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Different reading strategies I: Skimming, scribbling and crosslinking

While I took a course in speed reading when I was very, very young (probably 8 or 9 years old, at the most), and I can speed read, there are times when I, too, find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading I need to do. While I’ve written before on how you can be strategic about it and you don’t need to Read All The Things, even though I’ve written on 8 strategies to keep up with reading during teaching-heavy semesters, and how integrating your reading with your writing can help you out, I always find that there’s a lot I more need to read. There is always something else that needs to be read (and graduate students’ work actually takes a lot of time to read and provide feedback on!).

Reading strategies

During a conversation with Dr. Pat Thomson (who also writes about, and studies academic writing) on Twitter, she mentioned that there is always a repertoire of strategies, that no writing or reading or planning or organizing strategy can be applied to all cases, and that students and early-career scholars must learn how to create a repertoire.

I agree with Pat’s viewpoint, and in this set of blog posts I’m going to describe my own strategy to keep up with reading by using different reading strategies. I’ve written about how I always read the paper even if briefly (skimming) and THEN decide what to do with it. This is the Touch One Time rule that I describe in my Protocol “From PDF to Memorandum”.

The first strategy one needs to apply (and I’m definitely the first one to use it) is “skimming“. That is, you don’t need to read the full paper in detail, you can read *some* components of the paper in enough detail that you can either

  • (a) write a rhetorical precis,
  • (b) start drafting (and follow up, when you have more time) an in-depth memorandum, or
  • (c) write notes to yourself cross-linking with research you’ve done or you’ve seen.

Many people do this three-stages process (skimming, note-taking and cross-linking) on the reference manager of their choice (I use Mendeley). I don’t usually do that, however. What I do is that I write notes to myself on an adhesive piece of paper (Post-It notes) that I then locate on the margins of the physical journal volume (I don’t like highlighting or scribbling on my physical versions of journals – I treat them like my books) and/or on the margins of the journal article or book chapter, if it is printed.

Once I finish skimming the article/book chapter/document, I copy my comments on to my Everything Notebook (or, if I plan to write a full memorandum, on to the draft of my memorandum).

There is, I acknowledge, a solid advantage to doing the skimming, scribbling and cross-linking online (using a memorandum strategy): you already have the draft text that you could edit and then copy on to a manuscript’s literature review. But as I’ve written before often, I am very analog. I learn better when I write by hand. Plus, it’s easier and faster to do a mind-map when I need to link several different ideas.

Different authors will tell you how they skim (some people teach skimming and scanning simultaneously – where skimming is reading-superficially and scanning is reading-by-finding-a-key-element-throughout). Some of them will read only the abstract, others will read the abstract, the introduction and the conclusions. Others will do (as I recommend my own students) to read the first sentence of each paragraph of the article. Here’s a brief guide on how to skim and scan.

Regardless of the strategies you use to do fast reading (skimming or scanning), I always recommend that you always scan/skim, scribble and cross-link with the other stuff you are reading. That way, you can build a better conceptual map, more accurately, and you can also reach concept saturation in your literature review faster.

Posted in academia.

Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance (Hill & Hupe)

Most of the people who know my work in public policy theory and scholarship tend to call me what my good friend, Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) calls me, “The Policy Instruments Guy”. When I was about to start my PhD, I read the work of Dr. Kathryn Harrison (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Michael Howlett (Simon Fraser University). I loved their research, particularly because I was keen to understand why some governments would choose non-regulatory instruments (specifically, voluntary agreements and information disclosure policy instruments). Kathy had studied a few voluntary programs (eco-labeling, Canada’s Accelerated Reduction/Elimination of Toxics program with Dr. Werner Antweiler and the 33/50 program in what is one of Kathy’s most popular journal articles, “Talking with the Donkey“). Mike has done a hell of a lot of work on the design of policy instruments, on policy instrument choice and on the concept of policy portfolios. So, being mentored by Kathy and Mike, it should probably be unsurprising that I am a policy instruments kind of guy.


I am also very interested in, and have done work on the implementation of specific policy strategies, such as the river basin councils for water governance in Mexico, and before, the Mexican pollutant release and transfer registry project, the “Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes”, RETC (you can read many of my publications here). I led a team helping INECC build the National Office for Climate Policy Evaluation in Mexico and am now following its implementation. So, I am always keen to go back to these works.

That’s why this past year, I decided I would go back to the public policy implementation literature. An additional incentive was the fact that I taught the Public Policy Analysis course both in the Spring of 2016 and the Fall of 2016 and therefore, I wanted to teach my students how to analyze the implementation of specific public policies. One of the texts that is touted as a classic now, beyond the traditional and well-read Sabatier and Mazmanian framework for the conditions of good policy implementation or the DeLeon and DeLeon canonical text on the resurgence of policy implementation studies. To be quite frank, I was kind of disappointed about how implementation seemed to be getting a lot of action. To me, policy instrument choice doesn’t really get as much publicity as it should. Why do governments choose to implement some programs over others? This seemed like a much more interesting question to ask. But reading Susan Barrett’s piece on 30 years of public policy implementation literature, and lately the work of Gemma Carey, I’ve come to realize that perhaps implementation theory hasn’t really gotten a lot of traction.

Implementing public policyWhich is why I picked up Hill and Hupe’s “Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance” published by SAGE in 2014. I had read the work of Michael Hill and Peter Hupe a while ago, specifically this particular book but in the previous versions, but this one seemed really interesting because it purported to combine implementation theory with the study of governance. For those of us who study governance and public policy theories, any publication with the word in the title becomes immediately interesting. I was particularly keen to see if Hill and Hupe would analyze the complex interactions that derive from applying governance theories to the implementation of public policy. I was also looking forward to seeing how Hill and Hupe distinguished operational governance from other models or modes of governance (strategic? tactical?)

Since governance (a la RAW Rhodes) implies in one way or another a multi-level approach to interactions across actors and a broad range of variations of institutional and organizational architectures, implementation of any sort of public policy in a context of a non-top-down type of political and policy regime becomes a challenge. How can you easily implement a bottom-up approach where street-level bureaucrats are able, through their day-to-day routines, put in place, run and maintain a specific public service delivery program, when the top-level politicians do not offer buy in?

I am definitely not disappointed in Hill and Hupe’s new version of their acclaimed book. I really enjoyed reading it (I read it early last year in preparation for my Public Policy Analysis class, then I re-read it over my holidays last December). I do have to say, though, that although the breadth of coverage of policy implementation research and theory is vast, I didn’t find many women or under-represented minorities represented in the literature that they covered. For me, the work of Renate Mayntz was fundamental in helping me understand bureaucracies and how policies were implemented. Not that Hill and Hupe overlooked her (they do cite her work), but Mayntz is definitely one of the main authors in the policy implementation theory, alongside Linda DeLeon (who also published with Peter DeLeon), and Susan Barrett. In my view, Mayntz is as much of an authority and key author as Sabatier and Mazmanian, or Hill and Hupe themselves. This over-representation of male, Western scholars is not a bit surprising to me, but it is kind of annoying because I make a concerted effort to include women and under-represented minorities in my syllabi and my citations.

The vast majority of the book is a macro literature review on implementation studies, which is nice and sort of re-summarizes their own previous research, plus Sabatier, Mazmanian, Mayntz, Barrett, Pressman, Wildavsky, etc. Chapter 1 is a nice explanation of why they examine governance and what it means for implementation studies. Chapter 2 and 3 summarize the state of the art in implementation studies and the top-down/bottom-up approach. It’s in Chapter 4 where Hill and Hupe examine policy implementation theories across the board and bring up the notion of policy networks, which is important to do if you think about the fact that governance is primarily concerned with networked, decentralized, non-hierarchical models of interactions across agents. Chapter 5 to me felt a bit like it was there as space filler, because I really didn’t think we needed yet another discussion on the role of the state. But then again, a number of my colleagues just published a series of editorials in the journal Governance on whether the public administration literature is neglecting the state, so maybe I am the one who is in the wrong here.

