29 Aug

when the pursuit of efficiency makes you completely inefficient

I am all about efficiency. I’m a task monster. I like to strike stuff off my to do list.

As a task monster, I try to do things the most efficient way possible. My quest is to find the fastest way to do a task without compromising on quality, and without impacting on my workload down the road.

Here’s an example.

I started coding my interview transcripts for my PhD in Word, using comments. I thought this would help me see the codes in context. I quickly realised this wasn’t going to work. After one transcript, it became clear I needed a system to help me manage the codes. So I followed up on research I’d done earlier about qualitative data analysis software. I bought and installed HyperRESEARCH and started coding my transcripts. Along the way, I generated almost 1500 codes. Two weeks ago, I hit a point where I was ready to start coding at a higher level… to start moving from codes to categories.

I have spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to manage this process in practical terms. And my preoccupation with efficiency means I stalled, in a big way, and I haven’t made nearly enough progress.

Rather than just getting in and getting it done, I have been fretting about finding the most efficient way to do this. My concern was I knew I couldn’t sort my codes in HyperRESEARCH because it wouldn’t support my workflow (and I only realised this after I’d done a lot of coding using the software). I didn’t want to do it anywhere else, though, because ultimately, I’ll have to put everything back into HyperRESEARCH to map the categories with the original codes and the chunks of transcript they relate to. I became so caught up in doing this in a way that wouldn’t impact on my workload down the track that I just didn’t do the work at all.

This morning I sat at my desk and cried because I couldn’t fathom how to get out of this quicksand and make some progress. Then I DMed one of my PhD ledge buddies (@zaana) in frustration and in amongst her very practical and helpful reply was this gem:

i think the reality is that some of the ways we need to synthesise & sense make are just not efficient but at least you know you’ll get there

I don’t actually know I’ll get there. Not today. Some days I know it, but today isn’t one of them. But apart from this last phrase, the rest of this statement resonates. Sense making is messy. (It’s also other things, for me personally: it’s happens through crafting a story in a visual way, but that’s a digression.) So I just need to let it *be* messy, or whatever else it needs to be in order to make some progress.

So I made a plan. Breakfast (at midday – is it any wonder I was crying into my keyboard at 11am? I couldn’t find the tomato sauce for my french toast so I skipped breakfast.) > coffee > blog post > JUST FREAKING DO IT.

Because ultimately, staring at the wall, crying, while I sink further into quicksand is not very efficient at all.

25 Aug

please, do your research before you vote

[Update: I’m loving The Conversation’s FactCheck series. Academics dissect election spin, telling us whether the claims are true based on decent information. Of course it’s still opinion, but at least it’s reasonably transparent opinion.]

I used to vote Liberal. I know, I know. What the actual fuck was I thinking?

The problem was, I wasn’t thinking at all. I voted Liberal because my parents did. I voted Liberal because I had a six-o’clock-news-depth understanding of the political landscape in this country and virtually no understanding of the policies I was voting for. I was naive, uninformed and unduly influenced by my parents’ (dare I say it) mis/un-informed voting practices.

But I’m a grown up now and I have no excuse for making uninformed decisions. So this election, I’m taking my voting responsibilities seriously, and I’m doing some research before I cast my vote. In fact, I’ve taken this approach for quite some time now, but the need to vote responsibly and in an informed way is even more important this time around, and here’s why: none of the options are good.

I am afraid of what an Abbott-led government would look like and what its impact might be. But I am also ashamed of and appalled by the reality of the Rudd-led government we currently have.

Get informed. And get informed on a broad range of policies from multiple sources. Don’t get sucked in by the lure of 26 weeks paid maternity leave at your full salary, or a promise to get the budget into surplus, or <insert shiny policy here>. Get across a broad range of policies and make sure you can live with the policies that come along with that shiny lure before you cast your vote. Get your information from more than one source and be aware of bias in reporting. Start with one of the policy comparison tools available from a media outlet but don’t stop there. Read the policy information published by the parties. Read information that comes from outside the mainstream media.

