Uncommon Ground

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You SHOULD…Read:Orwell, Leopold, and Teale

The UConn Humanities Institute asked me to contribute to their “You Should…” series. Here’s a copy of my contribution.

You should…Read: Orwell, Leopold, and Teale

But not the Orwell you think. Read  Politics and the English language to be reminded that “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” and Shooting an elephant for a concrete example of how “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”[1] Read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac to learn that when Canada geese return north in the spring “the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March” and the many things a poor farm can teach those willing to learn. Read Teale’s A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm to learn Leopold’s lessons in our own backyard on a farm in Hampton.

[1] And for the best first sentence in an essay: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by a large number of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” WARNING: Descriptions in the essay would have offended many in 1936. More will find them offensive now.

Saturday afternoon at Trail Wood

OK. This is mildly embarrassing. I moved to Connecticut in 1986, I was one of the co-founders of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on Nature and the Environment in 1996, I’ve read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm at least half a dozen times, and Trail Wood is less than 30 miles (40 minutes) from my home in Coventry, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I finally visited. It won’t be the last time. I expect to return once or twice a year to the Beaver Pond Trail, to cross Starfield and Firefly Meadow, and to visit the Summerhouse and Writing Cabin.

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) photographed at Trail Wood

A nice patch of black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) greeted me near the parking area, which is just a short walk from the house at Trail Brook. Rather than following Veery Lane, I turned left and followed the path through Firefly Meadow towards the small pond.

Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood

The Writing Cabin is on the southwest shore of the pond. I turned right and followed the northeast shore to Summerhouse. From there I followed a path along the stone wall bordering Woodcock Pasture until it met the Shagbark Hickory Trail.

Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) photographed at Trail Wood

I found spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) along the Shagbark Hickory Trail , which I followed to the Old Colonial Road. From their I followed the Beaver Pond Trail to the edge of the pond.

Beaver Pond at Trail Wood

After sitting for a while on a nice bench at the south end of the pond, I backtracked on the Beaver Pond Trail and followed the Fern Brook trail through Starfield back to the house and then to the parking area. The whole walk was less than a mile and a half, and the total elevation gain was only 55 feet. It was definitely an easy walk, not a hike, but it was very pleasant, and it was nice to spend time on the old farm where Teale spent so much of his time.

So to anyone from UConn (or nearby) who reads this and hasn’t been to Trail Wood yet, take a couple of hours some afternoon, drive to Hampton, and explore. Trail Wood is easy to find, and it’s open from dawn to dusk. It’s a gem in our own backyard. And if you haven’t read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, do it now. You’ll enjoy your visit to Trail Wood even more if you do.

Made it to Brisbane

It’s among the longest stretch of (planned) travel that I’ve done.1 I

  • left Hartford at 11:45am EDT on Thursday, April 19
  • arrived in Cinncinnati at 1:53pm,
  • left Cinncinnati at 2:45pm,
  • arrived in Los Angeles at 4:45pm PDT,
  • left Los Angeles at 10:30, and
  • arrived in Brisbane at 5:30am Australian Eastern time on Saturday, April 21.

There’s a 14 hour time difference between Brisbane and Hartford. That makes the total travel time 27 hours, 45 minutes gate to gate. I arrived at my hotel about 2 1/2 hours ago. Remarkably, they had a room they could give me, even though the official check in time isn’t until 2:00pm. It’s a very comfortable room in what appears to be a very nice part of the city. I don’t have any meetings until tomorrow. Once I’ve finished up a couple of things I want to do, I’m going to put on some comfortable shoes and go for a walk around town with my camera. First stop, the City Botanic Gardens. I’ll miss the farmer’s market, which is held tomorrow, and I’m not sure what I’ll visit after the botanic gardens, but I’m going to keep going all day. If I can go to bed at something resembling a normal time, there’s a good chance I’ll escape the worst effects of jet lag tomorrow.

The photo is the view from my hotel room.

