Monthly Archives: November 2012

Holiday Prep for (Grad) Students

I’ve been trying to get myself to read my own paper for the past four hours, and it really hasn’t been working.

I feel like the cat that just won’t get into the water for a bath, and at the same time, I feel like the cat owner trying to get it clean.

Just like this one.

Something about going through the paper that contains the same information that you’ve written as a journal paper, as part of your thesis, presented as a thesis defense, and edited for a re-submission to a journal make you kind of want to avoid it as much as possible. My brain tells me that, since you’ve talked about it and wrote about it so many times, it should be super easy to go through it this time, and it will have to be the best communicated piece on the topic to date (theoretically). However, all my other side of the brain can think about is, “I’ve done it again and again, leave me alone~.”

One way I’ve been actively avoiding this important process of editing the paper is to think about the festivities coming up ahead.

More specifically, Christmas, winter break, and the New Year celebration.

As a grad student, this time of the year isn’t particularly the most jolly of them all as far as our bank accounts are concerned. In the past couple of years, I typically didn’t have the ‘luxury’ to budget for holiday gift expenses every year. I would typically take the stipend/fellowship money promised for the year, divide it by 12, subtract my monthly rent from that, subtract my monthly expenses like cell phone costs etc, and note to self the leftover amounts as my maximum cap for groceries, coffee fund, plus fun fund. It was tight just managing the essentials on a monthly basis anyway.

I think it would definitely make it easier to spend your holiday fund when you’ve set aside some money specifically for the occasion, because you already have in mind what your maximum cap is.

If you haven’t, however, and the Christmas lights at shopping centres and Robson street hits you (and your bank account) somewhat randomly, which happens almost right after the end of Halloween shopping season, then picking out gifts and scrambling to get things for those special people in your life can feel painful. Everything starts to look really expensive, and as you start to question whether you really want to send this person a present, or just a card, or nothing at all, you feel like this huge social pressure is testing your relationship with whomever you care about.

But I don’t think we should let the world question our relationship with so many of our friends/family/networks just because the social norm this time (and most of December I guess) of the year is to buy gifts for each other. I think there are many ways you can enjoy the holiday season and make it just as beautifully celebrated even if you don’t spend much money/time on gifts for others.

I have a couple of suggestions for those of you who suffer from the holiday finance dilemma.

1. Personalize (with fewer $$, and more time): If getting a batch of card, filling out people’s names, signing it, and giving it to people without a gift to go with it doesn’t seem personal enough, then I would suggest getting a batch of cards that don’t have messages written inside (or have super short ones). So, rather than just signing it, you can actually make use of the blank spaces to recount some of the things that has happened this year, things that you’d like to share, thank, etc. I’m a fan of meaningful and personal messages, and I think many people would take that to be even more memorable than gifts (depending on what you write, of course). And this way, you can actually cover a longer list of people on your holiday list without spending too much money. Of course, you’ll need quite a bit more time to draft those messages for everyone. Oh, and if you are thinking of gifts for babies, messages may not have the same effect, depending on the age of the baby… just something to keep in mind. 😉

2. Make something: For batch processing of gifts (for large group of friends/labmates etc) I think making something could be awesome too. For example, if you’re good at baking, I’d love to get a little bag of homemade cookies from you as a gift. Of course, baked goods as gifts are limited for those whom you can deliver the goods to (without having them go bad in the delivery process). But if you are fond of this idea of baking something for someone, look what I found in the process of procrastination! A Christmas cookie recipe list organized from A to Z, with a top 20 list and hundreds more.

Bah, I just want to wrap up my holiday stuff for everyone now instead of reading my paper (again!). But I’d better get back to it before I start jotting down more holiday ideas.

But to help me (and students in general) with the process of coming up with financially friendly, yet happy holiday ideas, please do share them via comments/email! 🙂

Project Healthy Daily Routine

When someone takes a glimpse of my Google Calendar, especially on Fridays, they typically have a ‘Holy cow!’ response.

That’s because, when you glance at it, there’s pretty much no empty spots on any day of the week. That is not because I have back-to-back meetings everyday from 5:30am until 10:30pm. Rather, it’s because I have a habit of scheduling in my tasks, and also document how I spend my time everyday on the calendar. For instance, my plan of doing yoga for half an hour right after I wake up in the morning is an item on the calendar. This habit of mine have served me well in getting stuff done while working as a grad student. ’cause when you are not fixed to the 9-5 schedule, and can always work at home, at office, on weekends etc, then it’s so easy to let things slip and procrastinate for a long time.

Now, ever since I started the wake-up-super-early-with-wake-up-light routine about a week and a half ago, I’ve decided to take my daily logging a little bit more seriously.

Yes, yes I know. I’m a little bit of a control freak that way. But a book I recently read, and a number of other books I’ve read before, suggests to document how much time you spend on things everyday. Perhaps not to the same level of rigour as what I’m doing. But still, I think it’s a good exercise to get an idea of how healthy your lifestyle and daily schedule actually is.

Ironically, feeling super unmotivated and unproductive, I’ve decided to crunch some numbers from my past week’s worth of logging.

And the numbers are quite surprising.

While my sleeping schedule was more or less consistent throughout the week, the number of hours I spent on productive and unproductive things fluctuated quite a LOT. I mean, a lot.

