Getting Things Done

Let me start by admitting that I am a PhD Comics addict.  The strip follows a series of students through the trials and tribulations of their graduate careers, touching on everything from advisor problems to the hunt for campus events with free food.  Recently, the strip began to chronicle the fears of one student as he spins his wheels a bit, trying to find his footing in the research world.

One frame, in particular, spoke to me:

Our hero, in the throws of an existential crisis…

It appears that the student here is going through a “mid-degree crisis“.  I remember having one of those about a year ago, although I had never heard the term until a few weeks ago when a guest blogger wrote a particularly enthralling post about it on GradHacker.  The idea is that students get to a point during their degree when they become so buried in their work that they forget why they are pursuing their degree and what they hope to accomplish from earning it.  As such, the author recommends that students take ample time to reflect and to re-motivate themselves.

It seems that this is sound advice for people in other stages of their academic career as well.  Given the current state of the job market, our students probably sometimes doubt their decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and the occasional chat to help them recenter could likely help them to keep their eye on the prize.  The same goes for those further along in their careers.  I imagine there will be days, even at the height of my career, when I will become so overwhelmed in publications, grants, and teaching that I will forget why I followed this path.  Once again, it will be time to recenter.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those times when I’m so excited by everything that I’m doing that I have trouble focusing on any one aspect of it.  I’m especially bad about this when I’m reading: one article cites another that interests me…which then cites three others of interest to me…who then each cite two more “must-reads”, on and on until I’ve forgotten the original question I was researching.

ProfHacker recommended tackling this by portioning our days into 15 minute intervals (which reminds me of the 30-minute “units” used by Hugh Grant’s character in one of my all-time favorite movies, About a Boy).  Such a strategy is helpful on two important fronts: (1) just about any less-desired chore can be made tolerable in 15-minute chunks and, (2) 15 minutes is a good amount of time to enjoy something fun without allowing it to consume our day.

Of course, there are many more options.  Some prefer GTD (“getting things done”) framework.  Others enjoy sticky notes and regular routines.  I, personally, live and die by my google and Outlook calendars and frequent positive reinforcement (“I submitted that paper!  Time to give myself a 5-minute browsing-the-internet break!”).

What are your favorite strategies for being your best, most productive self?

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