“As soon as I’m done with this project, I’ll return to my normal routines.” “Just wait until this is over, then I’ll be thriving.” “I just have to get this over with, then it’ll be all good.” Sounds familiar? These kinds of thoughts pollute our minds more often than it is bearable, and once we get in the state of “as soon as… then”, not only do we not enjoy the thing that needs to be done itself, but we actually lose a lot of time on stress and unproductive behavior, jeopardizing the very chances this particular project gets done in the best way possible.
An example. Last Friday night I had to attend a cocktail party at my High School. It was the first one of he year, all my students and their parents were to be there and, as a teacher and the head of the department, I had to make a speech. It didn’t have to be long, and no serious matters had to be discussed. Only greetings and thanks. Then there were to be other speeches, and food, and drinks, and some of my students actually had prepared some kind of a show. So really, there was almost no reason for me not to enjoy it. That’s what I had been telling myself for hours before the event. And every time a voice in me head had replied: “I don’t want to enjoy it, I want to get it over with.”
It wasn’t only that I longed to finally get some rest after an eventful week, or that I was a bit scared of the speech, and also at the though of having parents come up to me and ask questions about their children. As I was writing the first draft of this post, I understood I had very few things to fear, virtually none.
Still, I’d rather been anywhere else but there that night.
The cocktail went very well, and, the day after that, my first field trip with my students went smoothly as well. I had nothing to worry about. Of course, you always “have” to worry about small stuff, but shit always happens, so it’s not even that. I was new to all these events, but the process itself of worrying sick about something that was planned ahead and that I had to wait for to happen wasn’t new to me. Actually, this is how I’ve lived for the past few years. Being a PhD student didn’t help: I had a weekly schedule, sure, with courses to teach every week, and scientific gatherings to attend, and my thesis to write “in the meantime”. That is where it went wrong. Because instead of making the writing my priority (lots of reasons there, but now I’d like to tackle the particular problem of planning), I kind of lived from “event” to “event”, occupying myself sporadically with other tasks that seemed important too, but mostly waiting for the week/class/conference to be over so that I could finally sit at my desk and write uninterrupted.
With experience comes wisdom, sometimes. The experiences of the past few weeks, as I now have a full schedule, lots of time demanding unimportant stuff, and still my thesis to finish, not to mention other projects and things I like to do (like going to the gym and writing my novel), have finally taught me something precious.
There never will be a time with no distractions. It is an illusion to think that “once this is over”, you’ll have time to do what matters. Life always happens, and if it isn’t an “important” e-mail, or some kind of certificate you have to get to the administration asap, or a real emergency, it will be picking your clothes from the dry cleaner, or making dinner, or picking up that phone call from a friend you haven’t heard from in ages. Life throws a lot of unexpected things at us, some of which we have to deal with right away. These are states of emergencies. There aren’t a lot of those. Most of the time, the things that get thrown at us are expected, we just choose to ignore them before they happen, even if we know they will, and we live in a delusion thinking we will always have time to get to our most important project and set us up for deception and guilt.
So I’ve decided to ditch the “I just have to get this over with” way of thinking. Instead, I am implementing a new habit, one that I expect will make me more productive and happy in the long run.
Here are the foolproof rules:
- Don’t be a hypocrite. Same thing as when planning a budget, if you choose to ignore some the monthly expenses you make because you firmly believe that some of those can be cut but end up dealing with them anyway, there are things we do every month that take up a lot of our time and yet we don’t plan them ahead. Like making food and eating it. Like responding to e-mails. Like dealing with administrative stuff. Or laundry. Or going to the gym. Include all this stuff in your schedule and then you’ll see more clearly how much free time you really have. Some people choose to only check their e-mails twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. It is a good habit, as there is rarely such a thing as “urgent e-mails”. I haven’t yet mastered this habit, but I’m getting there.
- “Free” time means time to think, and when something important is scheduled, it only means time to stress. Occupying yourself productively during this time is not only a great way to reduce stress, but also to get things done. Knowing ahead of time how you day will go and how much time you’ll have to spend on preparing the said event (it may be an important meeting, or a drink with a friend), how much time the commute will take (and what you can do during – so many books can be read on a train if only we didn’t automatically reach for our phones to check the latest word events and cute kitties pictures…). Don’t set yourself up for failure: so often do we expect too much of ourselves, thinking that when we have an off day we can get a lot of things done, and then something else comes up and we believe the whole day is ruined. It isn’t.
- Make time every day for you most important project, the one that has a deadline, the one that is important to you. To me, it is writing my dissertation. I have classes to prepare, and meetings to attend, and e-mails to answer, like everyone else. But I know it would be delusional for me to think that there will be days where I could only write. So I try to spend at least an hour every day on my thesis. Make your most important project part of your schedule. And know that an hour can go a long way, especially if instead of doing this you’re waiting for some “free time”: you might be waiting a whole lot, get nothing done, and when this free time comes eventually, be too tired from everything else to do it.
- Make time for yourself. You’re most productive when you’re rested. Don’t underestimate the power of sleep and exercise. Plan activities that will make you relax and stop obsessing. When we obsess about the things we have to do, we only stress and get nothing done. It is important to take the time, even if it is just for ten minutes a day, to breathe.
- Be realistic. This all comes down to this simple fact. Planning means being realistic. It means knowing the things you have to do in the day, it means scheduling the time to do them and, most importantly, knowing that there are always things you cannot predict. It also means setting your priorities and mustering the courage to decide that some things will have to be dealt with later. You can’t do everything at once. We live in an over connected world where we can be reached at any time and where our routines run the risk of being disrupted. Accept this. Do the things you can, one at a time, and you’ll see that more often than not, a lot of “urgent” things that you might have tackled right away, if you let them be for a while, actually resolve themselves. Be a hero when it comes to your most important projects, the ones you’re in control of. Take the path of least resistance with the things you’re not the one of being in control of. You’ll see how shifting not only your priorities, but your responsibilities, towards the things that matter the most will make you the most productive version of yourself you’ll ever be.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!