Get informed about the person you’re voting for – not the leader of their party. Vote for someone because you believe they are going to represent you and your interests, not someone who belongs to a party led by Your Favourite PM Option. Get on the Facebook pages of the candidates in your electorate and ask them the tough questions.

This election season, we have unprecedented access to information and to candidates. It is possible to make an informed decision, even though the options aren’t all that great. And when the options aren’t great, it’s even more important that our decisions are informed. Please, don’t turn up to vote not knowing who you’re going to vote for. Don’t turn up to vote determined to vote for the party you’ve always voted for just cause you always vote for them. Vote for a person. Vote for policy. Vote in an informed way.

13 Aug

what to do when you have a case of the doubts

The doubts (n)
A condition commonly found in PhD candidates. Symptoms include: an inability to have anything even remotely resembling confidence in one’s work; heart palpitations; a constant feeling of having missed a critical piece of literature; inability to make small decisions (including, but not limited to, choosing a word to describe a tiny piece of data); an overwhelming sense that one does not have any findings worth reporting.

Earlier today, I found myself staring at the 956 unique codes I’ve generated in my initial coding of a handful of interview transcripts. Just staring. Blankly. With absolutely no idea what to do next. I had the doubts, in a big way.

And it wasn’t the first time.

I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve for treating the symptoms. They’re not cures, though I know there are two cures in existence. (The first cure is giving up, but then you end up with a different kind of doubt. And the second is graduating. The treatment of symptoms ultimately leads to the second cure.)

  • Keep a cache of your own work to hand. In particular, you should have at least one piece of writing that, when you re-read it, makes you think, ‘Shit. Did I write that? I actually sound like I know what I’m talking about!’ Mine is an essay I wrote on Lacan and art history. Completely unrelated to what I do now, but an excellent example because I read it and have absolutely no idea how I ever managed to write it. See self? I can do difficult things.
  • Go back to the data. When I look at my data I think, ‘Oh! My participants are awesome and they have such interesting things to say and they do such interesting things’. And then I know I’m going to have findings and I’m just being silly and getting stuck in the details.
  • Crack open the textbooks. Today I got out one of my favourite methodology textbooks (aside: I have a favourite methodology textbook. That’s up there in my list of phrases I never thought I’d say) and re-read the chapter on coding. Which reaffirmed that yes, it’s difficult, but I’m doing it properly (if there is actually a ‘properly’) and I’m doing okay.
  • Stop. Take a lunch break. Have a nap. Get a massage. Today I did all three… Sort of… I stood at the kitchen bench and scoffed cold leftovers, had a 20 minute power nap, and knocked off at 4pm and got a seriously intense remedial massage – you can’t doubt anything other than your pain threshold when you’re having knots ironed out of your back.
  • Call on a ledge buddy. If you’ve ever had the doubts, you will also be familiar with ‘the ledge’. It’s that place you inhabit when you’ve got the doubts in the biggest possible way. Every PhD student needs a couple of ledge buddies. These are people that know what it’s like to be out on the ledge and they know how to talk you safely off it.
  • Tell everyone you know you’ll have a thesis by Christmas. When you’ve run out of people to tell, tell yourself. Just keep saying it til you’ve spoken it into being. Or you’ve told so many people you’ll never be able to live it down if you don’t actually get it done. Whichever comes first.
  • Cultivate your own stubbornness. Committing yourself to doing something by a certain date is powerful in itself, but it’s even more powerful when you’re as stubborn as I am.
  • Watch Big Brother. Just cause.
09 Aug

in pursuit of the perfect weekly planner

I’m a really visual person. I need to see my week laid out in front of me on a single page, and because I don’t use a paper diary, I need a weekly planner to do this. I like to have a visual map of my time so I know when I’m committed, and when I can be working on stuff that requires concentration (like my PhD).

