Accomplish the Things That Matter
To succeed, all grad students must develop a sense of how to manage the big, relatively unconstrained nature of their work and how to reach imprecise goals
While I myself am a serious person, a linear thinker with an elegant clarity and few needs, my brain has a life of its own. Refusing to do my bidding, the unruly pile of neurons has much more going on than I intend.
It gets drawn into at least eight sordid tales of human decrepitude a day, every day. It rubbernecks at things that would never interest me -- shouting matches between strangers, catchy headlines about celebrities, blustering experts vocalizing above one another on news shows. It hungers for ice cream and it is not shy about telling me so. It has an unrequited crush on the winsome pink bladder from the Myrbetriq commercials. It wants its MTV. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a brain less suited for a life of the mind. Yet here we are.
I used to fantasize about having a sabbatical, but when fate tossed me nine months of relatively unstructured time, my soul wanted an explanation, my heart wanted to go home and my brain wanted to chase every idea that crossed our path. Face it: 2020 was not ideal for deep concentration and scholarly activity. If only we had known that the world would be battening down the hatches for not two or three weeks but a year, we could have made plans. We could have done better. We could have done more. Kairos, the Greek idea of time as we live it, moments and eternities, ran away from us. Chronos, the time of clocks and calendars, was more predictable: it just kept ticking along.
Over the holidays, between alphabetizing my pantry and binge-watching Derry Girls on Netflix, I reread Seneca’s “De Brevitate Vitae,” or “The Shortness of Life,” an essay I first read while procrastinating in graduate school. Seneca, a Stoic, argued that life is long enough if you spend your time well. “Ha!” I said to Seneca when I finished that first reading. I suspect that as a Stoic, he would not have gotten bent out of shape about my reaction. He would have probably just gestured discreetly to let me know I was standing on his toga. But in the fullness of time, I have come to agree with him.
That Which Has Been, That Which Is, That Which Will Be
Seneca wrote down the obvious. Life, he said, comes in three parts: that which has already been and is therefore pretty much set in stone; that which is -- the present, a fleeting moment; and a future that is not guaranteed to happen at all. Given that we are working primarily with the present’s slippery little bit in the middle, how can we accomplish the things that matter most to us?
Busyness is one of the distractions Seneca pointed out. Those who are busy do-do-doing may occupy so many of their hours with frenzy that they never get to the real business of their lives. Likewise, many of us when overwhelmed turn to distractions that fritter away our time until we have too little of it left. But what can we do about that, other than wish we were better than we are and less prone to frailty?
Growing Your Time Skills
During graduate school, I was frustrated by how my ambitions kept outrunning my time. I resolved to learn how to get more done. To succeed, all graduate students must develop a sense of how manage the big, relatively unconstrained nature of their work and how to accomplish imprecise goals like “read enough." In fields in which graduate work includes daily manual effort like conducting laboratory experiments, students must also develop day-to-day habits for planning, doing the hands-on work, analyzing data and synthetically thinking about their emerging understanding of the questions that their work is addressing.
It takes some trial and error to find work habits that serve you well. People with critical time constraints -- for example, parents who must finish in the lab in time to pick their children up from school in the afternoon -- often are among the first in a graduate student cohort to figure out how to get the most out of the workday. Talking with them about how they plan their weeks and execute their experiments may change how you approach your own work.
Most graduate students have heard about and tried out some popular techniques for short-circuiting procrastination, overcoming one’s own resistance to getting started on a project and keeping multiple projects moving forward. If you have not done this, I recommend looking up the phrase “productivity systems,” which will give you plenty to read. Buying a certain planner, timer or packaged approach to being a more effective you is not, for most people, the best way forward. Reading through several approaches and picking out elements that seem to fit you is probably better.
Over time, I have come to use elements of a system called Getting Things Done to keep my projects and goals moving forward. Reading books about organization for right-brained people provided me with good insights for projects, ideas and physical objects that do not fit well into the usual boxes.
I use a timer, but not the Pomodoro technique, to get myself moving when I am having trouble settling down. For concentrated work like writing, the COVID-19 disruption has let me return to a habit I used from high school through the end of my postdoc: I cook something long and slow, tending to the kitchen in short breaks throughout the day. If I start in the morning, by suppertime I can have a first draft, a gorgeous stew and a loaf of crusty bread. The accomplishment is eminently satisfying. The day feels like enough. What works for you will be different, but you, too, can find ways to move beyond distraction.
Making Sure You Do the Things That Matter
Despite the time that has passed, we are still somewhere in the middle of the global pandemic. While 2020’s strangeness caught us by surprise, we are used to it in 2021. Many grad students continue to work from home and face still-limited access to research sites and facilities. Some things that would normally happen -- for example, departmental gatherings and professional meetings -- will again be canceled or changed into something very different this year. The displacement of work and childhood education into the home will continue to distort personal space and family time. Some achievements, ideas and plans that were highly relevant in late 2019 will no longer be important by the time some sort of normal resumes. The satisfaction provided by getting something done -- anything -- takes on greater importance in this strange time. But which things do you most want to accomplish?
One way to make sure you use 2021 for things that matter is to set a handful of goals in three categories: advancing your research; attending to your mental, physical and spiritual health; and serving your loved ones and community. Do not just write out your litany of tasks. What you should be thinking about is the underlying goals that drive your to-do list. Writing your dissertation is a typical to-do list goal on the way toward the underlying goal of reaching your degree’s level of intellectual capacity and independence. Giving your time to your local homeless shelter may serve an underlying goal of defending human dignity.
If your brain is especially rambunctious, checking on your big goals once a month or even once a week might work best for you. I have broken my year into quarters and thought about what doing well in each category would look like for me during that period. Those thoughts lead to a more traditional to-do list: this quarter, in support of my goal of serving the people in my life, I must remember some birthdays, which I have written on my calendar; I will send unexpected care packages to three loved ones; and I will make shareable scanned images of everything in a box of family mementos that has been in my closet for years. At work, I will spend time moving two of my “someday” projects ahead: I have spent long enough dreaming about them. It is time to make them real.
Every three months, I will set aside some time to revisit my big goals and remake the to-do lists that flow out of them. That will help me make sure that distraction, distress or dissolution will not make me forget the things I mean to pay attention to. It does not take much effort, and the payoff -- a year of true accomplishment -- will be worth it.
Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.