Thursday, June 25, 2020

"I want to work but I can't"

So here I am, 9 PM, trying to get a few decision letters written. There were 6 waiting for my attention when I woke up this morning. I've written four decisions, and now there are four still waiting for me to look at the manuscript, reviews, and Associate Editor's recommendation.  I want to get these off my plate, and back to the authors.  But I'm tired, haven't had my run today, and am stressed, and so I just stare at the screen, check the news, check twitter, and stare at the screen again. As one of my graduate students said in a meeting earlier this week, "I want to work, but I can't".

This is a sentiment I've heard a fair bit lately. Last week, I had multiple members of my lab explain some permutation of why they hadn't gotten as much done in the previous week as they had wanted to. Social isolation is taking its toll. There's the stress of seeing COVID numbers rising again.  Folks are taking time to participating in protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, which is great. Everyone is stressed.

Now is a good time to cut people slack, given them the chance to deal with the complicated stresses of being stuck at home during national and global turmoil. As a mentor to my students and postdocs, and as an Editor working with Associate Editors and reviewers,  now is a good time to be understanding and give people the time that they need.

But, that does not mean it is healthy to lounge around obsessively checking twitter and the news ('doomscrolling' as someone colorfully put it on twitter), or compulsively make your fifth sourdough loaf of the week. Inaction itself can feed anxiety and other forms of stress, generating feedback loops: I can't work because I'm stressed, and I'm stressed because I haven't gotten any work done. As one person I spoke to said, "I'm getting in my own way". Sometimes, a bit more work can be a relief, a distraction and escape from the news cycle and its concomitant anxiety and depression.


Then, there are still some deadlines. Many have gotten pushed back or softened, but grant proposal deadlines still exist. So do deadlines for submitting reviews, or revisions to your manuscript (though these are pretty much always negotiable on request). There are still classes to teach, lectures to prep by specific days, grant annual reports due. The world has not come to a standstill around us, even when we wish it had. And this means that paralysis at your work desk can be scary and frustrating and unwelcome.

This post, then, is for the people who *want* to get more done than they are. What are some tricks to get yourself out of the intellectual doldrums and catch fresh wind in your sails to write, plan a lecture, analyze data, or whatever it is you feel you need to do professionally, but haven't been able to do.

In several conversations with students last week, who wanted help refocusing, we discussed various ways of helping yourself make progress on your own work goals. I then broadened my search for ideas with a tweet asking for others' ideas and strategms. The following is a list in no particular order, of the ideas that arose in conversation and over twitter.

* Before some readers get angry at me, I'm not advocating that anyone pressure anybody else unduly. The following should not be a tool to force others to work, but an aid for those individuals who wish to help themselves meet their own goals and self-imposed expectations.

Also, it is crucial that everyone recognize that the strategies that work well for one person can be useless or even counter-productive for someone else. We each have our own motivating compass and fuel:  for instance some are motivated by pressure, others find that oppressive. Find what works for you.

Here we go, with "50 ways to leave your procrastination"

1. Talk to a physician or therapist.  I'm putting this first for a reason. It's okay to not be okay. For many people, isolation during COVID has brought out unknown or previously-controlled mental illness of varying degrees. If you may be suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any of a number of mental illnesses, seek medical advice and help. This is common, acceptable, and likely not something you can just push on through without help. I'll openly say I saw a therapist for a block of time recently and it was immensely helpful. Do it, if you think it might possibly remotely help.

2. Create a timed schedule. Pretend you are taking solid blocks of classes this week, and create an hourly schedule in advance. Set defined blocks of time for different activities and set alarms for the transition between them. Check off the ones you complete with decent focus. The ones you don't remain focused on, ask yourself if you are really interested in doing them, and do you have to do them. If the answer is no to both, push it to your back burner to-do-list. The advantage of a timed block is that if you are on a roll working on something, you can just ignore the alarm and not switch tasks; keep plugging away while you have good momentum. But if you wander onto the interwebs and start reading some silly advice blog like this one, that alarm is a good book-end that prevents your diversion from eating up too much time.

3. Keep a journal, hour by hour, of what you spent your time on. You may surprise yourself by discovering you have done more than you give yourself credit for.