On weekdays, I like to plan my day out in blocks of time, assigning an hour or two to particular tasks. These get moved around during the week, but allocating them time helps keep everything in perspective. So my planner needs to have time slots mapped out for weekdays and those time slots need to extend beyond normal business hours, because I start work early and finish late.

The bulk of my work right now is my PhD, and this means I need to focus on micro goals because looking at the big picture is scary as hell. So I need a space to make a note of one or two things I want to achieve in a day. I also need space to note down my focus for the week and to remind myself of my next deadline.

In addition to the diary-style weekday section, I need a section for work I plan to tackle on Saturday (because the reality is I really need to work six days a week). And I need space to write a list of the fun things I’ve got planned for Sunday. This last space is important, because having plans for Sunday helps me keep on track.

I am also trying really hard to stick to a weekly menu plan, and rather than have a separate menu planner, I want to keep track of this on my weekly planner.

That is an extensive list of criteria. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been hunting for a weekly planner that does all of these things for a long time. I’ve looked on Etsy and scoured Pinterest in search of a downloadable planner, but none of them did what I needed them to do. So I finally made my own.

It’s not an example of awesome design but it’s also not ugly. And it’s functional. I’ve tweaked it over the last three weeks to evolve it into the perfect planner. I’ve shared it with a couple of colleagues who have found it useful, so I thought I’d post it here, too. Here’s what it looks like:

thumbnail

If you would like to use the Word version (which will allow you to customise the planner), you will need to install three fonts:

I’ve made a number of different versions for myself and a couple of friends. Here they all are:

  • The Kate: This is my version of the planner. It includes space to note a focus for the week, upcoming deadlines, a goal for each day, and lunch and dinner plans for each day. Times run 7.30am to 7.30pm. Sunday has space for me to note down fun plans. Word | PDF
  • The Dinnerless Kate: This planner has all the same spaces as the one above except meals. Word | PDF
  • The Kate In Reverse: This planner has all the same spaces as The Kate but the day starts and finishes later and Saturday is fun-day, instead of Sunday. Times run 8.30am to 8pm. Word | PDF
  • The Miss 11: An orange version, with a space for a name. I made this one for a friend’s daughter who has lots of activities to track. Times run 7.30am to 7pm. Sunday is the fun day. No spaces for meals on this one. Word | PDF
  • The Miss 11 Version 2: Another orange version with a space for a name, but this time with times running 6.30am to 8pm. No spaces for meals on this one. Word | PDF

Happy planning!

05 Aug

handmade party hat crowns (a cautionary tale)

Feature image: party hat crowns

Feature image: party hat crowns

A note about the photos: the good photos here were taken by Mel from from Emdee Photography (the rest are by me, taken on my iPhone, so it’s pretty easy to see which are Mel’s work!). She is Birthday Party Photographer Extraordinaire! She has photographed the twins’ party every year for the last three years. Her photos are gorgeous and the kids love her.

And for the pattern: thanks to Blissful Sewing for the great pattern!

I had this awesome idea to make crowns for birthday party hats for my niece and nephew’s fourth birthday party. One of the the reasons I wanted to do this is that kids never wear party hats because those horrible elastic strings that go under their chins feel awful. The other reason I wanted to make them is because I’m like an aunty version of a Pinterest Mom (proper noun – deserves full capitalisation) and I wanted them to have awesome hats and an awesome party.

I mean, look at these amazing hats. Who wouldn’t want to try to make something just as divine?

There are two things you should note about this story. The first is that I decided to make these four days before their birthday party. The other is that there were more than 30 kids coming to the party.

I used a free pattern I found on the blog Blissful Sewing.

Sizes

The pattern comes in two sizes – newborn to 12 months and 12 months to adult. Most of the twins’ friends have baby brothers and sisters, so I used both sizes. The age chart for the elastic worked well, however I would suggest going slightly longer for the baby size – perhaps a centimeter.

What about the boys?

