Friday, October 28, 2016

Those Illusive Characters (Time and Balance) in the Life of a Grad Student

It's Friday morning and I'm drinking coffee. I don't have class on Fridays. I am sitting on my new couch, a comfortable reclining love seat where I spend about 40% of my time. "Farmhouse Rules" (a Food Network TV show) is playing in the background as I jump from tab-to-tab on my laptop: from Twitter, to updating my Goodreads account to include my PhD reading list, to the public library website, to my grant and conference applications, and now to writing this post.

Image result for the productivity project

Before starting my PhD program in September, I read The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. One of the takeaways from that book was the "Rule of 3." He recommends writing down a daily to-do list containing 3 items. It's a technique that is meant to keep you focused on your priorities for the day. I do it every day in my bullet journal, and I end up with something that looks like this:

(There are so many beautiful, artistic bullet journals. Mine is all business. Journalling artistically is something I admire, but it's not my strength.)

But most days, I end up with way more than 3 things to do:

Rule of 3
  • History readings
  • Exercise (run or yoga)
  • Draft conference proposal
but also...
  • Groceries
  • American Studies readings
  • Tidy apartment
  • Pedagogical exercise
  • Email
I've heard from so many graduate students and academics how hard it is to manage time and maintain a balance in their lives. Perhaps naively or optimistically, I thought that returning to graduate school after 8 years in the work force would play to my advantage: if I maintain my 9-to-5 foundation, doing school work during those hours, I could use my evenings and weekends to spend time doing my favourite life things, like reading, yoga, watching TV, healthy cooking and meal prepping, and time with family and friends.

Simple, right? Unsurprisingly, it didn't turn out to be quite that easy. 

Another lesson from The Productivity Project was the role your brain plays in all this. From what I remember, there are basically two parts of your brain that control your motivation: prefrontal cortex and limbic system (something like that). The prefrontal cortex is where your brain processes complex and difficult tasks (e.g. reading academic texts and writing assignments) and your limbic system is the feeder for procrastination, where you passively absorb fun things (e.g. a Netflix binge or, in my case, an inexplicable new addiction to YouTube makeup channels that coincides with the first year of PhD studies). 

The more you exercise your prefrontal cortex, the easier it is to get cracking on the productive things you know you should do and, in many cases, really want to do to keep your life together. Because it's so easy to feed your limbic system and you get a little buzz from doing so, it is often the stronger muscle.

Thankfully, the act of writing this post pulled me out of my Friday morning limbic activity. I've worked my prefrontal cortex by flexing my writing muscle and producing something. 

So, as it turns out, I'm not some kind of Time-Balance Grad Student Superwoman. And that's okay. Like many before me, I am struggling with self-discipline and managing open expanses of time.

I am committed to winning this time/balance battle, starting by doing something many grad students would think is bananas: Reading a book for fun.

To be continued...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anishinabe Scattergories

The first time I realized that the answer to a question didn't have to be obvious was in grade two. My teacher, Freeda, asked: "What is your favourite season?"

Each student had the chance to answer and a chorus of "Summer!" rang through the classroom. One of the kids responded, "Winter" and was met with looks of horror or disgust.

"My favourite part of the year is the change in seasons," said Freeda. "I love it when the first snow falls and then thaws to reveal fresh plants and flowers. It's a beautiful cycle and we get to witness it again and again."

Intrigued by how the answer stood outside of the standard responses us seven-year-olds could think up, I tried to employ this new technique later in Algonquin language class. We were playing a handmade board game, basically an Anishinabe version of Scattergories.

The teacher read from a list of categories and we had to silently write down our responses on a piece of paper, hoping that no other student would have the same answer and leave us both pointless.

Of course, we all knew there were four colours in the medicine wheel: white, yellow, red and black. But I remembered my grandmother explaining to me why she always hung a purple ribbon on her medicine wheels: "Purple is a very sacred, spiritual colour," she explained.

When the time came to read our responses and count up the points for each unique answer, I proudly responded, "Purple!" to the medicine wheel question, convinced that I had bested them all.

"There's no purple in the medicine wheel," said my teacher. "Wrong." I began to protest, but she was already moving on to the next kid.

Much to my dismay, my constant companion and competitor in class was the only student to answer white and received one point.