4. Set yourself a set of very small tasks, and do them. Get that permit application in the mail, fill out that form, search for that article you meant to look up. Completing a bunch of rapid to-do items in the space of a few minutes each gives you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, cutting your to-do list down greatly.

5. In the spirit of (4):  really big to-do items like "Write that NIH R01 grant" are intimidating as hell. And it takes weeks to months to get it done, so the whole time the same to-do-list line is staring you in the face making you feel more and more guilty for not checking it off. But you can't check it off quickly because it is a gargantuan task.  I'm imagining a paleolithic hunter-gatherer shaming themselves for not eating the *whole* mammoth today. So, don't put a whole mammoth on your to-do list. Cut it up into well-defined edible chunks. That results in a very long to-do list. But you create specific achievable goals so that you can truly cross off items (multiple items) every day. And somehow that feels much more productive.

Don't eat a whole mammoth in a single day.


6. Set a timer and tell yourself to _______ for X minutes (Meghan Duffy suggested 30 minutes) and then you get to stop and do something pleasant for yourself.  This mixes well with the mammoth-bites idea above, if you can generate to-do list items that are short units of time worth of work (write one paragraph). Mike Kaspari noted this is the "Pomodoro Method" where 25 minutes of focus earns you 5 minutes of goofing off. Repeat 3 times, then you get an hour of distraction as a reward. 25 minutes feels less ambitious than half an hour.

7.  10-15 minutes of mindful meditation, followed by 1-2 hours of focused work.

8. Go for a walk or run (with your mask on, and if you are allowed to). You are taking time away from work, but you may get more work done as a result.

When working in Vermont a couple weeks ago, I would take an hour break each day to go do some nature photography.


9. Here's a big one many people suggested: get a work buddy and hold each other accountable for your bite-sized achievements. Many people have even been getting on zoom (or whatever web video conference tool you like), and quietly working on your own stuff in a virtual common room.  That way you have some of the casual chit-chat and sounding ideas off each other, but can still each do your own thing. Group meetings don't have to be meetings! Leave the video on, mute yourself (or not). Here's a description of the Online Co-working Partnerships:

10. Copious tea breaks. Sebastian Schreiber recommends golden orange pekoe black, and second flush darjeeling.

11. Start small. Write one sentence. Just one little wafer-thin sentence. One line of code. Then try a second, if you can. You might just start rolling.

12. A change of scenery. Move from the study to your living room to your dining room to your porch to your hammock, or whatever you have. Even moving from a desk to a chair in the same room can help surprisingly well.

13. Get a 'Focus Keeper' app.

14. Stack your zoom/Skype meetings into a tight set of short meetings, to free up blocks of space without interruption to get you room to get into the 'zone'. Many of us work best with large blocks of time to focus without interruptions, so schedule accordingly.

15. Plan your morning around something fun, with a bit of work, rather than vice versa.

16. Go play with your kids for a bit, if you have them. Or a spouse, partner, dog. Someone who makes you happy and distracted.

17. Eat an entire cheesecake.

18. Come to terms with guilt-free exercise, fun, cooking, social time, and pleasure reading.

19. Go outside. And don't come back for a while.
Going outside for a paddle


20. Read escapist books. But be forewarned: someone else's advice may not be your escapism. When Trump was elected I asked twitter for recommendations on a good escapist book. Ben Haller suggested I read "The Sheltering Sky".  Great prose, but not pleasant escapism.

21. Do something productive fun. Learn a new trick in R that you don't need right now, but were curious about. Go see a virtual seminar from a conference or online seminar series. Read a random paper from a journal. Something that isn't your work goal, but is helpful in the long run, pleasant in the short term, and feels enough like work to be guilt-free while enjoying yourself. Personally, I find solving coding puzzles for data analysis to be immensely enjoyable. But I'm kinda a nerd.

22. Have a weekly planning meeting alone with yourself to outline your daily list and create a schedule with bite-sized tasks. Helps get through triage paralysis (what to work on first). April Wright noted she does this Sunday night with a cup of tea and its a highlight of the week.

23. Well, you aren't traveling anywhere for work or vacation. So create days of vacation where you are obligated to NOT work and go do something fun (but stay off your computer!). Then you'll return to work reinvigorated.

