Curing readitis



Happy new year everyone! How was your 2015?

I’ve been busy, both personally and professionally. Family Thesis Whisperer renovated a house and moved into it, putting down proper Canberra roots. I lost my ‘baby weight’ (Thesis Whisperer Jnr is now taller than me so it was way past time) and started running. The blog went from strength to strength and a significant research project got off the ground (more on that in forthcoming posts). With a fantastic team at ANU, I ran a MOOC with 13,500 enrolments and over 800 people attended the ANU 3MT competition. Thanks to your help dear reader, I got promoted to associate professor.

I raised a glass on new years eve with a sense of multiple jobs well done and dusted.

One of the small, but significant, achievements for me in 2015 was becoming a much more tidy person at home. For years Mr Thesis Whisperer has complained about picking up after me, but ever since my friend Megan McPherson recommended the bestselling book by Marie Kondo called ‘The life changing magic of tidying up’ he’s had no need to complain. Megan was way ahead of the hype curve on the Marie Konbari tidying craze. I had never heard of the Japanese clutter busting guru when she enthused about it, but it was cheap in Kindle and I trust Megan’s taste, so I bought it.

I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up greedily, in one sitting, like it was a box of chocolates. If you haven’t read it and are put off by the hype, don’t be. It’s a fun and engaging book: part self help and memoir, part philosophy and a light read for those of us accustomed to dense texts full of academic jargon.

HeyGirlThe so called ‘Konbari method’ is disarmingly simple: only keep possessions which bring you joy. I started Konbari-ing with clothes, sorting first by category. I took every top out of my closet and held each one in turn and asking: ‘does this top bring me joy?’. To my surprise, I got rid of most of them. Konbari-ing is a surprisingly intense process that, of course, only the truly privileged will ever experience. I was forced to come face my conspicuous consumption and it wasn’t pretty. Luckily Canberra has the fantastic Green Shed initiative, so I was able to donate to others, rather than landfill.

I ended up keeping only about 1/4 of my wardrobe. Less choice about what to wear made my mornings easier. I spent less time getting ready, which meant I had far more time drinking coffee and reading the Interwebs. I was hooked and started Discarding with gay abandon. Most of my jewelry box, knick knacks, and books were soon gone.

Mr Thesis Whisperer was so impressed with the results he joined in the Great Kitchen Purge of 2015. Part of the Konbari method is to have a designated place for everything you keep, so we had long, intense discussions about where to keep the kitchen scales and serving platters. Gradually the pantry and fridge were transformed from crowded places where sauce bottles go to die to efficient, clean storage zones. Friends started remarking on how scary tidy our place had become.

Unlike other life changes I have attempted, the Konbari way seemed to stick. I started more carefully considering new purchases by measuring them against my personal ‘joy index’. As a consequence I bought much less and started treating what I have with much more care and respect. As promised by Ms Konbari, tidying now feels like a natural process, not a chore. I actually enjoy folding all my stockings and socks into my drawers.

I started to wonder – might the Konbari method work to bring a sense of peace, control and order to my work life too?

I am very ‘other motivated’ in my work. The various reports and deliverables that go with my role as director of research training are done well in advance because other people are expecting them. My teaching is very organised thanks to proper training and business processes I have honed carefully over the years. My blog schedule is sorted out a year in advance because you, dear reader, expect to see something every Wednesday and I don’t want to disappoint you.

But my research work? Always in a shambles.

Unlike the rest of my work duties, my research schedule is largely set for me, by me, therefore it’s a mess. I get research outputs done, but I still rely on others for motivation. As a consequence I haven’t published a solo authored paper since 2011. Unless I am collaborating or writing a book for a publishing deadline, I will always find something else to do with my time.

The reading problem is even worse than the writing problem. Reading is just not a priority, but it is a source of constant anxiety. I never feel like I do enough of it, or have enough time to properly digest what I do read. One of my students, Jodie, calls this feeling of constantly being in a reading deficit ‘readitis’: a disorder bought on by the vast amount of literature available and the limited time in which to absorb it.

I’ve started to think about how Konbari methods might be applied to this readitis problem. My first step was to pick a soft target.

Like many academics, I’m a bit of a pack rat and download far more papers than I will ever read. My ‘research closet’ – my reference database held in Papers 3 – had ballooned out to over 2000 references. In late November I spent a couple of hours every evening opening each paper, thinking about why I had it and how it fitted into my various research interests. Unless there was a reason to keep it for a future project, the paper was immediately deleted.

In the first pass I discarded all but two of the 600 or so papers I collected for my PhD and many others. Those papers had clearly served their purpose, but I still had around 1000 papers left – more than I would ever read or need.

The problem of these remaining references was, I realised, similar to the problem of Konbari-ing my underwear. I had plenty of good, serviceable underwear and the temptation was to keep it for future need when the others wore out, but it was taking up a lot of space. So I bought baskets that fitted into my drawers sized to hold two week’s supply – the longest possible time between washing loads. Then I simply put the best underwear in the baskets and threw the rest out.

Similarly, I started reducing my papers by creating ‘baskets’ – in this case Papers 3 ‘collections’, which act much like iTunes play list. After about 10 hours of sorting I had this list:


I ended up with a hundreds and hundreds of papers which didn’t fit clearly into to any of these collections. It caused me a bit of a pang to press delete on these, but I did it. Now I have only 681 papers in my database. This is still around half a million words – more than I need – but I’m feeling more in control. This is not a cure for Readitis – perhaps more in the nature of a treatment. For me, choosing what to read is not so overwhelming and that’s a good start. My collections set useful boundaries and help me start on the reading with a sense of purpose.

This process of discarding research material might not be for everyone. I tweeted about it as I did it and many academics expressed horror at the prospect of throwing so many papers into the virtual bonfire. Other people told me they are applying the Konbari ‘less is more’ philosophy to data or to notes – even to supervisors!

So I’m wondering – have you thought about how discarding might help your research get off to a good start in 2016? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.