Buttermilk Biscuits and Dissertating

A few nights ago a friend came over with all of the fixings for fried green tomatoes*, and we had ourselves a feast. It was only the second time I’d ever had fried green tomatoes, and I can now add them to the list of things that would be a compelling reason to move to the south. Not to worry, dear friends, despite the fact that I’m south of the Mason Dixon line, I don’t consider the DC metro area to be the legitimate south, and I don’t plan to move to the real south anytime soon.

We used buttermilk to batter the tomatoes, and what else to do with leftover buttermilk than to make buttermilk biscuits? I’d never made them before; the closest to biscuit-making that I’ve come is helping my grandmother make biscuits that were devoid of good flavor and fluffy texture as a kid. She was the only one who ate them, but she loved putting me up on that kitchen stool to help make them. Not wanting to recreate those biscuits, I remembered seeing this post on Smitten Kitchen about her favorite buttermilk biscuits. We opted for the drop biscuit route (easier clean-up!) and this recipe did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of the biscuits or the tomatoes, we were too busy feasting to care.

Anyway, since I only gave you a link to a recipe and not an actual recipe (or even a photo of a completed recipe), I guess I’ll give you a dissertation update. My 20 minutes per day project went on a major hiatus for the past six weeks (or maybe even eight). I went to a conference, the end of the semester crunch hit, I had deadlines to meet for my research assistantship, and I had a bunch of family engagements to attend. Oh, and I burned out. I mean, completely. I was so burned out that I didn’t even want to read for fun. So, I put the dissertation proposal aside, trudged through all of my other work tasks, and tried to enjoy all of the time I got to spend with my family and in-laws over these past couple of months (when I wasn’t too tired, that is).

This past Monday I finally started working on my dissertation again. I’m re-implementing my 20-minutes per day rule, except this time, I’m letting myself take days off. Some might say that this is a complete failure at a 365 Project, and I suppose it kind of is. But, the difference between my dissertation and a 365 project is that my dissertation will likely take longer than 365 days to complete, regardless of whether I work on it for 20 minutes a day or not. And most days, I will be working on it.

In the future, I’ll embark on a 365 Project that entails something I actually enjoy – something fitness- or cooking-related. Something that will hopefully improve my health, and my life in general. Something that will have enough variety that when I get so busy with research that I don’t burn out from the 365 goal, too. Though I’m not following official 365 Project rules for my dissertation, I’m still sticking with a general 20 minutes per day, so I’ll continue to update about it here and there.

 

*We had a Sriracha Remoulade and a copycat of the Outback Steakhouse Blooming Onion sauce with the fried green tomatoes, and none of us could pick a favorite!

The Gauntlet

So, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in about my 365 Challenge. I’m certainly working on my dissertation more than I would have otherwise, but, I have missed plenty of days. I’ve justified these missed days because my regular workload was particularly heavy, because of special events (like visiting family), or by distributing a day in which I did a lot of work to apply to two or three days’ worth of work. So, I’m thankful for Jackie over at The Jackie Blog for her latest contest: The Gauntlet.

Jackie is currently participating in a second 365 challenge wherein she does some form of exercise/movement every day for 365 days. Don’t we all wish we were so motivated? Anyway, she has invited us to join her for 30 days to pursue any goal that you think you need to improve. Mine is, obviously, to return to working on my dissertation on a consistent, daily basis. Yours could be anything. But do sign up, and do sign up soon. You could win $100 for joining her!

I plan to track my progress this month the old way. I have a calendar on my desk, and I earn a purple star for each day that I work on my dissertation. My secondary goal is to exercise more often, so I get a pink star for that. Sometimes, the gold-star method is the best.

Calendar

Here’s to a productive April.

Project 365: 10 Percent Completion

My original intent  with my 365 Project was to work on my dissertation for at least twenty minutes each and every day for one year. I had considered building in official breaks, but decided against it. The point was to make myself work on my dissertation when I least wanted to work.

Yet, after 36 consecutive days of working on my dissertation, I took a break. A two-day break, to be specific. In other words, I had completed roughly 10% of my 365 project before failing. But, I don’t consider taking a weekend off a failure. On the contrary, I consider it to be a success.

