Bye Bye Procrastination, Hello Productivity! Part 3: Focus for 25 Minutes with BreakTime

Bye Bye Procrastination!

The Pomodoro Technique® is something familiar for those of us who want to improve productivity, and we have a wide range of options and apps that allows us to implement this technique.

My personal favourite is BreakTime app on Mac. It lets you set how long you want to focus on an activity and how long a break you want to take between activities. You can see the detailed settings below:

BreakTime screenshotThe screenshot of the Preferences window

What I really like about this app is that it forces me to take a break from the computer. Unless you choose to “enforce break” in the Preferences, you can always finish a break by clicking “Done” or go back to an activities for 1, 5, or 15 minutes as you can see in the following screenshot:

BreakTime screenshot 2

I find this app particularly useful when I am making notes from readings. After reading a book or an article, I annotate quotations in Scrivener and this process takes me quite a lot of time. This process is usually exhausting but taking five-minute breaks in every 25 minutes seems to make it less wearing.

You can try BreakTime for free, so I highly recommend you to try it out!

Bye Bye Procrastination, Hello Productivity! Part 2: Internet Diet with WasteNoTime

Bye Bye Procrastination!

While the Internet, including social media, is a useful tool to find various types of information as well as to communicate with people, it can easily distract us from focusing on tasks that we are trying to achieve and reduce overall productivity.

If you use Mac, you may want to try WasteNoTime, which is a browser extension available for Safari and Chrome.

WasteNoTime Screenshot 1
WastNoTime from the Safari toolbar

Here is the description of WasteNoTime from its website:

WasteNoTime is a browser extension which is designed to help you manage your time spent on the Internet more efficiently.

Time Tracker feature gives you reports on what web sites you spent most of your time. Instant Lockdown feature allows you to focus on your work for a period of time with limited Internet access. Time Quota feature automatically blocks selected web sites when you have spent a preset amount of time on them each day.

Time Tracker shows top 5, 10, or 20 sites that you access for the day, the past 7 days, and the past 30 days. In its setting, you can specify sites to exclude from being tracked.

In Block List, you can not only add sites that you want to block but also set how you want to block them—”global time quota,” “custom time quota,” and “always block.”  The time quotas are particularly useful when you want to block some sites that you want to access for limited time or you do not want to access for a specific time of day. Similarly, Allow List lets you indicate which sites to be allowed.

You can set global time quote under Time Allowed. You can see its options in the below screenshot:

WasteNoTime Screenshot 2

You can further tweak the settings under Advanced Settings, make it difficult for you to change the settings through the Challenge setting, and even import or export all the settings under Import/Export.

If you are struggling to deal with distractions from the Internet to be more productive, you definitely want to give a shot at WasteNoTime! The less time on the Internet, the more time for research!

If you do not like WasteNoTime or use Safari, you can try either StayFocusd for Chrome or LeechBlock for Firefox.

Bye Bye Procrastination, Hello Productivity! Part 1: Tracking Weekly Progress on an Ol’ Good Whiteboard

Bye Bye Procrastination!

Since I finished the coursework for my PhD degree requirement, I’ve been slowly and persistently developing and going through my comprehensive exam reading lists. If everything had gone as I planned, I should have finished much more readings than I have actually finished so far, but hey that’s life. The obvious reason why I’m not making as much  progress as I want is procrastination. I may be googling something continuously, checking books and some other interesting items on amazon, or watching some cooking shows on the Food Network website. Moderate procrastination may be a good way to relax during short breaks, but I definitely need a means to control the amount of procrastination.

Then, I thought that I need to have a system that makes me accountable for my (lack of) progress in the reading lists. I can do this by making to-do lists on a sheet or paper, or using to-do apps, but I wanted to have something visible but unobtrusive all the time for this.

I was initially searching for a regular whiteboard that I can hang on the wall, but then I eventually found Wall Pops! White Dry-Erase Board. It is basically a sheet of film that you can stick to (and peel off from) almost any surfaces, and you can write on it as you do on a regular whiteboard. (I bought mine at a local Home Depot store but you can easily buy one online as well.) As some of the online reviews were pointing out, it was not easy to stick the film on the wall nicely; after several tries, I gave it up and ended up putting in the side of my bookshelf. 

And, this is how I’m using it right now:2014 Week 1

Several Positive Outcomes from Tracking Weekly Progress

Since I was little, I always loved making daily, weekly, and monthly plans, but I barely stuck to them—I just felt I had accomplished a lot just by making such plans. For the past few years, I still plan my study in my head but have stopped writing/typing down the actual plans. After I started tracking my weekly progress, I’ve re-realized that what I need to do for these plans is to keep tracking the progress of my work and re-evaluate my working patterns and habits. I have noticed some positive outcomes from tracking weekly progress so far:

  1. The visible indicator of progress encourages me to keep working.
  2. This allows me to see how much work I can usually handle in a week.
  3. Lack of progress on a specific day makes me really accountable for that.
  4. It reminds me that I am making progress!