24. To the extent it is allowed and ethical in COVID times, go for a trip. I drove to Vermont to my family's cabin on a lake (yes, I see my privilege)  and didn't stop anywhere en route up or back, and didn't go in a building with anybody else up there. Sure, I lost 7 hours round trip driving that I might have used for work. And I went kayaking twice a day and jumped in the lake a lot. But I got more done in my three days up there alone than I achieved in two weeks normally.

25. Smite people who are productive, and keep a list of the people you have smote.

26. Self-forgiveness. Jenalle Eck wrote "I tell myself 'I forgive myself for not making progress on X'", then does the smallest unit task towards X.

27. Aim to write one sentence every hour. If a second sentence flows naturally, don't stop it.

28. Tak hours away from your computer.

29. Take a break from your usual social media

30. Eat a snack, drink a glass of water regularly.

31. Get up from your chair ever 15 min and move your body.

32. Regular yoga, runs, etc.

33. Get a dog.

34. A daily dream: a to-do list with feelings. In the morning, write what you hope your evening journal entry would be and how you felt about it then work to achieve that aspiration.

35. Treat daily tasks-not-completed as not failures, but as lessons in setting more realistic daily goals.

36. Working from home is a marathon, not a race, endurance is more important than speed, so do what you need to to endure.

37. Put off email till later in the day, in well-defined blocks of time, so your mornings aren't distracted.

38. Play music regularly, perhaps as the 5 minute reward every half hour.

39. Figure out what you enjoy most about your work and focus on that. Rather than maximize productivity, maximize work-associated-happiness. If you love coding, do that and less writing for a while.

40. Go read other people's papers for a bit. Not even in areas directly related to your research. Go learn something new and see what inspiration strikes.

41. Develop SMART goals. Specific. Measurable, Achievable. Relevant. Timely

42. Fanny Pouyet wrote: "Write the big issue I would like to solve tomorrow. Then spend 30 min detailing every single step of that task. The next day's to-do list is ready"

43. Figure out what motivates you. Do you work well under a deadline, or not? Are you motivated to fulfill someone else's expectations of you, or your own goals? Is pressure good for your productivity, and if so from what source?  Find strategies to maximize that source of simulation or pressure or whatever helps, and minimize the things that stress you out in counter-productive ways. Personally, one of my biggest motivations is the feeling I owe people comments on manuscripts. My students and postdocs' paper drafts always come first, because if I get them comments then they can proceed to work on it (if they are able and willing), whereas if I sit on a manuscript draft then I slow everyone down. That feeling of duty to them, and to the authors in the journal I Edit, keeps me focused.

44. Quaranteam: create a small group of people who are socially distanced and vigilant about COVID from outside sources, but willing and able to meet together.

45. Start a new hobby:  I've done 1000-piece puzzles, cooked new recipes (an amazing Tacos al pastor was the winner so far), and done far more running than ever before.

46. Take a summer course. I'm very tempted to take an American Association of Immunologists online summer class, and there are some on population genomics I'm keen to try as well.

47. Get two dogs.

48. Take something off the back burner you've not gotten to work on in far too long. You might find that re-prioritizing is helpful. I have a history of science paper that's been awaiting revisions by my co-author and I for >500 days. That's right, over a year and a half since we got the reviews, and this paper just hasn't been top priority. Always something more important. But on Monday I dusted it off and did 95% of the revisions we needed, in a single day. It was intense, and I barely left my desk fo the day. But I was able to work with a focus I've mostly lacked recently, because it felt so good to work on this long-overdue task.

49. Here's my favorite for today. Reach out and contact a fellow scientist who you haven't met, but whose work you admire. Set up a time to talk by Zoom. They can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Chances are, in the COVID-times, they aren't traveling, they aren't doing field work, and they aren't out at a fancy restaurant or going to the pub with friends. Chances are, they are home wishing they had someone new to talk to. I did this today with Chelsea Wood, after seeing her EcoEvoSeminars talk. We had the most amazing hour and a half science conversation, despite never having met before. I left that zoom room energized and excited to have a new collaborator on the horizon. If there's any hidden blessing in all this, its that many scientists are ready and willing to meet colleagues from around the world and have new conversations that will expand all our social networks and academic networks in creative new ways unconstrained by the usual set of conference attendees and geographic limit. Go talk to someone a half continent away, or better yet continents away, and find a new friend and collaborator, and return to your work with a fresh set of eyes and new excitement.

