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Learning as I go: Running into happiness

When I was a PhD student, I found that my academic commitments were throwing off my work life balance, and I wanted to do something about it. My answer, as funny as this sounds, was to add another writing project to my workload, but this was a personal writing project. I wrote and published a book, Running into Happiness, during my busy life as a PhD student!

On my journey, I learned that including a personal writing project in my writing program offered me added benefits. It helped me further develop my writing and productivity skills, and provided me more opportunities to practice my writing regularly. As I learned from Patricia Goodson in her book Becoming an Academic Writer, deliberate practice improves our writing and productivity levels.

Along the way I also developed three guilt-free strategies that helped me include my personal writing project in my busy schedule. Here I highlight these strategies for those of you who may have a personal writing project that you have been trying to get to.

See your personal project as a positive-emotional source. It is important to see your personal project as a positive-emotional source. According to psychologist Shawn Achor, positive emotions or happiness can improve work performance. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Achor explained that “Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on.” They help us “think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.” Therefore, after focusing on your work commitments, reward yourself. Set an amount of time to work on your personal project(s) and see it as a positive-emotional source that can help improve your performance with your other work commitments.

Pair activities. Pair one activity you already do with one you want to do but rarely have time for, such as learning more about your personal project topic. For example, you can listen to audiobooks, interviews, and lectures on your target topic while driving to work, exercising, or going for a walk. The audios will provide you with new insights and ideas to include in your writing project, as well as further resources to check out.

Take notes. Notes are a powerful productivity tool. Always carry a notebook or phone so you can jot down any relevant information related to your projects. It’s okay for notes to be messy, contain grammatical mistakes, be written in another language, and make sense only to you. What’s important is to note anything you hear, observe, remember, or want to learn about. Keep your notes in one box and categorize them by ideas. When you sit down to work on your project, open the box and select one category to elaborate. Work on one idea at a time.

Don’t underestimate the power of these simple but effective strategies. They can make your personal project come to life, as mine did for me!

Angelica RubieroAngelica Ribeiro, Adjunct Professor, St. Thomas University, Houston