I think that the last point is particularly encouraging and crucial for PhD students since we often feel that we are not making enough progress at all.

On the top of this weekly progress section, I’ve written major deadlines such as an upcoming conference and conference abstracts, but I still need to add a section for monthly goals. I do not have much extra space on this whiteboard, so I may need to write my monthly goals somewhere else, like in my lovely Moleskine. I hope that this way of tracking progress will encourage me to work more and make me forget to procrastinate!

Some Tips for (Vegan) Graduate Students Going to A Conference

Attending and presenting at academic conferences is part of graduate student life, and I have been trying to present at a conference at least once a year. Being in Canada, the Film Studies Association of Canada (FSAC) Annual Conference has been my main (and favourite) conference. The size of the conference from year to year, but I feel very much at home when I am attending the FSAC conference. I was planning to submit a proposal and hoping to present there in Victoria, B.C. this year; instead, I spent last week in Chicago to attend the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Annual Conference in Chicago.

2013 SCMS Conference Program

I submitted my proposal during the open call for papers back in August, and I almost forgot that I had submitted a proposal until November when SCMS e-mailed its members that they were experiencing a delay in finalizing their decision. I eventually received a surprising acceptance e-mail in early December, and started planning for the conference. I thought that I would share what I actually did here:

  1. Book flights and hotels ahead of time
  2. Keep all the receipts for reimbursement
  3. Research local vegan spots
  4. Get a prepaid sim card or a travel pack if you are going out of country abroad and using your phone
  5. Navigate the conference area with Google Maps and Offline map apps
  6. Check book sales at the conference

1. Book flights and hotels ahead of time
Here is my rule of thumb for booking flights and ho(s)tels: the earlier, the cheaper. Back in December, I did not know on which day I would be presenting my paper, so I figured that I would need to stay for the entire conference. (Also, this was the first time attending the SCMS conference, so I wanted to stay for the entire conference as well.) This year’s conference in Chicago was from March 6 to 10. Since I could be presenting in the first panel on the first day, which actually turned out to be the case, I decided to fly into Chicago on March 5 and then leave there in the late afternoon/early evening on March 10.

– Use mileage flight rewards 
If you have accumulated mileage for flight rewards, you may want to check if you have enough even for a one-way flight. I had accumulated some mileage with American Airlines (AA) over a few years, but I did not have enough for one way. Some airlines ask you to buy miles for the insufficient amount of miles, and others ask you to pay the price difference, which was the case for AA. By redeeming my AA mileage for a flight reward, I think I saved around 75% off of the original price.

– Subscribe to airline newsletters (or follow the companies on Twitter or like them on Facebook)
Many airlines offer flight sales once in a while, and if you buy your tickets at that time, you can get a really good deal. Particularly if you are booking your flights much earlier, you would be surprised by how cheap your flights could be. I think that Porter AIrlines quite often has flight sales of up to 40% or 50% off, and I booked my return flight from Chicago when it was about 50% off the regular price.

– Find a good deal for ho(s)tels
I usually stay at a university student residence or hostel to save money, but I decided to stay at a hotel with a kitchen this time since I was going to be in Chicago for 5 nights. I searched on online booking websites such as Expedia and Travelocity, but I found Booking.com the most useful since it had a search criterion for a place with a kitchen/kitchenette. I am not sure how much I saved by using this website, but I saved at least $200 to @300 dollars, compared to the price that I would have paid by booking a decent hotel in the area where I stayed.

2. Keep all the receipts for reimbursement
For a lot of graduate students, including me, booking and paying for flights and accommodation upfront can definitely hurt our wallets, but universities often provide one or more types of funds, like professional development or conference ones, to which students may apply to receive reimbursement for a portion of their travel costs to attend and present at a conference. Make sure to ask or search for such funds at your school and remember to check the applications and deadlines so that you won’t miss your chance to receive some reimbursement. For some fund applications, you will eventually need to submit (original) copies of receipts for transportation, accommodation, and conference registration fees in addition to original ticket stubs, so make sure you keep all of your receipts and tickets!