Chapter 7 summarizes how the policy process framework links to the governance literature and the role that implementation plays, as well as a discussion on studying implementation as governance research. Frankly, this section seemed to me overwrought but I think it’s worth having this kind of discussion. Chapter 7 gets to the nitty-gritty details of how we research implementation, where Chapter 8 focuses on how we actually implement implementation research (yes I know this sounds horrendous, but it’s pretty much what Hill and Hupe are discussing in this chapter). Finally, Chapter 9 on the future of implementation studies does something completely bizarre: goes back to the distinction between governance and implementation (e.g. “studying governance” and “studying implementation”) instead of a combined “studying implementation within an operational governance context”, which was the whole premise of the book.

Overall, I loved Hill and Hupe and it will be a book I will be referring back to, although I should also sing the praises of a book edited by Dr. Gemma Carey, and Professors Kathy Landvogt and Jo Barraket, Creating and Implementing Public Policy. I am really looking forward to reading this edited volume, because the cross-sectoral perspective sounds extraordinarily promising. Plus, it allows me to shift again the gender balance away from simply citing and including in my syllabus the works of white males. Again, Hill and Hupe remain a must-read book and I look forward to spending more time working with it and re-reading it for my future policy implementation projects.

Posted in academia, governance, policy analysis, policy instruments, public administration, public policy theories.

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6 strategies to focus on writing (or research)

If there’s a downside to being a polymath is that everything looks interesting. If I don’t control myself (and I have to be quite strict about this), I can easily spend hours down the rabbit hole of Twitter and Facebook, or the depths of the internet. Distractions come easy to me, sad as this may sound. However, there are a few things I do purposefully to be able to focus. I am going to share these in this post. But first, a bit of background.


Photo credit: Michael Dales, Creative-Commons-Licensed on Flickr

I was showing my Mom last night the gift I got from one of my administrative assistants (a collection of Herbert Von Karajan directing Mozart, Chopin, Brahms and a few other composers’ works). Normally, I use classical music to write, and other types of music to do different tasks. This conversation with Mom made me realize I need to engage in actual “hacks” or “tricks” to force myself to focus. Focusing isn’t something that comes naturally to me, I’ve developed it through hard work (so much so that last year, my Word of the Year was FOCUS)

Here are some hacks I use. Some of them may be quite obvious, and simple, but they do work for me.

1. I physically close my laptop for at least 30 minutes every morning.

As anybody who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter knows, I wake up every single morning at 4 am to start working (usually, writing). Most of the time, I write in an uninterrupted 2 hour block. I have been doing this for quite a few years now, and this strategy works well for me. Obviously, I am as tempted as anyone else to check my email or Twitter as soon as I wake up. I fight this urge with all my might. So I use a simple trick: I close my laptop and leave my working materials on a clean working surface every morning. Doing this allows me to free-write by hand, or read a journal article, a book or a book chapter, and highlight and scribble notes on paper (be it on the margins of the paper or in my Everything Notebook).

Closing my laptop and clearing my desk forces me to do something that is NOT reading Twitter, Facebook or sending emails. 30 minutes of focus on non-computer-related tasks does wonders for my concentration. This effort often pays off by actually helping me concentrate further.

2. Once I start a piece of work, I force myself to concentrate for AT LEAST 30 minutes

I know that if I allow myself to be interrupted during a task, I will always be interrupted. So I set up a timer and I set it at 30 minutes. Contrary to the Pomodoro method, which establishes that you should work for 25 minutes and force yourself to take a break of 5 minutes, I let my brain continue working if I’m still concentrated. From my own experience, my brain starts to wander after 90 minutes, so if I can concentrate for 30 minutes, chances are I’ll be able to go for 45, 60, 75 or 90 minutes non-stop. The lower limit for me is always 30 minutes, though.

I’ve always advocated that even 15 minutes helps, so you can do the same as well (e.g. concentrate for at least 15 minutes). This focused, concentrated time is what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, and Srinivas Rao calls “uninterrupted creation time“.

I find that it is particularly easy for me to concentrate if I follow the PDF-to-Memo-or-Rhetorical-Precis Protocol. Touch One Time rule, academic’s edition.

3. I only write listening to classical music

I love 80s, 90s and 2000s music, as well as jazz, acid jazz, soft rock and chill-out music. I can work listening to all of these. HOWEVER, if I am writing, I ONLY listen to classical music. That way I can focus easily because I’m not even listening to rhythm (and there are no vocals). I do NOT use opera, because I associate opera with my Mom and my brother, and my mind wanders to happy occasions when we’ve gone to concerts together. I primarily listen to piano concerts, though I’m open to violin and other orchestral arrangements. But for example, when I am writing a blog post, I usually listen to acid jazz or chill/house music. This kind of music is also instrumental but allows me to focus on another type of writing. I’ve also associated classical music with writing in such a strong way that when I am driving to campus and I start listening to this type of music, my first instinct is to want to stop and open my laptop and start writing! (yes, a bit Pavlovian).

#AcWri at the Radisson Paraiso Ajusco Hotel

4. I tackle a couple of easy Quick Wins, then a more complex/tedious/involved task.

This is something I learned when I was playing competitive volleyball. My trainer would always start us off with drills that would be enjoyable for us, and where we would perform well (for me, this was hitting from the 4th position, and receiving when balls were served against me – I have always been very competent at both tasks). Then he would ask us to focus on a less-exciting task, but one we needed to get competent at. I would usually choose blocking, because that was what I wasn’t really good at at the time. Believe it or not (and I know it’s just anecdata and N=1) but it worked, and my performance with regards to how many blocks I could perform would increase.

My research process (highlighting - making notes)

I do the same now. Usually, a Quick Win for me is writing a couple of rhetorical precis on a couple of articles, or 500 words of a memorandum of a paper I’ve already highlighted, plus highlighting another article. I love reading and I love highlighting and summarizing articles, those are some of the strong, easy things-to-do that I can assign as Quick Wins, before engaging in a more involved process.

Another Quick Win I use is dumping quotations from one article into my Excel conceptual synthesis worksheet. So, I schedule a couple of Quick Wins, THEN one annoying or more engaging task. That usually engages me for the rest of the 2 hours block (and even if it’s just re-arranging or line-editing or free-writing, that one task feels a lot more rewarding).

5. I set specific deadlines throughout the week (by day) and throughout the day (by the hour), and reward myself when I comply with them.

For example, if I know that a student of mine needs a letter of reference, and I know for a fact that the deadline is a specific day, I set myself up to finish writing the letter BY 4PM OF 24 HOURS BEFORE THE LETTER’S DEADLINE. Or for example, if I’m feeling unfocused but I know that I have a meeting with a colleague, I read everything they expect me to read and/or finish whichever task we agreed upon by at least 3 HOURS BEFORE the meeting. That way, I feel like I accomplished stuff, and I don’t let myself feel overwhelmed. I think to myself “well, if I finish reading this piece by 11am, I can go for a quick walk around campus, and be ready for my 2pm meeting“.

6. I set the menial tasks for when I’m low on energy or focus.

My workflow at my CIDE office

For example, I know it’s hard for me to concentrate right after lunch (and I try hard to eat a small amount of food every 2-3 hours). Thus, I normally set my To-Do list to finish menial tasks (what I call, The Grunt Work). Cleaning references in Mendeley. Sending emails to set up meetings. Clearing my desk and sorting and filing (using the Four Tray Method I wrote about a few weeks back).

As I’ve said, concentrating and focusing is hard for me too, so hopefully the strategies I use will be also useful for you if you, like me, have a hard time with concentration and focus!

Posted in academia.

