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Can I be productive during a global pandemic?

melanie.koelbel.1513 May 2020

Written by Artemis Stefani

Artemis is a first year PhD student in Developmental Neurosciences at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. She investigates atypical human brain development following preterm birth with a focus in the frontal lobes.

Twitter: @ArtemisStefani

Being productive and experiencing a global pandemic are probably two things that don’t go together. It’s difficult to ignore everything that’s happening and just “focus on getting work done”. At the same time, there is social and financial pressure to keep things progressing, which causes additional stress. The human brain’s control centre is mainly located in the prefrontal cortex.

This centre is responsible for planning, making decisions, solving problems, concentrating, and controlling our behaviours. When we are faced with stressful or unpredictable events (such as a global pandemic), our thinking skills can become less flexible and we are less able to concentrate or accomplish things efficiently.

So, can we do something to overcome this? And just to be clear, this is not another “push your boundaries” kind of article.

While I am not an expert in the psychology of productivity, I do have some concrete tips that I am hoping can be helpful for someone who struggles.

Being productive: A process

Before diving into work…

#1: You are allowed to be unproductive. Every person has a different limit. Some people manage to work eight hours straight – some others barely make it through one hour. Don’t pressure yourself. Let go of the need to keep up with a tight schedule, recognise your own boundaries, and work with that.

#2: Acknowledge your feelings. This is a unique and extreme situation. Don’t ignore what is happening around you. Become friends with your feelings and embrace this new routine. Don’t “wait until it’s over”.

3: Introduce exercise in your daily routine. Mild or intense workout can boost both mind and body. Experts advise that even 30 minutes per day can be enough to stay healthy and relieve stress.

#4: Plan ahead and plan realistically. It’s easier to follow a plan than not have one at all. Even when adopting a plan, things can divert. So why not plan ahead?

Write down all the tasks you want to achieve for the following day and create realistic time slots for each one of them. Which brings me to the next point.

#5: Dedicate time slots for designated work. Don’t make long lists of items that are impossible to complete even in a normal workday just because you are working from home. The day only has 24 hours, and you’re not using all of them for work. Evaluate the time each task needs, allocate a time slot of your day, and assume that you will be using the maximum possible time to complete it.

#6: Break your work into smaller parts. For two reasons: Firstly, you will realise how much work every step of the process needs. You will get a better picture of each task. Try to do this as much as possible – even if it means breaking down a task into 10 smaller ones. Secondly, you will feel good ticking off items from your to-do list which can boost your productivity levels!

During your work…

#7: Avoid distractions for periods of times. When you dedicate time for a task, try to avoid as many distractions as possible. This means: putting your phone on complete silence (even tilting it facing down), and avoiding social media.

Distractions can be different things in every household, and we cannot be in full control of all of them. So, at least try to avoid the ones you can control.

#9: Introduce breaks. If you have the flexibility to do so, introduce breaks for rest and breaks for short house chores. This way, your day can revolve around different things while keeping a balance and without feeling drained.

#10: On less productive days do tasks that demand less energy and effort. Low-effort tasks can mean different things for every person. For me, such tasks include reading “easy” science papers or working on side projects that don’t demand much mental capacity.

Post-work…

#11: Don’t punish yourself. If you managed to work less than planned on Monday, don’t add them up on Tuesday. If you managed to work only a few hours on one day, that doesn’t mean that you will be able to magically work more hours on the next day. Only work long hours if your productivity levels allow and not because you are forced to.

#12: Don’t rest in the same place you work and don’t work in the same place you rest. That doesn’t necessarily mean separating them in two different rooms. Not everyone can do this, especially if they live in a small place. If you can separate rest and work in different rooms, then great. If not, separating them in different stations is enough. For example, only use your bed/couch for rest, never for work.

#13: Socialise with your household and online. Prioritise time for talking with loved ones and organise online socialising with people you care. It is a difficult period for everyone and even more for those who are sick or have loved ones at risk.

#14: Make your free time pleasant. From cooking new recipes to taking care of your plants, you can give meaning to simple things. Learn how certain spices go together and increase your cooking skills. Understand the flavours you ingest and be mindful… even in a pandemic.

#15: Balance your sleep cycle. Just because you’re spending your whole day at home, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a sleep schedule. Of course, sleeping well requires being able to sleep, so first make sure you create space for a restful sleep during a pandemic. One of the most useful tips for me is to keep sleeping patterns consistent.

