The power of the ever-present sticky note

I like the look of this: crossing off things on the long term to-do list.

When I moved to Allentown, PA last year and set up my desk in early July, I was overwhelmed by all the things that needed to be done. So I made a list and put it where I was bound to see it every single day: my desktop in my home office. I was inspired by a little trick from The Fit Writer, whose sticky note with goals, posted on the Fridge of Motivation, had the power to make her become a world champ drug free amateur body builder. (Ok, ok, the sticky inspired and motivated her to keep on track, as did having goals in her e-mail password so she had to type it multiple times per day, and a list in the gym diary and pretty much everywhere she'd see it regularly, but let's not deny it: The Fit Writer herself put in all the hard work!)

I've previously followed Nic's lead and put stickies with goals on my fridge, but this one on my computer had more effect:

  • In the summer, I finished looking through suggestions and edits for a big group translation project of the Zhenguan zhengyao 貞觀政要, this was for chapter 9 of the text. (That was way overdue.)
  • I sent in a first draft for a chapter on Tang China in an edited volume on the Global Early Middle Ages in mid-January. (That was (only) six weeks overdue.)
  • Then I looked through the suggestions and corrections of my sections in chapter 8 of the Zhenguan Zhengyao translation and sent them off in February. (The deadline was the same as that chapter 9 which I already knew to be ridiculously overdue,  and I wanted to avoid the wrath of the editor! 😉 )
  • I finished a long overdue book review on 1 April. I almost finished reading the book over summer, but then other deadlines crowded in and this fell off the backburner. I sent it in by the new deadline, just to prove that I can still stick to deadlines. (That new deadline was only 2 years later than the original one... I really did not have a grip on my project list when I agreed to do that review.)
  • Last Tuesday night I finished working through the corrections and edits of the Global Early Middle Ages chapter, again finishing by the deadline that the editor and I had agreed. I'm on a roll!

Not bad for my first year on the tenure track with a 3-3 teaching load.


Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson. Click here for source.

Most of this work was not achieved in big bursts of mad writing or inspired by last-minut-panic, but instead I spend 25-30 mins every day doing "something that moves the project forward". That can be reading, drafting, writing, editing, checking things, and yes, occasionally, fiddling with LaTeX and GitHub so I can remain happily free from proprietary software and synchronization problems between three different machines. When the deadline approaches or I can smell the finish line, I will push for a few hours, but by that time I have all the material I need and can just ease into that happy writing spot, when things fall into place nearly automatically, and writing or translating becomes a joyful activity.

Writing every day for me means If I am not ill (and therefore cannot physically get to the keyboard, for instance in late January when the noro-virus struck chez polifinario), or if I am not flooded with grading (and thus go to bed without remembering I haven't done my writing yet, as happened in December and May), I write seven days a week, and build up streaks. My current record is 127 consecutive days. Earlier in May I was at 87 when I just woke up one morning and went "Oh xxxx I forgot to write yesterday," and I reset the counter. No cheating, no excuses. This may seem pretty hard core, but it works for me.

With only the Manuscript on the menu this summer for my writing projects, I am all set to make good progress. I will be able to spend more than 30 minutes per day, and if I want something else, I have two brand new courses to prepare for next semester: a First Year Seminar with the title "How Tea Conquered the World", and a new 100-level course on women in Chinese history. Two topics out of my comfort zone, but that's perfect to balance out the manuscript writing, a subject I am now so familiar with it's verging on boredom. Some would say that is the perfect state of mind to get it finished!

Right, I'm off to make a new post-it with my projects for the coming twelve months. Keep your eyes peeled for updates!

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