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Recognizing heterogeneity in academia: There is no magic bullet for anything

While I write about ways in which I have improved my academic writing, or become more systematic and organized in the way I develop my literature reviews, and my own workflow, I am keenly aware that the techniques I use, the hacks I implement and the suggestions I provide can’t be implemented by every single scholar under the sun. If you have ever taken a class with me, that’s basically what I tell you on the first day and what I hope all my students will learn throughout the course of my lectures: Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). Or in more academic terms: we ought to recognize the heterogeneity of our target populations.

I teach and research on public policy analysis, implementation, evaluation and public policy theories (what is called the policy sciences field). I more than anyone am aware of the need to recognize that we can’t offer blanket advice for everyone, simply because we are all members of different target populations. I wake up every single day at 4 am so that I can start working. Academic mothers, and some academic fathers who may share in baby care duties, will find it next to impossible to wake up at 4 am when they have been basically unable to sleep.

While I have shown symptoms of chronic fatigue, I am in no way afflicted by any type of chronic illness or disability that impedes my working progress. I have no learning disabilities, and while I have several allergies and my visual acuity is reduced, I am for all practical purposes an able-bodied scholar. I am afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder when it’s rainy and dark and during those times I will experience some very minor symptoms of depression, but I have never been clinically depressed, nor have I faced anxiety as a clinical condition. Thus, I can’t claim to know what a scholar with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc. can feel.

I am keenly aware of the fact that we (academics) all belong to different populations, and each individual is unique. Therefore, I really try hard to make sure that everyone who reads my blog post is well aware of the privileged circumstances from where I write. I have smart, hard-working, reliable and dependable research assistants and sometimes teaching assistants. My teaching load is low (2-0 or 2-1, depending on the year). I have been able to win extramural and internal grants and obtain generous funding to do the research I do. I’m on a tenure line position. Not everyone is as lucky and privileged as I am, and I am the first to recognize it. I try to use my privilege to champion for and help those at the margins and disadvantage.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog post, which focuses on the notion of deep work as championed by Cal Newport, and the idea of the slow professor. I am very much sympathetic to, and champion the idea of slow scholarship. But it’s true that not everybody can afford to do “deep work”, not everyone can afford to sit down, think through ideas, relax and publish fewer pieces more well-though-out. Therefore, it is fundamental that we recognize that there is enormous heterogeneity within academia. That those of us who are privileged enough to be able to engage in slow scholarship champion those who aren’t as privileged. That those of us who are able-bodied academics also work to help those who aren’t. Not only do we owe it to ourselves and to our disciplines and profession to use our privilege to help those at the margins, those disadvantaged and marginalized, we also owe it to our society as a whole. We also ought to recognize this inherent heterogeneity and in doing so, accept that not everyone can follow the advice that we so joyfully (and earnestly) offer.

Sometimes, the best advice is NOT giving any advice. Lend an ear, offer syllabi, reading materials, lecture slides to contingent faculty, ask faculty facing challenges such as chronic illness, or mental health issues, or disability – how can I help you? How can I help create better conditions for your work? I have found that sometimes even just listening and educating ourselves on the challenges that these populations face is helpful.

I try to do this online by supporting a few excellent initiatives, such as Chronically Academic, Conditionally Accepted, The Academic Mental Health Collective (AMHC 2016) and the PhDisabled blog. I regularly promote their Twitter accounts and their blog posts. I also run my syllabi through intersectionality tests, and actively promote, cite and teach with the work of women and scholars of color. And whenever anyone who is a member of a marginalized or disadvantaged population reaches out to me, I try really hard to listen, understand and offer whichever help I can.

Moreover, one element that was pointed out to me by a fellow tenure-line assistant professor, Sarah Shulist (who is Mom to two toddlers) is that we need to restructure the conditions of academia in a way that is more accessible to marginalized, under-represented and non-traditional groups. That the set of goals and requirements that we ought to fill (service, teaching, research, and actually having a personal life, fulfilling for us and for our loved ones, and our families) are rather incompatible. Can we actually have it all within academia as it is structured right now? With competing demands for our time and energy, and the large degree of heterogeneity that exists within academic individuals and groups, each one of these demands affects each academic (student, professor, contingent faculty) in differentiated ways.

Only recognizing that yes, we are all part of the same academic community, but that we are all different and that there is inherent heterogeneity in our profession, we may be able to begin outlining different, focalized strategies that can help those at the margins, chronically ill, suffering from mental health issues and facing challenges as disabled people, we will be able to create ways to make our society more equitable. We also ought to recognize that academia itself as a profession and a guild needs to change substantially to offer ways to make those often impossibly hard-to-fulfill tasks more amenable to families and individuals, even more so those facing hardship and health challenges.

Basically, as my friend KJ Shepherd said to me (in a read of a draft of this post), I am “advocating that people who have the privilege to talk about their best practices not unduly center their experiences. And I think that’s important to mention when, on the one hand, we have an extraordinarily hierarchical academic labor system–and, on the other hand, we have social media and blog networks that value the ‘approachable expert.’ It’s easy for those blessed to have status in both environments not to see the systems as they are.”

We need a more human, and humane academia. Let’s work towards that goal.

With thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom, KJ Shepherd and Sarah Shulist for a very generous and kind read of this post, your insight was very useful!

Posted in academia.

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2017 resolutions: Getting a NO Committee

I promised myself I wouldn’t ever make New Year’s Resolutions. To me, they seem much more like dreams and wishful thinking than an actual plan to achieve something. HOWEVER, I have realized in the past few weeks that I didn’t really make any resolutions even though I do have a grand plan for the year 2017 (and quite a detailed one, as you may have read from my previous blog posts on project planning). I did decide, however, that this year I would get myself a NO Committee. You’ll see, the hardest word for me to say is NO.


Photo credit: SBoneham, Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr.

I pretty much NEVER say NO to a peer review. I’m an associate editor of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (JESS) and thus I am often the one who calls in favours. Because of that, I try really hard to never say NO to a peer review. Who knows, I may need to request that person whom I said no a review, and then how am I going to have the guts to say “oh, I didn’t review for you, but BY THE WAY, can you review this manuscript for me?”. So not going to happen.


Photo credit: DuncanC on Flickr, Creative-Commons Licensed.

I pretty much NEVER say NO to a student, even if that student isn’t my supervisee, my mentee, or even a student at CIDE. Just about every request that a student sends me, I fulfill it. I always had amazing mentors and professors and I wouldn’t want any student to feel unsupported. So I just about never say NO to a student’s request.


Photo credit: DuncanC on Flickr. Creative-Commons Licensed

I pretty much NEVER say NO to a good friend’s request. Given that so many of them are academics, these requests are often accompanied by petitions to read a paper, peer-review a paper, revise a grant proposal, etc. It’s important to me that they grow and I also had people read my grants, revise my papers, etc. So, I try to always say YES to those requests.


This inability to say NO means that I often say YES so much that I find myself having terrible years when I’m about to collapse and die of overwork (yes, it’s happened twice in the last four years and no, it’s not pretty). This drive to always say YES means that I also often find myself overstretched, even though I’m pretty protective of my writing, reading and research time, and of my holidays. I’m always preaching how we should protect our time as early career researchers (which I have to say, I’m good at doing with reading, writing and research/fieldwork, but less so when it comes to last-minute requests or petitions from journalists, students and faculty outside my own institution)

In the past couple of years, I’ve become better at saying NO, but I always have a lingering question on the back of my mind: “should I have said YES to that thing I just said NO to?” Therefore, in 2017, I am getting myself a NO Committee. I had heard about this notion (or similar ones) from several academics in my circle of friends. Dr. Harriet Bulkeley (Durham University) has a group of friends and colleagues who are also academics, informally called “Opportunities Anonymous“. They give each other feedback on potential opportunities and prevent each other from saying YES too often (I do know many of the participants in that group, and they’re good friends of mine too).

Professor Vilna Bashir Treitler wrote on Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog about getting oneself a NO Committee. So, in 2017, I am getting myself one. I have had a No Committee before (usually my Mom and Dad, and my brother Arturo – my Mom is a professor of political science and my Dad taught law for many years, and Arturo is a tenured, full professor at California State University Los Angeles), but this time I am going to have one that is completely outside of my family.


