Category Archives: work

take your tiger to work day

As part of my Mother’s Day present, Theo gave me temporary custody of his much-loved new tiger, Tigs. First it was going to be just for the day, but then he decided I should get to have Tigs for a week. Later that week, I had a lab meeting in Boston, and I decided that I would appreciate the company of a tiger for my day.

First, Tigs helped me to feed the parking meter. Because it really bites to get a parking ticket. (And tigers know all about bites.)

Next, we walked down to the building where I had my meeting.

We made sure to stop to admire the spring flowers along the way.


After a bit, we headed back out to pick up some provisions. Again, we admired the scenery along the way.

For lunch, we opted for Thai food.

Then, we shared some coffee.

Back at the meeting, Tigs offered some editing advice on an abstract.

Then he did some light reading to keep himself amused while the humans discussed research.

When it was time to go, Tigs couldn’t resist a slide down the banister on our way out.

And then we buckled back in for the long drive home.

Overall, Tigs made a delightful workday companion. And from the happy expression on his face, I’m quite sure he enjoyed his big day in the big city.

a pair of pears

A pair of unpared pears on my kitchen table one morning.

A few years ago, my research group did an experiment that involved eliciting productions of phrases with specific intonational patterns. We were interested in examining the differences in realization of a pair of contours that are superficially similar, but convey different nuances of meaning. To answer our research questions, we elicited and recorded a set of phrases two different times with each subject, one for each of the contours. The recordings were then looked over carefully, and a number of preparations were made for the analyses, including cutting up and labeling the longer soundfiles into phrase-sized chunks, which were then labelled according the intonational contour elicited. Each phrase produced by a given speaker with one contour was then paired up with the same phrase produced by that speaker with the other contour. If for some reason we did not have both successful productions to pair up, such as if one was produced with another intonational contour altogether or contained a disfluency in the region of interest, we would pare out both the unsuccessful production and its would-be pair from that subject’s data. This process of pairing and paring the soundfiles henceforth became known among us as “pearing.”

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.


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.)


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.