Category Archives: work

a tomato a day

This year has been a bountiful year for tomatoes where I live, and given my CSA membership and friendship with a successful gardener, I am certainly supplied with an abundance of tomatoes. But this post is not actually about that kind of tomato.

The tomatoes I’m talking about are chunks of time: I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique to get my work done. I’ve mentioned before that I have found this method of working in timed stretches to be helpful to my productivity.

A little more than a year ago, July of 2013 to be specific, I started to meet regularly with another PhD student from my program to commiserate and work on goals together. One goal I set was that I would work at least one tomato, that is a 25-minute stretch of time focused on the task, on my own research.

With all my other obligations for group research as well as parenting and home commitments, my own research had been regularly getting pushed to the back burner. While I’d work in impressive bursts for upcoming deadlines, such as when preparing for conference submissions and presentations, l would regularly go days or even weeks without looking at my own research when the other obligations had their own crunch times. I might make reasonable progress during the week, but a busy weekend or school vacation would come up and push all thoughts of my research out of my head. A family crisis or even a fun time like a family trip would come up, and even longer would go by. When the time would come for me to dig back into my research, it would feel alien to me. I actually had the experience of reading papers I’d written almost as if they had been written by someone else. (I’m happy to say that I did at least find them to be interesting and well-written!)

Since making the commitment to myself to do at least a tomato a day on my own research, I have made much steadier progress. There is much greater continuity, and I feel connected to my projects. Some days I manage to put in more time on my research, but I’m happy to say that I have always managed to get in at least one tomato before bedtime. (I had to give up on getting the tomato in before midnight at some point–there were days when I was travelling when it just wasn’t feasible.) Friends and family have come to know about my daily tomato.

Over the past year, there have been times when I have really wanted to just go to bed, or at least just goof off, at the end of a full and exhausting day, but I have not let myself off the hook. Even when travelling. Even when falling asleep at my laptop. 25 minutes is always an amount of time I can fit in. Even when the work is not my best or most focused, the gains to my sense of continuity have been immeasurable. I can much more easily pick up where I left of the day before.

I am feeling connected to my research every day in a way that I haven’t before.

squeeze

p7069222
With the start of summer comes the end of structured school days. While there is lots of fun to be had, I still need to squeeze in time for my work. Picnics and visits with friends and fireworks and trips to the zoo don’t mean any less cooking, or food shopping, or laundry, or cleaning, (and in fact often mean more) and there are days when I find myself feeling squeezed. I optimistically promised my advisor that I’d get him a large chunk of writing done while he was away on vacation, but I foolishly did so without looking at my calendar, and observing the small number of child-free hours on it in those 2 weeks. When I find a 4-hour chunk of time to focus on my research, my thoughts start to get organized, but then comes the next over-full day and my thoughts scatter. Really, I’ve been enjoying the summer fun, and the extra time with the kids, but just now find myself wishing I could just do one thing or the other for a sustained time. Today I have maybe a 6-hour chunk to do squeeze out as much writing as I can while both kids are out of the house. (Just now I am trying to squeeze out this blog post as the kids eat breakfast. I have only been interrupted roughly 14 times.)

p7069227

Starting next week, the kids will both be in camps and childcare more-or-less full-time, so hopefully the squeeze will feel less tight. But if I’m actually going to finish this degree, I have to be prepared to keep on the tight squeeze, long-term. (Hold me.)

One year and half a world away

This is where I was, one year ago today:


I took this photo on a walk along the Bund in Shanghai.

I’m finding it hard to believe that another whole year has gone by. I feel like I have very little to show for it. A year ago today, I presented my research at a prestigious international conference. (Here I am, giving my talk. I even won an award.) Two days earlier I had walked along a stretch of the Great Wall near Beijing, one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.

Two days ago, I barely left my house. The past year has been a blur of holidays and birthdays, laundry and grocery shopping, illness and death, laundry and grocery shopping, celebrations and family visits, and more laundry and grocery shopping. I know that I have been working and busy, but once again I feel like I don’t have enough to show for it. I’m really not even sure what my point was other than…damn. A whole ‘nother year. And I haven’t even posted my trip photos!

marginal progress

The temperatures got quite warm yesterday afternoon, thankfully, and much of the snow on our driveway melted. When I checked for the crocuses again today, they were bravely poking up through the snow.

Crocuses at 8:30 a.m. 3 spikes have poked out of the snow. (Actually, there are more spikes off camera.)

As for me, I confess that today I’m feeling snowed under (though it’s not the snow that’s doing it). I ran up against a wall with an experiment I’m designing (which is not actually about running up against walls), and then decided to switch gears and work on a different work project (which is not about gears, or switching them). Only to find that I’d managed not to save the file I’d worked on the last time I worked on the project. And another file for a different project to boot. (There were no boots.) I spent a fair amount of time hunting for the files, before determining that I had to retrace my steps. (Though there was no actual stepping). I spent a fair amount of time swearing at myself. (You can bet that there was actual swearing.)