Photo credit: Dawn on Flickr, Creative Commons Licensed

Getting myself a NO Committee doesn’t mean that I’m going to shirk from my responsibilities. It means that I’m going to be even more protective of my time (yes, that can actually happen much to a lot of people’s surprise). This means becoming more strategic with what I say YES to. I am often invited to participate things that count much less for our research system. So, I have to learn how to say NO to those. I have been invited to participate in events where I should have just stayed behind and rested. I also have to learn how to say NO to those.

I am actually quite pleased with how I planned my 2017. Every single conference and workshop I’m attending is pre-planned, and I am ready and prepared to the travel I am planning to do. But the only way I could do this was by taking days of holiday where I could simply stay back, sit down and reflect on what I had to do and how I could still do rigorous research, fieldwork AND have a personal life. Despite my systematic approach to managing my time and workload, I am human and still have a lot to learn in the realm of how to manage my time. So, I decided to be very strict about what I said YES to in 2017.

And I’m looking forward to saying NO more often. Listening to my NO Committee. Reflect more on the grand scheme of things.

It’s a lesson I still have to learn.

Posted in academia.

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My word of 2017: CONQUER

As I noted in a previous post, despite the fact that globally 2016 was a horrible year, for me it was amazing. I reached levels of growth I never thought could be possible. And as I usually do, I’m reflecting on my Word of the Year (an exercise my good friend Mat Wilcox has been doing for decades). Last year’s Word of the Year was FOCUS. I promised myself that, no matter what, I wouldn’t succumb to the temptation of extending myself too thin. That I would focus on my own work and my own research and on one set of topics instead of wanting to Do All The Things and participate in All The Events. As anybody who knows of my polymath tendencies, I tend to be interested in a very broad range of things. This means that sometimes I extend myself too thin (there are only so many hours in the day). So, overcoming my own FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in 2016 was really, REALLY hard.

But I did.

I could FOCUS.


Deep Cove, Indian Arm, Quarry Rock (North Vancouver)

So many things have (luckily) come to me really easily. I am a professor and hold a PhD, partly because I love learning, I love reading, and I love analyzing data, thinking about complex problems, explaining phenomena. But I am capable of reading this much and learning this much (and I recognize my privilege) because I am physically abled and I speed-read, I touch type in excess of 90 words per minute (often recording 100 words per minute), and I have a quasi-eidetic memory. Some of these things have come to me naturally (the good memory), but also through hard work (the typing speed and the speed-reading). But in no way, shape or form have I had to conquer myself to achieve these things. I love reading, I love typing and I love learning and absorbing information.

So, yes, I have worked hard to do what I do, but I have not conquered my dislike of any of these, simply because I love them. I love doing a lot of things that many people find hard to do, boring or too challenging. I have conquered relatively tough hikes, for example the one shown above in Indian Arm/Quarry Rock in North Vancouver (Deep Cove) because I LOVE hiking. I don’t conquer my fear of heights because I don’t have one. I don’t conquer a fear of crowds or public speaking because I don’t have one. Even the minor degree of claustrophobia that manifested itself last year is gone.

But I know 2017 will bring me many challenges. I will need to conquer them all to succeed. I know there are many fights out there that I will have to conquer my own instinct to meddle in these and participate, and just stay on the sidelines. I know there are many topics that will appear appealing to me, and I will need to conquer my own drive to start a new research project.


Photo credit: Lynn Alexander. Creative-commons-licensed, on Flickr.

somebody is wrong on the internetPerhaps the toughest challenge I will have to conquer is my combativeness. I tend to be belligerent (not unreasonable, I just simply like a good fight), and that’s part of my martial arts training, my competitive volleyball training and my upbringing. When I was a teen, I was bullied relentlessly. I learned martial arts to fight back. And the combativeness has never left me. I am the kind of academic who, when reading something or listening to someone say something wrong, I NEED to correct them.

When I see something wrong, I need to fix it. I know, I’m horrible.

And that’s what I need to conquer: the many challenges facing 2017. My own combativeness. My FOMO. The reality of a new global order where compliance with rules is diminished and institutions are eroded. There are so many things to overcome, challenges to be conquered, and I want to push myself every single day to conquer something. To be better than I was yesterday. To stop myself when I want to engage in a futile fight (these are quite abundant on Twitter, let me tell you!).

My word of 2017 is CONQUER because I think I am capable of overcoming the challenges that are coming up in 2017. I’ll work harder than I did in 2016, but with a smarter, more focused approach.

Posted in academia.

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My year in review: 2016, an amazing year of successes

It almost feels awful to write that 2016 was perhaps my best year yet (professionally speaking), given all the losses of great artists, scientists and all the other negative things that happened this year. But it’s true. 2016 was, to me, an amazing year of success-after-success.

Thanks, Yale University for a lovely experience at #EGAP18

2016 in review, month by month

I started the 2016 year exhausted and sick, as I normally do. Usually I end up so tired from the previous semester (I teach 2 courses each Fall semester, and combine that with committee work, service to the discipline, workshops, travel, fieldwork and my own personal life) that I fall ill. Last year wasn’t an exception. I ended 2015 sick, but I think that was because my holidays were even more stressful than my semester. I loved travelling with my brothers and their families, don’t get me wrong, but it was a tad too intense and too cold for my liking.

Towards the end of January and beginning of February, I went to Madrid to do fieldwork for three weeks for several of my research projects: informal waste picking, sanitation and wastewater governance, and bottled water. Don’t get me wrong, I love Madrid. I loved doing fieldwork and got a lot of really interesting data and insights. But the truth is, doing this at the beginning of the year reminded me of why I hate how the semesters are designed here at CIDE and how much I prefer the quarter system that we had in Canada (12 weeks). On normal semesters at CIDE, we teach anywhere between 13 and 16 weeks. 13 weeks is decent but since the Spring semester cuts almost into June, it’s really hard to have a large chunk of time to do fieldwork, write and think. I would prefer a Spring semester that started January 4th and finished May 3rd.

Bottled water in Madrid

Before I left, I was asked last-minute to teach Public Policy Analysis, a course I’ve taught before while at UBC, but one that required me to revamp my toolkit, re-read all the literature and re-construct a syllabus, using women, scholars of color and other under-represented minorities. Since I had already scheduled all my commitments for the spring, I had to juggle teaching in a semester I don’t normally teach with a very intense and travel-heavy schedule. This was terrible for my health and my levels of stress. But I am happy that I did teach the course, and happy that I taught an extended version in the Fall of 2016. Plus, I survived, and didn’t miss any lectures (except for a couple due to health issues)!

In February I had to do a lot of work with my graduate students, Laura (who recently graduated with a Masters in Journalism and Public Affairs), and Alfredo (who just graduated with a Masters in Public Policy and Administration). Both of them worked in my bottled water project, and they spent a week with me and my research assistants Daniela and Karina working on the beginnings of a collective book project on bottled water in Mexico, which I am assembling and editing. Fantastic experience, but again, a lot of stress because I needed to dedicate a lot of time to working with my students, both undergraduate and graduate. I love supervising theses, and these projects are fantastic, so it was a lot of fun in the end. I also taught a workshop for a small municipality in Jalisco on policy design.

In March I went to ISA in Atlanta, which was amazing because I got to see a lot of my friends. My panel on the global politics of water was very well received, and I got to hang out with my friends and collaborators Dustin Garrick (Oxford University), Christiana Peppard (Fordham University), Oriol Mirosa (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) and Cecilia Tortajada (National University of Singapore). I also got to hang out with a lot of my good friends, and have my first working meeting for our ISA 2017 paper with Amanda Murdie (University of Georgia), which is going to be a fantastic paper.