50. When you are stretched too thin to work, go write a preachy blog post telling others how to get work done more efficiently. At least I feel I have achieved something productive, and come away with interesting ideas, even if I still have four - wait, no it's five now - manuscripts awaiting my decision.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Escape from Galapagos: How to get home in a pandemic


So briefly, my colleague and collaborator, Dr. Sarah Knutie and I, along with Sarah's field technician, got stranded on San Cristobal in the Galapagos. The Ecuadorian government suddenly shut down air travel mid-March. Ecuadorans were given two days to get home or they wouldn't be allowed back except on repatriation or humanitarian flights. The government grounded all incoming international flights, and all domestic flights, which meant those on the Galapagos were stuck there. The government did coordinate some special flights to get tourists off the Galapagos, but with all the confusion we feared that we might get stuck on the mainland and decided if we were going to be stuck in Ecuador, relatively isolated San Cristobal would be a better place than on the mainland. We ended up staying on the Galapagos for six weeks. We got in one week of data collection but then the park shut down and all research had to stop. Within a week of the park closing, we were only allowed out of the apartment twice a week for essential supplies, and only at limited times because the whole island was on a curfew from 2pm to 5am. In mid April, the government announced a flight going from the Galapagos to the mainland (Quito and Guayaquil), and that they would allow two commercial flights from Quito to Houston. We knew commercial flights in the US were still operating, and for me, I needed to first get to the US because that was the only country from where I could get to Canada as Canada had long grounded almost all international flights. For some great summaries of our adventures on the Islands and getting home, check out Dr. Knutie's Instagram stories here: https://www.instagram.com/saknut/

The travelers before the lockdown on San Cristobal and when curfew started at 9pm (curfew ended up being 2pm-5am everyday. Photo: Sarah Knutie
By far the most frustrating part of this experience was not knowing when we would go home. Life on San Cristobal during lockdown was fine given we had access to supplies, decent internet in the mornings (for Galapagos), and a sort-of schedule that included Pop Sugar dance workouts in the late afternoon. However, not knowing if and when we could get back to North America wore on us. The second most frustrating part was that we couldn't do any research. We had a fantastic opportunity to track in real time what happens when tourism stops and how this might affect the organisms. What will happen with the finches when restaurants and tourists are no longer around? What happens to their microbiome? What rapid changes in behaviour might happen? And not just finches, but the sea lions, and other organisms. But we weren't allowed to collect any data. And so it goes - research during a pandemic.

My partner wrote a summary of it that's much more entertaining to read than if I just recap it, so here it is (NB comments and photo captions are mine):

"ESCAPE FROM THE GALAPAGOS" has just wrapped up production. It was filmed on location in Ecuador, the USA, and Canada. (NB: Alternative title: How to get from the Galapagos to Montreal in eight days). By Chris Rush

Plot line:
Starring Kiyoko and her two fellow researchers, Sarah and Gabby, who have been quarantined due to a "zombie virus" causing a disease known as COVID-19, locked up in a 3 room apartment in the Galapagos, only being allowed out of their restrictive dwelling twice a week for whatever food they could source (NB: the cargo ships were still coming so we had food, and importantly, beer and caƱa), enduring a 2pm-5am daily curfew, and having to dodge the insidious, potentially infected unnatural clones (humans!) that have infested the Islands since the 19th century.

Then, at last!

The American consulate sent word that one of their Capitalistic Airlines would send a special plane on April 29th into the maelstrom of infection on the mainland of Ecuador, aka the "epicenter" of the pandemic in South America, to rescue stranded American citizens for a special "PANDEMIC one way fare" of only $1,442USD, to Houston. Luckily the beleaguered few realized that they could then fly to any city in the United States after that on the same fare as Houston if they booked it at the same time (thanks to some super-sleuthing by an un-named guardian angel safely squirreled away up in Canada).

