Department: History

Field of Study: Japanese History

Year in Program: 5th


I am the kind of person who thrives on structure, but is plagued by a short attention span. I tend to balance several projects at once (that are and are not related to my dissertation), and I don’t have an advisor with a strong “check-in regularly and give instructions” mentality, so the first of my two research years has been a huge adjustment. The biggest issue has been trying to give myself deadlines for large, ambiguously defined projects or projects that have a lot of moving parts and shorter-term deadlines (like blogs that post weekly). The most effective method to get things done has been to find ways to visualize my progress in a tangible way (and mark off accomplishments!) while breaking down the overwhelming size of my various tasks into manageable pieces. At any given point, I have three different ways to measure my progress:

  • A standard calendar planner to put down my meetings and major deadlines, as well as weekly deadline goals
  • A To Do list that has all my major and minor tasks, usually put down in priority order
  • A daily To Do list that breaks down my hourly goals for the day

An ideal day in which I stick to my post-it note daily schedule might look like:

6:30 Get up, shower, get dressed
7:30 Check email, catch up on Facebook, Tumblr, other internet goodies/social media
8:30 Read/take notes on a Japanese article (dissertation work)
9:30 Transcribe oral interviews (side project)
10:30 Make brunch, eat
11:30 Head to a coffee shop to work—read/take notes on a Japanese article (dissertation work)
12:30 Translate 2 pages (side project)
1:30 Prepare primary sources for tutoring session (dissertation work)
2:30 Dissertation writing (set goal, for example, 300 words per day)
3:30 Go home, stretch, change clothes, go for a run
4:30 Shower
5:00 Cook, eat dinner, watch TV
6:30 Prep blog entries (side project)
7:30 Enter coding for database project (dissertation work) – probably watching TV too
9:30 Make schedule for tomorrow, clean up apartment a bit
10:30 Bed!

Here’s an actual picture of an overall To Do and daily To Do that I had recently:

todolistFor some people, they need to dedicate an entire day or three-hour chunks to one thing, and sometimes I do that too.

But generally I find I get more done if I’ve got hour-long sections blocked out for different projects that are totally unrelated to one another, so that once I’m mentally exhausted of one or frustrated with it, I can start fresh with something new and still be motivated to keep going.

You’ll note in the above schedule, Japanese articles, which I find the most tedious and mentally taxing, are sectioned off for when I’m fresh in the morning and just after I’ve taken a break to relocate, etc. If I also have a huge number of tasks (like 30 short transcriptions), I’ll put them on my list as 5 finished by the end of the week, or 3 every 5 days, etc., just to make sure that these get chipped away at slowly with a long-term deadline for myself put into my calendar. I also make sure that some of my mind-numbing tasks, like database entry, are scheduled to be done at home where I have my secondary monitor, and I don’t hesitate to watch a couple hours of TV to the right while I work on the coding/copy-pasting data I have to do on the left. Half work, half play. Keeps me going.

I’m also aware of my own limitations as far as where I get work done—quiet environments like libraries are my kryptonite. I need a bustling coffee shop where I feel too self-conscious to open Facebook and fool around on Youtube to get me focused on actually getting stuff done. This is why I eat early, curb my hunger by sipping on a drink at the coffee shop while I work, then go home and take a load off with some exercise and cooking.

Though it probably seems weird to have such an extensive list of things to do, believe it or not, it feels really satisfying to have a million little tasks that you can cross off with a highlighter by the hour and think “Man! I did a lot today!” Not only that but oftentimes I schedule hour blocks for things I suspect might only take me half an hour or so, so I feel quite good about myself for finishing early and either marching on a little longer in the task, rewarding myself with a little email/social media break, or moving straight on to something else so that maybe I end my schedule a whole hour or two early for the day and just decide to go goof off somewhere. Also, in the midst of the piles of work, I try to make sure to have an exercise break (or if not that, an errand break, like walking across town to the store, going to campus for something, etc.) so that I’m not sitting around on my butt all day. If I don’t finish my whole daily To Do list, that’s also okay. It’s important to be able to give myself a break as well (see the photo above, where I took the whole evening off! 🙂 ).

Overall, I find I’m at my most productive and satisfied with myself when I’ve put long-term goals into the calendar, then worked backward dividing those tasks up into weekly and daily goals that are manageable without letting the overwhelming anxiety of a project’s size or length get the best of me.

Also important: having a good friend or friends who appreciates the insanity of your tasks you’re trying to get done, who can tolerate when you waggle a list at them and say “Look how much I got done today!!” Validation to yourself and others keeps the steam going.

Some things to know before you go…

There is a lot of grunt work involved in getting in gear for the dissertation. It might be making bibliographies, mining primary or secondary sources for avenues or scholars’ work you want to look into, making lists of collections of interest to you, or any other number of tasks that you always tell yourself you’ll get around to it. My advice would be to get around to it before you go. I feel like I only did about half as much as I could have before I left, simply because I felt directionless. But once I got out of the country? Even more directionless in the first few months because of the added stresses of figuring out how to live where I live, how to properly access archives, get in contact with the people I needed to know, etc. It can be very challenging to get this done before you leave for many people, especially if you’re like me and was prepping/taking preliminary exams and writing your prospectus before you leave, but it really pays off.

One of the best things I did before I left was beginning to make a list of sources (secondary and primary) I thought I might need quick access to or would definitely need to read, and took advantage of my institution’s digital resources center and high-speed-scanned the living daylights out of anything I thought I might need. I got to Japan armed with a whole slew of resources that gave me a starting point for some of the research while I slogged through my first steps of my research year (also an excellent idea? Investing in an iPad so you can digitize everything without ending up with hundreds of pounds of expensive photocopies by the time you leave). The best thing to do is to prepare yourself before you go so you can hit the ground running. Then figure out how to effectively parcel your time according to your needs. Now that I’m finally in more of a writing stage, I’m also divvying up those tasks with an online blog group to whom I’m accountable for 300 words a day for five days a week, to start.

Taking time to sit down, think through what you really have to do, what preparation is needed, and what will personally get you motivated to do it is the key to everything.

Invest in post-it notes. Buy little yellow pads. Organization, organization, organization. It takes the fear of the unknown and the immeasurable out of the equation to clear the path for abundant productivity.

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