Our party was co-ed, so I needed to modify the pattern a bit for the boy version. I just printed out a couple of extra copies of the pattern and cut the two side points off till I had three pieces, each with two points. Then I sticky taped them together to make a pattern that had six points of the same height.

Fabrics

The party didn’t have a theme, but the decorations were all spots, stripes and chevrons in bold colours, so I stuck with this theme for the crowns.

For the boys, I did red with white polka dots on the outside and blue and white stripe on the inside. I used a piece of grosgrain navy blue ribbon with a big white stitch down each side for embellishment on the front.

Cut out crown shapes in blue and white stripe and red polka dot fabric

See how the points are all the same size? I achieved this by cutting up the original pattern and adding two points the same height to the middle (where the high point is on the girls’ crowns).

For the girls, I did multicoloured stripe on the outside and pink with white polka dots on the inside. I actually planned to use the polka dots on the outside, like the boy version, but the multicoloured strips were too cute. I bought crocheted ribbon with white and pink tassels sewn on for embellishment on the front.

Cut out crown shapes in multi coloured stripes and pink with white polka dot fabric

I originally planned to put the polka dots on the outside, but the stripes were too cute!

Embellishments for the front of the crowns

Pom poms for the girls and ribbon for the boys.

Tips

Disclaimer: I am a novice sewer in the truest sense of the word. You should double check before you follow any of my instructions! But I’m sure you’ll realise that when you read my cautionary tale!

The most important tip of all

There is a back story for the most important tip of all, so you have to read it first. Don’t get half way through this post and think you’re ready to start crown-making. Nope, you gotta read the whole thing.

Get a new rotary cutter blade

The best thing I did through this whole project was to buy a new rotary cutter blade before I started. I would have given up five minutes in without it!

Cut the shapes out in bulk

I cut the fabric in bulk – basically I cut as many as my rotary cutter would get through at once (10 or 12). It meant I had to cut a couple of threads that didn’t quite get cut on the pieces at the bottom of the pile, but considering I had to cut about 80 of these babies out, it was well worth the effort to snip those last few threads individually.

I also roughly cut the interfacing into rectangles, piled them up into pile of about six or eight pieces, and whipped through them with the rotary cutter too.

Caution: use heavy weight interfacing but not extra heavy weight!

I bought super, super stiff interfacing. I probably should have gone for something slightly less weighty. Consequently, if I ironed the interfacing on to the outside piece before I stitched the pieces together, it was almost impossible to turn the crown in the right way after I’d stitched the whole way round them – even if I left the whole bottom side of the crown open. I managed it, but the interfacing was so bent and buckled I wrote the first one off as a trial.

So I had a bit of a brainwave. Instead of ironing the interfacing on before I stitched round the two pieces, I changed it up. I stitched round the two pieces, clipped the corners and points, turned the crown in the right way, then slipped the interfacing in and ironed it on. My plan was to top stitch the bottom of each crown crown closed.

To be honest, if I knew I was going to have to do them this way, I probably wouldn’t have made them! But at this point everything was cut out and I was pretty determined to get them done. So on I soldiered with slipping the interfacing into the pre-stitched crowns.

But that was not the end of the super heavy weight interfacing saga… Three more pain points awaited me. But don’t worry, these things won’t happen to you because you won’t make the same mistakes as me! Learn from this cautionary tale and you will avoid all of the pitfalls I encountered.

I discovered the first pain point quickly. Even though I had cut the interfacing 5mm smaller the whole way round, I needed to cut it even smaller to slip it in after the crown was stitched. Which meant I had to cut another few millimeters off every side of every point on every piece of interfacing. Thanks god for the rotary cutter! I piled them up and whizzed through them, roughly cutting them and not worrying too much if I accidentally cut into the body of the crown (which I did, many, many times).

