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Slay the beasts

J. Harry Caufield

Here's a nice thing to try the next time you're feeling overwhelmed, just like the feeling I've had a touch of lately, as with most Septembers:

  1. Grab a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle of it.
  2. List 8 to 10 of the projects requiring your attention on the right side of the page. List them in the order they come to mind. No job is too small! If it's a pressing concern, it belongs on the page, whether it'll take an hour or a solid week to get done. If you can't think of that many tasks, write what you're planning to have for dinner instead.
  3. Pick out three of those tasks as the Most Pressing. These aren't the most important or immediate tasks - you're not making an Eisenhower Matrix here - but they're the biggest stressors. Circle them, star them, number them, or highlight them in neon and gold. These tasks are in your sights now.
  4. Pick out a time to work on these tasks. Here's the fun part: you should choose a time when you wouldn't normally work on such a thing, but the total elapsed working time can be as short as you'd like. You have three tasks to focus on, so you can even break them up into This Evening, Tomorrow Morning, and Tomorrow Evening. Write that time on the left side of the paper next to each of the three tasks. Then, when that time arrives, get to work! Even a five-minute interval is fine if you use it to organize and record your thoughts about a project.
  5. Repeat as necessary!
The goal here is not to use this activity as a task manager. Rather, it's intended to provide reminders about the work we're focusing on, how we feel about it, and how eminently feasible it is. It's far too easy for even the smallest projects to grow into mythical beasts when left to roam through the recesses of our minds. Remaining aware of the work keeps it in perspective.

I've never really found a single time-management strategy which balanced the immediacy of day-to-day responsibilities with the Sisyphean toil of long-term projects. That balance is especially difficult to manage in academic environments. Between unruly faculty schedules, unpredictable experiments, and students who really ought to ask for extra help, even minor projects can rapidly evolve into Minotaurs. The existing time-management philosophies usually go just half-way. Structured Procrastination is one example: it seeks a similar stress-management objective to what I've mentioned above but exists in the minefield between "don't sweat the small stuff" and "my ambivalence has alienated everyone around me". Professional philosophers may find this method ideal. I find it difficult to implement.

Though, to be fair, everything's procrastination when there's something else you should be doing. Perhaps the key is just to trust that you'll get that Something Else done in time, and that you should be doing what you're doing now.