This past weekend was a holiday weekend, but that’s not what motivated the break. After all, I worked on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I worked on my birthday. Rather, Sam and I spent this past weekend visiting both of our families. For 48 hours, we spent nearly every waking moment with relatives, and it was lovely, but it left little time to work on a dissertation. All day Saturday, I kept thinking about when I might slip away to work on my dissertation. But, after a lovely breakfast with one family, we embarked on a 2.5 hour car ride to visit the other side of the family. Perhaps I could have worked in the car, but I’m not one of the lucky ones who can read in a moving vehicle for very long. We arrived, had lunch, we chatted, we had dinner, we chatted, and finally, after a somewhat late night on Saturday, I decided that I was not going to be working on my dissertation that day. Sunday ended up being much the same. I concluded that family time and some true mental breaks are just as important to me as completing my dissertation.

The thing about being an academic is that there are few boundaries between personal time and work time. You have to self-impose the boundaries because there’s always work that you can be doing and you often feel like you haven’t been as productive as you could be.  For the purposes of my dissertation, the failure to take breaks would be nearly as detrimental as procrastinating and not doing any work at all. Therefore, mental breaks and family time are imperative to completion.

So, will I schedule breaks for the next 327 days? Not exactly. I’ll wait until I really need a break (perhaps when visiting family again) to take one. Otherwise, I plan to proceed as I did for the first 36 days: dissertating at least 20 minutes each day until I hit another necessary break.

Mindful Meditation

In light of yesterday’s post on willpower and how to improve self-discipline, today’s GradHacker post Mindfulness: Awareness for Stress-Reduction seems well-timed. Though I’ve read about and been told about benefits of practicing mindfulness many times, it’s still not something that I’ve committed to habit.

I first became aware of the practice of mindfulness in my first or second year of college in a bio-behavioral health class. The professor touted the benefits of mindfulness and meditation as particularly important aspects of holistic health. (Holistic health is the concept that physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being are all interconnected. To be healthy, one must achieve balance across all aspects of well-being).  The practice of mindfulness, rooted in Buddhist tradition, encourages one to be aware of one’s own body and mind. Often, we are so involved in fretting over the past or worrying about the future that we forget to focus on the present, the reality of now. All of that worrying over things that are outside of your control surely causes an imbalance in psychological or spiritual health.

Consistent with suggestions of holistic health professionals for dealing with stress and anxiety, GradHacker outlines two basic exercises for practicing mindfulness. Neither of them are time consuming, but having attempted to practice both of them in the past, I wouldn’t say that they’re particularly easy to accomplish without practice.

The first exercise is the Body Scan exercise. We practiced the Body Scan exercise in my bio-behavioral health class in college; I actually still practice it when I’m having difficulty falling asleep. Lie down, or sit comfortably, and close your eyes. Then, starting with your toes, release any tension you might be holding. Proceed to release any tension you’re holding in your ankles, up through your calves, knees, hips, torso, neck, and face. Don’t forget your arms and hands! I find that I’m usually holding a lot of tension in my jaw and forehead.

The second exercise is a simple breathing meditation. Set a time for a specific amount of time. GradHaker suggests 5, 10, or 15 minutes. I suggest starting out with 2 or 3 minutes. You’d be surprised at how long it feels. After you set a timer, sit in a comfortable position (ideally with your hands on each side of your body, palms up) and close your eyes. Concentrate on your breath as you breathe in and breathe out. GradHacker suggests counting from 1 to 10 continuously, but I do not count because that’s now how I practiced in meditation sessions that I attended. As you focus on breathing, you’ll surely have other thoughts. Don’t ignore the thoughts, but acknowledge them, and return your focus to your breathing.

The practice of breathing meditation is something that I often think I should do more often, but rarely actually do it. When I do try, I find it disconcerting just how easily my own thoughts can distract me from a mere 3 minutes of meditation. Because one of my goals for 2013 is to spend less time consuming mindlessly, I have given myself the perfect opportunity to practice mindful meditation more regularly. Rather than checking my Facebook feed during conceptual breaks, I will instead try to devote 3-5 minutes to a breathing meditation. With any luck, I’ll find that I can meditate for 10 minutes without becoming completely distracted before the end of this year.

