Why should you always finish your projects?

Having said in my last blog post that starting a project was the most important step, there is a step that is nearly as important. That step is finishing a project.

Why is finishing a project so important?

Finishing a project is important for a number of reasons and some of these are listed below.

  1. If you do not finish you cannot ‘ship’ the work, i.e. it is wasted effort
  2. You only know how successful something has been when it is finished
  3. You do not get to be smug about how you completed something
  4. If it is important it will nag at you until it is done

So how do I ensure I finish projects?

The best way I have found is to break the project down into small manageable chunks that can be ticked off one by one until the project is complete. This way I get a series of small victories to help keep me motivated and can easily determine my progress through a project. Invariably there will be changes to original plans and this should be reflected in timelines and goals at later stages.

For example, for the past month I have been trying to draw a quick sketch of something that I have seen discarded on the street and post it on my Instagram feed. This way I have motivated myself to do some sketching (albeit extremely quick sketches) and each additional day completed encourages me not to fail at the next day. I do not want to break the chain. This is suggested in one of Austin Kleon’s books (I think it might be Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered which is well worth a read). It is alos inspired by Lisa Congdon who has spoken about doing daily self-initiated projects to learn new skills and help create something to show (her books Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon is an excellent example of one of these ‘passion projects’. She also wrote Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist which is very good).

What if I discover I do not want to finish a project?

I would suggest that you try to finish it to some degree as it might be that you are having a dip in your motivation and that by continuing you may both learn something and also become re-interested in the work. I find this often happens after the initial creative work is complete and it is time to revise and edit a piece of writing. This can be tedious at times, however, perseverance is the key and once this is done there is the excitement of the final push for completion and the joy of seeing the final piece of work.

There may be times when you cannot bear to continue with something and if you have tried several times to complete it, it might be necessary to put it away for a while and do something else, so you can come back to it later re-invigorated. If this does not work you could try to get someone else to input as this can breathe life back into a project. If this fails and you are set on ditching the work then you should try to complete the latest step you are on and get it into a state where it can hibernate. That way if you want to come back to it, it will be there waiting for you.

Why is starting the most important step in any project?

This sounds like a trick question and the response should be ‘of course it is, if you don’t start there is no project’. So why mention it at all?

Why indeed?

If you are anything like me, you will have a number of projects that you would like to initiate. These include writing a short story for my daughters, putting together a zine, selling at least one piece of art and getting another peer-reviewed article published to improve my CV, among other things. I can spend ages coming up with ideas, writing lists and planning them in my head. However, most of them have not happened. Why is this?

Again, why indeed?

It is because, although I have good intentions, I cannot do everything and there are myriad distractions stopping me from starting some of these projects. It might seem more important to do the washing up and tidy out my box of magazines that I keep for collages, rather than putting a piece of art on an online shop. These tasks do not move me closer to my goal, but make me feel like something has been done, they give instant gratification and are a reward unto themselves.

So of you are aware of this procrastination, why not just do what you want?

There is only one reason, and that is fear. Fear that the story might not be perfect, fear that I will try to sell something and nobody will want to buy it, fear of trying something new and learning new skills, fear of meeting new people. All these fears and insecurities are masked by procrastination and the only way to over come them is by taking a small step towards your goal. That one small step will start your journey to your goal. It might be as simple as announcing your intent to your friends and getting them to provide support and nag you into doing something, or putting down a title or setting up an account with an online marketplace. Once you have taken that first step, you need to follow it with a second and by taking those initial small steps, momentum will grow and drive you to completing your goal. So for example, if you want to write something, if you write a small amount consistently every day you will soon have more words written than you expect!

So go, don’t procrastinate with social media or reading blogs, and take teh first baby step towards one of your goals!

Why should you write less in your presentations?

For work I sometimes get to go to conferences and see many presentations in a few short days. However, when I go to these presentations I often find that everything I need to know is written on the slides and that I do not need to listen to the speaker to fully understand what is being discussed. When this happens I tend to read ahead on the slide and might potentially miss valuable information that is spoken whilst doing so, as well as getting a bit bored whilst waiting for the next slide to appear. I expect that many of you have also experienced this and when you read about presentation technique you frequently get to hear the phrase ‘death by PowerPoint’ which relates to this phenomenon.

What can you do to avoid this?

It might seem drastic, but the way to avoid this trap is to put significantly less text on your slides. Rather than detailing your objective on a slide you could include a prompt (e.g. ‘What was the objective?’) that you would then talk around, or you could include a figure or table but not your thoughts on the table. This way people will have to listen to what you have to say to be able to fully understand what is being presented. An extreme version of this is the Takahashi method where only a single word or short phrase is on each slide to act as a prompt, forcing the speaker to talk about what they are doing and engage with the audience. The Lessig method is similar.

