Keeping track of your research projects with Kanban

Following up on the post about organizing student projects, I wanted to explain a bit about how I keep track of my own projects on a slightly higher level of abstraction.

When I started doing research, I was working on one, maybe two projects at a time. But as time went by, this number can increase quite quickly. I get easily excited about new ideas and starting projects (the “shiny object syndrome”), as well as joining projects by others. Over time this led to several situations where I had more projects than I could handle, leading to delays or abandoning the project altogether (see these 9 ways to fail a project for more on this!).

My solution has been to “just” limit the number of current projects. In this post I explain the tools I use to keep track of my projects effectively.

Visual overview of all projects

The tool that I’ve found the most helpful, is to use a Kanban board. The idea behind Kanban is to “manage work by balancing demands with available capacity” (Wikipedia) – sounds exactly like what everyone needs, right?

Here is how the Kanban board in my office looks like. A card is a project/paper, and it can belong to these categories: Idea, Incubator, Doing, Preprint/Revise, Under Review, Published.

Here is how I use the categories:

  • Ideas are just that – ideas. Perhaps I read a few papers on a topic and thought “I should do something about this”. Ideas can be good for starting student projects, since I probably won’t have time to get to this topic myself.
  • Incubator is a category for projects that are a bit further than ideas (for example, there is a preliminary experiment), but that I do not want to focus my attention on just yet.
  • Doing is a category for current projects, that you want to advance every day or week. There should be as few as possible projects in here!
  • Preprint/revise is for “mostly done” projects, but that still need a bit of time investment to complete
  • Under review are papers under review, that might return to the “Preprint/revise” category in a few months
  • Published are accepted papers!
  • (Bonus) Graveyard is for projects I decided NOT to continue, you can see it in the bottom left of the board. I thought “graveyard” sounded more dignified than “abandoned” but am open to other suggestions.

Next to these categories, I use the color of the card to indicate the type of project. Green are research papers, yellow are education projects (such as my portfolio), and red are grants. You don’t see any red right now, because this is already after I decided to leave my tenure track position :). I do not include various recurrent responsibilities on this board, but you could decide to do so.

Finally, I have a horizontal divider between projects that I’m leading, and projects I’m participating in. Overall, this gives a nice overview of all research projects I’m involved in! If you want to do the same with the board in your office, you might want to get some dry-erase magnetic cards, such as:

Project overview in apps

Although most of my systems are digital, I like this visual overview in my office (or at least, before the pandemic). But this is just one way to organize things, and it might not be sufficient for you if you get distracted easily.

Fortunately, there are various ways to implement the same idea in different apps. You can have the same type of Kanban board in apps like Trello or Notion. But even apps which are not organized like a board, are suitable.

Here is an example for Todoist which I use for getting things done. Here you can group projects under other, top-level projects. If you call your top-level projects “Idea”, “Incubator” etc, you can easily see how many projects you are handling at any one time. Similar to my board, you can use the color of the project to indicate research, education etc.

But for example, even in Overleaf assigning a tag to a paper can help you achieve the same. Here’s mine, with slightly different categories.

You can see that the board and the Overleaf are not 1-to-1, because some projects can have multiple Overleaf documents, and because I’m bad at updating tags 🙂 But, at least I’ve succeeded at not putting everything in “Doing”!

Verdict

I’m happy with this system overall, and imagine I will continue using it both for work and personal projects.

A feature I am still missing, is to have an indicator of time commitment per project, and for “what’s already there” on your calendar. For example, I could imagine having actual “slots” in the Doing category, and having larger projects take up multiple slots. And when you already have many things on your calendar, the number of slots decreases. So if you hear of an app like this, let me know 🙂

My review of #AcWriMo 2018

One of my goals for the first three months of 2019 is to write a lot of things, and to achieve this by writing (at least) 250 words a day. This is in part inspired by #AcWriMo (academic writing month) in November 2018, where I joined the challenge and found it very helpful to do so. On several of those days, I wrote reflected on this practice. In this post I share my #AcWriMo diary with you ? 

