Some tiny things that make academic life colorful

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For the last month of this definitely weird year (aka 2020), I am gathering tips on academic life: writing, organizing, archiving, resting, enjoying.

No amazing productivity hacks or big secrets but just some tiny things that make life colorful!

1) This one is for emoji lovers

Did you know that you can add emojis to your folders (on Mac?) or your Zotero database? You can copy-paste them from here. Enjoy!

2) Write your paper as a PowerPoint presentation

When dreading a paper, especially in the early stages, I begin in a PowerPoint presentation instead of a text document. Small thing, but it doesn’t feel like “writing” anymore, and I usually end up with a full outline, nice graphs/tables, and sets of examples… + colors!

3) Routines and ritual to start

If you like routines/rituals, you can decide to mark the beginning of your work session/writing with a small thing you enjoy & will eventually (i.e. only after a while!) mean, “okay, let’s go, I can do this!”. For instance, always the same song, lightening a candle, watering the plant on your desk…

4) Wrapping up a paper: Block a week & Schedule the tasks from your to-do-list

The final sprint of a paper can be… ugh, these last 20%!

In order for it to be done, I need to:
a) put the paper at the center & dedicate a week almost only to it;
b) schedule WHEN what will be done (be precise) instead of a list of tasks, and strictly stick to it.

5) It’s okay not to have an everyday writing practice

More on this here.

6) I have learned to let it go

Even semi-written papers, things for which I have already collected all the data. If it doesn’t align with my current work and values anymore, it’s better to accept that it’s okay to have spent time on it (that will not come back) and move on.

Cathy Mazak explains this idea wonderfully in her podcast episode on “The Economics of Writing” (45) — If you don’t like a movie, will you stay just because you paid for your ticket? Or would it be better to just accept that it’s not for you, leave the room, and reclaim your time?

7) Work with plug-ins or apps for tabs
  • Whatever your take on tabs is (I close them all at the end of the day), is a really nice and efficient extension for Chrome.
  • For long-term archiving with multiple keywords, I like Pocket (useful when I read in the subway):
8) Make it easy to know what to do next when you don’t have much time or are lacking motivation

I keep a list of small things that need to be done but feel easy / do not need too much energy (coding, annotating, sorting references, downloading papers) for the days / hours where I want to work but know that I’m not very motivated or have, say, only 30 mins.

9) Distinguish between different types of breaks

I don’t always need the same kinds of breaks. I DO take real ones, but sometimes it’s more about working on a different paper (NOT a new one!), at a new place (pre-corona times, ugh), reading academically, but not on my current topics… Otherwise:

You know what looks like taking care of yourself but is not? Thinking, hey, I’m taking it slow by spending the day reading half a paper while watching a TV show, feeling guilty about it, and overcompensating afterward. Just take the day off. For real. Often.

10) Never face a blank page

When writing a new paper, apart from beginning in a PowerPoint presentation (see point 2), this little trick usually does the job for me to get me started without facing a blank page: copy-paste the whole text from another paper, highlight everything content-related, and then replace it with new words for the new project.

11) How to restore?

I asked tweeps how they are organizing the holidays this year and taking some real days off even if they may not see their loved ones. Here three tips (not mine) for various needs and personalities:

  • In order to physically mark the break, you can either close the door of your home office space if you have a dedicated room for this or, alternatively, clean your desk & put your laptop and books in a drawer to avoid being tempted to work.
  • If on the other hand, the mere idea of not working makes you anxious (you picture all the things that you’ll have to do when you come back), allowing yourself to work / reply to a few emails for a very limited time (30 mins. per day) can help clear your mind.
  • Finally, planning ahead what you want to do while not working and putting ideas on your calendar (even simple things such as reading, going for a bike tour, a walk…) may help you consciously dedicate time to rest and know what to do when not working.
12) Take breaks

[For a bit of context: The initial Twitter thread had been paused in-between with the following tweet: I’ll come back to the thread on academic life & (re)post your tips as well when it feels right, just the way I write (academic papers), without feeling guilty when I need a break or when it’s not the right day/week/project/energy]

I didn’t mean this thread to become a metaphor for my writing process in real-time but the last few weeks have been unexpectedly challenging and most of the things that usually work (even in 2020) didn’t anymore. What has helped a little & what I’m trying to keep doing.

13) Recognize that we’re going through something different that often feels absurd

[pandemic-content] It means that we have to reinvent new ways of being, caring & obviously writing & thinking. I’ve been into artsy collages lately. It enabled new connections & then it wasn’t enough anymore (again).

14) Stick to what has proved to work for you, even on a very basic level (apps, mini routines)

I love experimenting and trying new things all the time, which not only is counterproductive & tiring but also makes me feel inadequate too often because everything is new, again.

15) Schedule regular meetings to check on co-workers and friends

I often hear about having accountability buddies but in difficult phases, it can be hard to reach out to someone. I like the idea of a regular meeting, once per week or per month, where 2-4 people show up for one hour max., with no other agenda than talking in a safe space.

I think the planning takes the pressure off (no need to organize, schedule, just show up at a given time) and the group dynamics enable us to just listen if we don’t feel like sharing.

16) Embrace writing in its plurality

What has helped me with my writing recently is… to keep teaching (or rather, preparing teaching material). It feels like writing because it also is (especially handouts or summaries). Quite unexpectedly, it brought me back to my research.

17) Back to mini digital hacks

Did you know that with Preview on Mac, you can work on PDFs directly (add, delete, move pages)? (Please say that you didn’t, I used to do it with a converter online until a few months ago.)

18) Annotate your PDFs directly in Zotero

If you use Zotero and still don’t use Zotfile, it’s high time you have a look! It is a free plugin to annotate your PDFs: I transfer papers from my Zotero library to my tablet via Dropbox, read & annotate offline (I use Xodo), then two versions of the paper you were reading get uploaded in Zotero: both the “clean” one (to share with students, for instance) and the annotated one with comments and highlights indicated differently. I have explained a possible workflow in French here.

19) Find ways to go back to writing after a while

Here are two tips that usually work for me:
1- Move to another platform (voice message, summarize your argument in a WhatsApp group).
2- Reconnect with your writing (why did you begin in the first place, what do you like about it, what are you trying to say that matters?)
More on academic writing, embracing the messy, and finding your way here.

20) Know why you don’t write as well as why you write

When I’m not writing, I always know WHY and this has helped me *tremendously* (I need rest, I have lost my argument, I feel insecure, I have lost the connection to this piece of writing, I need more data, I need feedback, I want to read more, I need to let it go & accept it). Here for five journaling prompts to reconnect with your writing.

21) Download and store open-access (legal) versions of academic papers in just a few clicks

A really nice tutorial by Elen Le Foll is to be found here.

22) Reinvent your walking practice

Apparently Nietzsche said: “Only thoughts that come by walking have any value”. If there is one (arguably helpful) piece of advice I could not hear anymore after a year in home office, it’s definitely this one: “Well, then go for a walk!”. Walking, again. What for? Where to?

If you feel the same, you may be inspired by these ideas about walking a bit differently.

Cite this article as: Naomi Truan, "Some tiny things that make academic life colorful," in Ici et là, 02/12/2020,

Twitter thread this blog post is based on:

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1 Response

  1. 31/08/2021

    […] In other words, know why you don’t write as well as why you write (tip 20). […]

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