Peak productivity: the academic way

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life on the verge

It’s here! That manic magical time of the year where academics across the world take part in Do-Everything December. If you’ve found yourself uttering such rallying cries as, “I’d like to submit this before Christmas” or “Let’s get this squared away before the break”, you’re not alone (but you’re probably an ECR). This month, we will #finishallthethings so that we can start next year afresh, and with a chunkier CV. But how do we do it? How can we reach peak productivity when it has eluded us for eleven months thus far? I’m no expert* – just an average ECR trying to get ahead in this crazy game – but here are just a few things that I’ve tried that you might find useful.

  • Make a pile of manuscripts that would be ready to submit after just a day or two of concentrated effort. These are easy wins, and…

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Running shorter distances, faster

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I have never been one for competition. I dislike people who are sore losers or sore winners. I don’t mind not being good at a thing that I have not put much effort into trying to be good at, but I don’t like being better at it than someone who has put effort into it.

I don’t even like to compete with myself on the things that I do put a lot of effort into because I see performance as quite contingent, temporary and ephemeral. I mean, why should I pressure myself to run faster at some distance when how fast I run is down to things beyond my control, like the weather, how popular the race is, whether or not I am having a bad allergy day, etc. Plus, if I should be proud of running faster one week, should I be upset to run slower later on? And ultimately, I don’t run to be fast. I run to run, so all running that I actually run is good running.

Consequently, I have never really focused on how fast I can run. I didn’t even record all of my early race times, so I am not really sure how much my running speed has improved since the very early days. Instead I focused on running better (with less stopping to take a walk break, less feeling terrible after, etc.) and farther (from my first 5K, to 10K, to half marathon and then a marathon) and with better form (straighter posture, arms moving less side-to-side across my chest, etc.).

On the whole, this has worked pretty well for me. I enjoy running and find that when I finish I am in a much better mood than when I started. I am healthier, I sleep better and I feel stronger. I really got to enjoy the way that I could zen out and just let the distances slip by with so little effort. I liked the moment when I felt that I stepped outside of myself and was no longer running but being run.

On the other hand, the same thing all the time can get boring. So I have changed my approach for this year. To some extent, this change was an accident of happenstance. In the process of moving to a new country, I was less able to sign up for races, to train for long races, and to run long, un-interupted stretches of zen-running . But I did find myself in a country that had a lot of parkrun opportunities, which gave me great opportunities to run timed 5K runs in a way that I would not traditionally have bothered with. I also joined the run-commute club at work, which encouraged me to run the 2.8K to work (and another 2.8K back home) several days per week. As a consequence of running these shorter distances more frequently, I have been able to focus on how it feels to run shorter and faster, with the kind of body positioning that suits short-and-fast runs rather than conserving-energy-for-long runs.

After noticing my 5K speed improve significantly, I decided  to deliberately not sign up for or start training plans for any races longer than 10K. My 10K speed has also improved, knocking about a minute and a half off my PB after years of hovering around the 1 hour mark. I am still not really bothered about getting faster for the sake of competition, not even with myself, but I am interested in how running short-and-fast is making me feel, making my body move, and making me see running differently. Zen is now not just about being peaceful over long distances, it is about being peaceful under short and intense bursts of effort. A different sort of zen, but also good to know I can do.

Plus, there is always next year for the long distances. We shall see.

You’ve got to admit, it’s getting better.

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Several months have passed, things have changed, and on the whole it is going well.

I have started the new job in Manchester and have several thoughts:

  • Manchester is a great city for going out and doing social and cultural things. For example, I have seen classical music, parades, cricket games, charity football matches, visited several museums, joined a hackerspace and played ping-pong at a hip-hop bar.
  • Manchester is also pretty good for participating in sports. For example, I have participated in several 10K races, joined a weekday running and socializing club, joined a run-commute club at work, joined a gym just near my house, can attend free lunch-time sport events through my workplace, and have tried out at least two of the parkruns that are within easy reach by public transport.
  • Manchester has a terrible dearth of green spaces in the city centre and has a serious problem with traffic control, but is generally very walkable (somewhat less run-able) and has great canal tow paths from the edges of the city outward.
  • This job is a shambles. No one knows what is happening and they are all desperately trying to pretend like they do know what they are doing and that it is definitely very important.
  • I had to put lots of things on the back burner during the international move, the house hunt, the processes of getting used to a new job and new city. However, I am starting to get a good routine going and can organize my life a bit better. Part of that will be writing this blog on a more regular basis again (but don’t hold your breath).

I also have several things that I want to write about in the near future. Topics include:

  • Weight lifting and strength training
  • Running shorter distances faster and how to change my training mindset
  • Eating enough damn protein in a damn day
  • Using a fitness tracker
  • Why men’s jeans are so much better than women’s jeans
  • Setting new personal goals and revisiting old ones

What you do is what you get

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So, god intentions aside, I have not been as dedicated as I could be in pursuit of my fitness goals recently.

