The Wall

Big week for me—I took down a bunch of sticky notes. This made me really happy, though it doesn’t sound so hot. You see, one of my office walls looks like this:

The view from my desk.

The view from my desk.

My students probably think this is weird, especially since the words on the notes likely mean different things (or nothing) to them: “What makes maximal curves, besides natural embedding theorem?” or “graph zeta for student?” or “Julia Robinson Math Festival.” These are things I’d like to figure out in my research, work on in my teaching, or just generally do in my career. I have them arranged in a sort of tree (nobody else can tell it’s a tree, because I don’t think the department would love me writing on my wall), with doable tasks branching off from some big general research hopes, and other stuff arranged vaguely by relationship and difficulty.

I put these on my wall in February, when I got back from re:boot 2016, a grant writing workshop organized by Alina Bucur, Heekyoung Hahn, Pirita Paajanen, Lillian Pierce, and Caroline Turnage-Butterbaugh.* As part of the workshop, we were given a poster board and told to make a big map of our research plans. Many people made beautiful, artistic posters with color and good graphic design. I covered mine in sticky notes, maybe because I have some kind of fear of commitment and I couldn’t bear to put the marker directly to the poster board. Also, I had no idea what to do when I began, so I just started writing all the things I could think of on sticky notes and spreading them out on the table. Apparently sticky notes are a pretty common way to organize stuff—see 3M’s amazing array of uses for Post-Its, and this excellent event facilitation wiki (thanks Ben Smith). But I’d never really appreciated sticky notes until this.

When I was done (or stopped to take a breath), I had a sea of ideas—way more than I realized that I had. Then it was organization time, and I found the whole process of physically moving the notes around really fun. It helped me take a research agenda that could have looked really scattered and organize it into one overarching theme, with a few different directions, with some auxiliary projects that I put on their own branches and didn’t include in the grant proposal.

This helped me write my CAREER proposal, and I liked the way it gave me a big picture look at where I could go, and also the flexibility to add and remove parts if my interests change. So when I got home I transferred the whole mess to my wall. Now, every time I look up from my desk I see this web of ideas. I might have thought that would stress me out, like a giant to-do list, but for some reason this is inspiring instead of daunting. Maybe because it is only the stuff I really want to do, none of the tasks, like grading, that get to be a grind. This is at least partially a picture of my daydreams and ideas—not a list of things that must happen so I can keep my job.

Victory looks like this.

Victory looks like this.

I made a few changes these last few months, mostly thinking of new ideas and sticking them on the wall. This was a big week because, for the first time, I took some notes down because I had done the things on them, or because I don’t want to do them anymore.  Major fun, by my standards.

As I wrote this blog, I suddenly freaked out: “Oh my god, is this a vision board?” Over the years, some great friends have tried to get me to make a “vision board” and I have respectfully refused. It’s just not for me. I have always cringed at the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?” and all its relatives. I value the idea of being open to the unexpected awesomeness of life and haven’t wanted to even try to visualize my one ideal life path. I don’t believe in the “law of attraction” and I’m not reading The Secret. However, applying for a grant is kind of like answering the question “where do you want to be in 3-5 years?” so this is a place where visualizing a narrative is important. Still, I’m not calling my wall a vision board. I guess there are a bunch of math things I think it would be cool to do. I refuse to even call these goals, exactly. My memory isn’t great, so stuff disappears if I don’t write it down, and my desk is a mess, so ideas that land in a pile of other stuff on my desk will probably stay buried. So, I’m okay with writing down a bunch of my math-related ideas and thinking about how they fit together, using one of the great inventions of modern office technology. That I can handle.

How do you organize all the stuff you want to do? Do you think I’m giving vision boards a bad rap? Let me know in the comments.

* I have mentioned this before, and I really can’t say enough good things about the workshop. Good news—I just heard that re:boot 2017 is being funded, so for any women in number theory, watch out for details here!


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2 Responses to The Wall

  1. Avatar Mark says:

    I think you’d find Trello useful — it’s basically post-it notes in a web interface and so you can then access your “wall” from anywhere.

  2. Avatar jeff cliff says:

    I keep a 148MB flax text file, a few other small files and a 1.4 GB database containing
    * every paper/book I’ve ever heard referred to in my presence, every open problem i’ve heard mentioned, every reference section of everything I’ve ever read, sorted by something close to citation count that biases in favour of the things that I am interested in(eg, computer science)
    * every website I’ve had to close the tab of instead of read
    * millions of ideas to follow up, sorted by priority into categories so that as new ones come up during the day, they are sorted under old ones and then I allocate time to look at the old ones in priority
    * GNU/Linux + emacs is a lifesaver, I would not be able to manage this much text without emacs and some elisp for moving URLs around
    * I try new things as they arrive, but very little can handle the millions of entries of things to do (nor can they typically handle the thousands to tens of thousands of extra things I add daily), and very little can do anything to help sort that I’m not already doing.
    * Because things in the file are split up into hierarchies by category, high level goals are represented as basically subtrees of things to do that gradually have new things added to them, sorted into them.
    * It’s kind of a problem. There have been many days that I’ve spent more time managing my to do list than actually doing anything useful.

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