  1. A few years ago it took me 3 1/2 days to get home from Capetown. I was stranded in Amsterdam for 2 nights. Yes I mean stranded. The first night I was stuck in the airport. The second night I was at an airport hotel, but I didn’t get there until 3 in the afternoon – too late to go into the city and enjoy anything.

Getting organized in 2018 – Putting it all together

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

When I started this series I didn’t think it would take me three months to finish, but it did. If you’ve been following along, you’ve read about how I keep myself organized. In this last post, I’ll put it altogether by running through the process with links to the individual steps. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this will look pretty familiar, although I discovered most of these practices on my own well before I read his book.1

It all starts on Sunday morning. I brew myself a nice cup of coffee – black, no sugar -, sit down at my laptop, and boot up OmniFocus. I move tasks that may have accumulated in my OmniFocus Inbox to the appropriate Project folder or subfolder.2Then I use the Review perspective to review all of my tasks. I’ve set different projects for different review frequencies. Some I review every week, some I review once a month, and some I review only once every 3-6 months. But everything gets reviewed at a frequency experience has taught me is appropriate. Every week the review will review tasks that need to be rescheduled (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) or dropped. And every week the review gives me ideas for new tasks or projects that get entered into the appropriate place (sometimes it’s Someday/Maybe for things that I just need to think about, sometimes it’s a new project or a new task in an existing project). With that review done, I’m confident that I’ve planned for anything I can plan for in the following week and that my complete list of projects and tasks is in good order so that I’ll be prompted about other important things when the right time arrives.

I review my calendar for the week ahead at the same time. Before I became a dean, I made appointments with myself for blocks of time that I could use for focused work. I treated those time blocks as real appointments and did my best not to let other commitments break them up. As a Dean, I can’t be that inflexible. Too many things arise that need prompt, if not immediate, attention. I’ve cut back on scheduling blocks of time for focused work. Only when I have a really important project that has a looming deadline, a grant proposal for example, will I put a “Do not disturb” block of time on my calendar with instructions to my administrative assistant to check with me before scheduling anything short of a meeting request from the President or the Provost in that time block. That’s as close as I can get to planning deep work time ahead of time. Mostly, I have to take advantage of time blocks when they appear, and they are rarely more than a couple of hours.

On any given day, my calendar and OmniFocus keep me on track. Some of my OmniFocus tasks have specific times of day associated with them, meeting preparation for example. Many have only the end of the day, 5:00pm. I review today’s task list every morning. As a result, I can often pick something to do without checking OmniFocus first, but I do check it frequently throughout the day, often because I’m entering something new that just came up.

At meetings I rarely take paper. I’ve either saved the electronic versions of documents that were sent or scanned paper versions to PDF. Either way, any documents I have before the meeting are in Dropbox, Evernote, or both. Any notes I’ve made before the meeting were probably made with Emacs using Markdown, and published to Evernote with Byword. At the meetings I use pen and paper, my everything notebook. At the end of the day, I’ll scan notes to PDF and save them to Dropbox or I’ll scan them directly to Evernote. As I wrote earlier, I don’t have a clear plan for what goes to Dropbox and what goes to Evernote, but either way I can get it from any electronic device I have handy. If there are action items I need to follow up on, I will have marked them with an arrow (==>) in my notebook, and I transfer them to OmniFocus. I also check over my everything notebook during my weekly review to make sure I haven’t missed any action items that need to be recorded.

Writing it all out like this may make it sound pretty time consuming and complicated, but it’s not. The daily task management is a natural part of the activity and it doesn’t add any time. It just uses the time differently. The weekly review takes a bit longer, but spending 15 minutes or half an hour with a nice cup of coffee looking over the week to come is a nice way to spend a quiet Sunday morning.