But, wait, first they would have to escape off the "Malefic Island of San Cristobal" where they were quarantined, requiring a flight to Quito.  Thank goodness a local airline opened a flight from the main airport on "Ground Zero Island Baltra" to Quito! But booking the local flight to the mainland was turning out to be a disaster as the local airline company, TAME, would not accept foreign credit cards!  What to do?! An emergency skype call to the guardian angel in Canada did not help as his credit card was also refused. Thank God the intrepid souls managed to book the flights through an American travel agency instead, thanks to Sarah (NB: this took three days)! With the tickets safely booked  they had only one day to make their way to the local hospital for a medical inspection to get medical clearance (no fever!) to actually travel. 
Waiting for our medical examination to be able to board the flight from Baltra to Quito Photo: Sarah Knutie

The next day the hapless crew had to scramble to get from Malefic Island to Baltra on a ferry, requiring special curfew breaking passes to allow taxi passage to the ferry dock, being able to board the ferry, and then undertake the treacherous trip to Baltra on a boat amongst possible infected zombies. 
6am waiting for the ferry from San Cristobal to Baltra Photo: Sarah Knutie

Waiting for the ferry Photo: Sarah Knutie
The ferry ride Photo: Sarah Knutie
By the time this is all sorted out Kiyoko manages to get one of the last three tickets on the Pandemic rescue plane from Quito to Houston via her contact in Canada, as her internet kept crapping out. A chance to make it onto the North American rescue plane by the skin of the teeth!

Next obstacle, and this is a quote from one of the victims:
"We land in Quito after curfew. Which means we have to hire a taxi driver to take us to the hotel, but you need all these special permission slips to be able to get the taxi driver. We went to the website we were told to go to, and nobody could get on - Paola (our Ecuadorian friend back in Canada, who thank God was able to negotiate all the Spanish), Sarah, and I were trying to get on. I ended up opening three different browsers. When I got on the website, they said it was full and put you in a virtual waiting room for ten minutes. But then at the end, it just reset the timer. I finally managed to get on, and we got to a part that said the authorization was only for medical emergencies, so clearly this wasn't right. After a while, we figured out that we had the wrong site, Paola managed to fill in the proper form and so now we're good (NB: this took all day to do). They wouldn't even let us on the ferry if we didn't have proof that someone was coming to pick us up. So, we have all the necessary paperwork. Getting the approval to drive during curfew was extremely stressful."

Next will be a harrowing stay in the local "Fleabag" motel near the airport where they hope to scavenge food even though all restaurants are closed.  (NB: The hotel is actually quite nice)

Update from the travelers: Getting to Quito everything went fine, but it was just super long.   We had to show our medical forms to get ferry tickets. The ferry was full,  there was social distancing to get onto the boat, but once on all the seats were filled. It did have individual seats, so we weren't squished but we were still very close. There was social distancing at the airport. 


Our luggage baking in the equatorial sun
Social distancing while waiting to board the plane in Baltra 


Social distancing in the line to get on the plane in Baltra
I had to pay seventy bucks for my second suitcase which was surprising and annoying, but whatever. I'll be paying for it on almost all my flights. The flight was full, but there was no food or drink service, so I slept the flight to Guayaquil. A good chunk of people got off there, hopefully they will be able to dodge the rotting bodies thrown onto the streets in cardboard boxes as apparently no-one is picking up the dead in the city.  Then on to Quito. We were lucky  to be in the first group of people who had to be examined again before being allowed entry. 
Social distance waiting room for our medical examination upon landing in Quito photo: Sarah Knutie
Medical test in Quito before we could leave the airport
When we left there, the queue to be allowed into the exam room was really long, so we were happy to be through. The cab drive to a hotel is normally 8 bucks, but because of everything, Paola (our contact in the Galapagos) said the cab would be 20, and we should tip. We were fine with that, but we ended up giving him 40 because he helped with getting the Salvoconducto  (yes that’s what it sounds like, our salvation passage!), and then he was waiting for us for a long time, and came to where we were  very quickly when we said we were done and ready for pickup. He was very nice, wore a mask, and pulled over to look at my phone when we were trying to figure out where to go. The hotel is actually OK.  We brought food with us, we have access to a kitchen, and we can go to a tienda several kilometers away tomorrow for a few groceries. We each got our own room, and since I have the most bags, Sarah gave me the largest room. So, now in Quito at a hotel close to the airport so well away from zombies roaming the city center. No other guests on the property except us. Lots of room and we're allowed to be outside, so we're looking forward to that!!
The grounds of the hotel we stayed at near the Quito Airport
Is that our plane?!?!
Then 5, yes FIVE days later, unless the local mayor decides to blockade the airport runway with police and fire vehicles as happened last month to stop Dutch rescue planes from landing, the American rescue flight will indeed land and whisk our heroes back to the safety of the United States.  Ooops, sorry, to the zombie infested mess (thanks to a brainless president that the zombies therefore cannot eat) that is currently the United States.
Social distancing to check in at the Quito airport