ISA 2016 WC15 Global  Water Governance

I also got to discuss our informal e-waste governance in Mexico and the US research project and hang out with my good friend and coauthor Kate O’Neill (University of California, Berkeley). I also had dinner with my mentor and good friend Kathy Harrison (The University of British Columbia) and with Oriol and his fiancee. Overall, an amazing time. I usually have a fantastic time at ISA. Saw lots of good friends, ate great food, managed to think a lot about my work on bottled water.

Also in March, I went to San Diego (a city I adore) for Western Political Science Association (WPSA)’s meeting. I got to meet with Andrew Biro (Acadia University), hang out with my good friend Janni Aragon, and meet lots and lots of excellent political scientists with whom I had corresponded but never met. I love WPSA and I’m glad I’m doing it next year too. I organized a panel on the governance of water during times of crisis and got to reconnect with my good friend Abby York (Arizona State University). Both Abby and I are Bloomington-trained, and thus scholars of the Ostrom tradition, so it was great to hang out again. Our panel was great and I am glad I got to hang out with Leila Harris (The University of British Columbia) again, since our interest in the geographies of water are very similar.

WPSA16 Western Political Science Association (San Diego, California)

One thing I had promised myself during 2016 is that I would focus. So the vast majority of my work this year showcased what I have been studying in regards to the governance of bottled water. I also managed to focus on exactly the things I wanted to focus: my own health, my family, my friends, submitting papers to higher-ranked journals, and hanging out with my coauthors and consolidating our friendship.

At the end of March and beginning of April, I went to American University in Washington DC invited by the Center for Latin American Studies and their project, Religion and Climate Change in Cross-Regional Perspective. Thanks to Eric Hershberg and Evan Berry for inviting me. It was an amazing experience for many reasons. As you may all know, I don’t study climate change policy per se. What work I do on climate policy is on evaluation of climate policy instruments and implementation, and adaptation to climate change in the water sector. So this was a much welcome, humbling and eye-opening experience.

Religion and Climate Change Workshop (American University)

I also gave a talk at the School for International Service at American University thanks to the invitation of my friend and colleague Sikina Jinnah. I think the entire experience was fantastic. I love giving talks to PhD students because I find their analysis really on point and their eagerness to engage with the research extraordinarily motivating.


The Religion and Climate Change workshop brought me a lot of new good friends and colleagues, but one that stood out was Gina Drew (University of Adelaide), with whom I share an interest in water governance, sanitation and anthropology, as well as ethnographic methods. Plus our personalities are SO SIMILAR!

Religion and Climate Change Workshop (American University)

MPSA2016 selfiesApril was Chicago for MPSA (Midwest Political Science Association). Oh, MPSA how I loved you. How I still love you. I adore ISA, but somehow MPSA also really made me feel at home. I got to see a lot of really good friends of mine, particularly from the policy sciences field, and also those who do experiments. I presented two papers, and got a chance to hang out with dear friends of mine like Milena Ang and Manuel Cabal, both of whom are doing their PhDs at University of Chicago. I always look forward to MPSA, and the one thing I always miss is the opportunity to see more people, to see more papers presented. But one great thing I did here was that I participated in two mentoring sessions for up-and-coming scholars.

This was actually very important to me, because mentorship is a core element of what I want my academic career to have. I am who I am because of amazing mentors I had, so I really want to make sure to pay it forward. Also, I got to meet in person the one and only Janet Box-Steffensmeier, who won a career award for her contributions to political science. Jan is amazing and so kind and generous, I want to be her when I grow up.

Me with Dr. Janet Box-Steffensmeier and Dr. Dino Christenson at MPSA 2016

In April, I also got invited by the Center for International Education to participate in a conference on Water Centric Cities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This conference gave me a chance to spend a lot of quality time with my good friend and coauthor Oriol Mirosa, who is an assistant professor there. Oriol and I are working on a large project on the global human right to water, and this conference gave us a chance to present together in the same panel, and to discuss our research, plus also eat a lot of good food and hang out.

Water Centric Cities (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee)

I also met a lot of really interesting people at the conference, and got to see again Sara Mitchell (University of Iowa), whom I consider a good friend and mentor.

Water Centric Cities (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee)

My good friend Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) came to CIDE in April to work with my colleague (and also good friend) Marcela Lopez-Vallejo and do some research while here. Since Debora and I know each other since before I even started my PhD, it was amazing to have her here again. She’s an excellent scholar and well, I think we all Canadian political scientists know and are friends with each other. Debora was kind enough to engage with my students in a Tertulia meeting and discuss the ins-and-outs of doing policy work, both applied and theoretical.

Tertulia CIDE with Dr. Debora VanNijnatten

For me, being able to take holidays in late April and early May really made the difference with regards to previous years. Even though I went to Pittsburgh for Nadia’s graduation, I managed to stay healthy because I rested, even after all the travel I had been doing in the first four months of the year. I also spent time with my brother’s family (my nieces and I are very close), so it was really good for all of us overall.

In May of 2016 I went to Chiapas (San Cristobal de las Casas, to be exact) to participate in a workshop on the water problems in Mexico that my friend and colleague Edith Kauffer from CIESAS Sureste organized with several other Mexican water scholars. I love these workshops because they are small enough that they allow you to discuss issues and papers and edit them without the pressure of large conferences. I presented some of my work on bottled water and water insecurity, which was well received. We did, however, have several issues with logistics, not the least the fact that the roads to and from San Cristobal de las Casas were blocked by protests against the education reform. An interesting moment to apply what I know about protests and ethnographic work!

I finished teaching Public Policy Analysis the first week of May and then ran off to New York City to present at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). By the time May hit me, I was exhausted and didn’t want anything to do with research. But I had already committed to participating in LASA with my good friend and coauthor Marcela Gonzalez-Rivas (University of Pittsburgh), so I decided to avoid canceling and just flew into NYC for the conference. Got to see many good friends who are also Latin Americanists, but I was really tired by the time I was done with the conference, so I was a bit anti-social, except for a morning when I went for a coffee with my graduate school colleague and close friend Sara Koopman.

LASA 2016 New York City 136

LASA 2016 New York City 086

In June 2016 we had a series of job talks for 3 new positions in my department, which took a lot of my time. I also had to participate in the Public Management Research Conference in Aarhus (Denmark), and a workshop on cities while I was there, so I had to juggle a lot during June. But I don’t regret for a second having attended PMRC. It was an AMAZING experience that allowed me to spend time with friends and colleagues from the Public Administration field, including my good friend and colleague at CIDE, Mauricio Dussauge. I also spent a couple of days with my friends and also scholars of public administration Staci Zavattaro (University of Central Florida) and Kelly LeRoux (University of Illinois at Chicago). We even went to Sweden!

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

In July 2016, my coauthor Kate O’Neill and I hosted an experts workshop to discuss the state of electronic waste governance in Mexico and the US, both in the formal and informal sector. For Kate and I this was the culmination of a project where we got funding from the UC MEXUS CONACYT initiative for cross-national collaborative research between University of California researchers and scholars based in Mexico.

UC MEXUS CONACYT E Waste Workshop July 2016 072

The other great thing I did in 2016 is that I TOOK ALL MY HOLIDAY DAYS. That means, in July (when CIDE is closed), I actually took vacations. I spent three weeks with my brothers, their families and my Mom, which was absolutely glorious. I woke up, ate, read, went to sleep. Other days, we would just hang out. One day we went to the city of Guanajuato. THREE WEEKS OF HOLIDAYS. That made me a lot of good.

I hit the ground running in August. I went to Mexico City for the national meeting for the design of the new Mexican water law in early August. This was a meeting I needed to attend because it also helps tie all my water governance projects together. During this month I also had a visiting student from University of California Berkeley, Nain Martinez, who is doing his PhD there. It was important for me that Nain had a good experience and that he felt supported, so I had to juggle my own calendar with ensuring that Nain had enough contact time with me to discuss his own research. Around the same time, Javier Roiz (a former professor of my Mom’s from when she did her PhD at Universidad Complutense in Spain, and a visiting scholar at CIDE) asked me if he could come down to visit us and give a few talks. So I also organized that visit. Organizing these events takes a toll on everyone because you want to make sure that the visiting scholar is having a good time, and also that everything runs smoothly. My Mom served as the discussant for Javier’s talk and everything worked out very well. But I started the semester very, very tired.

