Seize the (half-)day

  • Post by Adam Driscoll
  • Jan 11, 2017

Half work:

The greatest privilege of my fellowship is that I have no responsibilities other than writing my dissertation. I don’t teach, I don’t work somewhere else (I’m not legally allowed to by Swiss law), I don’t serve on committees in my home department…my only job is to be a student. (It’s kind of like being a kid again, but scarier and more serious!) As a result, my mind isn’t so cluttered when I’m working on my dissertation. Sure, I have worries like everyone else, but when a student has additional professional responsibilities—in the humanities, often 20 hours per week of work—on top of their own research, it means that the ideal ‘other’ 20 hours we should spend focused on our dissertation are easily eroded with students who pop in our office, an exam that never got photocopied, or other duties like grading papers that can take longer than expected. For me, none of these are possible for the next two years. (One exception: the migration office always takes longer than expected.)

Even if we’re good at assigning ourselves a schedule and sticking to it, I find that I’m not able to completely compartmentalize in my mind “teaching French” from “researching (in) French.” I would be curious to know if students who have jobs outside the department or even outside the university find they’re better able to keep their mind from wandering between the two. (I’d also be curious to know if this isn’t all bad: if thinking about our students, who for example demand structure and think creatively, might positively influence our structure and creativity in writing, since it seems that thinking about my research while lesson-planning helps me develop stronger discussion questions.)

Since I haven’t worked up the attention span to research and write my dissertation forty hours a week, (and since Adam is part-time anyways) I just try to make my 20-30 hours per week of dissertation time really high-quality time. I’m no expert at this; I’m always shifting my tactics, so I’ll reflect more on this another time. (Current tactic is working pretty well; don’t want to jinx it.)

Half play:

When we first arrived, it was easy to wake up and tell ourselves we’d work for 4 hours and then “get out there” and explore. When we lived in the Jura, it was easy—we were surrounded by trails that began right at our balcony, and we could just wander up (always up) whatever struck our fancy. Now though, in Geneva, and when we’re traveling somewhere new, there are a lot of different options that require different transportation and planning. Here in the city, we’re less conscious of the sun dipping dangerously close to the mountains in the afternoon—four hours of work easily becomes five, then lunch, and by the time we start brainstorming our great adventure we’ll have lost precious daylight hours.

Our best-seized half-days have been those we planned the previous night and that make a compromise between our ideal working hours and our transportation/sunlight needs for exploring. Then, at least for me, the other key is to stick to the plan, even if I don’t meet my work goals in the morning. If I’m allowed infinite time to work on a project, I will research every little detail and rewrite every sentence infinitely. Short term, it sounds foolish to stop working if I haven’t reached my goal for the day, but I’ve found that long term, this is an effective ‘punishment’ and a reality check.

When I’m forced to give up and catch the train we promised we’d catch or hop on our bikes before the roads get too shaded and icy, I’m also forced to make a decision: (1) Was my goal too ambitious? How do I adjust tomorrow’s work plan? (2) Was I distracted? What else is on my mind, and how can I reduce the cognitive load, even if I can’t completely resolve the problem right now? (3) Was I unmotivated? How could I change my work situation (e.g. by going to a different workspace; breaking the task into smaller pieces) to make the task more appealing?

Ideal half-day breakdowns have been different for us depending on the place. That’s something I want to write about later in order to see what patterns work best!