3. Research local vegan spots

Delicious doughnut and latte at Fritz Pastry

Delicious doughnut and latte at Fritz Pastry

I am a foodie and a vegan, so I feel more comfortable knowing what food options I will have when I going somewhere. I stayed at a hotel with a full kitchen so that I did need to eat out for every meal, but I wanted to try some vegan places in Chicago. Yelp and HappyCow are good places to start with, and VegNews Magazine‘s website may have good lists for the the place where you are going. Finding blogs by local vegans may also give you a good sense of where to go as well. Once I found enough interesting places to check out, I created a map on Google Maps. Some places that I actually visited are:

  • Chicago Diner (I asked a server for a recommendation and tried their famous Radical Reuben Sandwich and a cinnamon roll. This place is similar to Fresh in Toronto, but I liked the atmosphere of this place much more.)
  • Karyn’s Cooked (Again menu is similar to Fresh, but I think that the atmosphere is closer to Live Organic Food Bar in Toronto.)
  • Fritz Pastry (I went here for their doughnuts, and they were amazing! This place closes at 1 pm on the weekdays, so you need to make a trip here in the morning to get their awesome doughnuts!)
  • Urban Vegan (This place seemed too pricey for what it served, but it tasted okay.)

4. Get a prepaid sim card or a travel pack if you are going out of country and using your phone
Living in Canada, we do not have great travel packs for our cell/smart phones. If you intend to use your phone while you are away, you should definitely buy a travel pack or a prepaid sim at the local area. Roam Mobility offers several options for those who live in Canada and are travelling to the U.S. A benefit of using Roam Mobility is that you will have a sim card or phone that you can use as soon as you arrive at your destination. If you have an unlocked phone and some time to shop around, T-mobile‘s prepaid sim seems to be a good option. I was actually going to purchase a T-mobile pre-aid sim card, but my offline map app was good enough for me to navigate the city, so I decided not to purchase one after my first day there.

5. Navigate the conference area with Google Maps and Offline map apps

My map for Chicago on Google Maps

My map for Chicago on Google Maps

Going to a conference is a great opportunity to learn new things and to meet new people, but we should also enjoy experiencing the local spots. I do not care about typical tourist spots, and almost all my attention goes to vegan food. What I used to navigate Chicago was the My Maps Editor app on my iPhone. You can import not only My Places/maps on your Google Maps but also other KML and KMZ files. I am not sure exactly how it works offline, but as far as you have opened the app and navigated an area beforehand, this app seems to work offline. As far as you are receiving some sort of cell tower signal and/or wifi, your GPS works so you can easily find out where you are on the map. And the beauty of KML/KMZ importing function is that you can add public transit lines and stops easily on the map as well. The City of Chicago makes a lot of data available online and you can find the kml files for the Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” (Rail) System stations and lines here:

6. Check book sales at the conference

Books that I bought 50% off at the SCMS Annual Conference

Books that I bought for 50% off at the SCMS Annual Conference

If you are attending a large conference, some major publishers will likely have booths set up at the conference and will be selling some books. Understandably, many of them do not want to take back the books that they brought with them, so you may get a great deal toward the end of the conference. Some publishers only take cash, make sure to have enough. (I actually needed to borrow some money from my supervisor to buy a book.) I bought four books at 50% off, which is a much better deal than what Amazon or the Book Depository usually offers!

—–

I found many more vegan places in Chicago, but due to my tight budget and schedule, I was able to check only four places. I am not 100% sure, but Chicago seems to have more vegan spots than Toronto, though Toronto is now the fourth largest city in North America by beating Chicago by 80,000 people.  I hope that I can visit there again to try out other awesome vegan places!

Teaching Plagiarism: How to Avoid a Sad Situation

10 Types of Plagiarism
Ten Most Common Types of Plagiarism from Plagiarism.org

Have you ever needed to deal with students who ended up having plagiarisms in their assignments? Unless the students took phrases or sentences from obvious sources, identifying plagiarism has become nearly impossibly thanks to the Internet and computers. If you are living in the era of postmodernism and believe in postmodernist sensibility, plagiarism may not matter anymore. In academics and education, plagiarism is a really big deal, and it is essential for students to learn how to cite and use someone else’s ideas properly and for teaching staff to provide useful resources that can potentially prevent plagiarism.

Screen Shot of Plagiarism.orgThe top page of Plagiarism.org

I found this website, Plagiarism.org, last year, and it is a great website for students to learn about plagiarism. A company called iParadigms is behind the website, and its intention to create such a website is obvious: to encourage students to try out its new service WriteCheck, which is basically a lesser version of Turnitin. Regardless of the company’s intention, the website itself is useful and informative. It has four main sections as you can see in the screen shot of the top page: Plagiarism 101, which provides essential knowledge about plagiarism; Citing Sources, which guides students in learning how to cite properly; Ask the Expertswhich shares responses to previous questions asked from students; and, Resourceswhich provides further information about plagiarism. In the last section, I found this four-minute YouTube video that explains 10 types of plagiarism:

Showing this video is definitely an effective way to make students (re-)aware of plagiarism, but also sharing the top image in this post with students as a handout may be a better way for them to retain what they watched in the clip. The Resources section provides student materials that you can use as handouts in class. I have no idea how long the company will maintain this website, so you should download and save the files before the website disappears. The combination of the following articles may be also useful to raise awareness of plagiarism:

If you can use one tutorial session or a part of lecture, showing RiP! A Remix Manifesto by Brett Gaylor may be an interesting way to engage your students in the issue of plagiarism in general:

You would be very sad if you find out that one of your students has committed plagiarism. Your preventive actions for plagiarism by talking about it or sharing any of these resources can definitely decrease the chance of plagiarism in your classroom!