I know that we all have one of those days when you just can’t get anything done. And I’ve had those days too. But to see numbers put next to it? Wow…

For example, on the most unproductive day, I spent about 14% of my awaking hours on doing something work related. This includes me doing emails and stuff. Pretty bad, don’t you think? On the same day (Thursday), I spent 29% of my time procrastinating, 11% socializing, and 18% doing chores. And I definitely did not exercise that day. I know, I know. Embarrassing. But the point is to figure out how to fix this, right? At least I know where my starting point is. 🙂

Anyways.. On the most productive day (Tuesday this week, apparently), I spent 1.5 hours doing exercises (that’s 9% of my time awake). I went to my very first Zumba class which exhausted me out for the rest of the week (super low productivity on Wednesday and Thursday). Then I spent 6% of my time socializing, 6% on hobby related stuff, 6% travelling to/from places, 18% taking shower, eating, and getting ready, and… (drum roll here) … a whooping 50% of doing work related stuff. And this is not even including the time I spent answering emails etc. I’d say that’s quite a difference from my Thursday’s productivity of 14%. Typically, this value for someone who works 9-5 would be in the 41% range if s/he sleeps 7 hour a day and take an hour lunch and is working (and not procrastinating) for the full 7 hours in the office.

So the question is, what made the difference between how I spent my Tuesday vs. Thursday? I mean, I think I really exhausted myself physically on Tuesday, and that kind of got carried over to the rest of the week (I totally didn’t exercise afterwards).

My key hypothesis is that how I spend my day is closely related to how I spend the first few minutes of my wake-up time. On the days I exercised, I didn’t roll around in bed, holding on to my tablet, reading stuff or catching up on social media. Instead, I got up right away to pull some yoga moves, and jump into the shower to start my day.

On the days I didn’t exercise, I definitely rolled around to check my email, answer it on my tablet, and read stuff online. And the rolling around definitely had something to do with me not wanting to start my day.

These are only observational notes from the limited number of samples I have, of course. But I am hoping that I can keep it up and empirically convince myself to pick up healthy habits, such as exercising for half an hour every morning.

One thing for sure is that, although it might look crazy control-freak that I schedule everything and log my daily time expenditure, setting and following a daily routine totally has its benefits. And I’m going to think about monitoring my routine as just closing the loop of my daily schedule, so that I have a practical sense of how much I can do in a day, while improving my daily productivity.

For now, I’m going to stop the planning/monitoring process and make myself an awesome dinner in preparation for another epic week.

Do the Sun Dance…?

The sun came out!! 😀

Last week, I wrote a super depressing post about how the Vancouver weather is dragging down my days.

I apologize if reading my post made you even more depressed. But that’s truly what I felt that day. I mean, within the history of man, as far as my junior school Korean history is concerned, people did things, do the rain dance, pray to the gods or whatever, to bring rain to end drought. I really don’t recall the same kind of ritual being done to stop the rain, clear away the clouds and bring out the sun.

But I guess my deep sigh from last week must have had some non-scientific impact on the weather, because it was beautifully sunny today! I actually saw blue in the sky ALL DAY!

In addition to expressing my joy in all caps, I figured I’d share some of the improvements I’ve been able to make in terms of decorating my place and bring the mood of the blog back up from the last post.

So, as a means to defeat my super low attitude, I’ve decided to turn to the well documented method of ‘cheering up’ called retail therapy (you should try it, it’s amazing… but do it responsibly). Being in the ‘poor PhD student’ and ‘I just came back from Europe’ mode, I tried not to buy anything for myself that I didn’t absolutely need (well, not technically true, but “absolutely” is all relative). But as one of the retail therapy principles have it (I am just gonna make it a principle if it isn’t already one), you need to learn to spend money on yourself, on things that make you happy in order for the therapy to work. So last Thursday, I convinced a super awesome friend of mine to go to IKEA with me.

There, I equipped myself with a table lamp ($17), along with many other household “essentials” that I lived without but am more happy with, and … a bench.

Yes, I know, I know.

Who needs a bench, right? But no judging please. I’m simply following the abovementioned principle of retail therapy.

Now my place looks awesomely bright and lively, like this… now if I can just get a super lively duvet cover… hmmp!:

The little table lamp on the bench is actually hooked up to a programmable light timer I got for $14 at the Canadian Tire. I have it set up so that it turns on at 5:30am in the morning every weekdays, just when I am supposed to wake up and start my day with Yoga.

The first day I tried the lamp system, I ended up snoozing my alarm for three hours because, I think, the 7 watt frosted light bulb I got from IKEA was producing super soft light.

That day, I really didn’t have much of a productive day. Everything I had planned to do was delayed by three hours, and I didn’t have much energy to zip through and make up for the time lost in sleeping. So I went and got myself a 40 watt clear light bulb to give this wake-up light system another go.

And so far it seems to be doing the trick for me. I did manage to wake up super early in the morning, without feeling like I want to snooze the alarm and go back to bed. This is kind of incredible given the fact that, when I was riding the bus to meet my friend en route to IKEA, more than half the people sitting on the bus (and it was a pretty full bus as well) were dozing off, which I only blame the weather for (of course, there are other variants such as midterms etc, but you know…).

Anywho, so far I am very happy with the set-up I have. Like a diligent  researcher, I am actually keeping track of the times I am spending on different tasks so that I can figure out whether waking up early is significantly impacting my productivity throughout the day. So far, I think it is. 🙂