Do not get me wrong. I have done stuff.
I signed up for a 10K race in late May.
I ran (actually jogged and walked) about 7K on Sunday.
I went for a jog/walk yesterday evening when I REALLY wanted to stay in and loaf on the sofa.

But, I have not been putting on my sports kit every day. I have not been pushing myself to work a variety of muscle groups, to gain flexibility, to improve strength.

I also have not been reigning myself in in relation to food, so my increased activity has been (over-)compensated by eating.

But, there is no point in crying over spilled lactose-free milk substitute. I have my sports kit on now and will do a home exercise/bodyweight video.
As soon as this show is done.e

Alternatives

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I chose that title for a few reasons.

  • I have an alternative relationship, which the UK immigration has refused to recognize. That is to say, my visa was refused.
  • I will have to pursue an alternative immigration pathway. I have spoken to HR services at the university in the UK and they are confident that this alternative can be pursued but think that I may need a later start date.
  • Rather than deal with the disappointment by drinking myself into a stupor or dwelling in a pit of despair, I chose an alternative – I went for a run.

Two steps forward, one step nowhere

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I have been running. Well, jogging, really, but I am counting it as running. And I have gone for a run twice in the last week. Before too long I will be up to three times a week and then I will be able to start and follow a running plan to get on with marathon training.

I have fallen back on my old chestnut tactic of running for two songs and walking for one. This lets me catch my breath and move up through the gears slowly.  I know that this is not a particularly professional strategy, but it keeps me motivated without being too routine or boring. Eventually, I will switch up to running for three songs and then walking for on. By the time that feels easy I am usually in a place to train like a professional.

On another note, I am still waiting for a decision on the visa application. Tired of waiting, and feeling quite anxious. It is unnerving to have your whole life and near-term future in someone else’s hands. But this is what I have, so I will have to wait. I shall just have to do more house cleaning in the meantime to work on those nerves.

Thoughts and snow

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Things are going reasonably well, I believe. I have been able to put on my sports kit and do 10 minutes or more of sporting every day. Most of those days have been easy-going yoga, but I have also done a workout video, gone for a walk and gone for a walk/jog. Overall, I am feeling very optimistic.

I am also keeping up with tracking my food intake. So everything is ticking over just fine for now. Let us hope it keeps on in the same way.

On a more optimistic note, I was looking at races in October. I would still like to do a marathon, but maybe a half marathon is more reasonable. I could try to do 2 in quick succession. I will have to check out training schedules to see what is reasonable.

And on an unrelated note, I have been cleaning like a mad person while going mad waiting to hear on the immigration status. When was the last time you scrubbed out the drawers in your kitchen? Cleaned underneath your sink? Removed all the gunk and horror from the top of the extractor hood?

 

 

Gooooooooooaaallll!

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Goals, rather, because I set more than one for myself. All of them are to be completed, or at least attempted to the best of my ability, by my next birthday in October.

  • Run a marathon
  • Join a gym and start a weight training regime
  • Get my body fat percentage below my BMI

Let me talk about these a bit more. Marathons are not always easy to find in a place and time frame that work well. Further complicating matters, I do not know for 100% certain where I will be in October, as I do not yet have my residence permit for the UK in hand. So, wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I will try my best to find a mid- or late-October marathon. If not, I might end up running two half marathons on subsequent weekends, a 30K race plus a 10K training run, or just a personal marathon in the form of a long training session. We shall see.

Likewise, joining a gym cannot happen until I know where I will be for at least 6 months at a stretch. However, if the residence permit goes according to plan and I start the job as expected, then I hope to join the fitness center directly across the road from the office. It is an aquatic center, so I could get back into swimming in a big way (not done that for YEARS!). But I understand that there is also a fitness area with weights as well as the pools, so it should be about ideal.

As for BMI, I have always been pretty low in the scale. Typically 18 or 19 if I remember correctly. When I used calipers back in my 6 pack abs challenge, I found that my body fat percentage was 21… I think. Maybe higher. Either way, body fat was higher than BMI. Women cannot get their body fat percentage as low as men can, at least not in a healthy way, but they can certainly get below 18. At the same time, weight training is likely to raise my BMI slightly by making my body more dense and muscled. Both of these facts mean that I should be able to get the body fact below the BMI while still being healthy and strong. I do not have either a scale or calipers, so I will need to find a way to measure  those at some point if I am to make proper progress on this goal.

Although the first two goals are a bit contingent on what happens in the future, I can start building good habits now. I have decided to put on my sports kit EVERY SINGLE DAY and do at least ten minutes of sport. At this point, that includes gentle yoga and walking along the canal by my house. When the habit is embedded, I plan to step up the intensity but even then there will be rest days that only need a bit of walking or yoga. I have also decided to track everything I eat for the first week of every month. I am using the MyFitnessPal website and app. I fond it a bit cumbersome, but I am not too bothered about being super precise on calories or nutrient content or whatever. I really just want a way to get a better overview of my habits, tastes, and intakes. By comparing the weeks that I track between now and October, I will see how my habits and tastes change. Finally, in the absence of a scale and calipers, I plan to take a photo of my body once a week and take some measurement with a tape measure once a week to get a more objective record of what my body is like. If it all goes well, I may make a video montage.