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Getting organized in 2018 – The limits of deep work

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Last week I introduced the idea of deep work,

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

The key words there are distraction free. I picked up some useful tips from reading Deep Work, but there’s also at least one limit to be aware of.1

In Deep Work Cal Newport describes the working style of two people who have been exceptionally productive and who exemplify what he calls the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling, Adam Grant and Don Knuth. I don’t think I’d heard of Adam Grant before,2 but anyone who’s done more than a little programming has heard of Don Knuth. Not only is he the author of the monumental The Art of Computer Programming, he grew frustrated with the typesetting for TAoCP and wrote TeX and Metafont to compensate. He is also famously inaccessible by e-mail. He stopped answering e-mail in 1990. If you want to contact him, you’ll need to send him a letter to his postal mailing address. His administrative assistant will sort through them and pass along any that seem relevant. Grant isn’t quite as extreme as Knuth, but he batches his availability. He stacks all of his teaching into the fall semester, turning his attention fully to research for the rest of the year. He’ll answer e-mail, but if you happen to e-mail him during one of the 3-4 day periods when he’s focused on a research task, you’ll get an auto-response telling you that you’ll have to wait to hear back from him.

There’s no question that a monastic approach to deep work allows those who can adopt it to accomplish an enormous amount. But there’s also no question that society can continue to function only so long as there are only a few people who adopt that approach. A functioning society depends on functioning institutions, and functioning institutions depend on people to keep them functioning. If you work with a very small group of people, you might be able to agree among yourselves that interruptions are allowed only between 11:00am and 1:00pm or only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but if you work with more than four or five people you’re unlikely to be able to set aside consistent “do not interrupt” hours except relatively early in the morning or relatively late in the day.3

And it’s not just the people you work with face to face. If you’re an academic, the functioning of your scholarly community depends on your willingness to review papers and grant proposals and to serve as a leader in your scholarly society. I know a few people4 who have made many important scientific contributions, in the sense that they’ve published important papers and discovered important things, who have also made few or no contributions at all to supporting the scholarly community on which they depend. If you decide to adopt a monastic approach, you better be sure that you can make contributions large and important enough that they compensate for your lack of community spirit.

For most of us, we won’t even be able to adopt the bimodal philosophy that Jung employed – periods of intense deep work in seclusion interspersed with periods of involvement in day-to-day life and work.5 It’s most likely that we’ll have to adopt the journalistic philosophy – developing the discipline to do concentrated deep work whenever the opportunity presents itself. That’s why setting up your workspace in a way that you can avoid distraction is important. Any time you find yourself with more than 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time ask yourself,

  • How much time can I set aside right now for work that needs concentrated attention?
  • What is the most important work I can do right now that needs concentrated attention?

Then do that work, and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Close the door. Don’t answer the phone. Ignore e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.6 Turn off notifications on your cellphone. Do the work. Then take a break and reward yourself.

Your position in life will determine both how often you find yourself with those uninterrupted blocks of time and how long they are. If you ever find yourself in a position like mine, whether department head or dean or any other administrative position, you’ll soon learn something a friend of mine told me a long time ago.

It’s not that Provosts or Presidents spend that much more time working than the average faculty member. It’s that Provosts and Presidents have little control over their own time.7

That’s more true for me now as a Vice Provost and Dean than it was when I served as Interim Department Head, and it was more true for me as a faculty member than it was as a graduate student or postdoc.

One last piece of advice, if you’re a graduate student or postdoc reading this, take advantage of your relative freedom to develop good deep work habits now. The more you practice, the better you get at it, and the older you get, the more you’re going to need those good habits – no matter what career path you follow.

  1. To be fair, Cal Newport acknowledges the limit I’m about to describe, but I don’t think his discussion of depth philosophies fully captures it.
  2. It turns out he’s was the youngest person ever promoted to full professor at Wharton, and he’s the author of a New York Times bestseller (link).
  3. I say “relatively” because the meaning of early and late depend on where you work. Many businesses operate on an 8:00am-5:00pm schedule, so early might be before 8:00am and late might be after 5:00pm. I’m a morning person. I’m usually in the office before 6:30am. Since I rarely have scheduled meetings before 9:00am (except for meetings with my students), I typically have 2 1/2 hours to myself every morning.
  4. Who shall remain nameless.
  5. If you’re not familiar with Jung’s work habits, buy Deep Work or do a little web surfing. Same thing for Walter Isaacson who follows.
  6. Use new, clean workspace if you’re on your computer. Use a utility that block Internet access if you doubt your willpower.
  7. The friend who told me this is a former Provost at a major research university (not UConn).

