Determination, Purpose, Writing

Blueprint Phase 1, Step 2


On Tuesday night, I brought 3 days and 10 pages of notes to heel in this whacked out mind  map.  Even with my scattered brain forever chasing down The Meaning Of It All, I was able to rip the material and pin details to their categories.  One night later, I had expanded this into a clean, 3-page document charting each week-long task between now and May 1, 2017.  It’s typed.  With headings.  That makes it real, right?

Continue reading “Blueprint Phase 1, Step 2”

Creativity, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Writing Project Blueprint, Phase 1


Assignment #1: Prepare an action plan for reaching a medium-term writing goal. You have seven days to complete and submit plan.

Assignment details:

Write up an overarching SMART goal and then generate a series of intermediate objectives, each with its own subset of deliverables.  The objectives and deliverables will use measurable action words, such as those in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and will themselves include all the elements of SMART goals (most importantly, specificity and timeline).

As the details of the interim requirements resolve into view, they may reveal that the Big Papi goal is itself problematic.  The goal might be too ambitious or your schedule unrealistic. Revise as necessary. The plan will be more effective if it emerges from an adaptive exchange between desired outcome and deliberative process.

Here is an example of my possible Big Papi writing goal:  By May 1, 2017, prepare for submission a working draft of book proposal (with complete outline), introduction, and chapter 1.

Continue reading “Writing Project Blueprint, Phase 1”

Brain, Determination, Learning

Free Refills


Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .

– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.

– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.

Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”



Career, Purpose

Happy 100 Days: 43

After a conversation with the boss-lady this morning about how to avoid getting sucked into the minutiae of the job, I printed off Stephen Covey’s time management matrix and gave her a copy.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I live in Quadrant 3.”
“Don’t we all,” I sighed.

Adapted from Stephen Covey’s book, “First Things First”

In my personal life, I am much better at staying up in the desired Quadrant 2 where leadership and quality are nourished. I choose to write every night before bed, not because this is pressing (the world will go on if I don’t post on my blog), but because I have decided it matters. The same is true for morning Zumba, the nightly walk, the ongoing tasks associated with the housing search, and immersing myself in human development literature to support my son’s growth. These projects came about not because someone demanded them of me but because I chose to make them priorities. The urgency was not there, so I had to create a sense of urgency. These practices allow meaningful activities to enrich my life. I feel closer to my purpose. Also, new possibilities keep opening up and piquing my curiosity. I feel almost no pull towards the mind-numbing stuff that populates the Quadrant of Waste.
Work looks very little like that. At least, it doesn’t anymore. The first six months at the job, I was focused and directed because I had so much to learn and only 8 hours in which to learn it. Mastery required organization, and so I created it.
Two years later, it is easy to let myself coast. I respond quickly to the immediate but trivial items that fill up a calendar. Like so many of my university’s administrators, I am excellent at managing the little realm of my position and providing a useful service to my 150-ish students and assorted faculty and staff. All of us on this team are resourceful and efficient. We keep things humming.
We live on the left, skipping between 1 and 3, the Quadrants of Necessity and Deception. We feel like we are working hard because we are. Our students, supervisors, and faculty members commend us for doing very well at keeping on top of the complex admistrivia of our programs.
The cost of all this availability is that we fail to cultivate growth and change. When do we craft vision for new ways of operating? When do we turn off the immediacy and dig ourselves down into the deeper projects? We all have those phantom items on our to-do list, those things we know would open up new doors for us in our work and improve the practices in which we engage.
The top 10 items on my wish list include the following:

  1. Writing a monthly post related to PhD student development on the school’s news website
  2. Attending an annual conference of my professional organization
  3. Reaching out to the directors of two other university offices to craft a writing group on our campus for doctoral students (and possibly faculty) to support each other in writing for publication
  4. Calling up the woman who runs the lifelong learning institute to find out about partnership/teaching opportunities for our students
  5. Seeking out folks on the main campus who have similar roles in their units in order to begin building a network of graduate student services professionals
  6. Doing the same as in #5 with folks from the consortium of Washington area colleges and universities
  7. Teaming up with a faculty member to re-establish the teaching methods workshop series we ran in 2011
  8. Kick-starting the monthly lunchtime social hour for PhD students and faculty
  9. Involving myself in the university’s 10-year visioning process
  10. Cobbling together ideas to enhance wellness offerings for grad students on my campus

This is the first time I have ever written these items down in one coherent format. I am only peripherally aware of this list and am only marginally willing to acknowledge it, even here.  It is a little frightening to write into existence the bigness of all we want to create in our professional lives. Considering how much sweat the small items require, who would want to take on more?
Unless that “more” can become both manageable and fun. Having uninterrupted time as an individual or a team to play with some of these projects might even turn them into play. It won’t work unless we know that the other urgent tasks will have our full focus at some pre-determined point later. Then we can relax enough to turn the attention towards grappling with bigger ideas.
It appears that a more systematic approach to the daily schedule is called for.
For me, the first step is tracking — and then letting go of — all the ways I let myself drift into the Quadrant of Waste during a workday.
This afternoon, I gave it a go. I am lucky to have good practices at home to guide me. There, I sit down an hour or so before bed and I simply begin writing. No aimless wandering, no trolling the internet, no pausing to watch a show on TV. Everything else steps aside and I write.
I did the same at the office. I told my boss I was shutting the door.
“Are you calling your realtor?” She asked.
“No! I’m going into Quadrant 2!”
“Oooh,” she grinned. “Good luck!”
And I did it. Two solid hours of reading, research, writing. I left the email for the end of the day when I knew my brain would not be on the bigger tasks anyway. By 4:00, I had completed the following:

  • Read two dense scholarly articles on glucocorticoid responses to stress and their effects on learning
  • Signed up to participate in the university’s Appreciative Inquiry visioning process next month
  • Drafted a post for the department website
  • Became a member of NASPA
  • Navigated the university’s travel authorization system
  • Began the process of registering for a spring conference in Orlando

I’m fired up for all the little seeds now germinating. Tomorrow and after the holiday break, it will be fun to start giving clearer shape to my work day so that I can water and weed as necessary.
Quadrant 2, baby! It’s my new home away from home!

More on Steven Covey’s ideas here.