Sunday 4th of November

After two successful days of writing 250+ words for #AcWriMo2018, I failed with writing anything on day number three. It was a Saturday, and since I didn’t take the train like on the other two days, I didn’t have a set time to do my writing. In general I don’t have a habit of working in the weekend (although I do write for my blog sometimes), so I decided not to force myself and to let it go. Plus, yesterday I picked up two Dot and Pixel – two kittens – and I’ve enjoyed watching them for several hours. I hope they will become good #AcWri assistants, same as Buffy was.



The thing that I think is working for my #AcWriMo goal is having a rather small goal of 250 words. That’s about three paragraphs for me, and that doesn’t feel daunting, so it’s easy to get started. That’s why today, on a Sunday, I did manage to do it while watching the kittens play ? 
It also helps to in advance think of the topic I’m planning to write about. Ideally, I should already prepare a list of concrete paper sections or blog posts I want to finish. I’m almost there for blog posts, as I have an Evernote notebook with blog post drafts, so I can choose something from there. For papers, it is more difficult at the moment, since the ones I plan to write next at rather early stages, so I need to do more reading and/or experiments first. 


Wednesday 14th of November

Another important thing for successful #AcWri is having a set time and place to do it. The first few days of November I was doing my usual commute to work. Since I sit in the train for an hour, it’s a good time to get some writing done. It’s kind of a nice ritual, because I try to take the same train and sit in the same place, etc. Taking out my laptop and starting up Evernote just seems to complete the ritual. It also feels great to have an important task complete early in the morning! 

The days after that were more challenging though, due to the weekend and then a week off. Since my days are less structured then, it was more difficult to keep up with writing, and I often procrastinated until the evening to get it done. Having a streak of several days, plus feeling like I have to tweet about it, definitely helped with getting it done. In these days off, I’ve been only writing for my blog since I try to not work when I have time off. 

So far I’ve written most of this blog post writing on the couch, which is a place I never usually work. I like associating the blog with the couch – it feels different than sitting down at my desk ready to work. So perhaps writing in the morning while sitting on the couch is a ritual I could try to build up for when I have time off. 

Tuesday 27th of November

This weekend was not successful from an AcWri point of view. On Friday I had a lot of things to do in a limited time, so in the end I just ran out of time. On Saturday, I just forgot. Sunday I thought about it, but it was too late in the day and I decided to let it go. It’s definitely true that it’s easier to forget a habit if you miss it twice in a row. But fortunately on Monday I was able to get back to writing, even though it was for a blog post instead of my planned paper revisions. 

Verdict

Overall I really enjoyed this challenge and am definitely not planning to wait till next November to repeat it again ? I think 250 words is still a good goal, I just need a list of prompts / things to write so it’s easy to get started each day, and rituals on when and were I write. 


I hope you enjoyed this post! Would you try a challenge of writing 250 words a day? Why / why not? 

My goals for 2019 – 12 week year

I’ve been setting and reviewing goals for two years now, both in Evernote (part of my GTD setup) and here on the blog (2017, 2018). Although I try to do this systematically, I find it difficult to stay on track throughout the year, and, at the end of the year, to review everything that happened.

This year I want to try something different, borrowing from the 12 week year idea. I’ve heard about this on several podcasts that I listen to, but have not read the book or followed any courses they offer. My (naive?) take on it is that you only set goals for the next 12 weeks, and only focus on a few things at a time.

I’ve had some momentum with writing recently, so I decided that my main focus for the first part of 2019 is going to be writing as well. What am I going to write? Here’s where the “few things at a time” thing went wrong. Here’s my plan:

  • Draft of a survey on arXiV (in progress already)
  • Submit a paper to MICCAI
  • Write a lab guide and share version 0.1 with my student
  • Finish writing my teaching portfolio and submit it
  • Draft 36 blog posts (!!!)