Joyce DiDonato @UConn – an extraordinary night

Last night I had the privilege of attending a recital by Joyce DiDonato at the Jorgensen Auditorium. It was an extraordinary night. I won’t try to describe it, except to say that the third encore – yes, third encore – was breathtaking. Her Kansas roots were showing as she sang “Somewhere over the rainbow.” I don’t recall ever hearing such an extraordinary vocal performance, not even when I heard Renee Fleming perform at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center several years ago. The YouTube video below will give you some idea, but nothing can substitute for the privilege of seeing Joyce DiDonato sing “Somewhere over the rainbow” live.

Getting organized in 2018 – Deep work

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Cal Newport published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World in 2016.1 He defines deep work as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.2

He goes on to formulate something he calls the “deep work hypothesis”:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

I’m not going to discuss the deep work hypothesis. If you want to see the evidence Newport has for it, you’ll have to read the book. I didn’t learn anything from reading the book a couple of months ago, but I did find his four rules to be a useful framework for understanding what I already do (or try to do).

Rule #1: Work deeply: The fundamental (but not particularly new) insight is that to accomplish any significant work that requires understanding complex ideas or creating novel ideas requires large blocks of uninterrupted time. I have adopted two new insights from Newport’s book: Scheduling my blocks of uninterrupted time to ensure that more immediate, and often important, distractions don’t crowd deep time out of my work week.3 Ritualizing my deep time. When I am in deep time, I’m usually working on my MacBook or my iMac. I have both of them set up with two desktops. When I’m in deep time, I switch to a desktop that has only the applications and documents I need open. It takes some discipline, but by opening a different desktop it’s easier not to check e-mail or respond to other notifications that appear on my screen.

Rule #2: Embrace boredom: This was a new one for me, but I think the way Newport states it is misleading. The fundamental idea is that concentration is a skill. With practice and exercise, you can improve your ability to focus, and since deep work requires concentration, the more you exercise your concentration, the better you’ll get at deep work. Here the strategy is what I alluded to in the last sentence of the last paragraph: Take breaks from focused work. Allow yourself to be distracted by e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever only when you’re not engaged in deep work. Schedule your deep time, or at least commit to spending a specific amount of time in deep work before you begin, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Even if you’re not making progress on the project, force yourself to stay away from distractions until you’ve reached the end of your deep work block. You may be bored, but you’ll be training yourself to resist distraction. This is related to the pomodoro technique.4

Rule #3: Quit social media: That’s overstated, but it’s good advice. Take a careful look at how much time you spend on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Ask yourself: “How much of the time I spend on platform X advances the work I want to do?” As for me, I use Facebook only once or twice a month. I post to Twitter pretty regularly, and I look at recent posts 2-3 times a day, but I don’t have Twitter open in my browser. I think I have an Instagram account, but I haven’t used it more than once or twice, and that was 4-5 years ago. I use Twitter with some regularity (a) because I want to draw the attention of my small audience to items I’ve found interesting and (b) not infrequently the scientists I follow will post a link to an article with an interesting idea I need to follow up on. There’s a good chance, especially if you’re younger than I am, that you find Facebook a good way to stay in touch with friends and family. If so, I see no reason for you to quit using it. I do suggest, however, that you think carefully about when you use it and that you keep Facebook closed (and silence Facebook messenger) when you’ve blocked out time for deep work.

