Tag Archives: progress

Productivity tips for solo workers

12 Jul

I just got back from a Dissertation Writing Retreat, put on by my undergraduate fellowship, Mellon Mays .  Twelve of us planned our days, talked goals and schedules, and tried out techniques for staying productive and keeping up our morale.  The first two days we were essentially locked in a room for four hours (two sessions of two hours each) and worked on our computers, using social pressure and a shared timer.  Then we weaned off to one session and then no sessions, with the expectation that we’d figure out how to use the time schedule ourselves.  The end of each day we had check-ins and discussed what worked and what didn’t.  So I thought I’d share with you some of the stuff I learned.


#IlookLikeAProfessor #squadgoals (Faculty panel)

First, a few things I already knew:

  • Figure out where you can work.  When my partner worked from home we turned the guest bedroom into an office for him.  I’ve done parks, coffee shops, the office, and our home office and all were much more productive than the kitchen table, where I can see the dishes, the fridge (what’s for dinner tonight?!), the living room…
  • Write a task lisk for each day and focus only on those tasks.
  • Make sure to “have a life,” which in my case meant starting a baking and math blog.
  • Exercise!  Figure out some way to move your body.
  • Use SMART goals.  Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.  I don’t really know what “attainable” means vs. “realistic” but maybe it balances out people with too low self confidence (at least it can be attainable) vs. people with too high self-confidence (remain realistic!).

years of grad school and those are the things I knew.  I’ve been in a rough space for the past few months, math and life-wise, so this writing retreat was the perfect detox/jump start for me.  Here are some things I learned!

  1. Break up goals into specific, manageable tasks.  I used to look at my planner post-it each day and see things like “work on paper X” and “read paper Y.”  On our first evening we listed our main goals for the week, and then took the top goal and split it into at least three specific tasks.  So my “organize paper” became 1) copy topic sentences (lemma/theorem statements), 2) skim paper and name techniques, 3) figure out which theorems use which techniques, 4) form flowchart, and 5) rearrange paragraphs so flowchart makes sense.  Then when I sat down the next morning I didn’t have “organize paper” to look at, but a really easy softball of a task to start my day and feel productive.
  2. Set out your tasks and goals the day before.  This has helped me SO MUCH.  I used to spend half an hour each morning reviewing the previous day and setting up what to do that day.  Here’s a picture of the Emergent Task Planner pages we were using. etp
  3. Try the POMODORO TECHNIQUE.    The idea is that you break up goals into tasks, and then set a timer and FOCUS on each task for 25 minutes (=one pomodoro), then take a five minute break.  You fill a little box for each pomodoro (=”pom”) next to your task that you took, and then you cross off the task when it’s done.  If your tasks are taking 4 or more poms, you’re not breaking up the tasks enough in step 1.  After four poms, you take a longer break (15 minutes).  DO NOT SKIP BREAKS.  The breaks let you work longer and feel more refreshed and ready- in my experience, if I skipped breaks then I’d do a pom or two less that day.  The timer is great!  I use a free app on my phone as the timer.  I also go one step further and put my computer on airplane mode for the poms when I don’t need the internet.  Speaking of which…
  4. Consider turning off the internet.  I was always getting stuck on a thing, and then getting frustrated, and then checking slate or gawker or national review or reason or twitter or facebook and reading an article or five before going back to the task at hand.  I’m pretty distraction-prone, so turning my computer to airplane mode and putting my phone away helped a lot during the retreat.  In regular life I’ve been setting computer to airplane mode and putting my phone on a shelf after setting the timer (I still need to pick up if daycare or nanny calls).
  5. Keep a master task list for the project/week/month.  We made an “activity inventory” of the larger goals we wanted to accomplish over the week.  Then at the end of each day once I had finished my tasks for the day and was looking to the next day, I’d refer to the activity inventory and cross off the major goals and see what was coming up to break into tasks for the next day.


    Goals to finish this project, crossed off as I accomplished them.  Or, funnily, — if they stopped being necessary.

  6. Keep track of distractions.  The Pomodoro technique recommends putting an apostrophe in your list to show when distractions happen.  I did not do that, but I do make liberal use of the “notes” section at the bottom of the ETP sheet above, or a side notebook, just to sketch a few notes about ideas that cropped up.  Also, if I got hit by the math muse, I’d run with it and write it down as a new task with little time bubbles (I believe in staying flexible!)
  7. Various one-time techniques: pre-hindsight: think about a time you didn’t achieve a goal, and try to figure out what would have helped you achieve it.  Then try to implement those tools for success in future goals.  Put yourself first: spend the best part of the day (the time you’re most awake and aware) on the work that matters to you, and then deal with other peoples’ needs.  Take breaks: “You don’t realize you need a break until you’re fatigued, and by the time you’re fatigued it’s too late (to do more good work”-Shanna Benjamin, our amazing facilitator.

