This post's headline is intended as a friendly riposte to Elisa Freschi's recent post, "You are not too busy, just disorganized." In brief, in response to a frustrating situation, Elisa enjoins all of us to either (1) stop overcommitting to projects that we cannot follow through upon in a timely manner, or (2) develop organizational skills so that we can follow through on our commitments.
I think (I hope!) Elisa's basic point is easy to agree with. It's common courtesy not to leave other people on the hook for bad planning, and better courtesy not to make excuses for oneself when one does plan poorly. But, of course, for many people, good planning is easier said than done! We often make commitments with the best of intentions, fully intending to meet our deadlines...and yet, all too often, we find ourselves overcommitted and struggling to meet those deadlines. Which begs the obvious-enough question: how can avoid landing ourselves in these types of situations?
In today's post, I am simply going to make a friendly suggestion to those who find themselves strugging to meet deadlines or get things done in a timely manner. Although I recognize that people work differently, and that the suggestion may not work for everyone, the strategy I'm going to describe has worked splendidly for me--and so, if you're having trouble, maybe give it a try!
It's natural enough to think--as Elisa's post suggests--that being "well-organized" is conducive to getting things done. I actually don't think this is the case. At least it hasn't been my experience that being "well-organized" in any traditional is conducive to getting things done. I know some people who are incredibly well-organized--people who have daily lists of things to get done, planners detailing their daily schedule, etc.--but who are constrantly struggling to meet deadlines. I think there is a general problem with this entire approach to getting things done. Let me explain.
Suppose you set aside 2 hours to work on a Project A (e.g. a paper for an edited volume that there's a deadline for), 2 hours to work on Project B (e.g. reviewing a paper for a journal), 2 hours for Project C (e.g. lectures), etc. On the surface, this looks like good planning. But there's a perfectly simple way in which it can predictably lead to a failure to meet deadlines. Suppose you spend your 2 hours working on Project A, but you end up mucking-around (we all have those days, right?). In that case, even though you dedicated 2 hours to Project A that day, it was time wasted. You didn't get squat done on the project, and you could have spent those two hours hacking away at other things you need to get done. And herein, I think, lies the horrible garden-path. You muck around on Project A, not getting far; so you fall behind schedule. Then, because you only left yourself 2 hours on Project B, if you're not super-efficient on that project, you fall behind on that one too. All of a sudden, there you are: you "planned fantastically", and yet you're not meeting any of your deadlines!
I think there's a simple, killer way to solve this problem: move back and forth from project to project constantly, on the fly, so that you're always getting a little bit of everything done. In other words, don't do this:
- 2 hours for grading
- 2 hours for working on Paper A
- 2 hours for working on lecture notes
Instead, try bouncing back-and-forth between projects on the fly whenever you find yourself wasting time or getting tired with what you're doing--as in:
- Grade 2 term-papers; immediately move on to:
- Editing a page of paper A...until you hit a roadblock; then immediately move on to:
- Writing several Powerpoint lecture slides; then move on to:
- Grading daily assignments for Class #1; then move on to:
- Editing a page of project B; then move on to:
- Grading 2 more term papers; then move onto:
- Writing ten powerpoint-slides;
This kind of project-hopping might sound like complete mayhem--but I think you may find yourself surprised just how well it works. Because you're always moving from thing to thing, you're almost constantly crossing things off your to-do list (e.g. 2 papers graded here, 5 lecture slides there, a page of a paper written/edited there, etc.), slowly but surely whittling away all of the stuff you need to get gone.
Contrast this to the strategy of laying aside 2 hours for this project, 2 hours for that, etc. The problem with this, again, is that it's really easy to waste time when you're working on a single project (e.g. a single paper, grading, whatever) for a set time-period. For example, suppose you decide to spend 2 hours on a paper you've been writing. We all know how this can go. You run into a roadblock, sit and think for 30 minutes, revise that same paragraph again, etc. All of a sudden you've wasted two hours. You can avoid this by simply moving from project to project. On this model, whenever you start to struggly with something, you don't sit and think about it for 30 minutes; you move onto 2 paper you need to grade, five lecture slides you need to write, etc. In other words, the 2 hours you would have wasted by setting time aside are 2 hours you are grading 2 papers, writing 5 lecture slides, etc. All of which gets more done.
The other great thing I've found about bouncing back and forth from stuff is that it really goes a long way to preventing fatigue. Grading a stack of 40 papers? Goodness, it's monotonous. Grading 2 papers, editing a page of a paper, editing a job application letter, grading 2 more papers an hour later? Not monotonous at all. Indeed, suprisingly fun!
Or maybe not. Again, like I said, we're all different. Maybe this Mayhem Strategy won't work for you--but if you are one of those people who struggle to get things done, maybe it couldn't hurt to try something new! :)