Rewind: Going from Overwhelmed to Just Whelmed
Some strategies for taking back some agency in your workload.
Greetings, dear readers. I am rewinding a popular post from last year today because it is that time of the semester when many of us feel like we are drowning. For those of you who are looking for some reprieve from your hectic schedules, I hope this post provides some ways to do just that!
I often start the school year with the best laid plans. I plan my writing like I would my syllabus, I remind myself that saying no is self-care; and I design my classes efficiently to minimize grading hell. This is going to be the semester that I have it all!
Yet, here’s the thing about my writing and productivity practice, dear reader. It is a practice, which means it’s all something I’m constantly working at but never really achieve perfect equilibrium. Yoga is also called a practice because it’s a pursuit that requires regular motion but is not something that the practitioner ever perfects. A practice necessitates…well…practice.
So, like the yogi, my best laid plans rarely come to fruition exactly as I envisioned them, and some days I fall flat on my ass. I get overwhelmed.
All of the time management strategies I preach begin to slip through my fingers. An article becomes more difficult to complete than I anticipated, and I need to devote much more time to it. I suddenly realize that I’ve said yes to far too many requests. My teaching assistant requires more support than I expected, and I end up doing more grading than I had planned. My furry best friend becomes sick, and I find myself spending unexpected time at the vet.
Never fear, dear reader. I have a strategy to look into the storm, alter the course of the ship, and go from overwhelmed to just whelmed. It’s called editing the to-do list.
Here are the steps I take to pick up the red editing pen and use it for a good cause.
Step 1: Putting the To-Do List to Paper
My first step is to make a list of everything that will take up my time in the coming weeks and months.
What do I have planned for my classes and how much time will those things take?
What external writing deadlines do I have coming up?
What were my self-imposed writing goals for the semester?
What service projects or committees am I working on?
What personal events or considerations should I include?
Step 2: Exploring the Pain Points
My next step to editing my to-do list is to circle all the tasks that are pain points at the moment. Feeling overwhelmed usually has a few root causes, but identifying those can take concerted reflection. Are there tasks I feel particularly anxious about and why is that? Academics will frequently neglect their writing projects in order to complete other tasks that are accountable to other people. When we do this, however, we begin to feel extremely anxious or even guilty about not completing writing goals because that is what we need to finish the dissertation, get the job, or get tenure. The first step in determining how to lessen the intensity of pain is to ask yourself where the pain points are most intense.
Step 3: Prioritizing
The next step is to reexamine priorities and goals. Essentially, at this stage, I think about how I am evaluated at my job and what sparks joy for me personally. When I look at my to-do list, I can identify the tasks that are most important for achieving tenure. I can also identify the tasks that I enjoy doing in my career. On the flip side, I can also find the tasks that are lower value in both categories and begin narrowing in on what I can remove from my plate. I recommend also reading How to Marie Kondo Your Academic Career for an extended explanation of this step.
Step 4: Soothing the Pain Points
The next step is the cathartic one. At this point, I decide how to alleviate my pain points now that I've identified them and considered where they rank on the priority list. I’ll go over three options: asking for an extension, lowering my standards, or removing it from the list.
Asking for an Extension
Perhaps I determine that a task has high value for me or the metrics I’m evaluated by. To do the task justice and alleviate my anxiety about completing it, I simply request an extension. In reality, this is a common practice in academia, but graduate students and junior scholars, in particular, are not always aware of it. Fellowship and grant deadlines are often non-negotiable, but writing projects and other tasks are often more flexible.
Lowering my Standards
Perhaps an item on my to-do list is valuable, required, or otherwise important. I can't ask for an extension or take it off my plate, but I can change how I approach it. Lowering my standards entails devoting less energy and time to them than to other items on my list in order to save my sanity and wellbeing. I also explore this approach further in How to Marie Kondo Your Academic Career.
Let’s say that I have a hard writing deadline coming up next week, and I also want to revise a lecture for a class to make my examples more current. Lowering my standards would mean not revising that lecture, even though I think it needs it. My time is limited, the writing deadline will have a bigger effect on my tenure file, and even though my lecture could be better, it is still effective. For graduate students, lowering your standards might mean skimming your class readings the week a big fellowship application is due, so you have time to focus on the application.
Removing Tasks from the To-Do List
The final option I have in this exercise is to eliminate items from my to-do list all together. Lower-value tasks are the easiest to remove. However, if I determine that the pain point is causing too much harm to my overall well-being, I will sometimes remove even higher-value items. Deciding that I am unable to fulfill a commitment can result in feelings of failure or fear of disappointing others. To overcome these feelings, I must remind myself that removing a pain point is an act of self-care.
I recently completed this exercise and realized that I must cancel one of the conferences I had committed to for the fall semester. It's a difficult decision because I agreed to participate in a panel with several colleagues and don't want to disappoint them. Because I frequently present my research at conferences, the conference is not particularly valuable to my overall career trajectory. My research goals will not suffer if I do not attend this one. Attending conferences can be beneficial for networking and learning about exciting new research, but I already do enough of that. I need more time to finish a journal article, so I'm choosing that over the conference.
Choosing Sanity and Wellbeing
Asking for more time, lowering my standards, and taking things off my to-do list are all ways I try to protect myself. If I allow it, this career will demand more of me than I can handle because there is always more work to be done. Even when I feel like my peers are sprinting by, I refuse to run sprints during the marathon. Putting my health and sanity first and making sure I have time for family, friends, and hobbies gives me the energy I need to reach my long-term goals. Instead of focusing too much on the short term, I make changes along the way to keep my eye on the long game.