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.


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.

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.


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!

.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.

My 365 Project: The Commencement of the Dissertation

My good friend over at The Jackie Blog is a big promoter of 365 projects. Having accomplished the goal of blogging every day for 365 days in 2011, she’s embarking on a new 365 project this year: to move (for fitness/health) for at least 20 minutes every day. I love the idea of her project, and it’s one that I was tempted to adopt as well. An underlying and persistent interest/hobby of mine is nutrition and fitness, and a 365 project that required me to spend 20 minutes each day on it would be a great way to foster this interest. But, I have a more pressing array of tasks requiring my energy.

I’m in my fourth year, or eighth semester, of a Sociology PhD program. I’ve acquired my Master’s degree and recently passed my comprehensive exams. After passing my comprehensive exams last semester, I did the bare minimum to get through until winter break. Winter break was lovely: I didn’t allow myself to think or speak about graduate school unless directly asked. This worked out well, and I was able to forget about some of the stress that comes along with a PhD program.

Which brings me to my own 365 Project. I am committing to spending 20 minutes each day working on something dissertation related. Because of the nature of a dissertation, this will include reading, summarizing, writing, editing, statistical programming and analysis, formatting, and making tables. This will not include meetings with committee members.

At this point in my PhD trajectory, this 365 Project is imperative to my completing my PhD. As of now, I’m completely unmotivated to finish the degree for various reasons that I intend to blog about throughout the year. By committing to work on my dissertation daily, I’m forcing myself to hack away at it in small chunks. The 20 minute minimum will help me get through those days in which I am really busy, really hate my dissertation, really would rather be doing anything else in the world. The 20 minute minimum will also ensure that I’m consistently working on my dissertation, no matter how little progress I make in any given day.

Like many others in a similar situation, I always feel that anything I produce isn’t good enough. This makes writing a dissertation scary and daunting. It’s a huge project, requiring the agreement and guidance of a committee of faculty members, that ultimately earns you a PhD. I’m scared, nervous, and anxious about the whole process. My hope is that 20 minutes each day will make the whole goal a little more attainable.

Note: Although I posted this intro post on January 11, I actually started the 365 Project on January 10.