Skip to content

Photo of a Dead End sign at the intersection with a street called Faith.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from Skott Яeader's Flickr feed.

Mostly when I do grad school workshops with students, we talk about grad school questions. But every now and then, students will get me one-on-one and express their ambivalence about their academic paths; they have so many things they are interested in and so many directions they could go in, and they don't know which to pursue.

It is painful knowing that there are so many possibilities, and that to choose from among them is to foreclose (at least for a time) on others. And I can't make that decision for them, nor should I, especially since we've often only just met. So here is what I tell them:

Do the thing that you want more than anything and that also terrifies you.

Rudolf Otto, writing in The Idea of the Holy, referred to this quality as the numinous: our sense of holiness is characterized by two qualities: the fascinans, our sense of fascination or desire that draws us in, and the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery of the divine that scares the bejeesus out of us.

I'm not much of a religious person, but Otto's description of the numinous evokes my childhood obsession with Dead End signs. I always insisted my parents drive past them at night, because they invoked that special mix of fascination and dread.

What lay beyond the dead end? I was dying to know.

The experiences that had resulted from my chasing the dead end signs in my life, entering into terra incognita (Here be dragons!), were the most profound and transformative, and the truest to who I was.

My first experience with that was in a middle school literature class. I adored my literature teacher, Mr. Pope. I also couldn't do what he asked of me: write in a writer's journal. For the first time, I was being asked to put something of my own self on the page. And so I stared at that blank page for hours. I tried really hard. I'd sometimes get a small handful of pages in, and switch notebooks because I was too scared to have it all in one place. I lied far more often than was believable about having "forgotten" my journal.

I also struggled with writing more than two sentences of a five-paragraph essay about the novels and short stories we read. I just couldn't do it. Mr. Pope gave me more grace than I perhaps deserved, but it was the grace I needed.

And so, not knowing whether I would even pass or not — and you have no idea how much this straight-A kid would have been made to suffer had I gotten any less than a B — I took creative writing in high school. I was determined to learn to write. I was also terrified. I wrote some lousy short stories, but then, when we learned to write poetry, I hit my stride.

These days, writing is a core part of my identity, and I have a reputation in my department as a "beautiful writer." It's hard to imagine I was once a person who found it painfully impossible.

I've chased dead end signs a few more times now. Taking counselling courses at the community college? Terrifying. Going back to university after having previously crashed and burned in spectacular fashion? Also terrifying. Pursuing graduate studies and writing a book-length thesis? Utterly unnerving.

That fear-combined-with-desire is a sign, a beacon, that something risky-but-wonderful lays beyond it. Follow that feeling, wherever it leads.


I'll admit, I've been struggling lately with my academic writing. I'm in the process of turning my thesis into journal articles and submitting them for publication. It's something I want to do, but I've also been feeling a lot of pressure because I want to apply to PhD programs this year, and I know how important the length of my publication list is. Even though I know I need to be reading, and I want to be reading to scratch the itch of curiosity that brought me to academia in the first place, I've been focusing on the writing because that is the product I will be judged on. And so I spend a lot of time unproductively staring at a draft of an article.

In my stuckness, I turned to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega. I think of Raul (I asked if I could call him that) as the guy who studies water use around the world — he's a scholar of natural resource governance and public policy — but academics in a wide variety of disciplines follow him because he is the Muse of Good Scholarly Habits. So I asked him about his reading to writing ratio:

I was stunned that it was roughly a 1:1 ratio. What I also found interesting was that, even when he has more time, he spends a maximum of four hours doing that work. I've seen that figure — an upper daily limit of 3-4 hours of deep work — elsewhere. I went on to express the angst I'd been feeling. To which he helpfully responded:

And that's when everything clicked: the work of scholarship, indeed, the work of life, is largely prep work. And in this case, the prep work — reading and learning — is the most joyful part of the process. No wonder I was having a hard time!

I'd been skeptical of this idea; indeed, I'll admit that even though I've followed Raul since forever, I'd been skeptical of the time he spent on process. And, as much as I've wanted to implement David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) method, I was skeptical of how much time the method itself took. Although I buy and read productivity book after productivity book, I've always balked at these disciplined approaches.

And yet I know Raul is highly productive. Not just that, but Raul is happily productive. He clearly knew something I didn't.

And then I realized where my resistance lay.

It comes down to framing. Oh sure, my father always talked about productivity as "Work smart, not hard," but in implementation, it was "Work faster so you can work more."

If I finished my homework early, I had to undergo the aversive, painful process of him scrutinizing my homework, quizzing me on the things I studied, or editing my writing, so I would stretch everything out until it was late enough that I thought I might reasonably escape.

Sometimes, I would hide a fiction book inside my textbooks so it looked like I was studying.

He tried timers. He made me watch hours of videos on study methods like SQ3R, and then scrutinized my implementation. I always overachieved, but I never got more efficient, because there was never a payoff. The few months that he worked nights were perhaps the most productive of my early school career.

That was what separated Raul's method from my madness. For much of my life, good habits had resulted in less happiness. For him, good habits had always resulted in more happiness.

This is why I became a motivation researcher: I had always struggled with getting myself to do things, and even to know what it was that I wanted to do. What I learned from my theoretical framework (self-determination theory) was that you can't make yourself do anything. Oh sure, you can for a short while, but it always falls apart. You'll find a way to cheat the system, as I did when I hid a book inside my textbooks to drag out my homework. You'll skip the parts of the process that are crucial but that no one will reward you for. And you will never be happily productive.

That's why reading productivity books never made me more productive; I was targeting the wrong part of the process. I first had to find a meaningful-to-me reason to be productive, and then I would willingly experiment and adopt whatever habits and methods seemed right for me. And I had to continually reinforce my own reasons over the "pressure trap," which is (I realize now) why GTD incorporates a frequent review of visions and goals.

Why are we really doing this? Surely it isn't to get straight A's, get into a grad program, or get tenure. Surely it's because, deep down, we love this work and we want to keep doing it. We should start by making sure we keep the work lovable.

One thing that seems to help is the idea of prep work as streamlining, and this is what Raul was getting at with his admonition to read lots and write only as much as you have to. Here's another helpful framing that's stuck with me for months:

And with that, I am off to read some articles so I can spend as little time as possible on my writing.