That’s right, next to all the academic writing I am going to draft three quarters of the blog posts that I want to schedule for this year. This is an experiment, since I think I can get more done if I either just write, or just publish posts (share them online, etc).

How I am going to do this? I have to write 250 words a day, just like I did in November. That by itself will not get all the writing done, but it’s a great habit that helped me focus. I’ve also been increasingly planning my writing in pieces which take me 30-60 minutes to finish, and scheduling these on my calendar, so that’s a good habit to continue too.

I also updated my weekly review template a bit. I had a single note for each quarter last year, whereas now I already made 12 notes where I will fill in my reviews. Each note has a copy of the goals as a reminder, and specific questions on how I’m progressing with each of them.

Next to writing, I also have health and exercise goals in the same weekly review, but these are “maintenance” goals rather than challenges, so I will not be reviewing these on the blog.

What are your goals for (the first months of) 2019?

My goals for 2018 – final progress report

As promised on Twitter, here’s an update with what has been happening with my writing and personal 2018 goals. You can find the previous reports on 2018 here and here.

Writing

I have previously submitted my survey on semi-supervised, multiple instance and transfer learning, and this quarter I received the reviews! This has been my most positive review experience to date, since I got the reviews back after about 2 months (compared to 9+ during my PhD). All reviewers were generally positive about the paper and had constructive comments. I planned out the revisions in Todoist and submitted a new version in December. Fingers crossed!

I also finished and submitted an invited paper with the best title ever, “Cats or CAT scans: transfer learning from natural or medical image source datasets?” (arXiV). Again the review process was smooth and after revising the paper, just before the end of 2018, I got news that it was accepted!

In total that’s three papers (two accepted and one revised) that I consider published for 2018. One less than the four I was aiming for, but I’m proud of this result.

Blog

Nothing new to report here since last time. Blogging has been a little bit on “stand-by” while I was addressing other issues. Looking at all of 2018, my numbers are up from the previous year, although a large part of that is due to one viral post.

I am convinced now that I need to batch writing, editing/publishing and improving my website in general as different activities. More on this in my 2019 goals post!

Health

The most important thing I did this quarter is that I got help for problems I have been experiencing, and really saying no more often. This has made a big difference in most areas of my life.

An important health-related difference is that I can now finally say I enjoy running. Partly this is due my brain functioning better, and partly because I’ve started running slower. I didn’t get to my goal of 10K under 1 hour (but was close), and I did a 15K, so overall I’m satisfied. In 2019 I’d like to continue running regularly and – now that I feel I have a bit more headspace – incorporating more strength training into my exercise.

Everything else

It’s a bit weird to only reflect on the things that I wrote down as goals at the start of 2018. Sure, the writing and health parts were the some of the most important things this year. But here are a few other important things from this year.

  • I supervised my first MSc student and hired my first PhD student
  • Two grants were rejected
  • I met several people from Twitter and made new friends
  • I had to cancel several projects due to my health
  • I received a few invitations for talks etc that I’m excited about, see a few of them here
  • I met my friends regularly for trivia quizzes or BBQs
  • I joined a choir and started taking singing lessons
  • My cat Buffy passed away 🙁
  • I got two kittens, Pixel and Dot

I also shared several of these (that I tweeted about previously) on Twitter, the thread starts over here:

It’s difficult to review a whole year. Next year, I will be trying something a bit different…. stay tuned!

My goals for 2018 – progress report 2 & 3

It’s already October (!) and the fact that I’ve managed to forget writing anything in the progress reports category, probably tells you something about my progress… Nevertheless, I’m holding myself accountable, so here a few short updates.

Writing

I finished THE survey on semi-supervised, multiple instance and transfer learning I’ve been working on in April and uploaded as a preprint to arXiV, inviting feedback from readers. This was quite scary to do, but in the end also very rewarding. I now submitted the paper to a journal.