It did not feel like a productive day.

On the bright side, the crocuses are making some progress.

Crocuses at 5:30 p.m., from a slightly different angle. You can see a 4th purple spike just emerging in the middle of the 3.

Pomodoro: Using tomatoes for good (or evil)

Wondering why tomatoes have been on my brain? It’s because I have joined the Cult of Tomato.

Well, not really. But I have been using time management strategies that are inspired by the Pomodoro Technique. In the late 80s, some guy (not the tomato guy, at least as far as I know) developed a system involving using a timer to break down work times into manageable chunks. He named the technique Pomodoro, which is the Italian word for tomato, as the timer he used was a fairly standard tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

In a probably over-simplified way, the basics of the technique are:

  1. Pick a task to work on (typically one that is large and will take a lot of time and concentration)
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes (a “tomato”), and dig into the task.
  3. Stay focussed on the task until the timer runs out.
  4. I said stay focussed on the task!
  5. Once your 25 minutes of intensive, focussed work is finished, you get a break! Step away from your work for 5 minutes or so.
  6. Seriously, take a break. This part is important.
  7. Once your break is up, set your timer again, and dive back into the work.

I’d heard of the Pomodoro Technique before from a friend of mine from grad school, who successfully used it to actually finish her degree. I think it was about the time that she told me about it that I found and downloaded an app to use.

And that was as far as I got.

Fast forward about 2 years to the spring of this year, and I read a post Veronica wrote about her decision to start working on projects using a timer method. She asked if any of her readers wanted to join her, and I commented that I was game to try Pomodoro. And  try it, I did.

I liked it.

Using tomatoes has helped me in a few main ways:

  •  It has helped me stay on task.
    For 25 minutes, barring unforeseen interruptions, I work in a concentrated way on my designated task. If, in the course of this tomato, I have the urge to look something up or to check on something else or do whatever puttering around beckons, I put the urge on hold until the end of the tomato. I know that my break will come up soon, and I can dive into puttering then. (Admittedly I often take longer breaks than 5 minutes.)
  •  It has helped me recognize smaller chunks of time as viable for getting work done.
    My schedule is often broken by appointments or other obligations, and sometimes I only have an hour or 2 to tackle my work. In the past, this would lead to me thinking “no point in getting started with that now. I’ll barely have time to get started.” With tomatoes, an hour or two suddenly becomes 2 to 4 viable chunks of work time. Because I can be focused, I actually get more done in those chunks than in previous larger but more nebulously structured lengths of time.
  • It has given my work more continuity
    Since managing my time in this way makes it easier for me to keep going on projects even when my time is limited, I am more likely to work on the projects on any given day. Meaning that fewer days go by without me touching a big project. This helps quite a bit.

I use a little app called Pomodoro that seems to be largely defunct and no longer available, but I think it was free when I got it. There are a whole bunch of other apps available that do more-or-less the same thing. (The more that that I like from the app I use is that it logs your tomatoes. You type in your task when you start a tomato (or it leaves the last task in by default) and then it has a little log where you can see your tomatoes listed by date, with task specified. It helps me track how long some projects have taken. (Usually longer than I’ve expected.)

For more on tomatoes, check out the Pomodoro Technique website. (The full technique involves more than just the timers, but I haven’t delved much into it.) I also found this blog post from a couple of years ago to be very insightful, plus it gives reviews and descriptions of some of the apps that were available (and many that still are). A quick search for “pomodoro” on the Apple App Store shows more than a dozen apps available, many tomato-themed, and ranging in price between free and $19.99. (Most are under $5.) And if you want something more concrete, you can even buy a wind-up tomato-shaped timer.

I highly recommend trying out a timer-based time management technique for anyone who has struggled to deal with dauntingly large, nebulous projects. Like finishing a degree. Or plotting to take over the world.

musings on the tomato (and suspected pseudonyms)

One of my tangential work-related projects has involved developing materials for labelling disfluencies¹ in speech, especially as they interact with prosody. Disfluencies include a number of phenomena such as filled pauses (um, uh) false starts (Hey! Those are my pa- trousers!) and unexpec- -ted … pauses or lengthening of woooords or partsss of words.² Disfluencies occur very frequently in natural speech, especially in spontaneous speech.³

Since they occur so frequently, it should be really easy to find examples of them, right? Well, yes and no. The trouble is that we’ve been looking for examples that we can redistribute, as part of training materials. Some of the materials we have used in previous research has not been licensed in this way. (A lot of people made such recordings before even imagining the web, let alone that their voices might show up there.) So, I have been on the hunt, on and off for several years, for materials that are suitable: high quality recordings of spontaneous speech produced by native speakers of American English. Those constraints right there limit things more than you might think. And then add on to that the desire to find things that have been released into the public domain, or shared with a creative commons license allowing derivative works and redistribution.