Prioritising self-care can help us be aware of the boundaries between work, personal life and mental health during these times. And if you end up not being as productive as you wished… Be kind to yourself. Stay safe

 

 

Writing retreats and groups

Kerry A Kite15 March 2019

Written by Caroline Fraser

I am a final year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. In my project, I am using data linkage to evaluate rates of neonatal bloodstream infection in England. In my free time, I enjoy art, cooking and volunteering.

Twitter: @cfraserepi

What is a writing retreat?
A writing retreat is a great place to write without distractions and though the word retreat might sound very luxurious, unfortunately all the ones that I have attended were in UCL meeting rooms. Mostly they follow the format of a “shut up and write” group where you… shut up and write. They can vary in structure and length – some are a few hours, others a whole day and sometimes even spanning multiple days. At the more formal writing retreats (and usually the longer ones), you sometimes set a goal at the beginning of the day. You can then “check in” with your goals throughout the day to see how you are progressing. PhD students can use writing retreats to work on their upgrade reports, thesis chapters or papers. It is useful for writing from scratch, working through comments from your supervisor on a draft, or even reading papers and making notes.

Why should you consider attending a writing retreat?
There are some real benefits to a writing retreat compared to trying to write at your desk in the office or at home. First, there are no distractions – it is best to avoid opening email and to keep your phone on silent in your bag. There will be nobody asking you if you want a cup of tea or popping in to ask you a favour. Second, everyone else around you is also working in silence. There is definitely something to be said for the social pressure when you can see everyone else typing away. You don’t want to be the one person sat staring into space or scrolling on your phone.
All the retreats I have attended use a time schedule that helps ensure you take breaks and that you return to your work after a break. The schedules vary – some use a variation of The Pomodoro Technique – write for 25 minutes at a time with short breaks in between. Others have longer writing blocks, maybe 60-90 minutes with longer breaks in between. Either way, the structure helps if you know you will have a break in 20/40/60 minutes it is easier to just keep writing until that point. Also everyone breaks at the same time so you are not distracted by people chatting next to you while you are working. Another benefit, less academic but still appealing, is the promise of free lunch, snacks, or hot drinks. Depending on who is organising the event and the length of the event, but most at least have free hot drinks – and what student does not appreciate a freebie!
Even though I have not finished my analysis and I am not yet in full “writing mode”, I have found it useful to have some time set aside to write up what I have done so far so I won’t have to do it all completely from scratch at the end. Because my main focus is still my analysis it can be hard to find motivation to write while I’m sat at my usual desk. Having time set aside a few times a month has been incredibly valuable to me to get started and my thesis. As I am currently at the stage where I just need to get words on paper and I will worry about editing later. I have found that I can write at least 1000 words in a 2-3-hour session and I don’t believe that would be possible sat at my desk.

How can you find a writing retreat?
The ICH postgraduate society in collaboration with the PPP early career researchers group organise 2-hour writing sessions that include 3x 30-minute writing blocks. These are usually organised twice a month, subject to demand. Outside of ICH, the Doctoral Skills Development programme are running a “writing co-op” with 2x 1 hour 15 minute writing blocks – you can sign up as you would for any of the other PhD courses. There are also opportunities elsewhere, for example, I attended one organised by the Early Career Network that was advertised via email. You could also ask around if you have friends in other departments as they may know of groups that you might be able to attend.
Otherwise, organise your own! If there are a few of you in your team/programme/friendship group who need to write and you can’t find anything suitable then get together and organise your own. All you need to do is decide on a time, a quiet place with plugs and preferably some access to tea and coffee facilities, and set up a schedule.

How to prepare for a writing retreat?
One of the most important things to do before your writing retreat is to plan! If you are planning on writing your thesis or a paper, you can find great writing courses through the Doctoral School Skills website organised by a company called Think Write. One of the most useful takeaways for me from the thesis writing course was to plan your headings, sub-headings and paragraphs. It is a lot easier to write when you have this planned out. You don’t have to have planned the whole thesis beforehand but having an idea for the section you want to write is really useful.
Another key part of preparation is reading. I find it most productive to just write at the retreats and not waste ages looking up references. If you have a reference manager this should be fairly easy as long as you have already done the reading and saved the references. I also have a spreadsheet of papers I have read briefly summarised and separated into categories so if I want a reference and I can’t remember which papers are suitable, I can look it up in there and not do any extra searching.
It is also useful to have some goals to achieve in mind for the day. I find these are best if they are quantifiable, for example specify “add 1000 words to chapter 2” not “work on chapter 2”. If you are unsure of how many words you can estimate based on what you write in one session. For example, if the day is broken into four 1 hour sessions, note how many words you write in the first session then multiply it by 4 for your goal for the day. Inevitably, I find I write more in the earlier sessions than the later ones but I think a challenging but achievable goal is really useful. Personally, I find 500 words in one hour is a good ball-park figure – but more is definitely doable. Of course if you are editing a document it is much harder to have a goal. If you are working through comments from a supervisor or co-author you could aim to address all the comments.