I also published a workshop paper about predicting melanoma from visual ratings of the images, which I crowdsourced from my undergraduate students last year.

Kanban board in my office | veronikach.com

Progress is slower than I would have hoped overall – to catch up with my goal I would need to finish two other papers by the end of the year.

A strategy that is helping somewhat is to aim to write 250 words a day. That’s not a lot of words, but I notice that on the days that I do it in the morning, I am probably going to write more than that, whereas on the days that I ignore it, I will not end up writing at all.  Having a Kanban board in my office where I see in which stage each paper is, also helps – thanks to Eiko Fried for the idea.

Blog

Once I’ve relaxed my blogging once a week goal, I’ve started slacking off on this… It has been good for me to not have this obligation on top of everything else, but at the same time it is a shame because in the end I feel like this is one of the most important things I’m doing. What was great is that at one point I prescheduled posts for several weeks. I’d like to do this again, but it’s difficult to get into a mindset of writing a lot upfront.

I did get a little bit of income (perhaps $25) from the blog, especially after the How I Fail post by Ian Goodfellow went a bit viral. But because my provider was so unhelpful about the problems the traffic caused, I also had to switch providers, so it’s definitely not a profitable business 🙂

Health

I am still not particularly enjoying the running itself and don’t recognize this feeling of endorphins that people talk about. I have, however, become an avid sign-upper for 10K races. Not an avid runner, but the accountability of the races at least forces me to train regularly, so that the race is not terrible. I recently did the same race, as my first ever 10K one year ago, and improved my time a little bit (though not what you would expect after a year of training).I haven’t been doing particularly well mental health wise. Although I do say no to more things (and slack off from things I “have” to do, like blogging), anxiety has been getting worse and so has depression. It’s easy to view everything I do in a negative light – I haven’t made enough progress on this, I haven’t been appreciated enough for doing that. But, I’m fortunate to live and work in a place where I can get support for these things. This is therefore the most important goal to focus on right now.

Multiple Overleaf projects with a single .bib file

I recently discovered that one of my biggest dreams – being able to link all my online LateX projects to a single .bib file (but without using Mendeley) – is possible!

Previously I had “solved” this problem with ShareLateX projects, by writing a script that copies my main .bib file to several project folders every hour. However, this requires Dropbox sync for ShareLateX, which is a premium feature for new users. Not to mention, it’s not ideal to do it every hour, and to have to update the script when you want the .bib file to be copied with an additional project.

Now a much simpler solution is possible with Overleaf. It’s probably been there for a long time, but I only realized this now. When you add a new file to an Overleaf project, there is an option “Upload from URL”. I thought this option would do just that – get the file from the URL and upload it. But what it actually does, is remotely link to the file. That’s the solution right there! (Thanks to Overleaf’s Dr. LianTze Lim for pointing this out!)

Here are the steps to get this to work:

1. Put your .bib file in Dropbox, set the sharing settings so that it’s accessible by anyone with the link. Copy the link

2. In your Overleaf project, Go to “Files”, then “Upload from URL” and paste the link here. With Dropbox, this link will end in “dl=0”. Change this to “dl=1”

If this works correctly, you should now see your .bib file in your project, but with a “linked” icon next to it

3. Proceed as you usually would with a bibliography file

If you are collaborating with others, the best way is probably to have two .bib files – the linked one (not writeable from Overleaf) and another one that is local to the project, for any new references. This way at the end of the project, you could move all the new references to your main .bib file.

I also tried to do this in ShareLatex, but couldn’t find this type of option. Although ShareLateX has free Dropbox sync because I’m an early user, this feature of Overleaf could have convinced me to switch (even if losing the sync). But Overleaf and ShareLateX are merging, so I’m hoping I might get to enjoy the benefits of both.

How I manage my bibliography with Evernote and Jabref

Today I’m staying with the theme of managing bibliographies (see my previous post on syncing .bib files). Now I describe the process of how I actually add papers to my bibliography, and keep track of my bibliography with Evernote. This process is fairly recent so this post is rather an exercise in me thinking out all the steps, but perhaps it might be useful to somebody else.