FLACSO guest lecture on qualitative methodsI was invited by my good friend Mario Torrico from FLACSO (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Mexico) to give a talk for their Masters of Comparative Public Policy programme. I am always keen to collaborate with FLACSO scholars, because not only are they top-notch researchers, but they’re also amazing human beings. One of my students with Dr. Ligia Tavera Fenollosa, Pavel Martinez, just graduated this fall from his Masters and I sat on his committee. So, overall, I try to stay close to FLACSO professors. And off I went, again, to Mexico City. I taught them about qualitative methods in comparative public policy, a topic I know well.

FLACSO guest lecture on qualitative methods

September 2016 was a bit of a whirlwind. While my brother and my Mom went to Israel for a well-deserved vacation, I stayed and taught two classes, all the while trying to juggle my research and ensuring that my students finished their theses and graduated on time. Also, Kate O’Neill and I had to finish our project so I headed up to the University of California at Berkeley to work with her and give a couple of talks. It was a fantastic experience and I got to meet Alison Post, who is also a fantastic scholar of remunicipalization and Latin American studies at Berkeley.

The Governance of Bottled Water in Mexico

Perhaps one of my biggest achievements (in addition to finishing the e-waste project with Kate O’Neill, submitting and getting a conditional acceptance of our qualitative methods paper with Kate Parizeau and working with Oriol Mirosa on the human right to water project, Staci Zavattaro on the public administration literature review and Marcela Gonzalez-Rivas on the water governance paradigms project, was winning a $4,000,000 pesos ($200,000 USD) collaborative grant to study water conflict in Mexico. My largest grant by far, and my most interesting project to date. Interdisciplinary, collaborative, and inter-institutional, this project definitely will change the way in which we think about water conflicts in Mexico, and hopefully make a solid contribution to our understanding of the topic globally.

The second huge achievement of 2016 for me was being admitted to the Evidence in Governance and Politics network (EGAP). I am a multi-methods person, but lately I’ve been doing a lot more work with field experiments, so being admitted to EGAP validated my interest in experimental approaches to public policy design and implementation, and participating in EGAP18 at Yale University were highlights not only of my October but my 2016 overall.

Diplomado ProDialogoCIDE  IMTA  MAPP 40 aniversario 127

Diplomado ProDialogoCIDE  IMTA  MAPP 40 aniversario 060

Towards the end of October, I gave a talk on intractable water conflicts at the Mexican Institute of Water Technology and then a lecture in our diploma program at CIDE on conflict transformation, invited by my colleague Mara Hernandez.

Diplomado ProDialogoCIDE  IMTA  MAPP 40 aniversario 234

Diplomado ProDialogoCIDE  IMTA  MAPP 40 aniversario 382

By the beginning of November, I was completely and entirely exhausted. That’s again why I dislike 16 week semesters. Given that we teach 4 hours per week, making for 64 hours per semester, as opposed to 3 hours per week times 13 weeks, which is 39 as I used to do at UBC, students AND faculty alike end up really exhausted during the fall. So, though I teach a 2-0 teaching load, given how many hours I am teaching, I actually have roughly a 4-0 load, or as I did this 2016 with a 1-2, about 2-4. I love teaching, but these many hours do take a toll (both on students and faculty).

I had two events back-to-back, one at El Colegio de San Luis on water justice, and one for an ecosystem integrity project. This meant that I arrived to the end of the term pretty exhausted. HOWEVER, since I had accumulated all my holiday days towards December, I was able to finish the semester earlier than expected. This change in plans meant that I was able to cram one last commitment during the year, which happened in early December. I spoke at a workshop on commons in Latin America, presenting some stuff on the governance of waste and wastewater using Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom’s theories.

Lucky for me, towards the end of November and beginning of December I also had an event organized by El Colegio de Mexico on Mexico-Canada relations. Obviously because of my being Mexinadian I was invited and was lucky to hang out with two friends and colleagues of mine not once, but TWICE: Dr. Laura Macdonald from Carleton University and Dr. Debora VanNijnatten.

I also met Justin Massie and my good friend Julian Durazo-Hermann (who’s also Mexinadian and teaches at Universite du Quebec au Montreal) at the same event. It is always nice to catch up with good friends with whom you have been close for a number of years.

The personal of 2016

On the personal side of things, I am sad to report that I neither played volleyball nor danced nor did I take a dancing class. But that’s the main lesson I learned this year: I NEED TO LEARN HOW TO LET GO OF THINGS. Sometimes, I have Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). I want to Do All The Things. I want to Learn All The Things. I want to Teach All The Classes. I want to supervise and train All The Students and Research Assistants. I want to achieve All The Successes. This is NOT how life works. You can have it all yes, but probably not all at the same time.

This year my niece Nadia graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science and international relations (several of my good friends were also her professors, which made the circle complete). And it’s nice to have 3 generations of political scientists in the family (my Mom, myself and Nadia).

On the social media front…

There were some wins, I have to say! I got invited to blog for The Nature of Cities, and for The Duck of Minerva. And I got some promotion for my work on social media.

Bottom line…

In the end, I felt that 2016 offered me what I didn’t expect to get, given how the year started (with me physically ill and having to teach an entirely new course during a semester I don’t normally teach, all of a sudden): an opportunity to showcase my scholarship and my ability to focus, all the while blossoming in the field I work in. I feel intellectually challenged. I’m motivated by the questions I am examining and passionate about the research I undertake. The problems I’m looking at are complex and intractable. I work hard at making them easier to address and doing this kind of work really excites me. I wake up every morning happy and eager to start working. I feel incredibly fulfilled.

I ate All The Ethiopian food (in Madrid, in Atlanta, in San Diego, in Washington DC, in Chicago, in Milwaukee, in New York City, in Berkeley).

Hanan (Restaurante Etíope) - Madrid, España, Ventura Rodríguez

I spent a lot of quality time with good friends and colleagues and coauthors, did fieldwork, wrote many papers (AND SUBMITTED THEM TO JOURNALS FOR PEER REVIEW, yay me!), and taught many brilliant students (two courses, Regional Development and Public Policy Analysis). My CIDE students make me SO PROUD. They’re brilliant and I’m sure they will do amazing things in the future.

At the end of the day, this was how I closed 2016: with my Mom, in Puerto Vallarta, laying by the pool, and doing exactly nothing. Because that’s how I want to be able to spend my holidays: with the people I love, relaxing, eating good food, and experiencing the beauty of not having anything to do.

To me, relaxation and rejuvenation is also part of my own personal definition of success.

What to expect in 2017

I am obviously anxious about the future of the US. I don’t like what I am witnessing in the US and more importantly, globally. But I am a political scientist. I work hard to make sense of the world, and I’m not alone in this pursuit. Lots of great people are doing their best to make sense of how disastrous 2016 was, and ways in which we can move forward in 2017 and improve our society at all different scales.

I am very much looking forward to closing a few projects (the human right to water one with Oriol, the one on environmental NGOs with Amanda, the e-waste governance one with Kate O’Neill, the informal waste picking one with Kate Parizeau, and several of my own). I’m looking forward to finishing the work we started in 2015 for the polycentricity project, and to participating in an institutional analysis workshop in February. I look forward to working with Sharon Lauricella, Staci Zavattaro, Christiana Peppard, and my own students to finish some projects we started. I am looking forward to finishing a few projects, including three books that I have on the go. And more importantly, I really want to play competitive volleyball this year again, and dance. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it all, even if not all at the same time.

I will continue to blog for The Duck of Minerva, The Nature of Cities and here on my own blog. And obviously I will be tweeting (@raulpacheco if you want to follow me on Twitter, and Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega on Facebook).

