Posted in Family life, Pop culture, Work

Seven ways to procrastinate

In this blog post I’m going to reveal a secret super power that I can no longer deny: the power to procrastinate, regardless of how fervently I attempt to focus on the task at hand. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m very good at procrastinating.

Last weekend I realised that I had two assignments due in within a week, and was struggling with one of them (which was affecting my ability to make progress on the other one). I had to take action, so I asked Tristan to change my Facebook password again. I haven’t logged on for a full week, and it’s been great. However, I didn’t factor in how determinedly I can find distractions when I really don’t feel like I’m making progress with my course work.

Here are my seven most recent procrastinations.

1. Planning my next hairstyle

My hair is very long – so long that my son diplomatically asked me if it might be time for a haircut. Upon reflection I realised he was right, so I’m having it cut tomorrow morning. This has given me a perfect opportunity to read numerous Buzzfeed articles about hair transformations. I’m think it’s going to be a ‘lob’ (a long bob, for those of you who don’t deal with abbreviations).

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2. Upping my selfie game

The Snapchat filters are an excellent procrastination tool, and if you have a willing young accomplice you can almost convince yourself that you’re not really procrastinating: you’re spending quality time with your children!

3. Checking out a style icon

While I was idling on Pinterest, continuing my hunt for my next hairstyle, I discovered Sarah Harris, the Fashion Features Editor at British Vogue. She’s in her mid-thirties, has never dyed her grey hair, wears a daily uniform of jeans or trousers, shirts or jumpers, and incredibly glamorous shoes, and is widely regarded as tremendously chic. I have become slightly obsessed with her, so I’ve whiled away many moments on her Instagram feed, waiting impatiently for her to update it with a photo of her soon-to-be born first baby.

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4. Reading Reductress

How did I not know about this website until a few days ago?! It’s a subversive feminist take on the kind of fake news that The Onion has produced for years. I absolutely love it and, for the past week, when I should have been tackling readings for my essays during my bus commute, I’ve delved deep into its archives.

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5. Devising elaborate reward charts

One of our four year olds has been particularly challenging recently (and by ‘recently’ I mean ‘for the past eighteen months’). It was clear that we needed to adjust our parenting style – and when you’ve got two assignments due within a day of each other, what better use of time than reading a couple of parenting books, designing personalised reward charts on Photoshop, shopping for stickers, stick-on jewels, and wooden letters to decorate with the stick-on jewels, and explaining the whole strategy to your husband, au pair, and children?

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Fortunately, the new reward charts have led to big improvements in the kids’ behaviour, which is just as well – my ‘no late night study’ strategy has fallen apart this week, and I’m not very tolerant of children’s tantrums when I’m functioning on four hours of sleep a night.

6. Borrowing library books

It’s important not to confuse this procrastination technique with actually reading books from the library. I mean, look at the stack of library books in my room at the moment:

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I handed in assignments both yesterday and this afternoon, and I’ve got another one due in next Friday, and another one ten days after that. I have no time to actually read much more than a couple of pages of a novel each day – but do I let that stop me from spending time on the library app, requesting books, and then heading to my local branch on the way to the bus stop? Of course not. How would I keep my bedroom looking so cluttered if I didn’t fill it with teetering stacks of books?

7. Breaking my toes

Admittedly, this is an extreme form of procrastination. It isn’t a tactic that I’d wholeheartedly recommend, but if you want to while away a couple of hours that could be spent productively, I suggest slamming the two smallest toes on your left foot into a bed post, necessitating a trip to the weekend medical centre to see if you need a moon boot. I’m a seasoned professional when it comes to breaking toes by slamming them into things: this is the third time I’ve done it in the past couple of years. But I’ve reluctantly accepted that breaking toes really isn’t a sustainable way to avoid studying (plus: ow), so I’ve celebrated the submission of today’s assignment with a slow, limping trip to Kmart and a $9 slipper purchase. They will serve as a quasi-moon boot, hopefully protecting my toes from further assaults (and the doctor was awesome, by the way… Him: “they probably are broken, but there’s nothing we can do about it, so just try to be careful”; Me: “awesome, thanks for that, let me pay you $50 for your stellar advice”).

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Of course, what I should be doing is re-embracing the principles of mindfulness that I learned earlier in the year, avoiding the procrasti-researching I’m inclined to do when I don’t know what to write, and leaving my laptop on campus so I can get a decent night’s sleep…

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Posted in Work

Studio

When I signed up for an urban planning degree I had no idea the extent to which Studio papers would dominate my academic life. These papers teach students about urban design principles, both through learning the various theories and through applying them at different scales. The work is presented on A3 posters, typically as a combination of text and graphics.