Willpower (and Chicken Gumbo)

Earlier this week, Sam made chicken gumbo for dinner. It didn’t turn out completely to his liking, so I won’t bother to post the recipe. Nonetheless, it was tasty. He likes his food super spicy, so he split the recipe across two pots. His had copious amounts of ancho chile peppers (it was supposed to be green chile peppers, but we only had ancho chiles on hand) and Frank’s hot sauce, the pot he made for me had much less of the hot stuff. But, since I’m not sharing the recipe, chicken gumbo isn’t the topic of this post. As you’ve probably already surmised from the title, the topic of this post is willpower.

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Wikipedia refers to willpower as “self-discipline, training and control of oneself and one’s conduct, usually for personal improvement.” I was going to give you the Oxford English Dictionary definition, but it only provided me with the following quote: “The drunkard..whose will-power and whose moral force have been conquered by degraded appetite.” Well, the Latin phrase in vino veritas doesn’t exist for nothing, I guess.

But back to willpower. Apparently, some believe (and some research supports) the idea that we only have a limited amount of willpower. Furthermore, the efforts of continuing to exercise willpower can lead to willpower depletion. Unfortunately for those of us who wish we had more willpower, the mechanisms behind willpower depletion are not well-understood. One’s ability to exert willpower can be affected by something as simple as glucose levels or as complex as attitudes and beliefs. For example, people who believe that willpower is a limited resource are more likely to experience willpower depletion (Job 2010)*.

Because I often feel like I’m on the brink of willpower depletion myself,  I know that I can only commit myself to a limited number of projects. Otherwise, I’d be setting myself up for failure. Right now, my 365 Project of working on my dissertation on a daily basis is project numero uno. Devoting myself to work on it every day is certainly a test of my willpower, but I think it would have been a bigger test of my willpower had I not made this commitment. Today marks the 11th day of my 365 Project, and I’d be lying if I said I would have worked on my dissertation for more than half of the past 11 days if I hadn’t made it a daily requirement.

There have been a few positive aspects about removing the optional nature of working on my dissertation each day. First, it has made it easier to be motivated, at least so far. It’s just something that I know I have to do, and I don’t allow myself to relax until it’s been completed. Second, because I’ve made a conscious effort to think about my dissertation every day, the cost of working on it each time is lower. If I’ve learned one thing in graduate school, it’s that longer periods of time between working on a paper mean that each time you do work on it, you have to spend significant time reacquainting yourself with your work. Knowing that I have to reacquaint myself with a project encourages me to procrastinate more, which is something I cannot afford if I ever want to graduate.

Of course, there’s been a negative aspect to this 365 project, too. Though I recognize that I’ve been successful in my goal thus far, I still wish that I were focusing my attention on something else. I’m sacrificing a lot of things that are important for the sake of finishing my degree. I know it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Maybe as the year progresses, I’ll find ways to improve my willpower and I’ll be able to devote more time and effort to my other goals. Or maybe I won’t, but I’ll have made awesome progress on my dissertation (oh please, let me make awesome progress either way). I suppose progress comes at a cost, eh?

Whether or not my willpower improves, there are a lot of obstacles to come. I haven’t yet reached the point where I hate my dissertation, but according to others’ experiences, it’s coming. Over the next year, as I confront (and hopefully overcome) various obstacles, I know that I’ll be continually examining my own willpower and self-discipline. I’ll consider and reconsider my motivations for why I’m continuing to work on a dissertation when there are days when I’m seriously considering quitting graduate school completely. I hope that when those days come, the positive effects of embarking on this 365 Project continue.

*See the short info sheet Is Willpower a Limited Resource by the American Psychological Association for a primer on the current research on willpower and for the Job (2010) citation.

PS – this is my 100th post on this blog! Yay!