An empty Quito airport

Update:  The plane actually landed at Quito as scheduled.  However more drama ensued, an email from Kiyoko while at the Quito airport describes what happened:  “Turns out this is a humanitarian flight and not a commercial flight so you have to be a US citizen to get on. They let me on only because I was able to explain that I was a dual citizen, luckily I had a scan of my US passport printed out, and was able to convince them why I did not have my US Passport (I flew direct from Canada to Quito and not through the US), plus I had proof I was leaving the US for Canada. There are two couples trying to get on the flight who were moving and one or both were not US citizens and they were being denied boarding. I have no clue what will happen to them (NB: They got on somehow). So, I might run into problems in Houston. I'll put my SIM card in and text/call you if I need you to do something like FedEx my passport. It shouldn't come to that, especially since I have things like Global Entry, but I'll keep you posted. Plane should be landing now but all the windows are frosted so I can't see out them and the gate has loads of barriers and stuff so I can't get close to the one window near the gate.  Wish me luck!”
Kiyoko with the piece of paper that let her get on the Quito to Houston flight photo: Sarah Knutie
Full fight from Quito to Houston. Masks were mandatory and a few folks had full PPE
Then they will have to brave a potentially infected hotel in Houston overnight before parting ways in the morning (NB: It was fine, but after coming from a flight where masks were mandatory, it was a bit unnerving seeing the shuttle driver and receptionists in Houston not wearing masks).
An empty Houston arrivals area
Kiyoko will then (hopefully) fly to Philadelphia, supposedly the city of brotherly love, where unfortunately, despite that city's reputation, she will not be able to interact with anyone as she hopes to dodge zombies in yet another airport hotel, for yet another possibly fateful night, in yet another infested city (thanks to the Donald - "We have it under control...one day soon it will be a miracle...it will all just disappear").

Update:  Kiyoko did make it to Philly, but it was touch and go.  Big stress the morning of the flight. Kiyoko arrived at the airport to find it "a zoo" with snaking long lines of people packed together wearing masks. I can't believe the photo she emailed me.  
The ridiculous mess at the United terminal in Houston (nobody to provide information, free for all lines everywhere, and no social distancing)
She called me to try and get a seat upgrade to be able to get thru the line and check her baggage. But no upgrades were available.  Next email:  "They apparently closed a terminal so domestic and international are in same one. Some big international flight was checking in. Once that went through it was a little better, a little less stressful.  Finally made it thru check in.  Now in security".  
I wonder if you can put adults on the TSA tables?
Next email: "Made it thru security. I really thought I was not going to make it. Closing door. Will message when in Philly".
If all goes well, she will overnight in Philly and fly out of Philly and land in Montreal on Friday, May 1st.
The five (yes five) people it took to check me in at the Philly airport
Update:  A relatively stress free flight to Montreal.  On landing, to her surprise there was no medical check or other hassle, just some questions regarding whether she had any symptoms and if she could quarantine for 14 days. It was surreal wandering through the deserted Montreal airport during the normal rush hour. This virus has really changed things!
An empty immigration area at the Montreal airport

HOME!
And then began a government mandated 14 day quarantine at home. This involved me sleeping in the spare bedroom, having room service from my partner, and wiping down with alcohol or bleach anything that I touched that was communal. But symptom free after 14 days!


How to Write a Thesis

 [ This piece is, supposedly, originally by one A. W. James, who seems to have been a professor in the Dept. of Biology at Canisius College ...