Capture

Most of my ideas for which papers I should read come from Google Scholar Alerts or Twitter. When I think “this might be interesting”, I immediately save the PDF (if I can access it) or the link to my Evernote inbox.

Organize

As part of my weekly review, I go through all the notes in my Evernote inbox. When the note is a paper, I decide whether it’s really something I want to read, and if yes, I now definitely get the PDF and put it into the note. I also rename the note by its Bibtex key, for example “cheplygina2017transfer” for a recent paper of mine where the first word in the title is “transfer”. Then I tag the notes with different keywords, which tell me what topics the paper could be relevant for.

I then move the paper to either “Literature Inbox” or “NextPaper Inbox” notebooks, where NextPaper is the “codename” of the paper I’m going to submit next.

Process

OK, so now the papers are collecting in these two literature inboxes – what next? I need to actually read some papers. Recently I’ve been scheduling tasks like “Process 5 papers” on my calendar to get this done. When I do this I usually select papers which have similar tags, which I would write about in the same section of my paper.

Then I go through the paper and type notes in Evernote, in the same note that already has the PDF. This (the note writing) is inspired by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s “PDF to memo” method.

This should give me an idea of what I want to say about the paper, if I reference it later. I might also add or remove tags as needed. I can also add Evernote links to other related papers, although I don’t do this very often.

Once this is done, I move the note to “Literature Processed”. This is also when I get the bibliographic details of the paper (by searching the title on Google scholar), and add them to Jabref (by copying and pasting the .bib details). It is also possible to add a link to Jabref that will open the corresponding Evernote note, but unfortunately this uses the URL field, so you wouldn’t be able to have links to both Evernote and the online source of the paper.

Reference

I also schedule tasks like “Literature Processed to 0” which means I have to actually include the processed papers in the paper I’m writing. I go to the section where I want to reference the paper and write something about it, based on the notes I made before. This is also a good check to see if I really have the biliographic details – if I don’t, ShareLateX will not suggest me the reference.

Finally, I tag the note with “NextPaper” since that’s where I referenced it, and move it to the “Literature Reference” notebook. I should review these tags upon publication of the paper (I haven’t gotten to that part yet since I started using the system). But if the tag stays, I could even include a short snippet of what it is that I said about the paper.

Future projects

In a next project I might want to reference some of the same papers that are in Reference, and do not go through the process above. However, once I’m working on “NextPaper2”, I can just go to my Reference notebook, do a search for the relevant tags, and then tag those papers with “NextPaper2”.

Verdict

This is not a perfect system, since several things to be updated manually. Perhaps Mendeley or Zotero sort out these things for you – I’ve tried both in the past and was never quite satisfied, but this was before I had this process in place.

The process – not the tools – is probably what is helping me the most. But another advantage is that I’m using tools I already use a lot. Since I have Evernote open all the time, it’s easy to decide to read a paper, when I have a bit of time before my next meeting, for example. It also gives me a overview of how much reading/writing I need to do, based on the number of notes in each notebook, and it’s rewarding to see the “Inbox” numbers go down. I think I’ve got the ingredients to successful habit adoption right here – now hoping these will in fact translate to written AND published papers.

My goals for 2018 – Writing

I mentioned in my previous progress report that I never really wrote down any goals. Writing them down was a good exercise, but clearly some things also went wrong. In this post I talk the most important goal – writing – and what I will do about it in 2018.

Pitfalls

My “Submit all the papers” goal was way too abstract. Although I had an idea of how many papers I wanted to submit, and therefore also how often I would need to do that throughout the year, I did not plan how I was REALLY going to do this.

Another thing I realized is that a year is just too long. It is easy to postpone something you haven’t done to later on in the year.

I also did not review the goal often enough, and didn’t have the same kind of accountability I created for myself with my blogging goal. Below I explain how I want to improve these points.