My Goals for 2013

I’ve been waking up before 7:00 am every day since returning from Europe. I wish that the explanation for this was that I’m super motivated to get an early start on my dissertation every day. The sad truth is that I returned from Europe with a nasty ear infection, and the combination of jet lag and illness has prevented me from staying awake beyond 9:00 pm since returning. Nonetheless, I enjoy maintaining a grandma schedule. Early bedtimes and early waking times, when I can maintain them, work well for me. I’m the most productive and most likely to adopt healthy behaviors when I adhere to a normal schedule. This is why one of my goals for 2013 is to adhere to a normal schedule.

There’s only one problem with setting goals for 2013: I’m not a resolutions person. Maybe I’m too afraid of failure to resolve to real change. This year’s 365 Project is the closest I’ve ever come to committing to a new year’s resolution. Nevertheless, I recognize that we all have room to grow and to change. If I had the time, energy, and resolve to devote myself to change in 2013, these would be my goals:

  • Spend less time consuming mindlessly. This primarily includes Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, but also Hulu or Netflix. It’s not that I’m going to ban myself from these sites completely, rather I want to regulate my time using them so that they don’t interfere with my productivity during the day.
  • Spend more time producing for myself. Rather than consuming mindlessly (see above point), I would rather funnel my free time into posting on this blog, cooking, and exercising. The blog posting is my attempt to write semi-regularly on a project that I truly enjoy. Unlike academic writing, I won’t have to revise and resubmit. Like academic writing, the more I write here, the better my writing will become. Cooking and exercising are always among the first things to go when I’m busy and stressed, yet they also bring me a lot of joy, which is why I’m making them a priority.
  • Spend more time reading for pleasure. Not much else to say about this, except that I really miss reading for pleasure. Right now I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books!
  • Adhere to better sleep habits. Ah, the goal that inspired this post. Maintaining a bed time is so difficult, especially when I have trouble falling asleep during stressful times. I know that the only way I can achieve other goals is if I maintain a regular schedule, and this starts with sleep habits.
  • Eat and drink more mindfully. I’m a big fan of the blog Can You Stay for Dinner. The author, Andy, often writes about eating mindfully. Mindfulness is a technique I often read about for living a healthier, calmer life. Attempting to be mindful about a process that you have to do on a daily basis is a good place to start. A long term goal is to introduce other mindfulness techniques into my life, like daily meditation. One 365 Project at a time, though.

.008% Progress

Today is day 3 of my 365 project, meaning my progress is a whopping .008%. That’s okay, though, because I actually have worked on my dissertation for at least 20 minutes for 3 days in a row now. I’m already approaching the total amount of effort I put into it last semester, especially if I don’t count meetings with faculty (which I don’t, according to my 365 Project intro post).

So why is today, day 3, significant? Today is a Saturday. Not only is it a Saturday, but as I’m writing this post, it’s not quite 11:00am yet. That means that I got up on a Saturday morning and worked on my dissertation for at least 20 minutes today (48 minutes to be exact, thank you). Though I’m no stranger to working on the weekends, I typically only work on the weekends when I have more pressing deadlines. After day 3, I’m already starting to see the value in working at this every day, even if for a short time. It requires me to review my notes and what I’ve done on a daily basis, which keeps the material fresh and my current goals clear. It allows me to stop working on it after 48 minutes without feeling guilty, because I did make some progress.

I remember a faculty member telling me that the only way to get through a dissertation is to make sure that you work on it every day. He suggested a one-sentence minimum each day. This is the attitude I’ve adopted with my 20-minutes each day approach. Sentence by sentence, I will write this thing.

On Monday, I return to campus and all of my other duties and obligations return. For 15 weeks (plus a spring break week), I will have to juggle daily dissertation writing, my research assistant work, my internship, and submitting two papers to a journal. This last task will be front-heavy in the semester, but the others will persist throughout. A professor from my undergrad years used to tell students that they could get through anything for just 50 minutes (the length of sitting through her class). I’ve often adopted this mantra to get through many semesters, and this one will be no different. These next 15 weeks will feel very long, but they will end. And they will end with more than .008% progress.