But what if I forget what I am talking about?

It is better to have notes and to practice your presentation to make it as smooth as possible and have it memorable, rather than having a boring presentation. People will forgive you glancing at your notes to remind yourself of a pertinent point and will feel more engaged. These can be included as slide notes in PowerPoint or written separately as a text document.

Where can I find out more about making my presentations better?

I found the book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter) by Garr Reynolds to be extremely informative, and their is a blog by the author this book that is good. It can be found here.

Also slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations: The Art and Science of Presentation Design by Nancy Duarte is excellent. There is a free multimedia version of her book Resonate online which is about visual storytelling to improve presentations.

Why might networking be beneficial?

I personally find the idea of networking at events to be daunting and when I attend congresses I will be the person standing on their own looking a bit lost. However, when I do talk to people I will find that I will have a great conversation and not be at all terrified. What is holding me back is fear of the unknown and worries like: What if they do not want to talk to me? What if I sound like an idiot? What if I have nothing to say that they want to hear?

This fear of the unknown has held me back at many times during my life. I have not joined clubs that I maybe wanted to; I have not spoken to somebody and regretted it later; I have resisted using a technique that eventually turned out to be extremely beneficial to a project. If I had been courageous enough to do these things, the first time the opportunity presented itself I can safely say that my life would have been completely different. Nowadays, I have taken a few steps towards overcoming this problem, the first of which was admitting to myself the reason why I was not doing things that I wanted to.

Indeed, talking to people I do not know at events has become a bit easier since I realised one thing. That one thing was that many of the people I could talk to at events are in exactly the same position as me. They do not have anyone with them to talk to, but worry about talking to strangers. If they are at the same specialist event as me then we likely share some interests and this can be used to initiate a conversation. If this is a congress and they are presenting a poster, then often you have to be present at least for a while and will often be keen to talk to anybody. The exception to this I always feel is the big names in the area, who will know lots of people and will have lots of people wanting to talk to them. There might not be an opening for you to introduce yourself. Nevertheless, once again there is a way, you can use your own contacts to introduce you. It might be that you have a colleague who knows them, or can introduce you to someone who does. Often specialist communities are quite small and you will likely have some degree of connectivity. Even if you don’t, by talking to other attendees you may meet someone who could eventually introduce you to a person who could change your career.

Networking does not have to be done in person, and can also be done online. If someone has done work that interests you and you have questions you want to ask, you can always write to them and let them know. They will appreciate your effort and if you are discussing the work then they are more likely to respond to you. This can lead to a ‘conversation’ and a connection to someone who you have never met in person.

Why being nice can be a great strategy at work

When I was at school, one of the things that my English teacher would tell us was that we shouldn’t use the word nice. He considered it bland and thought that there were more descriptive words that better expressed what something was like. However, I think that nice can be extremely good at times, especially when you are considering your interactions with other people.

Why should you be nice?

The world of academia/work is quite small and it is likely that anybody you meet once you will meet again if they remain in the same area. However, when we next meet them they could be in another job or publishing work we find interesting. If this is the case then they are probably someone you want to talk to and potentially collaborate with. However, if when you met them the first time you were rude or brusque, then they may remember this and be less inclined to spend time with you. As the cliché says “what goes around, comes around”. Conversely, if you were pleasant when you first met them or provided help or advice they will remember you favourably, and good things may come from the next meeting.

Surely this is a cynical approach to the world

This may be considered cynical, however, it is also a valid approach to life, and if you start making a conscious effort in this, it will eventually become a habit. Furthermore, if you are consistent you may develop a reputation as a helpful individual who is good to know and opportunities may come your way that you were not aware of.

A very good discussion on this appears in the book Have Fun, Get Paid: How to Make a Living with Your Creativity. This book focusses on creativity and creative industries, however, I feel it is applicable beyond this area and would recommend it.

Don’t just write, make sure you read as well

One of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Austin Kleon who says:

“In every undergraduate creative writing workshop I was part of, there was that one kid who said, ‘I like to write, but I don’t really like to read,’ and it was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely.”

This is because if we write without reading first we cannot build upon the work of others and we cannot learn from people who have published before. This should be self-evident but often when we are researching and experimenting, we will do a search to help us overcome an issue and will skim through to locate what is hopefully the answer. You might not fully read the introduction or conclusions, not really caring for the context or analysis for someone else.  We do not have time to read each article in depth and have time for research, for writing, for lecturing, for mentoring and for a life outside the research institute. Yet here I am suggesting that you should be reading more in our already packed lives.