For me, these papers were an enormous learning curve, and one that was particularly stressful in the first semester. To produce work to a suitable standard we were expected to use Photoshop, and, later, AutoCad, and these are not easy things to learn while also trying to produce work for submission. Photoshop is not at all intuitive when you’re trying to get to grips with it, and even after two and a half years my skills are very basic.

My friends and family have heard and seen how much my Studio papers have dominated my university life. Each assignment would require so much work – not just to digest design theories and come up with concepts, but to physically produce the posters for submission. We also typically had to write a 1,500 word report to support each project. Formatting pages in Photoshop is such a laborious process, and pretty much the worst kind of task for anybody with latent perfectionist tendencies (like me): you can’t help but want to make sure every line is perfect, and it’s exhausting. Our tutors would work with us on a consultation basis: we’d produce work, they’d critique it, we’d try to fix it, they’d critique it some more, we’d try to fix it again, we’d cry, we’d threaten to drop out, and we’d finish everything at the last minute. Because of the nature of the consultative process, it was seldom possible to finalise design decisions until late in the project, because you would continually refine your work in response to tutor feedback and the theoretical stuff you were reading.

However, a fortnight ago I finished the final studio assignment of my degree – a cause for great celebration. So, for your viewing pleasure, here’s a sample page from each of my assignments. Amongst many other things, it shows how my design skills have improved, albeit very slightly…

First Year

1: Street scape study

This was an attempt to learn about the principles of urban design (legibility, permeability, etc). The Photoshop skills required for this one nearly killed me.

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2. Residential typologies

We were allocated different residential typologies and had to find a good example of our option, and write about it. My example was a cool building in Zurich.

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3: Designing an apartment building

We were allocated an existing residential site and had to demolish the house and replace it with a small apartment building, which we had to design. I tried to design a family-friendly building, to challenge the idea that families in New Zealand can only live comfortably in detached houses. We were expected to hand draw all of our plans, which was seriously challenging.

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4. Analysing a block and its surrounding area

This was my least-favourite assignment of the entire degree…

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5. Redesigning a low density housing area

This was the continuation of the last assignment, and involved redesigning the street network, and replacing low density housing with apartments.

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Second Year

6. Analysing my neighbourhood

This and the following assignment were my favourites – I love working at this scale, and I want to specialise in community design when I’ve graduated. In this assignment, we analysed our own neighbourhoods according to neighbourhood design principles, which included producing a hand-drawn map from memory, to see how we actually perceive where we live (blank spaces in some annotations are the result of me removing identifying information).

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7. Neighbourhood redesign

I absolutely LOVED this assignment. We were allocated a neighbourhood near where we lived, and had to redesign it to better incorporate design principles (to support things like a better pedestrian experience – with smaller blocks and fewer cul-de-sacs, for example) and higher density housing to complement existing low density housing.

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8. Designing according to the Unitary Plan

The Unitary Plan is the document that will shape Auckland for decades to come, but there are many questions regarding the design outcomes that are likely as a result of its rules. For this assignment we had to redesign a site in accordance with the Unitary Plan.

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9. Designing a town centre

For this project we had to redesign an area designated by the Unitary Plan as a town centre. We were told that the design had to include a central plaza, so this was mine. I made use of a lot of photos I’d taken in France, to illustrate my design ideas. This was also my first time designing with AutoCad, which was wonderful once I got used to it: so much easier to make changes.

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Third Year

10. A ‘catalogue’ for a future design

This assignment involved developing a ‘catalogue’ of buildings, in order to design according to the guidance provided for creating a Pedestrian Pocket (a transit-oriented development).

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11. Regional design strategy

For this assignment we wrote a big literature review to explore concepts related to regional growth strategies, and supplemented it with a proposed strategy to add 70,000 new dwellings to a currently-rural part of Auckland.

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12. Group regional growth strategy

For our second-to-last assignment we had to work in small groups, collectively refine our regional growth strategies, and write a report to explain our decisions.

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13. Transit-oriented Development

My last Studio assignment! I designed a transit-oriented development, designed to provide housing for around 4,000 people, and jobs for around 8,000 people (using a lot of the ‘catalogue’ I developed from a few assignments earlier).

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Despite the huge amount of work involved, and the severe stress and sleep deprivation that producing assignments often entailed, I did really enjoy this component of the degree – no feeling at uni matched the satisfaction of finishing these enormous projects, or of getting good grades for them. Although I don’t intend to pursue an urban design career as a practitioner, the area of the field upon which I would like to focus will definitely make good use of the knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

Posted in Work

Life offline

Today’s blog post explains what life has been like during the past three months.

I’ve had a really busy semester, with eleven pieces of course work due over the twelve week period. I’m nearly finished for this half of the year, and then I’ll have three weeks off with the family, and an additional week off with my mother, sunning ourselves on a Rarotongan beach.