Stylish Academic Writing or Insanely Simple Writing?

I rarely read books directly or indirectly unrelated to my research and studies, period. During the winter break back in December, however, I unusually read two research-unrelated books, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, and Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall. Sword is an academic, her book is about academic writing, and her main audience is likely academics; Segall is an advertising creative director, his book is about Apple’s marketing, and his main audience is probably the general public. These two books do not share similar content, but both offer some advice on how to make things better: academic writing and marketing/business.

Stylish Academic Writing

Interestingly, I learnt much more about writing from Segall’s book than Sword’s book. Despite all the pieces of advice that Sword provides, her prose in Stylish Academic Writing was not stylish at all. You can see how she implements what she suggests in the book, but she seems to be struggling to integrate them into a coherent way of writing. Some sentences are even longer than typically long sentences that you would encounter in academic writing; too many parentheses keep cutting off the flow of sentences; the use of data that she collected is sporadic and does not really help strengthen her discussion; and, she does not really exhibit the occasional humour that she claims great academic writers possess. If you bother to read this book for advice, I would rather recommend that you read old-style prescriptive style guides like The Elements of Style, or The Craft of Research. Sadly, Sword’s prose was not engaging enough to be stylish at all.

Insanely Simple by Ken Segall

Unlike Sword’s book, Segall’s Insanely Simple was engaging and full of intriguing anecdotes. Segall writes his understanding (and version) of Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s philosophy based on his own experience as a TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director, and breaks down such philosophy into ten “Think” catchphrases. Not all these Think’s are helpful for stylish academic writing, but some of them are straightforward and, at least for me, useful to improve my writing.

Think Small

Although “Think Small” basically encourages us to work in a small group of smart people, this attitude is applicable to the preparation and the content of writing. At the beginning of brainstorming or writing, I tend to have more topics or ideas that I need to write a specific paper. By narrowing down my scope of topics or ideas, I should be able to engage with ideas or topics more rigorously and productively.

Think Minimal

If “Think Small” is a larger work ethic, “Think Minimal” is a smaller work ethic and it encourages you to focus on one thing at a time or identify the common ground for multiple things. This mentality is directly applicable to academic writing where we need to focus on one workable idea at a time in order to make ourselves fully understood before going to the next idea.

Think Motion

“Think Motion” indicates the necessity to have a clearly defined goal and to work towards it constantly without being distracted by other factors. Setting up a timeline tight enough to achieve this, I should be able to make full use of my time and energy to work productively.

Think Human

This “Think” mentality asks business people to think beyond numbers and to think about their customers, or human beings, first. By foregrounding customer satisfaction, companies can focus more on what they want to deliver. In academic writing, we all need to think about our potential audience, and without a clear idea of what types of people they are, our prose can end up being too vague for them, which also means that the audience does not understand our message.

I may be stretching  Segall’s points a little too much by relating them to academic writing, but his thoughts on how Steve Jobs ran Apple would likely help me refine my writing and achieve more stylish prose than Sword’s book. For now, in order to achieve stylish academic writing, I will aim for insanely simple writing!

How to Deal with a Difficult Situation: “The Other Person is Never the Problem” from Zen Habits

zen-bamboo-wallpaper-japan-1600-1200

Without giving you too much detail, I had a really difficult situation to deal with in the last term, and I felt more stress than I had experienced in my entire life. Eventually, I was able to resolve it with the help of several persons. While going through the situation, I was blaming someone else at the beginning but I eventually started blaming myself. In retrospect, both sides had issues, and that condition must have made the difficult situation more difficult.

When I read “The Other Person Is Never the Problem” on Zen Habits, a blog by Leo Babauta, I thought that I could have dealt with the situation without feeling too stressful. Here are some lines that intrigued me in the blog post:

They’re not the problem.

The other person is never the problem.

[. . . .] The problem is our reaction. The external event (someone is rude to you) will always happen, every day, often multiple times a day. We cannot stop others from being rude — but we can change how we react.

Unless we are omnipotent, we cannot change the world easily. The easiest part that we can change in any situation is our attitude. By changing our attitude, we may able to see the situation more clearly, and resolve it much more quickly and smoothly.

So next time I face any difficult situation, I will calm myself down and take one step back to have a better look at the situation. By so doing, I should be able to deal with it better than I did this time!