Goal

This time I’m going to try something different – the “12 week year”. There is a whole book about it, which I haven’t read (yet?), but there is a lot of information online, such as this post by AsianEfficiency. Basically you set goals per quarter, rather than per year. A quarter is easier to plan, and the review/evaluation is much sooner, which helps to stay motivated.

After examining the commitments I already have, I decided my goal is to submit ONE paper before the end of March. It’s a survey paper of sorts, and I have started on it, but did not get very far. It is a paper that I think I will enjoy writing, and will have some impact. So, there is really no reason to put if off any longer.

 

Plan

Ideally, I would plan out all the sections I need to write and when I will write them via my Todoist/Google Calendar system. But I find it difficult to estimate what sections I need, and how much time each section is going to take. I will go through this planning step, but I will also do something else. I will get into the habit of writing for 1 hour each weekday.

This idea is inspired by this #AcWri challenge by Jo van Every. She talks about 15 minutes a day, but I am reasonably confident I should be able to get an hour in, with the following rules:

  • I can split up the hour into blocks of 15 minutes
  • I can exchange blocks between days
  • There has to be at least 1 block per day

If I aim to write during my morning commute (1 hour train ride) and for at least half an hour when I get to the office, I would even more than the required time in. But since I don’t expect to have this “perfect start” every day, moving the hours around a bit should help.

 

Review and accountability

I also need to update how often I review my goals. When I wrote about my GTD system, my weekly review was mostly focused on the week ahead. Later I also added a “what did I do this week” note in Evernote, but it was disconnected from my “goals” note.

Now I actually made a table with a row for each week, and two columns: “what did I write” and “what else did I do”. I already prefilled the second column with several commitments I have. This was quite a revelation – I do see why I had a hard time writing last year!

Lastly, I plan to report my progress with the “what did I write” column here on the blog. I want to do this more often than once a quarter. Once a week (together with my weekly review) would be logical, but it seems a bit of a waste of a blog post. So I would either need to add more things to the post, decrease the frequency, or do something else that I haven’t thought of. Please leave a comment if you have ideas!

Firsts: Submitting and revising a journal paper

This post contains the history of my first journal paper, “Multiple Instance Learning with Bag Dissimilarities” (also available via my Research page).  Recently I shared some examples of cover letters and responses to reviewers with people on Twitter, so I thought it would be informative to put it all together in one place, including a timeline of the process and take-home messages. Note that this is not a guide how to write a paper or how to respond to reviewers – but if you are looking for that Dr. Raul Pachego-Vega has lots of resources for this.

On with the story of the paper. The files (draft, original and revised submissions, cover letter, reviewer response) are all  here (.zip), but the post should be readable without them.

Draft to first submission

In my PhD years 1 and 2, I had a few workshop publications which were exploring different aspects of one idea, and it was time to put these results together into a journal paper. I made a first attempt to organize all my ideas in November 2012. This first draft then went through several iterations of discussions and comments with my supervisors. Finally, on the 25th of March 2013 I submitted to TPAMI. I think the plan might have actually been to submit to Pattern Recognition. But as I understood at the time, TPAMI was more impressive to have, and had a faster review process, so it was worth a shot.

When submitting, I did not consider anything else I would need other than the paper, like a cover letter! Therefore my cover letter was very short and uninformative. I only mentioned that the journal paper was based on earlier conference submissions, but not what the differences were. It seemed obvious to me that the journal paper was so different, that I didn’t need to explain this. Of course, after a few days I received an email (I remember having this stomach sinking feeling) that I needed to provide a summary of changes, which I did. It seemed my paper was still under submission – crisis averted!

Take-away: if the paper is based on any conference publications, explain the differences in the cover letter, even if you also do this in the paper

Rejection and another submission

The part about the fast review process was true. On the 5th of June 2013 I received the decision that the contribution was not significant enough for TPAMI. Since my paper wasn’t immediately rejected after submission and actually went to reviewers, I was quite satisfied with this result.

