20 minutes

Over the last few weeks, I've been experimenting with different strategies for focusing my attention and trying to integrate my research & writing into my daily activities. Especially in April, when I have to attend dissertation committees, scholarship committees, special honors & graduation events, etc etc, it's almost impossible to find large blocks of research time. So I've been really trying to focus using small bits of time well. I'm not alone in this:

Jay Parini's column in last week's Chronicle talks about how writing can actually fit with teaching, rather than compete with it -- he mentions 3 key strategies that have worked for him: trying to use odd 20-30 minutes chunks of time; aiming to write 2 pages a day, every day; and having more than one kind of project going at a time. Of course, as creative writer & scholar, he has not only different projects, but different genres or modes to work in, which helps create variety and allows him to choose a writing task to match his current energy level and interest. But breaking my list of things to work on into different kinds of tasks has been helpful for me: maybe I don't feel smart enough to write brilliant prose at 1:30 a.m., but I can transcribe hand-written notes for a while. And just doing that helps me stay in touch with my project, and usually generates some new ideas or sentences.

Because I sometimes struggle with procrastination, I've been using a timer. I can make a deal with myself to sit down for 20 minutes and just start something. Usually, the timer will go off and I can then continue for another 10 minutes or so before taking a break -- I just need to settle down long enough to focus and start.

Jason Womack, one of the coaches featured on David Allen's website, has an interesting outline of how to use 30 minutes wisely:
Over the past year, I have noticed the call to action increase in my work and life. Speaking, writing, working out, remodeling the house, maintaining friendships (you know, having a life!) all demands my attention, energy and time. How have I managed it all? Special, dedicated, carved-out blocks of "focus-30-minutes." Creating a workspace out of a hotel desk, a bookstore table, even a coffee shop chair, I "work" on one thing for 30-minutes straight (lately, I've been setting a timer...).

I'm pretty exact about how I do it:
5 minutes: I warm up (just like when I go to the gym). I may journal, or even mind-sweep, my intended focus area and outcome for the work-session.
20 minutes: I work - having created a space and time without interruptions.
5 minutes: I look at what I accomplished, and if necessary, set up a time to continue if I have not finished what I set out to complete, capturing any open loops.

"Mind-sweep" and "capturing any open loops" are part of the Getting Things Done methodology -- basically meaning to clear your mental decks by jotting things down that still need further action or attention.

I really like his idea that you have to warm up a little before focusing on work -- it's helped me gain clarity about what I hope to accomplish in a particular session.

So I'm trying to retrain my mental picture of what "working" looks like. Forget the dream of 3 hours at a time -- especially since, in reality, my attention span just isn't that good any more. I need little breaks to get coffee or stretch or whatever. But once I've found 20 minutes, I can usually find 30 minutes. And maybe another 20 or 30 later in the day. Eventually, it should all add up.