Bonus: who to follow on twitter for writing tips and motivation

I have found two really useful accounts on twitter that give tips with regards to academic writing that I want to shout out
1) Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco)
2) Academics Write (@academicswrite)
They both post tips and tricks for academics, particularly PhD students, so I would definitely recommend checking them out.

Child Health Informatics Group website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/child-health/research/population-policy-and-practice/child-health-informatics-group

Dr Giles Yeo “Why research matters and how to share it”

Kerry A Kite22 February 2019

Written by Emeline Rougeaux, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Emeline is an avid proponent of sustainable living and enjoys travelling and being outdoors.

Last month we had the pleasure of receiving Dr Giles Yeo, genetic endocrinologist, for a talk on Public Engagement here at ICH. You might know Dr Yeo from his appearances on BBC shows such as Trust Me, I’m A Doctor or Horizon. When he is not discussing the dirty truths behind clean eating or whether genes make you fat on screen, you can find him studying the brain control of body weight at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Yeo opened his presentation by stating that, as scientists, we have to engage with the media especially today. His research has revealed that humans have little choice with regards to obesity and that genetics have a big influence on our bodies’ weight and food behaviours. Do the public always believe him? Unfortunately, no. Yet, as said by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, whom Dr Yeo quotes, “when different experiments give you the same results, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So, why is there such a lack of faith in science from the public?
According to Dr Yeo, we often end up having to frame science against faith. Some scientists believe it is not about faith, but in reality, all of us have to rely on faith every day. He gives the example of trusting that our car brakes will work when we press on them, we trust that experts designed them and tested them so that other non-experts can use them with the belief that they will work when needed. Similarly, we trust that a plane will fly (using something other than magic). While as scientists we understand that scientific consensus is key, it takes a long time to obtain. We all know how long it can take to go from a research problem, to findings, and then on to a possible solution. The problem, according to Dr Yeo, is that humans are impatient and this creates a vacuum of knowledge, which gets filled with alternative facts.
As a result, we get the likes of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Eleanor Laura Davan Mills (Deliciously Ella). They sell ideas and products claiming certain health benefits, which although not supported by any scientific expertise or evidence, are gobbled up and regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of followers. Why do so many people believe what to others is so obviously false, Dr Yeo asks? According to him, it depends on who is saying it. When people with power or fame profess certain facts, it is difficult for the public to know who to believe. We should not, however, put these sorts of beliefs down to stupidity or ignorance, but should instead engage with these people and the public to discuss the evidence base. The best way to do this is through the media, and this is why we should engage with it when given the opportunity.
As scientists and researchers, we need to stand up for the truth. How we do this is important. Dr Yeo finds the perfect way to illustrate his point with one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (like me, it turns out he is, a fan).

How should we structure our message? How can we speak to non-experts via the media? How we frame the message is important. Below are Dr Yeo’s suggestions on how we can do this effectively:
• Why? How? What? are good ways to frame the message. Why are you doing what you are doing? How have you chosen to answer the question? What have you found out?
• This framing can actually be used in all sorts of settings (grant applications, social events, etc.), but the amount of information you provide will vary between these and is critical.
• Difficulty: the type of audience will determine the level of difficulty of engagement with ‘academic specialist’ being the least difficult to engage with and ‘the general public’ the most difficult.
• Simplicity does not equal wrong: when we simplify the information we have, we make sure it remains correct.
• The medium chosen for your message will determine how much editorial control you have. Ranging from complete to no editorial control we have: speaking, writing, social media, radio and TV. Simplifying the message yourself in advance, by preparing your how-why-what elevator pitch, will allow you to keep more control.