After updating the paper according to the useful comments I could extract from the reviews, on the 26th of June 2013 I submitted the paper to Pattern Recognition. Once again, the submission system caught me by surprise! While I now had a better cover letter, I now also needed to provide a “graphical abstract” and “highlights”.

Take-away: go through the submission system of the intended journal before you actually want to submit there. Another surprise I’ve encountered in other journals is that I could suggest names of reviewers – it is good to think about this beforehand, while you are writing the paper.

Major revision and responding to reviewers

As expected, the review process at Pattern Recognition was a bit slower. On the 23rd December 2013 I received a “reject and resubmit” or “major revision” decision. This was a more hopeful situation than with TPAMI, so I started revising the paper and writing my response.

A useful structure for the response is:

  • reviewer comment (in bold)
  • your response
  • quote from the updated paper which shows your changes (in a different text color)

Take-away: simplify the life of the reviewer, they likely do not exactly remember your paper and do not want to go through the whole thing, switching between the document and the updated paper, to see if their proposed changes have been made.

What I did wrong the first time around, is that I would do the suggested change in the paper and in the response, then would discuss both the paper and response with my supervisors. This was not productive – since they proposed changes to my change, I would have to modify two files!

Take-away: write the response first, include proposed changes in the response, then discuss with supervisors, then add changes to the paper!

Another annoying thing was that in my response I was referring to section numbers and references in the original paper. But since these would get updated (due to new sections or references), I would have to keep changing these by hand in the response. But, it turns out there are LateX packages for this too! See this answer on Stackexchange.

Besides the responses, we added a “cover letter” to the beginning of the response, explaining that we prepared a revision and summarizing the changes made. After a month or so, I submitted the revised paper! I was confused about filling in a “cover letter” text field in the submission system – after all, I now had a whole response to reviewers, that was a cover letter in itself. But I think I just copy pasted “cover letter” from the response, with a comment that detailed responses can be found in response.pdf.

Minor revision and accept!

Then finally, a long-awaited email came on the 20th of June 2014 – “We would be happy to publish your manuscript […] in the journal provided that it is revised in accordance with the enclosed referee comments.”

A minor revision! I remember exactly where I was at the moment – on a camping in Sweden, getting ready to celebrate midsummer. I was walking back from the bathroom to our tent and decided to check my email on my phone, and there it was. I’m pretty sure I jumped and yelled “yes”, or something of the sort. But it was great that I was already at a party, so I could celebrate this event immediately 🙂

Take-away: don’t forget to celebrate!

I sent in the revised version a few days later, and on 21st of July 2014, the paper was accepted, and in early 2015, published. A nice detail is that at the moment the paper was published, it already had a couple of citations – because I uploaded a preprint to arXiV back in 2013. See my blog post about this and a great post by Niko Kriegeskorte if you are still unsure.

Take-away: upload your papers to arXiV

Share your experience

Have you had a very long, or perhaps a very short review process? Surprises you encountered during the submission process? Or do you have any other tips about submitting papers you could share? Please leave a comment below!

Why playing computer games is easy but writing a paper is hard

This post contains some thoughts about a recent conversation I’ve had with my fellow Habitica group members @AidanBudd and Valerie about why it’s enjoyable to play computer games, but not so enjoyable to write a paper.

Games

I think many games are engineered to be enjoyable in a way that it’s easy to lose track of time. This is a function of several features that many games have a common:

  • receiving an immediate reward
  • continuous feedback that allows to adjust actions
  • being able to see improvement over time

For example, many games start out with an level where it’s easy to learn how the game works and earn points or collect items, so the activity starts out with a reward. During the game you are continuously aware of how well you are doing, for example based on a score, or because you can predict the outcome of your actions based on previous experience with the game. Lastly, the game continuously gets more difficult, but as you are often practicing by playing it, you can handle more and more challenging situations.

