Thursday, January 30, 2014

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master's and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate--organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master's. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says "work on Chapter Three."

Fast forward to now, and I'm back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I'm so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I'm not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which...you get the picture. And can't afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty--there's too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I'm looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done--I salute you.

It's taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I've finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that's precisely the effect I'm going for with my daily mindfulness practice--less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I'm in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn't taken up with trying to remember the things I think I've forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they'll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I've even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don't check my email. I'm a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don't check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don't. I've also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don't send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they're working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it's charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it's nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague's 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I'm trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I'm desperate to escape. It's amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.
I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you'd like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

3 comments:

  1. Even though I haven't taken a year of "all the tasks all the time" I still find myself making up tasks to fill the time when really the two: teaching, dissertating, are all I should be doing. I've known I do that, but this post clarifies my own tendency to me.

    Thanks for the coffitivity+songza recommendation!

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    1. You're welcome! Coffitivity is one of my favourite discoveries in a long time, especially since I love the idea of working in coffee shops, but hate fighting for a space and plugs.

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  2. Coffitivity -- Thanks! And thanks for sharing, in general, because this is in a way very personal, and I love reading it.

    I laughed hard at Chapter 3 being on your list because Chapter 3 was on my list for weeks when I was writing up. I have journal entries to prove it, too.

    Speaking of which, writing what I'm thinking is very therapeutic for me. Added bonus, you can go back in time and reflect.

    Speaking of which, I've figured out through some journal-aided reflection that I have been much too hard on myself for many years. Unrealistic lists and expectations and personal standards that can never be met.

    Of course it's hard to be realistic and accurate about open-ended tasks, which is now my challenge on the tenure track. Preparing a lecture on Chapter 3, on the other hand, seems easy breezy and zen in comparison to "figure out what a summer student can work on this summer". They can work on a million things! But I'm learning to reign this in and I loosely use SMART goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely. Attainable/Realistic are of course the tricky part.

    Someone else recently told me this one: make a prioritized list. Divide it into top/middle/bottom. Get the top third done. Treat anything accomplished in the middle as a pat-yourself-on-the-back bonus. Repeat daily. :)

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