7 Good Habits to Get More Done and Feel Better About It

It happens to most of us.  As a new year begins we are full of good resolutions. We want to lose weight, quit smoking, do more exercise, eat a healthier diet, be more productive at work, strike a better life-work balance, you name it.

No wonder we end up feeling overwhelmed and as soon as the “new” of the new year wears off we forget about all of our good intents. Luckily, there are a few good habits that can help us stay on track with whatever project we want to embark on.

Here are my favourite ones.

1) Start small. Every thousand-mile journey starts with a single step. Be clear about your direction and then set things in motion, one step at a time. Do not expect to achieve everything at once. Rather find ways to enjoy the journey.

2) Take baby steps. Get in the practice of doing them regularly and consistently. If you plan to go on a diet, for example, take two little actions such as drinking more water and going for a 15-minute walk every day. Once these activities have become an established part of your routine, move on and introduce another baby step into your day.

3) Set a timer. Whatever your aim, setting a short amount of time and committing to work exclusively on the task on hand can truly do wonders. No email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no TV, no phone, no interruption, nothing. Just you and your task. The time you set can be as short as 15 minutes, but make sure you do it every day for as long as it takes for complete the task. There is no point at working at your project five hours flat out and then feel so burnt out that you do not want to work at your project at all the following day. Eventually, when this has become a habit in your routine, you can decide to increase (slightly) the amount of time you devote to your task. You can apply this technique whether you need to work at a project you find difficult to tackle, or to get into the habit of doing something healthier, like getting some exercise, meditating, having a break to re-charge your batteries, cook a healthy meal, get in touch with family and friends, or even revise for exams.

4) Find a buddy. I have never liked going to the gym. No matter how good my intentions at getting fit and losing weight, I just can’t make myself go through the hassle of going to the gym. Some years ago, however, I made a deal with a friend of mine. So we decided that if she was willing to come with me, then I was willing to commit to making the effort. I was at the gym at 8 o’clock in the morning every day for a few months! (in fact, being out of the house so early was already an achievement in itself for me!). Knowing that I was doing this with someone else was the key ingredient  to keeping me motivated. The same can be done for studying, revising, or writing up. Just find a friend or a colleague to share the journey with. You’ll both get the benefits.

5) Do the most important things in the first two hours of your day. As simple as that. It took me a very long time to put this into practice. There is always the tendency of doing the easiest stuff first. In the past, I used to spend a lot of time on practicalities first thing in the morning: answering emails, filling in expense claims, sorting out my lecture notes, and so on. By the time I sat down to do some of the other (admittedly more important) stuff, it was almost time to pack and go home. Eventually, I learnt to set my priorities right and to leave the unimportant stuff for the last hour of the day.

6) Celebrate your success, big or small. Let’s face it, we are so busy trying to get more and more done that we often do not take the time to acknowledge what we have achieved already. This can leave us with a sense of exhaustion and the feeling that the bar has been raised once again. Acknowledging and celebrating our achievements gives us a sense of completion and motivates us to move forward with increased energy.

7) Finally, if putting into practice the advice I have shared with you still proves too difficult, you may want to consider finding a mentor. Research shows that students who do best are those who have teachers interested in them. I believe this is true of anyone. I have always performed far better in anything I was doing every time I knew someone else cared. Having a mentor can be an extremely useful resource to help you move forward.

So, now, what were your new-year resolutions this year, and how many of them have you accomplished so far? Which techniques have worked best for you to help you achieve your intentions? Share them with us. We’d love to hear from you!

Scientific Academic Writing: New Edition!

Today’s post is about the first edition of my new magazine on Scientific Academic Writing! Here, you will find interesting articles and links to other resources about academic writing. I’d love to hear from you, so please make sure you leave a comment and let me know if there are specific topics you would like me to scoop for you!

Click here to see the magazine!

Enjoy your reading!

PS Oh, and don’t forget to spread the news. Just share this post with colleagues and friends who may also like to read the magazine.

