Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

In Which I Will Not Be Afraid!

“You’re going to come running back to academia,” a colleague assured me when I described to her my summer internship working in a Technical Communications department at a company in San Diego.

Maybe so. I received a whole packet of documents today with the types of reports I’ll be expected to write. And now? I kind of feel like this:

As in, wait: am I prepared to do something at which I could potentially fail?

So, OK. Wait. You need more information before you can understand my quick surge of panic this evening.

Potential projects for me include improving the usability of help information for breast cancer imaging software, creating a more interactive, educational platform for understanding electronic health records software, and collating a series of articles about electronic health records use into one more cohesive space.

This is all very cool stuff! These are the sorts of projects that could:

  • Make doctors’ lives easier!
  • Improve patients’ ability to get the results they need to be healthy!
  • Save HR departments from having to lead terrible training sessions!

So, real world solutions! Cool! I don’t often get to say that my work inspires tangible change in a working environment that – and we’re about to get real – SAVES LIVES. (Though come on, my understanding of esoteric literary theory should clearly impact your outlook on your digital reading/writing practices. I wrote this great essay on lolcats, you should read it some time).

But I’ll admit it: I’m scared of doing in a field with which I am not comfortable and familiar. This anxiety is clearly the vestige of some serious “straight A student syndrome;” I’m compelled to pursue projects in which I feel that success is within my reach. This is the first job I’ve undertaken where I don’t feel like I am comfortable with what I’m diong. I’m going to have to learn on the job and – well – maybe fail a few times.

I could go into any number of hackneyed aphorisms about this. One must not try; one must DO. (I’m on a Yoda kick tonight if you didn’t get that already. Looking for inspiration in all of the right places).

What am I going to do?

1.  Get over myself. And promptly.

2.  Look for some points of familiarity. I will say that upon looking through the project documents sent to me, I did see some places that I could contribute my knowledge. Many of the documents (especially the step-by-step help guides for using the mammogram software) were driven very much by the logic of a page. That is, while they are conversational in tone (typically a good start to making help text accessible), they’re a little – well – verbose. Clearly, I can sympathize. Verbosity is always my inclination.

But I thought a lot about my discussions in my Literacy and Technology class concerning the relationship between content and design and there are certainly design issues at stake here. So, I could certainly do some re-design work if nothing else.

3. Employ my love of organizing and re-organizing. There’s probably nothing I love more than a great spreadsheet or a clean table. A lot of the writing could probably be organized into the sweet, sweet symmetry of a table! I suppose this is still an issue of design, but if my background in literature has provided me with one practical skill it is the ability to distinguish main points from blocks of dense text. So, while the language of these documents is difficult for me to understand, I can typically distinguish the purpose of the pieces I read.

So, those are my strategies for not being such a fail-fearing wimp. Who knows? Thinking though ways to work through these challenges is compelling. Plus, I have a new work environment to anticipate. I happen to crave novelty. Maybe the office will even feel like this:

One can only hope.