Time for a New Year’s Reboot

I’ve officially completed the first quarter of my PhD and felt like it was one of my weaker academic performances to date. Much like my first semester in the MEM program at the Nicholas School, I felt ALL the feelings: inadequate, gleeful, inept, intellectually engaged, inefficient, excited, frustrated, enlightened, moronic, self-assured, and doubt-ridden…to name a few. For a few days after submitting my last final I felt deflated and glum. Hadn’t my time in the masters program trained me for this? Shouldn’t I be able to excel in an academic setting by now? But instead it seemed that I was regressing.

From one beautiful campus chapel to another.
From one beautiful campus chapel to another.

A few weeks have passed since that last final was submitted, and after a bit of soul searching, I realized that while all of the above feelings are normal to the human condition and come in waves and spats, for me there are certain triggers that set them in motion. This time, I determined it stemmed from feeling inefficient. I was only taking ten units of course work, which was minimal compared to what I’d been taking at Duke, and had zero commitments to extracurricular activities. Yet I had still felt behind the majority of the quarter and that the quality of my work, focus, and motivation was at an all-time low.

This reflection led me to the awful realization that I thrive on menacing deadlines, being overcommitted, and the adrenaline of cutting things close. But when I say “thrive,” I mean that while I am at my most productive in this state of chaos it is to the detriment of my health, my husband, and my all-around good cheer. I was able to do it for two years during the masters, but five years? It could be the death of me.

So what I’ve decided after puzzling with this realization, is that I need to begin finding ways to create structure that establish clear deadlines and accountability mechanisms and force me to be more efficient without binging on commitments. This is especially true, because the further I continue on my PhD pathway, the less and less structure I will have, as classes are replaced with independent reading and research, and at the end of it all I will have to produce a very lengthy document, not something that can be hammered out after several furious sessions of writing.

Professor Bill Durham giving our anthropology class a rundown on the history environmental conservation. Despite feeling inadequate this quarter, I still learned a great deal. Something to remember!
Professor Bill Durham giving our anthropology class a rundown on the history environmental conservation. Despite feeling inadequate this quarter, I still learned a great deal. Something to remember!

Why share this?

Because I have to believe I’m not the only one whose default is to overload their life with commitments without understanding the full weight and time intensiveness of each one, who has a lot of burning ideas for self-motivated projects but only brings a small handful to fruition, and whose productivity suddenly increases during the last 24-hours before a deadline. In fact, there’s even a psychological term used to distinguish this personality type–one with which I’m very familiar having grown up with Marriage and Family Therapists for parents. “Perceivers,” as we’re known, tend to prefer leaving things open-ended and unstructured which can lead to being noncommittal, sometimes disorganized, and, dare I say, flakey. However, I think there is still hope for us, and that is why I’m sharing my new plan.

After soliciting tips from friends and colleagues, as well as learning strategies from a great organization called National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, I’ve developed a 5-step plan:

Hold a weekly “meeting.” Sometimes another week has gone by, and I’m not entirely sure what I’ve accomplished, besides reacting to deadlines immediately in front of me. In order to be more proactive and less reactive, I’ve decided to devote 30-minutes each Sunday evening to sit down and outline my week, what I’d like to accomplish by the end of it and how I plan to finish each project by breaking them into realistic chunks to work on each day.

Track how I spend time. This is critical for people like me, who easily get distracted. One minute I’ll be working on my paper and looking up some critical bit of information, and an hour later realize I’ve spiraled into a cyberspace rabbit hole and am now googling “best holiday cookie recipes.” This is not efficient. I need to keep tasks more delineated and clear cut, so that I can make progress on one thing, not the thing I’ll be baking next week for friends as Christmas treats. To help with this, I’ve been testing an app called Atracker (for iphones only, but there are many great options), which allows the user to add relevant categories and then track how much time is spent doing each one. Atracker and similar apps also keep stats on accumulated time for each category over days, weeks and months in order to identify habits and patterns.

Write everyday. I love to write, but I hate starting to write. I often find it intimidating and think I need a very large chunk of time to tackle anything of significance, so then I hardly get around to it. In the past it’s often taken a looming deadline to get my butt in gear, but that doesn’t work for things like blogging regularly, publishing an academic article that is self-driven, writing a creative memoir that’s been in the works for five years now, and certainly not for a dissertation. So I MUST get in the habit of writing daily, for at least 30 minutes to an hour, and e-mails don’t count!

Touch e-mail & mail ONCE. Often I miss important dates, because I’ve opened an e-mail two weeks earlier, absent-mindedly glanced at it on my way to grab lunch, and then proceeded to let it get buried alive under incoming mail. The forgotten e-mail slowly suffocates until a month later, when I attempt a marathon inbox cleaning and find that many correspondences need to be resuscitated. In light of this, my goal is to only open e-mail and mail when I have the time to respond to it, or at least dedicate time each day to answering e-mails and limit it to an hour per day or less!

Seek accountability. Accountability is built-in with coursework that has specific deadlines. However, with writing a blog or other similarly self-structured projects such as the ones I mentioned earlier, I’m usually the sole person I have to answer to and good at validating my excuses. I’ve come to learn that I do better with external oversight. I’m still determining the best way to approach this, but one option that sounds promising is meeting with others once a week who also want to buckle down on their writing habits to share what we’ve accomplished and what our goals are for the following week.

Hopefully, with a little more structure, I'll have more time to swim in this beautiful pool!
Hopefully, with a little more structure, I’ll have more time to swim in this beautiful pool!

Of course, all of these strategies will take some refining and practicing, but I hope that by following these steps I will become more productive and clear time for things I love like surfing and running, cooking healthful meals, attending social events, reading for fun, etc. And, more importantly, I hope it will help me enjoy these things sans the gnawing feeling of guilt that often hangs overhead when I know I’ve not been efficient with my time and left things on my to-do list unchecked as a result.

I hope what little I’ve learned so far is useful to my fellow easily-distracted Perceivers out there, and would also love to hear about any strategies you’ve used to boost productivity and efficiency. I know this will continue to be a lifelong learning process, but it’s a process that with an evolving plan now in place, I’m actually looking forward to tackling.

So, Perceivers unite…it’s our time to shine!


2 thoughts on “Time for a New Year’s Reboot

  1. Excellent approach to focus your wild “perceiver” tendencies. Of course, that curious, adventuresome drive you have is a wonderful quality as well, and you certainly have tamed it enough to accomplish some amazing things in your life! I’m sure your new career at Stanford will prove as exciting and productive as your earlier endeavors. As always, we look forward to sharing that journey with you.

  2. Sounds like a good plan. I’ve always appreciated how you love to learn and find new ways to make things work better. You may not have a natural ability to organize and structure your time and energy, but your enthusiasm for the new and adventurous is a wonderful quality. Of course, focusing and channeling that energy into definable steps and completions is also critical, and it looks like you have an improved way to accomplish that. Thanks for sharing: I could benefit from your new insights as well…

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