My interview with Jim Al-Khalili

Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), theoretical nuclear physicist, author of several popular science books, TV presenter and radio broadcaster. You will have guessed by now: I’m talking about Jim Al-Khalili. Jim visited the School of Physics and Astronomy on Thursday to deliver his public lecture On the Shoulders of Eastern Giants: The Forgotten Legacy of Medieval Physicists. And if you missed the event you can see a recording of it on the School’s website some time soon.

In his latest radio show, The Life Scientific, on air every Tuesday morning on BBC Radio 4, Jim talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them. On Thursday, I eventually got the opportunity to ask him what I had always wanted to ask since I first met him several years ago.

This is my interview to Jim about his own career, the career choices he made, and the opportunities that took him from being a well-known theoretical nuclear physicist to becoming a successful broadcaster and popular writer. I hope you will enjoy it!

(click on the image above to start the video)

More professors and better writing

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to tell you how to become a professor by improving your writing (though I suppose there could be a link), nor how to improve your writing if you are a professor (though that might also work!).

Rather, I am going to tell about two events that I have followed this week.

The first event, was a one-hour webinar on How to get more women professors hosted by Curt Rice, Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø, in Norway. The numbers speak for themselves. In Europe, 18% of full professors in universities are women. At the University of Tromsø, it’s almost 30%, making it one of the leading institutions in Europe. In a little more than ten years, they moved from being the worse-in-class university in Norway (in 2001, only 9% of full professors were women) to being the best one in the country. So, how did they do it? Simple. They invested in it and it worked. They called it The Promotion Project. And it was not about promoting more women to higher pay grades so as to boost their numbers. It was all about making sure women were properly supported and encouraged along the way. This involved bringing in additional teaching support; fostering opportunities for career development; freeing time for the participants (not just women!) to focus on specific high-priority activities (e.g. by granting a residential full week away from other commitments). Why did they do it? Two reasons, they claim. One: it is right. Think about fairness, role models, cultural change. Two: it is smart. Think about benefits to work environment, productivity, group intelligence. Of course, it required resources. Of course, it required effort. Of course, it required vision. But the potential benefits of improving the work gender balance, it appears, far outweighs the costs. Fascinating stuff!

For sure, gender equality issues and gender balance at work are among the top priorities of any policy making strategy at pretty much every institution I have come across. However, one thing is to set targets for increased proportion of women at the top level of the organisation. Another, is to put measures in place to achieve those targets in a guaranteed, consistent, and sustainable way. Sure enough, as Curt Rice points out, one needs to be clear about the “why” before thinking about the “how”. But the hope is that more universities will be willing to follow their example and take on a similar stance.

The second event, was a more down-to-Earth one. But as I happened to be the organiser and the host, I was really looking forward to it. The event consisted in three half-day workshops on Hands-on Writing aimed at PhD students in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. My aim was to help students realise that good scientific writing can be learned. That there are simple models and strategies that can be used to improve one’s writing style. That there is no big writing project that cannot be broken down into simpler, more manageable parts, once the structure has been properly laid out. It was fantastic to work with such engaged and motivated students and to receive such positive feedback from them.

The workshop was complemented by short sessions on productivity run by my colleague, Olga Degtyareva, a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and author of a blog on Peaceful Productivity for Creative Types. She shared her techniques on how to prevent becoming overwhelmed, stay on track, and avoid procrastination.

So, it has been a busy (and productive!) week. Hopefully, the skills that my students have learned will help them throughout their careers. Maybe, some of them will become professors one day. And maybe, they too will contribute to increase the number of women professors at their universities.

PS If you’d like to listen to Curt Rice’s webinar, you can get a copy at http://curt-rice.com. Also, note that he will be hosting another webinar on May 23rd (6pm, UK time) by the title “Skinny dipping with snapping turtles: Careers in academia.” Just follow the link to register or visit Curt Rice’s blog for more details.

PPS And if you want to improve your writing skills, just get in touch (use the Contact me form on the top of the page) and I will inform you when my online webinar on scientific writing becomes available.

Participants at the Hands on Writing Workshop