Here’s to a better 2017.

Posted in academia.

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Reverse-planning (backcasting) a paper (or a research project)

Funny how some ideas have grounding on different disciplines and yet, we all end up learning more or less the same concept across several of them. I first heard of the concept of future studies (aka futurology) and its idea of backcasting during my Masters’ programme. In particular, the strategic planning literature uses the idea of backcasting first posited in future studies and then adapted to strategic management to introduce how we think about pathways and trajectories towards reaching a goal. I remember I used to love the journal Long Range Planning and would spend entire afternoons reading full volumes of journal issues at the Koerner Library at UBC, and at the Manchester Business School library. I also took project management courses during my Masters, and I’m an engineer, so I think about projects in a project-management kind of framework.

BackCasting with @mmilan

Photo credit: David Armano, Creative-Commons-licensed on Flickr.

In sustainability studies, the concept of backcasting refers to the idea of imagining a sustainable future, and then devising the strategies, pathways and trajectories that would take our society to that point. That’s backwards planning, reverse planning, reverse engineering, etc. You decide on an end point and then you trace the necessary steps back. Reverse-planning a paper and/or a research project works EXACTLY the same way. While I normally would use the word backcasting for designing trajectories towards sustainability, I also often use it to refer to the deconstruction of the process of creating a project and positing all the different pathways and trajectories this can take (this is where mind-mapping techniques also work wonderfully).

Essentially, I reverse-plan a paper or a research project (specifically the outputs) by taking the end date of the project submission (for example, a conference paper submission deadline) and backtracking the steps to achieve what I need to do. I will use an example of a paper I am coauthoring with Dr. Amanda Murdie (University of Georgia) for the International Studies Association conference in February of 2017. Both Amanda and I are really big on organization, so it is REALLY easy to coauthor with someone with the same kind of planning skills.

The paper needs to be submitted at least one week before the deadline (February 23 is our panel), so Amanda and I plan to write the entire paper in the next few weeks. Therefore we are planning to meet a few times in between, and to do some work on our own to contribute to the paper. We have scheduled a couple of meetings in January and at least one in February to discuss the paper submission and the Power Point presentation. The paper draft needs to be perfect by February 16th, which means we need to have a solid draft by February 9th so we can do final editing, formatting, etc. and start thinking about the Power Point presentation right about then.

Reverse planning

Now, if you see my calendar for the first semester of the year, you’ll see that I am at a conference February 9 and 10, and that I will be at Indiana University in Bloomington on February 7th and 8th for a short research visit. This means that I basically won’t be able to do any work that week. Therefore, the entire paper draft needs to be ready by February 5th at the latest. That gives Amanda and myself a full month to write the entire thing, do the analysis and so on.

I do this backcasting process for every project I have in the works, again, based on the conference papers I have committed to writing and when the submission deadlines are. If you read my yearly planning process post, you can see that I have at least other four conference papers to write, for sure (2 MPSA, 1 for the institutional analysis workshop, 1 for WPSA, and then I might present again two of the previous ones, with improvements, or write others, I haven’t yet figured that one out).

It is important for me to include here both my work and my coauthors’ work, so I share my calendars, projects, goals and objectives with them so we all know when things are supposed to happen by when and so that we are all on the same page. This is quite important if you’re doing a lot of collaborative work (which I have been doing in 2015, 2016 and now 2017). My coauthors are simply amazing, and they also love doing a lot of this kind of rigorous planning, so it IS easy for me to do the kind of research I conduct with them.

Reverse planning

Another example of backcasting for a research project can be found below, for my recently funded grant for water conflicts in Mexico. There are four components (one ethnographic, one of social network analysis, one with agent-based modeling, and one with text-as-data techniques). I am the principal investigator, but there are other three researchers working with me, and two postdoctoral researchers, plus two research assistants and one Masters student and one PhD student. It’s a two-year project, so I backcasted from when we had to write the final report and worked out backwards when we had to do every component. Obviously, the fieldwork needs to happen this year. So that’s how I designed the project to work.

Backcasting Water Conflicts Project

While I do a lot of work on paper, I often simply run to the software tools I normally use. I’ve used Microsoft Visio to design my project plans, I recently explored MindManager to create mind maps and do project plans, and I’ve also used simple Microsoft Power Point to draw the actual project timeline. What I have learned is that when you do collaborative work, and even if you do work solely on your own, storyboarding your project (as Dr. Patrick Dunleavy from London School of Economics and Political Science suggests) can actually be VERY useful.

Storyboarding the vlog!

Photo credit: Why Tuesday, Creative-commons-licensed on Flickr.

The trick to combining backcasting with storyboarding is putting the timeline at the top or bottom of the storyline. That is, if you’re going to do project backcasting, you can move around the project goals, activities and so on around the timeline (using Post-It adhesive notes, for example), but the timeline stays static. That way you can effectively plan where activities must take place and by when (specific deadlines). Those of us who actively storytelling would probably also enjoy storyboarding for project and paper planning.

Also, for those people who ask me who else does this kind of project and writing planning well, I find Dr. Ellie Mackin’s research planning website quite helpful. Ellie has a number of excellent templates for project planning, planning writing, etc. You may want to peruse it here. And hopefully my approach to backcasting a project may be of use to you! In my previous blog post on my yearly plan I also linked to several templates to reverse-plan a paper. You may want to check those.

Hopefully my process makes sense for everyone! It does for me.

Posted in academia, productivity, research, research methods, writing.

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My yearly planning process through the Everything Notebook

People have asked me if I could share my yearly planning process and how it relates to the use of the Everything Notebook. I have also been asked if I use other planners and whether they’ve worked for me. I’ll answer both questions in this post. There are many planning and organizational methods out there, and there are several brands for yearly/monthly planners that many people (particularly fellow academics) have been testing out. I’ve been working with the idea of an Everything Notebook for way too long to test a new planner, particularly because I have my own method. So that’s what I will share here: how I do my yearly planning, using an Everything Notebook.

The first thing I do is print out a year-long calendar, and a set of 12 monthly calendars. Since I do everything analog and old-school, I need to have the physical printouts and coloured pens so that I can cross-post to my Everything Notebook. I then use all the conferences and workshops I have planned to attend or at least I’m interested in doing as a heuristic to know when I’m going to do something. Teaching (which I normally do in the fall semesters, 2 courses at a time) helps me with anchoring the fall semester, and I use the time slots for my classes as organizing heuristics to plan the rest of the year. For many people, it will look as though I’ve only planned seven months out of the twelve when they look through the yearly calendar. This is precisely because I use conferences and workshops as the anchoring point for what I am doing in a particular year. If I know that I have a certain number of seminars, workshops, talks and conferences to attend and present at, I can use the certainty of those dates to put firm dates on specific deadlines.

So, for example, the last conference I am committed to participating in is the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC 2017) in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in late July of 2017. I know for a fact that the American Political Science Association (APSA) will take place in August, but since I don’t know if I am accepted or not, I left a blank space in my calendar just in case it will need to be added.

As you can see, I have 6 papers committed for the conferences I have planned, but I have more way conferences than papers (either committed to, or at least, interested in presenting at). This is because I actually don’t know what I will be submitting for an abstract for each conference at the moment. Given that I have funding for conferences for this year, I’ll most likely submit an abstract on a public policy issue for ICPP and one for water conflict for IASC 2017.

The others are relatively easy to think through given that I might be doing similar papers as in previous conferences, or I may do extensions of a specific one. For example, for CPSA and CALACS, I might most likely do something on bottled water. And for PMRC I might do something on teaching public administration. The one I can’t miss at all is the one I am coauthoring with Dr. Amanda Murdie and presenting with her at the International Studies Association ISA 2017 in Baltimore.

To be able to plan the entire year, I printed out a yearly calendar for 2017 using’s templates and then asked to show Mexican holidays. If you’re in Canada, obviously, you may want to show the Canadian holidays.