Paint point number two was caused by the way the interfacing had been rolled: sticky side facing in. Initially, I started slipping the interfacing in and ironing it onto the front piece of each crown (that is, the *right* way), but the interfacing was so stiff that it was holding the curve from being rolled and it was creasing and folding. So I just started slipping them in and ironing them on the other way, which of course meant that in the end, my front pieces had wrinkles because the interfacing wasn’t fused onto the front. The absolute pedant in me wanted to chuck them out and do them again but my family talked some sense into me. The two-, three- and four-year-olds, they said, would not care about fabric wrinkles. We set up a bit of a production line and my mum ironed the interfacing in while I pinned and sewed. If I had’ve used a slightly less weighty interfacing, it wouldn’t have creased to the same extent and I would have avoided this problem.

The final pain point was stitching up the bottom of every crown. I had to top stitch the full length of every crown closed once the interfacing had been ironed in. That was a lot of folding, pinning and stitching. (It was made a little bit more tedious by the fact my trusty assistant didn’t push the interfacing in quite far enough so on some of them, I had to peel the fabric off and cut the interfacing down before I could sew the crown closed. But I really can’t complain – I would still be making the crowns now, three months later, without her help.) This was also the part of construction I ended up doing at 11pm the night before the party, so you can imagine just how painful it was at that point!

Which leads me to the most important tip of all…

Make a trial crown

I did all the cutting before I got started with any assembly. In hindsight, this was a wee bit silly and I probably should have just made my trial one from start to finish (for reasons I will talk about shortly…) before cutting the rest out.

Work in stages

Once you have made your trial crown (and don’t do it earlier, or you’ll end up in a mess like me!) you should start working in stages. Do the tasks in bulk in this order:

  1. Cut everything out (fabric, interfacing, trim/embellishments, elastic)
  2. Fuse the interfacing to all the front pieces
  3. Pin all the crown fronts to the crown backs, sandwiching one end of the ribbon and elastic into one side of the crown (see below)
  4. Take all the pinned crowns to the sewing machine and as you pick up each one to stitch it, pin the ribbon and the elastic into the other side of the crown, then stitch round the edges, leaving a small gap for turning
  5. Clip all the points and corners
  6. Turn and press all the crowns, folding the edges of the gap in (you shouldn’t need to pin them if you use give them a good press)
  7. Top stitch along the length of the bottom of the crown

Sew the embellishment and elastic into the seams of the sides of the crowns

Instead of sewing the embellishment on the front as the pattern indicates (in the pattern it’s ruffled ribbon), I sandwiched the ribbon between the inside fabric and outside fabric right sides facing. I also did the same thing with the elastic.

Ribbon and elastic sandwiched between the fabric

Place the ribbon right side down on the right side of the front fabric. Then lay the ribbon on top of the that, followed by the outside fabric.

 

Sewing the elastic into the sides like this was tricky, because it kind of scrunched the fabric pieces up.

 

Crown with both ends pinned

Once you pin the elastic in to the other side, it will look like a scrunched up mess. But never fear – it will work!

To make the crowns easier to handle, I pinned one side of each and then pinned in the other side just as I was about to stitch it. This stopped them from getting tangled up.

This made the crowns a little bit trickier to stitch than they would otherwise have been, but it saved work in sewing the embellishments and ribbon on at the end, and gave them a really tidy finish. And when I got a bit of a rhythm going I whizzed around them fairly quickly. Out of the 30 or so crowns I made, I missed either the elastic or the ribbon (or both!) on one side of three or four hats. I just stitched these on at the end. You’ll notice I didn’t cover the elastic with ruffled ribbon like the pattern suggests – that just seemed a bit too ambitious to get done in the time I had.

The finished product

Tada! Wrinkly thanks to my interfacing woes, but still pretty cute, if I do say so myself!

Finished girls' hats

A bit wrinkly, but still super cute, I think! Thanks to Mel from Emdee Photography for the gorgeous photo.

And the best part is, the kids wore them! Woo!

Finished hats

The finished hats, sitting in front of a long line of party bags. Thanks to Mel from Emdee Photography for the gorgeous photo.

Crown in situ

Another photo by Mel from Emdee Photography.