This post is a departure from my usual material, but still comes under the broad title of ‘musings on my PhD’, because it’s about one (or two, actually) of the ways that I manage to work full time and still keep up the writing momentum for my dissertation/thesis as a part time student studying at a distance.
The two techniques are Shut Up and Write, and the Pomodoro technique.
Shut Up and Write originated with a group of people in San Francisco who meet in a coffee shop and write creatively, but which I met through Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer post when it had already begun to be adapted for use in academia. Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Coordinator for HDR students at Charles Sturt University (CSU), where I spend half my time, advertised some sessions at Wagga campus and invited people to join by email. I asked if she had thought about running them on other campuses and she replied that she’d love to help me set one up at Albury, so I roped in another person who roped in another person and we advertised an event in the library, with coffee and nibbles.
Although we had a few people interested initially, it didn’t work very well in face-to-face mode, even though I provided nice biscuits and plunger coffee and good quality tea bags for free. A number of students said they’d prefer to work in their own offices where they had all their books and access to two screens – because academic writing is different to creative writing. At about that time, however, CSU started using Adobe Connect, which enables groups to meet virtually using sound, video, shared screens and a range of other nifty things which are of less use in Shut Up and Write than they are in other activities for students working at a distance from each other. Cassily started using it and I did the training on the software and also started hosting on-line sessions. I now host three sessions a week which I find hugely useful in making sure that I keep periods of the week free from other activities to work on my thesis/dissertation. An added bonus is that part of my job description says that I provide hospitality to the university community, so hosting sessions is also part of my chaplaincy work – a win-win. :-)
We get together at a set time each week, chat for 15 minutes, write up our goals for the session, then set a timer and work for 25 minutes, have a 5 minute break in which we share progress and sometimes useful tips, then repeat twice or three times more, depending on the energy of the group. This timing comes from the Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo as a means of managing time, using a timer to break work into manageable segments. Cirillo is Italian and the timer he used to develop the technique was a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – hence the name: pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.
The full Pomodoro technique is quite complex, but for our purposes, the 25 minutes work followed by 5 minutes break is all we need. People who have real difficulty settling down to work are amazed by how well knowing that in 25 minutes you are going to have to report back focusses your mind. They (we) also find that the timing thing works when we are working by ourselves. You can use a mechanical kitchen timer, a timer on your phone or some kind of app. We tend to use the one at http://tomato-timer.com/.
Tomorrow, I plan to write another post that talks more about the technical aspects of doing Shut Up and Write on line, as well as the things that we’ve learned over the last 18 months or so, but for tonight, I think this is enough.