Good luck with all your work, blog readers!  I think this is also useful for non-solo workers, but it’s harder to keep track of because there will be other people and other schedules involved.  I did meet with a fellow grad student and we pom’d together, including a 25 minute conversation we had trying to figure something out.  Good luck to all of us!

Roasted asparagus, how to cut an onion, math update

17 Jun Yeup, that is some good sheet (pan)

It’s summer!  Our local farmer’s market is teensy and the prices are about quadruple what I paid when I lived in Santa Barbara at a market about three times as large, but it’s still a good place to get incredible produce and goods that I can’t get elsewhere.  On Sunday I picked up a big bag of cheese curds, some pork sausage, mizuna (YUM) and fresh asparagus.

I don’t like asparagus.  I didn’t grow up with it and it’s always sort of fibrous and stringy and makes my pee smell funny.  But holy cow this asparagus was incredible!  Melty and tender in the middle of the thick stalks, with a pleasant bit of crispiness on the skinnier ends.  And so easy to make!

I don’t normally advocate preheating but PREHEAT THIS because you don’t want overdone/limp asparagus.  I did 415, then laid out my ingredients

I've never been much of a gardener but I have a great interest in paper bAGriculture

I’ve never been much of a gardener but I have a great interest in paper bAGriculture

I love garlic and throw it on all savory things, so these handful of asparagus ($4) got two cloves minced up on it

I should post this with my hipster social media account and title it MINCEtagram

I should post this with my hipster social media account and title it MINCEtagram

Then a squeeze of lemon and a generous pour of olive oil.  Roll the asparagus around in the oil on a baking tray/cookie sheet, and toss it in the oven.

Yeup, that is some good sheet (pan)

Yeup, that is some good sheet (pan)

Let it roast for between 8 and 20 minutes (I did 14)- it depends on how crisp you like it.  Pull it out and stick a fork in one and see if it gives (so is tender).  Then sprinkle with salt and pepper and devour.  The garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salt play so well together.

Kick-assparagus more like it

Kick-assparagus more like it

Next, HOW TO CUT AN ONION.  It drives me nuts when people cut an onion crosswise: only do this if you are making onion rings or want grilled onion rings rather than delicious caramelized onion wedges in a pile atop your burger.  USE THE STRUCTURE OF THE ONION to aid your cutting: onions are  partially pre-cut when you get them!

If you cut onions the wrong way, you’ll end up with awkward circular pieces and will have to move your knife in a weird circle to get dice that you want.  I’m far from a precise and careful cook, but I know that if you want things to be cooked evenly, it helps to have them around the same size/shape.

First, set your onion upright, with root on bottom and pointy Alfalfa thing on top.  Halve it that way, so instead of rings you see a Georgia O’Keefe painting in the cross section.

Step 1: chop chop from bottom to top

Step 1: chop chop from bottom to top

Then peel off the paper (or do this as a first step if you want) and lay a half down flat in front of you.  You now do a Cartesian grid cut on that, and you’ll get a nice dice from the layers of onion separating themselves.  I like cutting “vertically” (parallel to the spine of the onion) first, then transverse to the layers, but either way works.  In this photo I’m doing the transverse first.


Step 2: Make a grid, it's up to you!

Step 2: Make a grid, it’s up to you!

The point is that this method saves you from having to make a third series of cuts in the depth direction: onions are 3D, and we do one depth cut, then make a grid of length-width cuts.  I asked the internet “how to cut an onion” and it agrees with me, and has this nice cartoon picture:

Also, a good DON’T DO THIS photo from about.com:

I was unwilling to take this photo myself so I’m glad it’s on the internet so I can show you.  DON’T DO THIS.

Finally, what am I up to this summer?  Once you’re done with prelims, your next milestone is the thesis defense, which is a long ways away.  So I’m spending the summer reading math and trying to find a thesis topic.  This is what’s on my plate so far:

Notes on Combinatorial Group Theory by Charles Miller, available online and a pleasant read-on-your-own, graduate student level document, about 100 pages.  A two week project for me while reading other things/relaxing for summer!  I’m going to ask my advisor about a few parts I didn’t understand but overall I’d recommend for a short independent study.  Lots of good exercises.

A Primer on Mapping Class Groups, by Benson Farb and Dan Margalit, also available online but illegally?  So you should just google it.  This is an actual textbook, about 250 pages, much slower reading than the notes but still much more readable than most math texts.  I’m reading this with my friends Ellie and Mike.  I’ve actually attempted to read this before with the incredibly patient Jon McCammond and didn’t make too much progress.  Second time’s the charm!

Non-Positively Curved Cube Complexes by Henry Wilton-notes from a course he taught at Cal Tech in 2011.  These are somewhere in between the first two in terms of difficulty- I’m definitely asking my advisor for help on lots of the material in this.

Sort of a random post, but that’s me!