I changed how I approached university this year. 2016 was my first year as a full-time student (this time round, anyway), and it was hard. I felt driven by a lot of self-imposed pressure to achieve very high grades, partially because I was fixated on whether I might want to pursue post-graduate study, which would require scholarships (which are usually contingent on grades), and partially because I have a healthy ego and had fooled myself into thinking that I should do really well at everything. The outcome was good grades, but at the expense of a lot of personal happiness for me and for those who are closest to me: I worked a lot, had many late nights, and was permanently tired, which was stressful for all concerned.

But this year I got some help from an amazing counsellor I know, and devised a strategy that would better enable a reasonable work-life balance. Amongst other things, this included:

  1. Treating uni like a job: working there all day, but not taking work home with me in the evening;
  2. Acknowledging that, when my degree is finished, nobody will care what marks I received for each assignment, or even what my grades were for each paper I sat; and
  3. Recognising that, while it is important to be ambitious, it is equally important to be happy.

For the most part I have managed to keep these guidelines in mind. I’ve left my laptop in my locker at the end of the day from Monday to Thursday most of the time, with occasional assignment-related exceptions. I’ve only had three or four very late nights of assignment-writing, and I’ve even managed to cut back on the amount of weekend work I was doing.

The change has been transformative. Although this past semester has been the busiest one to date, I haven’t felt stressed out by it – I’ve had none of that horrible, overwhelmed, ‘the slightest thing is going to reduce me to tears’ kind of feeling that was pretty much my default throughout much of 2016. I think the most fruitful change I’ve made was the decision to stop work at the end of each day. I am at uni from 8am until 4.30pm, Monday until Friday, and I spend most of that time in lectures, or working on assignments.

I’ve also learned about opportunity cost from a personal perspective. At the moment, I have to prioritise university, because I don’t have the time and energy to juggle it with a busy social life, for example. This means that the kids and I have far fewer play dates than was the case in 2016. Although I miss my friends, and really enjoy it when we do get to see each other, I know that this period of my life won’t last forever, and I’m better off being realistic about how much time I need for study, rather than cutting my uni time short and paying the price later. Luckily, my friends are lovely, understanding people who totally recognise what I’m up against. My husband is endlessly supportive of my workload, and my children are very tolerant and accepting, and cared for by a wonderful au pair who ensures that their non-kindy time is filled with fun. And I did manage to squeeze in a weekend away with four twin mum friends a few weeks ago, which was just what I needed.

I found it easier to focus on my work after learning about the benefits of mindfulness. I wanted to improve my ability to do one task at a time, instead of attempting to multi-task and not doing anything well. I picked up some tips via the free courses provided by two apps – Calm, and Headspace – and both were excellent. During the first few weeks of the semester I’d listen on my phone during my morning bus ride, and would sit there with my eyes closed and my headphones in, meditating. My habit is now to meditate each evening, when I go to bed. It definitely helps me get to sleep very easily. I need to get better at meditating each morning, to set myself up for the day ahead.

I’ve also tried to eat more healthily this year. My attempts to be a sugar-free abstainer still face occasional hurdles, and I seem to have morphed into a 90% moderator, but I will continue to work on this habit. Another habit I’m trying to develop – regular exercise – remains elusive, and although I’ve been able to link this to a lack of time throughout the semester, I now have time while on study leave, and am still not running every day like I’d intended.

The last change I’ve made this year is the decision to consciously spend less time online, specifically on Facebook. I love Facebook because it enables me to keep updated with my friends’ and extended family’s lives, and because I’m in some fantastic groups, full of amazingly smart and interesting women. When my uni work is going well I don’t find it difficult to be disciplined about staying off Facebook during the day, but if I’m struggling with a tough assignment it is too easy to go online and become embroiled in a fascinating conversation, or mindlessly scroll through people’s updates. To combat this, I’ve asked Tristan to change my Facebook password, so once I’ve logged out, I can’t get in again. I’ve also removed the Facebook app from my phone, so I’m even less tempted. For a few weeks I just had Facebook on our iPad at home, but recently, with two huge deadlines and an exam within ten days of each other, I’ve logged out there as well. I find that, after a day or two, I barely miss it.

Facebook isn’t the only online distraction, and to stop general time-wasting I’ve found a cute app called Forest, to help me be more mindful of the time I waste reading online news when I should be working. It enables you to grow virtual trees while you don’t use your device – and if you give in and leave the app, your tree dies. It’s a visual reminder that you really don’t want to waste time online when you could be working. It’s helped me to keep my phone out of my hand, and my mind on my work, so I think it was $2.99 well spent.

The changes I’ve made are working for me: less stress, better sleep, fewer late nights – and, very surprisingly – higher marks for my course work. I had braced myself for my grades to take a dip, and had told myself that this was an acceptable trade-off in light of the benefits of my new approach. Yay for happy side effects!