”I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp; I know what
I want to do, but I don’t know where to begin.“
Stephen Bayne – Episcopal Bishop
This is one of my favorite quotes. I love the visual and auditory image of a buzzing mosquito trying to decide which fleshy, delectable blood source to stick her proboscis . . . Where to start? Which one to pick?
Are you feeling so swamped with projects that you don’t know where to start?
Indecision in the midst of opportunity is a common difficulty.
Many of the junior faculty, post-docs and grad students I work with have difficulty juggling tasks. As one junior faculty member put it: “When I focus on one project, the rest of my life seems to fall apart. But if I scatter my energy, I don’t get anything finished.
“I’m keeping up with my teaching and my departmental duties but none of my papers are moving forward. It is my second year on the tenure track and I still haven’t gotten articles out from my dissertation.”
Do you have this type of difficulty?
Many of us feel like we can only work on one major project at a time. Preparing to teach a new course keeps us from getting any writing done for weeks. Finishing a conference paper leads to unanswered email messages. Scrambling to meet a grant deadline pushes all other activities aside.
I call this the “No Clean Underwear Syndrome”. We focus with single-minded intensity on a drop-dead deadline and even basic life maintenance tasks fall by the wayside. Email inboxes overflow, phone calls go unreturned, exercise regimes are dropped, and our dirty laundry piles up until we don’t even have any clean underwear.
However, much of the time we face the opposite situation. We don’t finish large, important projects that lack clear deadlines because we’re so busy keeping up with day-to-day chores. The regular demands of teaching, service, and life-maintenance chores push aside scholarly research and writing. There is always something pressing that pre-empts finishing the journal article or working on the dissertation.
How can we effectively juggle daily demands and yet move forward on long-term projects?
1) First of all, plan and prioritize.
A comprehensive “to do” list can help you keep track of the multitude of tasks we face. And once your lengthy list is compiled, it needs to be prioritized. Which tasks are most critical to tackle?
2) Whittle and refine this master “to do” list.
What are the items that you can realistically accomplish today? I keep a complete list of projects, but choose a doable number of tasks to work on. Otherwise I get discouraged by the overwhelming size of the list and frustrated when there are so many projects still undone at the end of a day.
3)Carve out at least a small amount of time for the projects without deadlines.
When we work for at least half hour a day on long-range projects – the dissertation, the journal article, the exploratory research for a new scholarly endeavor – we chip away at our career priorities even as we keep up with the many short-term demands on our time.
4)When you’re stuck, start somewhere.
Don’t just buzz around without sucking any blood! Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the number of items on my agenda that I avoid facing anything. The impossibility of getting everything done kicks me into procrastination mode and I want to surf the web or crawl into bed. At these moments, I tell myself to start anywhere. I try to take a tolerable ten minutes to tackle my top priority. Sometimes, once I get started, it is much easier than I think to make headway on my projects. I feel less anxious because I am moving forward.
How do you juggle the demands of your work and personal life? Do you have systems for managing multiple tasks? How do you consistently move forward on projects that lack deadlines when there are so many pressing, external demands on your time? Do you feel like a mosquito in a nudist camp?