I’ve had a few conversations with clients and colleagues that reminded me that your gremlins might have some very weird rules.
“I feel like I’ve been working really hard but I haven’t ticked anything off my to do list.”
“I have been working really hard and I have nothing to show for it.”
These statements and many like them are gremlin talk. The problem here isn’t that you’ve been doing nothing. The problem is that you haven’t acknowledged what you’ve been doing.
One way this happens is that you make a plan beforehand and end up doing something different from what you planned. Your plan could be in a list of tasks or in time blocked in your calendar or some combination of the two. At the end of the day you only acknowledge the things that were on the list or in the calendar even if you did other things. If you didn’t block time and just sat down to work on your project, perhaps getting into flow and moving relatively smoothly from one task to the next without even looking at a list, you can end up thinking that you weren’t as productive as you were on the day where you had a clear plan laid out and you completed your plan. (This was what one of my Guide for the Journey clients reported recently.)
Another way this happens is that you record your activities and accomplishments in an overly general way. If the only thing you count as a writing accomplishment is a publication, more often than not you are going to feel like you aren’t accomplishing anything. Academic writing projects all take a long time. It’s not unusual to take 3 to 5 years to get from idea to publication, and many parts of that process are out of your control. Even major milestones on the way to publication take a long time to complete.
Adding things to your list or calendar after you’ve done them is not cheating.
Notice what evidence your gremlins are using to make you feel like you don’t do enough. Evaluate the validity and reliability of that evidence. Make it more valid and reliable.
Start by making sure you are collecting all the evidence. You don’t have to use someone else’s method for tracking what you do. As a professional organiser I know once said, the best place to put something is the first place you’d look for it. Your gremlins can point you to the method that is going to work best for you. You can also notice where you go to look for information when you fill in your annual performance review forms.
Once you’ve noticed where you (or your gremlins) look, you can start being more careful about recording your activities and accomplishments in that place. If you are looking at your to do list make sure you aren’t just deleting things you’ve completed. Cross them off. Move them to a Done list. Something that ensures you aren’t continuously looking at a list of things that are not yet done with no evidence of how much you’ve accomplished. If you are looking at your calendar, add detail to the chunks of time you blocked off to record what you actually did, add blocks of time after you do things. Looking back at a day with nothing in it makes you feel like you did nothing. You can even create a separate calendar for time tracking and record what you did in half hour blocks or whatever chunk of time makes sense.
Start small. Once you get in the habit of recording things, you can pay attention to how you record your activities and accomplishments and tweak your system to better meet your needs.
Break the big projects down as you do them as well as when you are planning.
A common piece of advice for this is to distinguish between projects and tasks, tasks being a very small unit of work that can be done in about 15 minutes, and projects being anything that can be broken down into several tasks. That distinction can get confusing because you use the term “project” already. There are several levels of project. Your research project may have several published outputs, each of which you think of as a project. But even a project the size of an article, or one teaching session, contains several sub-projects.
One way to get a handle on this distinction is to acknowledge what work you had to have already done to enable you to actually write a particular section of your article—writing a literature review means you read articles and books on the topics and took notes about them, which means you created a list of articles and books to read, which means you searched specific data bases to find those books and articles, which means you created a list of keywords and determined which databases were relevant, etc. Each of the things on this list might require several sessions to complete and will be comprised of multiple tasks.
The key thing to pay attention to here is what tasks you perform to move your project forward.
Remember the purpose of a plan is to inspire action. “Write literature review” may be smaller than “write article” but it’s still not really a task. If it’s enough to inspire action, then it’s fine to put it on your to-do list or calendar. If looking at “write literature review” makes you freeze in indecision, break it down into smaller tasks so you can pick one thing and do it. However, if the thing you wrote on your to do list or calendar is too big to complete in one work session, you will need to record what you actually did in a particular session to feel like you are making progress. You might also select a very specific task to do the next time you come back to this as a way to get started even if you plan to work for longer than that small task will take.
In A Meeting With Your Writing I ask participants to articulate how their project moved forward. This can include words written (if that is a relevant measure at this stage), paragraphs revised, references checked, etc. It can also mean recording decisions made that will enable you to write words, revise paragraphs, etc in your next session. It might mean reading something, or (re)analysing some data, or deciding that you can’t write this bit until you read something or (re)analyse some data. Even if you only worked on something for 10 minutes, notice what tasks you did to contribute to the forward momentum of the project.
For other areas of your academic life, make sure you are similarly specific. In the planning classes I ask Studio members to consider about 7 different types of work that go into teaching. Similarly, you might want to break down dealing with email into triaging my inbox, filing email that doesn’t need a response, responding to student queries, adding new tasks to my list or calendar, composing a careful response, researching a response to a difficult email, etc.
Not only will recording what you’ve accomplished at this level of detail help you feel more productive, it will also help you make better plans. It seems like everything takes longer than you expect because you pretend that certain parts of the process happen magically. (See also The work you wish you didn’t have to do). Putting all of those tiny tasks on your list at the beginning will be overwhelming. Not noticing that you actually did them is gaslighting yourself. Make notes at whatever level of detail allows you to accept that you get things done.
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A version of this post was sent to Studio members on 17 January 2020. It has been edited. The Academic Writing Studio helps you juggle your responsibilities so you get the important things done and includes A Meeting with Your Writing for additional support with one important task a lot of academics struggle to find time for.