Once I’ve used the conference scheduling as backbone for the entire year, I start planning my writing output for the following year. I have four categories:

  1. Revise and resubmit in 2017. These are the papers that I need to revise during the year and resend. Probably rejected pieces, or R&Rs where I submitted them in 2016 but will need to resubmit in 2017, once the changes are made.
  2. Submitted and under review, for potential R&R in 2017. These are the manuscripts that are under review but that I am waiting to hear from. I won’t work on them until I hear back
  3. To be submitted. These are manuscripts that are THIS CLOSE to be finished, but that I have not submitted yet because I haven’t been able to finish the tiny little changes that make them a final submission (like, reformatting for a specific journal, etc.) These manuscripts are the reason I created the hashtag #GetYourManuscriptOut. Dormant papers that all they need is a swift kick and off they go!
  4. To be written and/or completed. These are papers I’ve been thinking about writing or commitments I have with specific granting agencies (for example, for my National Problems CONACYT Collaborative Grant, I committed to write 3 papers on each case study where I conducted ethnographic research. So, I plan to write at least one of them in 2017. Also, drafts of papers I already started writing that need to be finished. For example, I’m writing right now on the social construction of water scarcity in Mexico. That paper has been in draft for a while (also, the reason #GetYourManuscriptOut exists), so I plan to finish that paper this year.

I am super analog with this process, so I print out monthly calendars and insert my daily commitments (you can pre-fill your Google Calendar with your commitments and THEN print them out, or do the reverse). I usually just schedule the major commitments there, as I know that (as Dr. Adam Wellstead has said, sometimes my weeks change, so I need to maintain a big-picture kind of approach here).

I fill out my commitments for all conferences in each monthly calendar, including when I am supposed to fly in and fly out. One important thing in the planning process for me is that I include my commitments ONLINE and OFFLINE, both simultaneously. That is, I schedule a month at a time, both on my Google Calendar and on my printed calendar. They need to be synchronized for my systems to work. I can’t just plot all my conferences and then forget about them. So instead of plotting everything on my printed monthly calendars and then copying all the events on Google Calendar, I insert all events on GCal until I finish doing the scheduling for the entire year. One month on paper, one month digitally.

Google Calendar week commitments January

I go month by month scheduling my commitments for conferences, workshops (AND personal stuff). I dump all my plans for papers into my Publications Planner. Then I back-track and reverse plan until I know when I need to collect data, when I need to do fieldwork, when I need to clean up a dataset, by when do I need to do all the writing, for EACH PROJECT I do. There’s a very broad range of reverse planning processes, methods and templates. I enjoy several of the following:

  • Dr. Matt Lebo’s excellent paper on how to manage your research pipeline shows you how to plan a paper and back-track until you know when you need to do what by when.
  • This template offers guidelines and sequential steps for how to do backward planning (reverse planning).
  • This template shows a very brief and simple but useful example of how to do reverse planning for exams. The same technique applies to when you write a paper.
  • I need to make sure that the synchronization of my monthly activity plan with my Google Calendar is complete, otherwise I can double-book myself (which has happened before).

    Now, a lot of people ask me how do I plan by week and by day. I haven’t written a “How I do my Weekly Planning” post, but my original Everything Notebook post describes how I move from monthly planning to To-Do Lists per week. I also have an instructional video (forthcoming) on how I do the assemblage of the Everything Notebook.

    So far, I’ve scheduled my tasks per month (commitments in terms of conference papers, meetings, etc.) From each monthly planner, I prepare weekly To-Do Lists. For example, for the first week of January I have 5 meetings (two with students, and three with my research assistants, my project participants, and my project manager). I can transfer those tasks on to my Weekly To-Do list, and insert a tab marking that specific week in my Everything Notebook, as shown below.

    If you collaborate within a laboratory, or with other colleagues, Amy Wooldridge’s suggestion is brilliant.

    As I’ve said before, my methods are there to be adapted and if they help you with your own productivity, I’ll be a happy camper, since they help ME with my own workflow!

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Simplifying your document processing: The Four Trays Method

Filing traysI originally wrote this blog post as an email response to a request by Dr. Brian Leech from Augustana College on how I do my document processing and filing. This problem happens to all of us: we have a number of things that need processing (committee materials, student files, printouts, etc.) Often times, we are so overwhelmed by other things that we end up saying “oh, I’ll file these materials soon” and end up needing to have accessed them before. I use a method (the Four Trays Method) that I shared with Brian and that I am happy to share with all my readers. Here is how it works.I book at least 30 minutes to 1 hour on Friday after lunch (which is when my brain is completely useless) to file. I have a set of five filing trays, four of which I occupy regularly with the following labels:

- For a paper I’m working on (data, newspaper clippings, printouts, etc.)
- Should be memo’d (aka I should write a memo on this article)
- For someone else (my admin assistant usually sends these to the person I label this for)
- To file (these are items related to my students, letters I send, committee work, etc.)

I have a fifth tray, as can be found in the photo, with the title “Processing” – this is usually something I am actually working on at the time, and it’s usually the last tray, because since I am already processing that document, I should be able to put it in any of the other four (which is why the technique is called the Four Trays Method). This method needs to be adapted if you don’t have administrative and/or research assistantship support (both of which I am lucky to have).

My research process (when writing grants)

My admin assistant usually looks every day at my “To File” tray. If I have labeled something with the name of certain file, she files it in that folder. Or she opens a new folder for a file. Or she contacts whoever I said needs to be contacted. If you don’t have admin support, the “To File” tray is the first one you may want to process on the Fridays, because that’s usually the one that grows faster (creating file folders, labeling them and locating them in your filing cabinet actually does take a lot of time, believe it or not). But let’s assume you DO have admin support, for the sake of it.

The second tray that always gets processed by someone other than me is the “For someone else“. In this case, either my research assistant or my administrative assistant send these to whomever I marked the items for. For example, if I’ve found a paper in a print journal that I think a colleague of mine at CIDE would benefit from reading, or I have a new book that they might want to scan, I put it in that tray.

On Fridays, after I’ve processed everything that needs to be put in the “To File” tray, the next stack (or tray) I deal with is the one labeled “For a paper I’m working on“. I label the item with the action I need to undertake (’clean up this dataset‘ , or ‘ask my RA to download articles related to this one‘ or ‘write a rhetorical precis for this paper‘). I dispose of it by writing in my Everything Notebook what I should be doing with that piece of work (my RAs have similar filing trays, though they are usually “IN” and “OUT” only) – the IN items for my assistants are things they need to do for me by a certain date, the OUT is usually stuff they need to deal with (either give me or email me).

The last stack I deal with is the “Should be memo’d“. I book time in the morning to write a memo for those articles, books and book chapters usually on Tuesdays (Mondays I am usually more creative in my #AcWri so I usually blurt out words, but Tuesdays I need something to “prompt” me). I usually memo 3-5 articles in 2 hours, but that’s because I read really fast. You don’t need to force yourself to memo an entire article in a writing session, but I find that processing them fast (by writing a memo and getting quotations or dumping the rhetorical precis in my Excel dump) it helps me become more motivated, thus I process more documents (untli I get fatigued).

The trick is – if you have admin support, make sure they know what to do with the item (or make sure you create your own shorthand and codes). I use disposable Post It notes (really tiny) with abbreviations. For example, a letter of reference I wrote for a student usually has something to this end: “FILE -> STUDENT’S NAME”. My assistants (and I) know my abbreviation codes. For example, if I am working on an R&R and I already received a response, I usually write on the Post-It “FILE-> PAPER’S NAME”. If I need to memo a paper, I usually write “MEMO BY A DEFINED DATE” on the Post It Note.

I know my process may be weird for some people, but it really does help me. The two items I find are most useful is: booking time every week to do the filing/processing, and using the trays to help you plan your next week (which is why I process documents on Fridays, to have a To-Do list for Monday morning ready). Hopefully it will be helpful for other people!

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