particularly appropriate to me (and most of you):  many academics focus on the number of academic papers they write.  So they might set a goal of writing, say, three papers in a year.

The goal of “Write three papers this year” is a lag indicator, because you can only determine whether you were successful after it is too late to change anything about it. So it could be that the year is up and you only wrote one paper.  At that point, it is too late to change your behavior to make sure that three papers get written.

Another relevant example is from our students:  a lag indicator would be aiming to get an A in a course.

The alternatives are lead indicators, which are things that happen early in the process.  Newport writes that he stopped focusing on the number of papers he writes in a year, instead setting goals on, well, the amount of deep work he does in a week.  In this case, the idea is that if you focus on deep work, the papers will follow.  Also, if you are unsuccessful in doing any deep work in a particular week, you can change your behavior the following week, and the lag indicating papers will still follow.  Of course, the student would be better off setting goals on the lead indicator of, say, how much she studies in a week, since she has more opportunity to change her behavior if something goes wrong.



Deep Work: Shutdown Ritual

January 26, 2016

This is the latest in a series on Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work.  This post is about my shutdown ritual.

The purpose of a shutdown ritual is create a sharp divide between work life and home life.  I have a wife and two small kids, and I want to be focused on them when I am at home, so I have been trying to minimize the amount of work I do at home.  I am pleased to say that I am close to doing zero work at home, with the lone exception being that I brought a student thesis home with me this weekend; I had had the thesis for a month and she is going to give a presentation this weekend, so I wanted to get it back to her quickly.

But that really has been the only exception—I have even stopped checking email at home. This has been wonderful for me so far, as I have spent more time focused on my family and more time reading books.

I have accomplished this through two means. The first is just a decision to generally avoid using the computer at home. This is probably the biggest reason. The second is the shutdown ritual, which I think helps some. Here is how it goes.

At the end of work, I do the following (I have this list taped right below my computer monitor):

  1. Check email.
  2. Update ToDo list.
  3. Start mprime.
  4. Make minute-by-minute schedule for tomorrow.
  5. Clean office.
  6. Say “Shutdown complete.”

This takes me about five minutes at the end of each day, but I leave feeling completely prepared for the next day. I know what work I will have to do, I know what appointments I have, and I know that this is a system I can trust. I don’t think that this ritual has changed my life—I think that most of the improvements in my home life have simply come from my deciding to avoid the computers—but I think it does help some.

Note that I completely stole saying “Shutdown complete” from Newport. I think that he may have some neurological reason why it is good to say something like this, although I don’t remember for sure. I mainly do it because I just kind of like it.

Deep Work: Schedules

January 21, 2016

Last semester I went all-in on self-regulated learning; this semester, I am going all-in on Cal Newport’s ideas surrounding Deep Work.  I will regularly post on ideas I am implementing.   I am only going to post on ideas from the book that Cal has already blogged about so that I don’t give away the whole book.

My reasons for doing this are pretty simple.  First, I think that it can help me be a better researcher, which is part of my job description.  Second, should I choose to eventually go up for promotion to full professor, I will have the option of doing so based on either the strength of my research or the strength of my service to the college.  I find the former to be a bit more enjoyable (although getting a recently accepted paper properly formatted for the journal has been testing this idea quite a bit), and also a bit rarer at my particular college, which I hope will give me a bit of a competitive advantage.  In either case, the idea of Deep Work could help me greatly.

The first idea I used was to schedule every minute of my work day.  Every night before I go home, I get out my hipster PDA and block of (in 30 minute chunks) what I will do for the next day.  This is a first draft, and I am allowed to change it during the day if events warrant (and they usually do).

This has been a huge gain for me already.  I spent about 3 minutes making the schedule the previous day, and it buys me probably an extra hour of productivity the next day.  I think that I probably wasted a lot of time either wondering what I should do, or otherwise taking breaks that I did not need.  I have had a lot of service requirements this week (about 20% of my week has been in meetings), yet I have been able get get about an equal amount of research in (leaving 60% of my time for teaching, planning classes, and meeting with students).  This is quite a bit of research time for me, and a large part of it is due to scheduling every minute of the day.

Self-Regulated Learning Results

January 19, 2016

I implemented a bunch of things to help students self-regulated their own learning last semester.  I also asked students at the end of the semester what they found helpful and what they found unhelpful.  I had only about a 50% completion rate, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

The most helpful assignments for students were the  Mindset article by Maria Popova,  the article on learning by Leamnson, and the How I got an A/How I got an F papers; none of these were overwhelming helpful, but most students who mentioned these thought they were helpful (and almost none said they were unhelpful).

I also found the How I got an A/F papers to be useful later in the semester.  When students came to me mid-semester for help, I could simply ask if they were doing what they outline in the How I got an A paper (the answer was almost always “no”).  The students generally seemed to find it helpful that they knew what to do, but they just weren’t doing it.

The Calendar seemed to be the least helpful to students (I had the students create a sample calendar for their first week of class, including things like classes, showers, work, and study time for each class).  The students explained this by saying such things as “I already use a planner,” “I never looked at it again,” “My schedule changes every week so this wasn’t useful.”

I think that the Calendar would be salvageable if I made it a weekly assignment AND stressed that they should be scheduling in their study time (and give them a hard target for the number of study hours per class per week).

The only recurring assignment of this type was the weekly blog submission.  Probably 1/3 of respondents thought it was helpful and 2/3 thought it was a waste of time (sometimes because they said that they always did it at the last minute).   If I had to do it over again, I might instead require summaries of each class before the next class occurs (either electronically or on paper) so that they did this once per class, not once per week.  This would definitely be smarter.  I might have a weekly assignment based on the Calendar (see my points above) and/or daily tasks, but that is probably all I would do.

I am not doing any of this this semester, but that is as much a function of my only having a week of planning for this semester than anything else.  I definitely need to tweak what I have done, and I didn’t have time to do it right.  Many of my students last semester complained that this was busy work (although they sometimes claimed it was busy work because they would put it off until it wasn’t helpful), and I don’t want to do this again until I think my students will find it more valuable.