When 1 Week = 7 Steps Back

on the infinite staircase
Credit: flickr / Random Tony

Last week, and at the start of this week I was feeling really worn out and disillusioned. Things were taking longer than they should, and despite working a lot and effectively I really wasn’t making the progress I wanted to be. I felt like I wasn’t achieving anything. What this really means, is that on Monday I worked from around 8 in the morning to 11pm at night (- perhaps 2 hours) and yet didn’t cross anything off The List. Tuesday I started a little later, but ultimately didn’t cross anything off the list either. Or Wednesday.

I feel this real need to make progress, achieve something concrete, day in, day out. I’m aware that as a grad student there’s a risk of ending up at this place where you show up but nothing concrete happens, and this continues until you’ve been there for several years and people joke about whether you’re ever going to graduate.

I don’t want to be that person.

My far off goal, is finishing my thesis. It’s impossibly far away, and too large to conceptualize, so I have to break it into smaller, manageable tasks that mean I’ll make it, in increments. Like reading a paper a day. Coding a new visualization. Writing up all the papers I’ve read that are covered in notes into my work-in-progress. But then sometimes I end up spending a week on stuff that doesn’t help achieve these goals – like marking, or a ridiculously large assignment for the course I have to take. And then at the end of the week I look back and think, well I worked really hard, and I got this done, but in a months time (or even just another week) will anyone care? Will I care?

It’s frustrating. And so every day, I set myself an unrealistic list of tasks. If something (for example, the presentation we made this week) takes longer than expected and I don’t achieve them, the following day’s list is even more unmanageable. And it continues. This is why the “Week in Brief” and my “Goals” list are so helpful, because when I’m trying to do 10+ high level tasks in a week I have to give myself a reality check and admit, that’s never going to happen.

Setting goals that push me but don’t overwhelm me is something I’m working on. Because when I’m overwhelmed I’m not effective, I’m just overwhelmed. I’m not getting stuff done, I’m not motivated, I’m contemplating hiding from the world and wondering if everything would be OK if there were just 30 hours in the day. Panicking because I think I’ve missed an important appointment when I’ve in fact just misread my calendar.

The irony here? After all that stressing at the start of the week, there’s a chance I might just cross everything off the list this week.

Lesson? Start big tasks at the start of the week. Postpone smaller ones to the end of the week. Achieving large tasks motivates and inspires me to achieve the smaller ones. Vice versa does not work so well. Spend more time doing and less time scheduling.

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