If we do not want to learn and develop then this is not something that you should commit to, however, if you do there is always time to be found, even if it is just 15 minutes a day, possibly whilst sitting on the toilet. To improve you should read great writing; this does not have to be a ‘classic’ like Crime and Punishment, but should be something relevant. I would suggest that as writing up research is akin to non-fiction writing, it can be beneficial to read scientific non-fiction books, which can also provide ideas for research or help develop new ways of thinking. This can be science magazines, books or blogs.

Some suggestions for things to read

However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves, great writing is great writing and we can always learn something from it, hopefully, how to tell the best stories possible.

Austin Kleon – http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/33792291289

Make sure you write regularly

Having told you not necessarily to publish everything in a traditional manner, I would recommend that you start trying to write regularly. This could be typing up experimental methods and results so that they are ready as soon as the decision to publish is made, putting together review articles or free-writing around a research idea.
This writing will hopefully improve your productivity, as well as helping to organize your thoughts and create new ideas, as well as potentially helping you overcome any stalling points in your research. It might be that you are trying to develop a total synthesis and you are stuck on a single step, by searching the literature and making notes on what others attempting similar transformations have done. This is likely something you are already doing, but by keeping written notes you will be have something that could potentially be the basis of a review article and you may notice connections that you wouldn’t spot if you just read and highlighted articles.
Finally, practice makes perfect and by writing more your communication skills should improve.

How should you decide who will be an author?

When deciding who should be an author, you might feel pressure to include people who have not directly contributed to the work being written about. For example, people who secured funding for the work or who are important in the department that you work in, might say that they should be authors.

As this might lead to questions about ghostwriting and honorary authorship, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors produced a uniform set of criteria for authorship. These are:

Authors “should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for relevant portions of the content” and should meet all three conditions below:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

These criteria are also included in GPP2 produced by the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, which was published in BMJ.

If a person has contributed to some steps but not others then they should be included in the acknowledgements. This might include people who have helped perform an experiment, but not helped in the design, or who have proof read the article prior to submission.

The guidelines also suggest that if the study is very large there could be an authoring committee that takes full responsibility for the content of the manuscript. The full list of study investigators can then be included as an appendix. The article can then be published on behalf of everyone who is involved and if a person who is not on the authoring committee wants to include the manuscript on their CV they can do so.

Hopefully, by having articles published by authority figures on this topic you can feel better able to push back on any demands from people who you feel should not be an author.

References

ICMJE authorship criteria – http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

GPP2 – http://www.ismpp.org/gpp2

Might checklists improve your manuscript?

I started off as an editor, editing manuscripts to house style, as well as copy editing them to some degree to hopefully improve their readability. Each time I saw a document I would have to check for different aspects of style or language. Often this was not the most exciting thing to do, especially when I had seen the document previously. To ensure that crucial steps were not missed we had a series of checklists that could be used enabling you to tick of each task as it was done.

These checklists were not prescriptive with hundreds of elements, rather they had a few elements (typically up to 10) with the emphasis on steps that were often missed or left incomplete. For example when proof reading a manuscript the checklist items included:

  1. Check that all references are mentioned in the text
  2. Check that all tables and figures are referenced appropriately in the text
  3. Double check the title for typos

The title was included on the list because it is often difficult to spot a typo when you know what should be there, it is a short piece of text and it is often very large.

This use of checklists is discussed extremely well in The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right and I highly recommend that you read it.

Don’t aim to write scientifically, aim to write well

When we write something we are often trying to convey who we are, or more specifically who we want to be perceived to be, to the writer. This means that we will alter the tone of our writing according to the audience, an email to a friend will be different from a job application letter. When writing a scientific manuscript it is, therefore, often the case that people write it in a manner they perceive to be ‘scientific’.

What is scientific writing?

When I say scientific writing I mean writing with many technical words intended to convey the idea that you know what you are talking about. These technical words will often be jargon and in some cases might be better conveyed using ‘everyday’ language. This will limit the audience of your work to others who understand the jargon that you are using, as well as potentially making the manuscript more difficult to read.

How can scientific writing be avoided?

Once you have written your manuscript you should get other people to review it, at least one of whom should be reviewing the language used. This should be someone you trust as the feedback might not be what you expect from your ‘perfect’ draft. When you ask this person to review the manuscript you should specifically ask them to keep an eye out for overly ‘scientific’ language.

A second thing that you can do is to read the draft out loud once you have written it. By reading out loud, even if it seems odd, you can identify any issues with ‘pacing’ or where jargon might interfere with the ‘flow’ of the manuscript.

A word of caution

Do not remove scientific words if they are necessary, you should not dumb down just to improve readability. This is a tightrope that you will have to walk, but hopefully by asking others for their opinions this will help navigate the issue.