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The key to success: careful delegation of brain cells June 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, societal commentary, work.
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been reading with great interest the discussion on work/life balance and all the various issues people have to juggle.  In particular, GMP talked about people working ‘regular hours’ versus those who work more erratically.  The funny thing is, not only am I dealing with this myself, I’m trying to convince my teenager of this.

When I started college, pre-kids, I had never really learned any study skills.  Even though I was taking AP classes in high school, I’d worked in ‘crisis management’ mode through most of it.  (Probably the one exception was AP biology…)  I’d basically see what was due the next day and do that.  I very seldom (if ever) had much difficulty with my homework and studying was pretty much a waste of time because I got everything I needed in class.

You can pretty much see where this is going…  (And this is a BIG reason why I’m not crazy about traditional schooling methods.)

Of course, nothing stays as easy as high school, and college was a lot harder.  The problem was, no one ever told me how I was supposed to study.  More than one of my classmates used the same methods I did (and were equally unsuccessful).  I took a year off, working at a job.  When I went back, I wasn’t entirely disciplined, but it seemed like I had worked myself into a schedule by having a regular job. This carried over when I went back to school.

Then I had kids…and the need for a schedule was reinforced.  You only have kids in daycare during certain hours.  And if you’re lucky enough to have a spouse, maybe they aren’t going to be willing to bail you out when you’ve got unmet deadlines.  Or maybe they have deadlines of their own.

The question I kept asking is how I could do it all.

At some point, I realized I was chasing my tail and making no forward progress.  I could sit and work for 24 hours and still not make “sufficient” progress.  I think that view came from high school, too.  I used to be able to sit down and finish something.  But as you get older, the problems get bigger and more complicated.  There are very few things I can sit down and complete in just a couple hours, and most of those are usually brainless tasks.

So there’s another thing I had to come to terms with: I can’t do everything, certainly not in one sitting, and even everything I’m already doing may be too much.  Sometimes I have to let things go by quitting them or maybe I just have to put less time into them than I like (which is pretty much everything these days).  The important thing I need to ask myself at the end of the day is whether or not I made progress.  (I also don’t bother asking if I am happy with my progress because that inevitably leads to me feeling like my efforts were inadequate, which is only counter-productive.)

I try to maximize my potential by doing the most thinking intensive stuff in the mornings.  I try to make chunks of time to work on those things as large as possible.  (I have a tough time getting focused on a task, and once I do, I need to try to keep that as long as physically possible.  Interruptions (aka meetings) are a death-blow to my productivity.)  In the evenings, I try to spend time with my kids.  After they’re in bed, I try to get a few more things done.  When I’m teaching, the night activity is almost always grading.  There is absolutely no reason to waste perfectly alert morning brain cells on grading.  If I have a choice between getting an assignment graded in the morning so I can hand it back in the afternoon or waiting until the following class session so I can do it at night, I almost always choose to wait and do it at night.  Maybe the students aren’t as happy, but my productivity is a lot more important.

I have tried to do other work at night, but that’s more benign stuff like putting together presentations or even planning out my next day (one of the best evening activities).  I am far better off getting to bed early than sitting up trying to work on something important and making virtually NO progress.  Usually I sit there and work far past the point I’m exhausted, don’t get enough sleep, function less effectively the next day, feel like I didn’t get enough done, stay up late to compensate…and it just becomes a horrible downward spiral.  Now that doesn’t mean I can always do things on a schedule, but it usually comes out better when I do.

No, as much as I don’t like it, it’s better just to leave stuff undone and make sure I’m getting enough rest and exercise.  The funny thing is, most people don’t really seem to mind.  It drives me nuts not having things done, but when I talk to my supervisor (as an example), I’ve just gotten the general feeling that I was making sufficient progress to keep him happy.  (Maybe I’m wrong?  I hope not…)  In fact, both in my own experience and what I’ve heard of others, those who wield deadlines like bludgeons and expect people to work far beyond where they are effective (especially in the face of extenuating circumstances) are generally viewed as bullies.  That seems to be the case both in industry and academia.


1. nicoleandmaggie - June 7, 2012

There’s actually research on this topic… For academics most of the relevant research is by Robert Boice. I think this is our post on him: nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/blogging-boice/ .


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