 

Do not hold your breath on that.

 

 

Things have changed. Mostly, but not entirely, for the better.

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It has been over half a year since I last blogged. I know, I know. You have been on the edge of your seat this whole time.

Quite a lot has happened in that time:

  • I successfully defended my PhD thesis, so I am now Dr. 42KickingHipsters.
  • My crazy family came for a visit to see the defense ceremony and I dealt with that without killing anyone.
  • I ran/jogged/walked a very asthmatic 10K race for my second worst time ever.
  • I created and used a custom 32 page Holiday cookbook for all the Xmas cooking (from brining a turkey to baking several different cakes).
  • After two years of being effectively unemployed, I got a new job at the University of Manchester, which I am scheduled to start in April.
  • I got some paperwork that I had been waiting on for AGES that allowed me to finally apply for a visa to move to the UK. That will be important before I start the new job.

All of that has been stressful. All of that has been full of uncertainty. All of that has been full of obligations, timing, expenses and organization that was beyond my control. And it is not over yet because I still do not have full confirmation that I will get the visa for the UK. More waiting, more uncertainty.

I had to give up my gym membership and do not know when I can get another one. I could not sign up for a marathon or half-marathon (a big motivator for me) and still cannot until I can be sure where I will be in a month or two months or three months time. I had a topsy-turvy schedule that made it really hard to get into a routine or to eat consistently good options. I lost my office at the university after the defense ceremony so I no longer had a reason to go for a 4K round trip walk every day. My days are now full of very little, mostly trying to clean, organize, pack, research stuff at home so my only excuse now for poor exercise and eating is ennui.

Consequently, I am out of shape. I am still wearing all my old clothes (could not afford to buy new ones anyway) but they no longer fit me the way I like them to. I know a lot of people would be quite happy to have my body as it is now, and I am not saying that anyone who looks like me needs to change they way they look. But I do not feel that I look like myself. I am just a bit softer, squishier, less athletic looking than my mental image of myself. I am not happy with the way I look.

I tried to do an online workout video yesterday. I could not finish it. But more than just not finishing it, I felt really inflexible, weak, incapable. Putting in a specific effort made me realize how often recently I have been out of breath, off-balance, and helpless. I am sure a lot of people would be happy to have problems as minor as mine, but this does not match my mental image of myself as an active, confident, energetic person. I am not happy with how I feel.

So, I am starting up a new challenge. I am not going to wait for it to be convenient for me to get healthy. I am not going to put my health and feelings and self-image on hold until the stars align and magically my lifestyle allows me to look and feel the way I used to. True, I cannot yet join a gym and do some proper strength training the way I want. But I will not let that stop me from doing the best I can with what I have.

I will take a suitably nerdy approach so I will be recording and measuring. Get ready for some information overload as I decide what my concrete goals will be, what my target time frames are, what measurements I will track, and how much information i will be sharing.

As always, feel free to tell me what works or does not work for you. You can encourage me, ask me questions, or throw metaphorical eggs at me in an attempt to troll me.

Another day, another challenge.

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We meet again, Mr. Reader.

Or Mrs. Reader. Or Ms., Dr., Miss, Rev. Capt., whatever. I have several things to update you on.

First, I received permission to reside and work in the country I currently reside and work in. Hooray! Ring the bells! This means that I will not be kicked out any time soon (not within the next 5 years anyway) and can remove that particular worry from my mind. Now I just have to sort out paperwork to reside and work in another country, one that is not this one. The hassle never ends, eh?

Second, I took some time off after the half marathon to be a slob and feel sorry for myself, but that time is done. I have set up a new running schedule and should be back on my feet three times a week. I had trouble with my hacked smartphone-as-running-tracker, but I think I have that sorted out too. As always, you can snoop on me if you so choose.

Third, I have a temp job trying to help a local tech start up company hire some new engineers. If you are an R&D engineer with knowledge of printers, get in touch.

Fourth, I am participating in a citizen science effort to discover how effective duct tape is against warts/verrucas. They are just called warts where I come from, but the association with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory means that I find ‘verrucas’ much more charming than ‘warts’. Anyway, I have had one on my foot for years, which means it is not likely to go away on its own. It doesn’t usually bother me at all, but it does get a bit sore sometimes. So I decided to see if I can show it the door while also contributing to SCIENCE! I will be duct taping (or McGyver-taping, as my family calls it) my foot for 6 days out of 7 for the next several weeks. I shall keep you informed.

For your entertainment, here is my foot before and after taping.

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And finally, now that you are grossed out by my warty foot, food! With a lot of attention and effort, we have got our food bill down to about 50 euros per week on average, not including splurging extras that are obviously unnecessary. We have been trying out inexpensive new recipes, mostly vegetarian ones, and have some definite new favourites. Of course, there are always old favourites, like pancakes. I ate a lot of pancakes growing up and didn’t realise that they were not a luxury until I saw the House of Yes. I hope that I will get around to sharing some of favourites in another blog post soon.