Scientists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work, particularly to wider audiences and the public. Dr Yeo has found that television is an effective way to do this. While not all of us will be following this route with our research, he believes many of us will at one point in our careers be subject to interviews or invited to speak on television. His advice is to be ready, and what better way to do this than to practice explaining your research as ‘an elevator pitch’. Being able to deliver your research in a succinct form and in layman’s terms is a skill that will help not only with public and social media interaction, but also with career networking and job interviews.
Television is one of many ways for a researcher to engage with the public. In addition to television, Dr Yeo also gives public lectures, uses social media (although he highlights this can be a useful tool or a curse) and occasionally writes articles in newspapers such as the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail. Attending a writing or journalism course during your PhD is great way to learn how to communicate your research in an accessible and compelling way, which may also help with grant writing and cover letters amongst other things.

In conclusion, we should all take part in public engagement. Not because our funders require it, or because it looks good on a CV, but to uphold the truth and better guide the public in a media sea of information. Preparation is key, so keep your elevator pitches ready because you never know when someone might stick a microphone in your face.

Also, a special thank you to Shikta Das, Caroline Fraser and Emma Butcher for organising the talk.

[All images are from Dr Giles Yeo’s presentation at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health on the 23rd of January 2019]

How to Put the Pro in Conference

Emma J Butcher3 January 2019

Written by Birgit Pimpel, PhD student at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and coffee lover

In August this year, I attended the 13th European Congress on Epileptology. The 5 day congress offered a broad spectrum of topics related to epileptology – from basic to clinical research – and was organised into four main themes: Adult Epileptology, Basic and Translational Science, Childhood Epileptology, and Pharmacotherapy. It took place in Vienna, the capital of Austria.

I would like tell you why I always enjoy conferences and what I liked about this one in particular.

Let me start with a non-academic benefit: conferences offer a great opportunity to get to know new places, sometimes in locations you would not otherwise visit. In the case of the Epileptology congress, rather than discovering a new place, the conference gave me a chance to visit home. Before moving to London to pursue a PhD, I lived in Vienna for about 10 years and I was pleased to return. All the more so at the end of summer when the city is not too hot, it is still sunny, and there is a relaxed atmosphere all around.

One of my favourite things that Viennese people do is have schnitzel with noodles coffee and cake. They can spend hours on it at a time. This pastime is precisely what I enjoyed before the conference started (exhibit A). To my delight, more of my favourite beverage was served during the conference at a tiny mobile café that offered delicious coffee, foam art included (exhibit B). Conferences offer you the chance to try out new traditions and temporarily immerse yourself in the culture of the place.

 

Exhibit A: coffee time

Exhibit B: fancy foam art

But let’s talk business. A great plus of conferences is that one has the opportunity to showcase academic work. Abstract submissions and conference presentations entail deadlines, which always help me focus my ideas and reassess the objectives of my research. Puzzling over how to best present my data and make it understandable to a broad audience aids my own understanding and sometimes leads to further questions and ideas for analysis. Conferences commit you to delivering presentable work and thus can help you keep you on track with your PhD in terms of time.

I was informed prior to the conference that a poster I had submitted was shortlisted for one of the ‘Best Poster Awards’. This provided more motivation to prepare a great poster. Spoiler alert: I did not win the prize. However, knowing that over 800 posters were presented during the conference, I was happy to make it into the shortlist. Furthermore, a number of interested conference participants came to see my poster during the poster session and I had great discussions about mine and others’ projects – a rewarding experience, which helped me see the value in my research. Disseminating findings, whether through a poster presentation or a talk, is also a great opportunity to build networks for future collaboration.

Exhibit C: a poster and its happy creator

Last but not least, I really enjoyed this conference because there were two oral presentation sessions closely related to my PhD. Both sessions were stimulating, with top researchers giving talks. In this way, conferences can be a perfect way to get up-to-date about the most recent advances in your field.

To sum up, attending the conference was a really rewarding experience. Not only did I get to immerse myself in the local culture, but I got a chance to focus my ideas and reassess the academic work I was doing. I got an update about recent advances in a highly specialised field of research and I shared my own preliminary findings with like-minded participants.

Finally, a word of caution. I suggest you do not – as I did – offer to too many colleagues to take along their posters to a conference because you happen to have a cool poster tube. It’s easy to cram posters into a tube – the tricky part is getting them out.

Exhibit D: surgical removal of posters from a poster tube