Rule #4: Drain the shallows Newport suggests scheduling every minute of your day. That might work for you, but it doesn’t work for me. What reading Deep Work did remind me to do, however, was to focus on the small number of things that are really important. Before agreeing to do anything, ask yourself “What would happen if I said ‘No’?” If the answer is “little or nothing”, say “No.” Only do things where (a) there is no one else who can make the contribution you could make, (b) making your contribution could mean the difference between success or failure (or between an excellent and a mediocre outcome), and (c) success or failure is important (in whatever way you judge importance in this context). This is clearly an ideal, and there are certain to be circumstances in which you have little choice but to do something that doesn’t fit these criteria.5 Nonetheless, you’ll thank yourself in the long run (if not before) if you depart from the ideal as little as your circumstances allow.

  1. The link takes you to the Deep Work page on Amazon.com. The book is available from many different sources. I just happen to find Amazon convenient. The link is not a sponsored link. I won’t receive any money if you click on the link, nor will I receive any if you happen to buy the book.
  2. I can’t provide a page number for the quotation, because I’m reading this on my Kindle. I rarely buy or read hard copy books.
  3. This insight isn’t entirely new, but Newport inspired me to make it more formal.
  4. Rule #1 and Rule #2 are almost redundant, but they emphasize different things. Rule #1 emphasizes what you should do – focus, concentrate. Rule #2 emphasizes what you shouldn’t do – let yourself be distracted.
  5. More about that next week.

Getting organized in 2018 – Mindmanager

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

If you’ve been following this series you know that the tools I use most frequently are: pen and paper,1 OmniFocus,2 Evernote,3, Dropbox, and Ulysses. Those are the tools I’d be lost without. Last week I introduced a tool that I could live without, but that I find very handy, Scrivener. This week I’ll briefly describe another tool I find handy. It’s one that I could live without more easily than Scrivener, but it still comes in handy. It’s a mind-mapping tool called MindManager.

Like Scrivener, MindManager is available for both Mac and Windoze. Unlike Scrivener, the features available in the Windoze version seem to be much more advanced and flexible.4Although the Mindjet site5 promises that you’ll find MindManager useful for brainstorming, visualizing data, flowcharts, and project management, I’ve only used it for brainstorming. For that it is very useful.

I am lousy at visual thinking, but I’m trying to get better, and mapping out concepts in a concept map is an easy way for someone like me who thinks very verbally to start making my ideas more visual. I’ve discovered that making my thoughts visual – admittedly just a pretty outline – makes it easier for other people to understand them. But it is more than just a pretty outline. It’s easy to move pieces of a map around. It’s easy to promote or demote them in a hierarchy, and I often find that after I’ve played with a map for a while, new ideas are occurring to me that wouldn’t have popped into my brain if I’d been trying the same thing in a Word outline or outline mode in Emacs.6

If you’re not familiar with mind mapping, visit mindmapping.com and look around. If you want to see an example of how I’ve used it, take a look at this mind map derived from a 2013 meeting of the Dimensions of Biodiversity team working on Protea and Pelargonium in South Africa. It’s written in HTML 5 and directly exported from MindManager.

Click on the little bubbles with numbers, and you’ll see details pop out. Click on the little circles with “-“, and you’ll see the details collapse. The version you’re looking at is read-only, so you can’t change the text or the structure. You can either imagine what it’s like to drag any piece of this map anywhere else, add anything you like at any lever, or delete anything you don’t want, or you can get a trial version of MindManager and try it out yourself.

If you’re interested in mind mapping, you owe it to yourself to spend a little time investigating the links you’ll find from a Google search. There are free mind mapping tools available, and there’s a good chance they’ll be plenty to satisfy your needs. I use MindManager (a) because I started with it years ago and (b) I like the export options (PDF and HTML 5), but your mileage may vary.

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Getting organized in 2018 – non-Word software for writing projects (Scrivener)

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Last week I described Ulysses, which provides a simple interface for ASCII text files combined with Markdown for publishing in a variety of formats, including WordPress blogs. This week I’m going to describe a different kind of tool. It’s one I use much less frequently than Ulysses, and it’s one I could do without, but it’s one I also find handy for certain types of writing projects –Scrivener.