I don’t remember exactly when I came across the Internet Archive, and considered it as a potential resource for finding such soundfiles, but searches had been only moderately fruitful. But when I found the tomato guy, the Internet Archive bore fruit.

Buried among hundreds of podcasts, I found Musings with Sherman Oak, and I found Sherman Oak rambling about eating a tomato. This podcast was not only chock-full of examples of disfluencies, but tagged as public domain. And on top of that, I found it hilarious. If you have a minute, go have a listen to Sherman talking about tomatoes. (The whole episode is only 3 minutes and 17 seconds, but you can get a pretty good idea from the first minute. Or jump ahead to one of my favorite bits, around 1:30: “raw tomatoes are an evil vile thing.”)

I have no idea who Sherman Oak is. Sherman had a blog for a while, also called Musings with Sherman Oak. The blog has very little content, and a suspiciously large number of typos and other quirks. Which is completely in character with Sherman Oaks.

But I have this strong suspicion that Sherman Oak is a just that: a character. I think there’s a strong possibility that it is an actor or comedian, or comedian-actor, creating Sherman. In fact, I have a candidate: Thomas Lennon. (He was on, and one of the creators of, Reno 911, and has done a lot of stand-up and sketch comedy.)⁴

Listening to Sherman, I had this sense that I recognized his voice. And poking around more through some videos of Thomas Lennon on YouTube, I haven’t yet found anything that dissuades me.⁵ In fact, if Sherman Oak is not a character of Thomas Lennon, then he should be.

¹ Yeah, I just linked to Wikipedia. For a much denser and more academic discussion of disfluencies, see Shriberg’s 1994 dissertation.
² i.e. segmental lengthening that is not obviously in the service of phrasing or pitch accents.
³ Spontaneous speech typically is contrasted with read, elicited, or rehearsed speech.
⁴ He also, as is the case with many actors, lives in L.A. There is a district of LA called Sherman Oaks, which could be a coincidence. He is also from a town in Illinois called Oak Park. I only know these things from reading his Wiki page. I never previously had any cause to stalk him.
⁵ See, for example, this interview [youtube] or this stand-up bit [youtube].


Some tomatoes grown by a friend of mine in her garden. I did not eat them, though I have been known to enjoy a tomato. Even a raw one.

drive

Last night, amidst the feeble attempts to do work while manically checking election results, the hard drive of my laptop began its death throes. While I was able to access web pages (albeit slowly), I was unable to save files or send emails. Happily, I knew I had backed up only a couple of days before, and what work I’d done in the time since was mostly things like lab meeting notes and emails, most of which could probably be reconstructed.

When the very exciting election results came rolling in, it felt like everything–all the angst and the effort–was worth it. I was willing to count the loss of my hard drive and of my day’s productivity as acceptable sacrifices for the greater good.

Of course, my hard drive was not really a blood sacrifice to the cause of the election. Just a weird coincidence. And happily, I live with someone who is expert in dealing with computer trauma. Today, John went out and got me a new hard drive, and got it up and running with all my data, restored from my back-up, by dinner time. In the meantime, I had dug out my old laptop, a slow beast with a tendency to overheat when working with large media files (which I need to do for much of my work).

Here it is evening, and I am back on my proper laptop, with its shiny new hard drive. (Not that I can see it. I’m just sort of assuming that it’s shiny. Maybe even *sparkly*.) And I have to get moving on some work stuff for Friday. But it would seem that I have lost a good deal of my drive to do so.

I’m feeling downright zonked, possibly coming down with (yet another) cold. I think that part of this is post-election exhaustion.

I also am trying to decide about what to do tomorrow, as I had planned to drive into Cambridge to see a talk my advisor is giving at MIT. It would be good if I were there, but I don’t really *need* to be. And now that I’ve lost a solid day’s work time to hard drive failure, I could really use those 2+ hours that would be eaten up by the drive. Also, the weather is icky. We have had our first snow of the season, and a mix of driving rain and snow are forecast for tomorrow.

With this change in the weather, my thoughts are with those who are still without adequate power and shelter in New York and New Jersey. There have been several local drives to collect for victims of Sandy, and I am investigating what contributions will be most useful. (I hope to be mindful of not being part of the “disaster after the disaster,” resulting from well-meaning people giving a flood of items that aren’t needed.) I have also been very impressed by the Occupy Sandy Amazon registry, where volunteers on the ground in New York are requesting specific needed items. As the wind blew through my too-thin-for-the-day coat today, I thought of those who lost their homes, and those who are still in their homes but without power, and those who are working heroically to help them. I wish them warmth and shelter and safety.