On Style Guides and Managed Distraction

My copy of the APA Style Manual arrived in the mail last Friday, and I've already got my money's worth from it. When I first ordered it, I grumbled a little at spending the $17.37, but when it came in the mail, I remembered the secret passion that I have for style guides and editing. I'm convinced that there's an alternate universe out there where I'm an editor instead of a grad student, and even in this universe, I've been caught reading The Economist’s Style Guide once or twice.

I learned in middle school that excitement about things like style guides quickly leaves the quirkily endearing phase for more mockable pastures, so let me wrap this up and get to my point: Even style nerds feel the monotony after more than a handful of citations. There are certain kinds of work that lend themselves to checking your favorite website every five minutes, and that can make it really hard to get things done. I'm not the first or the most influential person to do so, but I propose that managed distraction can actually help you be more efficient in the long run. Here are some of the ways that I've used distraction to help me be more productive:

1) The Pomodoro Method This is the least dangerous, and therefore the most mainstream, of the strategies I'll talk about here. Simply put, you work for twenty-five minutes, and then give yourself a five-minute break. Lather, rinse, repeat. There are a few things you can add to this simple process: I sometimes take a fifteen minute break at the end of every fourth Pomodoro cycle, but I have more trouble deciding what I'm going to work on before starting a Pomodoro like some people advocate. Knowing that I have time set aside to check Facebook, Google+, or Wikipedia makes it a lot easier to not check them after formatting every single citation; this actually fits in nicely with some of the discussion on behaviorism that we recently had in my proseminar class. In addition to helping me combat distraction, using the Pomodoro technique also gives me a chance to get on my feet and take a short walk every twenty-five minutes or so.

2) Twitter Notifications When I first got my MacBook, one of the first things I installed was a Twitter client; one of the first things I uninstalled was that same Twitter client. I think I can justify the time I spend on Twitter more easily than the time I spend on Facebook, but since it can still suck time away from more valuable pursuits, I initially decided to continue my routine of "punishing" all visits to Twitter on my computer (there are a few different ways to do this) and restricting my Twitter-checking to when I'm using a tablet or smartphone. This was a nice habit that reinforced my Pomodoro routine, but there was one problem. Before the semester started, I had gone through two different "100 People You Should Follow on Twitter" lists and tried to follow my professors and fellow grad students, so my Twitter feed was getting kind of bloated. I figure that learning more about grad school and higher ed is a must for a first-year PhD student and that keeping up with international relations will probably help with some of my research interests, but catching up with everything at lunchtime and the end of the day was becoming impractical. I re-installed the Twitter client and changed its notification settings so that each tweet appears briefly in the top right-hand corner of my screen in real time. This can be a problem if something interesting pops up during a meeting or a class, but it's done more good than harm: I've found that I can tune out the tweets pretty easily when I need to, and I no longer feel the need to go back through my feed to make sure I haven't missed anything, which is saving me a lot of time.

3) TV Time! This is probably the most dangerous of the techniques that I'm proposing, but it's also the most effective for really monotonous work. I discovered this trick while I was doing editing and layout for the early drafts of a friend's self-published book. It was the kind of project that was really satisfying when completed, but the little steps that led towards completion just wouldn't keep my attention. I think Kathryn and I watched almost a full season of Leverage while I finished the book, and while having something to watch made my work go slower, it also stopped me from falling into the five minute on, twenty-five minute off Fauxmodoro cycle that sometimes happens with that kind of work. Since then, I've watched a lot of movies and TV shows while grading tests, preparing class slides, and doing other important jobs that don't capture my full attention by themselves.

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