Scrivener is more like a traditional word processor than Ulysses. You select fonts and font sizes, insert tables and bulleted lists, use italic and bold in a way that’s more familiar than the underscore and asterisk approach Markup uses.1 It allows you to set margins, and most of the other things you’re used to doing in a traditional word processor. Unlike Ulysses (or Emacs + LaTeX) and like Word, Scrivener doesn’t separate markup from presentation.

What Scrivener does that a traditional word processor doesn’t do is to provide a single environment in which (nearly) everything you need for a writing project can live. Take a look at the screenshot above to see an example of a project that’s in a very early stage. The National Science Foundation released a “Dear Colleague” letter describing an opportunity for “International Research Coordination Networks comprised of U.S. and South African Researchers.” I’ve been in contact with several U.S. and South African colleagues about putting a proposal together, and I’m using Scrivener to keep all of the information I collect accessible. That’s the items under the “Research” tab on the left.

The “Draft” tab above that is where I’ll start writing notes when we start serious work on the joint proposal. I’ll have different documents corresponding to notes about the research plan, the management plan, the evaluation plan, and other sections of the proposal. We’ll probably use Google Docs to write the initial draft of the proposal so that each of us can work on it when it’s convenient while ensuring that all of us also have the latest version of the proposal in front of us. So how does Scrivener help?

Take a look at the second snapshot of the interface above. The split screen interface is very handy. I don’t have to boot up Firefox or open another application to look at any of the documents or resources I’ve collected. I can look at them while I’m writing, and since I don’t leave Scrivener, I’m less likely to be distracted by something that pops up when I open Firefox or to see that e-mail that just came in that’s begging for attention. Using Scrivener helps me keep my focus where it should be when I’m using it – on writing.

And if I really just need to write and I don’t need to look at any of the resources I’ve gathered, I can put myself into composition mode (illustrated above) and work with even fewer distractions.

In the IRCN project illustrated here, I will probably copy blocks of text from the “Draft” section into a shared Google Doc. When I’m working on a project by myself, I’m liable to start it in Scrivener, get the whole document into good shape, export the result to DOCX, and clean up the formatting in Word.

I don’t really need Scrivener, but it makes avoiding distraction easier. If I’m working on a project by myself, I tend to use Scrivener – unless it’s a project that involves a lot of math when I’ll use Emacs and LaTeX. Scrivener supports a Markdown -> LaTeX export, but I haven’t explored that yet because I find it easier to work directly in LaTeX. I use Scrivener when I anticipate a final export to Word for formatting clean up or when I expect to share a draft with others for comments and suggestions.

Like Ulysses Scrivener is available on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Unlike Ulysses, there is also a version for Windoze. When I last tried the Windoze version 3-4 years ago, it was much more primitive than the Mac version. I don’t know if that’s changed, and I don’t recall if there’s a version for Android, but it is at least a little less tied to the Mac ecosystem than Ulysses.

  1. Of course, Ulysses lets me use Command-I to start and end italic and Command-B to start and end bold, so the difference isn’t that great.

My thoughts on Moleskine’s new smart pen

Moleskine recently released its Pen+ Ellipse. I’ve long been intrigued by the smart pen idea, where I would simply write, doodle, or sketch and have the result automagically transferred to an electronic form for me. But I won’t be buying an Ellipse any time soon. Why?

  1. I love my fountain pens. I don’t want to give them up.
  2. I want to write on any paper I happen to have handy, whether that happens to be in my Moleskine everything notebook, a Rhodia notepad, a 3″x5″ index card, a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, or anything else. I don’t want to have to write only on one kind of paper or in only one kind of notebook.
  3. By combining pen and paper with the camera in my iPhone (whether the camera itself or the Evernote-linked app Scannable), I can easily get anything I’ve written down anywhere into Evernote or scan it to PDF and store it in Dropbox. There is a “cool” factor missing from my approach, but it works very well for me, and it seems a lot more flexible.