On failure, also coconut chocolate chip cookies

2 May

Lately I’ve been thinking about failure a lot.  I have my prelims coming up in a few weeks, and I’ve been anxious and fretful about failing them.  Nothing bad really happens if I fail them.  I’ll just have to study for them again, though that’s annoying- weeks spent trying to remember/relearn all the math I’m expected to know for a three hour exam (or two).  The harder thing, harder than restudying and relearning (which is sort of fun), would be knowing that I failed.  That there was an expectation for me, a line to cross to prove that I’ll be an okay mathematician, and I fell short of it.  That I should have been able to do something, but I didn’t because I’m not quite good enough.

This is pretty terrifying and terrible and there’s all sorts of stuff written out there about math anxiety.  But here’s the thing: math is always like this.  There’s always a quiz, or a homework problem, or a few minutes in a lecture, or a paper that you feel like you just don’t and can’t understand.  Part of what’s so beautiful about math is that it’s really hard.  And part of throwing yourself into your work (baking or math or whatever you do) is letting go of the fear that you won’t be good enough, that it’s too hard, that you aren’t up to the challenge.

I bring this up because I made these coconut chocolate chip cookies just now and they’re almost inedible.  Food blogs and TV shows always have pictures of gorgeous food but most food doesn’t look like that.  In fact, if you bake cookies often, I bet you have had this happen:



The cookies are flat, there’s big holes where the unincorporated baking soda lifted out of the cookie, there’s not enough flour to hold them together, and the edges taste like scrambled eggs (it’s gross).  I bet one of these things has happened to you before, or you don’t bake, or you are lying, or you are my friend Edward.

But I did everything right!  Not really: I added coffee, and I didn’t incorporate my baking powder.  Up to the very end the cookies looked like they’d be okay:

Nut another pun... these drive me coconuts!

Nut another pun… these drive me coconuts!

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

And then they come out and they’re awful.


I failed at these cookies.  I fail at math sometimes.  I am not a failure of a person, and while I enjoy baking and math, being great at either of them does not define me as a person.  In fact, being infallible at both of them would define me as a not-person and you should check me for robot parts.  Speaking of segues, an old friend of mine has a wonderful post about failure, and here’s a quote from it:

“There’s a simple reason why tackling a hard problem can lead to depressive symptoms: you’re necessarily wrong 99% of the time.”

A few days ago a great blog post showed up on slate about being bad at math [disclaimer: this guy was at school with me.  Again this disclaimer makes no sense/is irrelevant because I didn’t know him].  A great quote from it:

“Mathematical failure – much like romantic failure – leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.”

The humidity was off, my oven doesn’t work well, the baking soda is old: excuses in baking, perhaps, sound more rational when written than excuses in math (this is too hard, I hate math, I’m too stupid for this).  But they’re still excuses, which are what we make when we fail.

I’m human, I make mistakes, I fail sometimes.  I make excuses.  But I try to learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to make cookies again, and I’m going to keep doing math, and I’m going to fail again (hopefully not in a few weeks).  And this is all okay.  This is life!  This is why this blog is about baking and math!


Recipe (follow it but don’t do the step that I point out) [taken from taste of home]:


1 c flour

1/2 tsp baking soda


1 stick butter

3/4 c white sugar

Then beat in:

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla


Mix your dry and wet ingredients.  This delicious stuff is batter starter.  Add anything to it, but I added:

1 c chocolate chips

1/2 c shredded coconut

1/2 c walnuts

Drop by tablespoons onto your silpat or parchment paper or greased baking sheet, and bake at 375 (NOT 350) for 10 minutes.

Spring break 2013!

25 Mar

No baking this week or last because I’ve been traveling: I spent all of last week in Berkeley at MSRI aka math heaven, at a “hot topics” workshop.  Info here if you’re curious: http://www.msri.org.  It was incredible. Surface subgroups and cube complexes.  I understood maybe a third to a quarter of what was going on  it and will try to explain some of it in here this week.  You might remember my first math post which was a confusing terrible time for everyone involved.

Hopefully I’ve become more lucid since then, and I’ll be able to better explain cube complexes and cubulations sometime this week.  It really is a nifty tool going on at the forefront of pure mathematical research, and part of the point of this blog is sharing what the forefront Of mathematical research is, without needing to be a math major to understand.  Though you might need some help understanding my late night grammar.  Anyways, this is just a check in post.

Bonus recipe: so easy, so delicious.  Chocolate “mousse” in five minutes:

Take a big bowl.  Put a tonof ice cubes in it, like two or three trays worth, plus a little water .  Then nest a smaller bowl on the ice.  Metal is fantastic here.  Next, melt a bag of good Chocolate chips or better,breakup a 10 ounce bar, into a cup of water on the stove, stirring constantly until  the mix is completely smooth, about three minutes.

Pour your melted chocolate into the iced bowl, and whisk whisk whisk until it’s light and fluffy, about five minutes. Or use a beater.  Sprinkle liberally with some fresh ground sea salt, and pour into nice glasses.  I top with homemade vanilla whipped cream and/or fresh fruit: strawberries, raspberries, bananas, pretty much anything will work.


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