[The above is more true of recent games like Candy Crush than for example the quest games I’ve played in the 90’s. These often gave you zero direction where to start or could end up in a “dead end” situation where you can never solve the game due to an earlier decision. While this could be a very frustrating game for a beginner, I think with more experience it’s still enjoyable to solve these type of challenges.]

 

Flow

In other words, games have a good “challenge-skill” balance that contributes to the feeling that time is going so quickly. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, people with more complicated last names than mine exist) calls this balance one of the components of “flow” – being completely immersed in an activity or “in the zone”.


You can probably think of other enjoyable activities you call hobbies which fit this definition. I’m always fascinated by people for whom running is a hobby – you get to do something fun AND become healthier at the same time! But if you are like me, you can’t “just” take up running is a hobby because of the challenge-skill balance. The immediate feedback is discomfort. Then you are likely to avoid going running because of this discomfort, and once you do get to it again, you probably won’t see enough improvement that will motivate you to continue. And that’s not a way to develop a hobby!

Writing a paper, in many cases, also doesn’t have this balance. You might already fear that the task is too big, so if you sit down to start writing, but nothing comes out, you get demotivated, so there is no immediate reward. The task becomes only more daunting, and every time you get stuck you feel like you have not improved at all. Since you are not enjoying the task, it will be easy to get distracted and procrastinate, making it even less likely that you will produce a result you are happy with.

The features will be there, but over a longer scale of time, for example, if your paper gets published, or you start noticing that after several papers, it takes you less time to finish one. But since this reward/feedback/improvement is not immediate, so you might not be too excited to start, or to continue writing.

 

Flow through habits?

If you want an activity you SHOULD be doing, be it running or writing, to be easier, you need to find ways to:

  • get a reward for the activity
  • get feedback
  • do it long enough until you see improvement

This will help to improve the challenge-skill balance, and hopefully help in turning the activity from an “ugh” to something you genuinely look forward to.

 

Habitica

For me this is where Habitica comes in. First, I define habits – activities that I know are relatively easy to accomplish, such as writing for 1 pomodoro (rather than finishing a paper), or just going out for a run (regardless of how quickly I do it). I get an immediate reward in Habitica each time I accomplish one of these items.

Habitica also keeps track of how often I do each habits – habits I’m keeping up with are shown in green, OK habits in yellow and poor habits in red. For habits, there is a counter which tracks how often you did a habit, which resets every day, week or month. This shows at a glance how well I’m doing. If there is too much red, maybe I need to reduce the number of goals I’m trying to accomplish and/or make it easier for myself to earn a reward. If everything is green, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty level!

For dailies (habit that you set to do every X days), Habitica keeps track of streaks – how many times in a row you have successfully completed your habit. Longer streaks are quite encouraging, and motivating not to break Together with the immediate reward, this encourages me to keep up with the habit, even if I’m not yet noticing results “in real life”.

 

A few of my avatars, November 2016 to June 2017

 

Results!

Maybe it sounds a bit magical, but after using Habitica for a few months I AM noticing results in real life. For writing this post, I even checked my Fitbit, and decided to share some results with running, from early May and end of June. The round is the same, but I can run it without stopping and a few minutes faster (although I wasn’t specifically targeting either of these things, just showing up).

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
My usual round, early May

 

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
Same round, end of June

With writing, I’m noticing that it happens more and more often that I don’t realize the Pomodoro is over, and just continue – which is great for moving projects along.

But it’s not just writing or running. I’m enjoying the overall challenge of translating a goal into habits, thinking of different parallels between activities like writing and running, and thinking of how I can improve further.

An extra benefit is, although your goals may not seem related, tackling several problems this way exercises the same muscles of not forgetting what you *should* be doing, focusing more, and getting things done even if you don’t have the motivation. For example, stretching every morning motivates me to work on an important writing project every day.

And now that this blog post is finished… I’m afraid I have no excuse for going on that run! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: