GTD: midway through week 1

So over the weekend, as I mentioned, I managed to ingest most of my “stuff” into OmniFocus. I created project plans and figured out next actions, and as new ideas or requests came up I dumped it immediately into my inbox, assigning it to a project if I could. For a day or so I was relaxed and chipper, and excited about the possibilities.

Cut to the middle of the week and I feel like I’m being pulled apart.

While I could handle the constant, relentless march of new things being ingested into the system, looking at the totality of everything I have to do is either mind-numbing or panic-inducing. Unsurprisingly, almost everything I have to do right now involves Urgent, Important action, landing in Stephen Covey’s Quadrant I. Moreover, the urgency comes in part because it is my least favorite kind of work: logistics and self-promotion. Buying plane tickets, scheduling Skype-cons and meetings, inviting myself to give talks, updating profiles and websites, or writing emails (sometimes cold) to prominent people in the field asking for comments on my work. This kind of thing generally sends my blood pressure through the roof; I would much rather be quietly working on my science or showing my colleagues the super-cool plot I just made. I’ve done some of that this week, fortunately, but not as much as I’d like…

Moreover, there are a number of urgent things which could be done in parallel, letting the computer munch away on the problem while I do other things. To get these done most efficiently I have to multitask, switching back and forth between tasks while keeping them all in my peripheral vision — another thing that really stresses me out.

So I’m taking a time-out to write about this and take stock of the situation. I’m a scientist, let’s be scientific here. What have I learned so far from this experiment and how can I do better here? My thoughts:

  • Expectation management is important. In some sense, my mission is to “get as much science as possible done in the next year before I run out of funding”, which is an open-ended commitment that isn’t going to leave me with much time to myself. The part of my anxiety that comes from having too much to do and not enough time to do it in is only going to be made worse without a concrete plan for when the madness will end. It’s possible that this part will decrease after I’ve been using GTD for a couple of weeks and pay down the insane number of short-term, urgent Quadrant I admin tasks, whereupon I can get back to spending more time in Quadrant II.

  • This is partly about being proactive! While I’m no stranger to overcommitment, the GTD system — which contains the time constraints and priorities that faithfully reflect my situation as I understand it — is bringing me face to face with important aspects of my career management that I’ve treated irresponsibly in the past. That irresponsible behavior, particularly failing to engage with mentors and with people who could support me on my projects, has no doubt been taking its toll for years now. If I want to level up anytime soon, I have to own up to that, and part of the owning-up process is to start aggressively doing just the kind of things that I’ve been putting off. Scheduling Quadrant II carrots such as social time with friends, exercise, and journal time to process emotions is also key to remaining effective, creating an eye to the storm.1

  • I may not have to do it all. (Or do it all well.) There may be other mental habits that are taking their toll here. It’s great that new collaborations are growing up around my work! But now I have to learn how to lead and to manage those collaborations, to maximize value for everyone, in a situation in which I am by design and by necessity primarily responsible for the outcome. Being out in front is a very vulnerable feeling which I’ve historically tried to avoid. For example, I typically don’t like to delegate, either out of perfectionism or out of a fear of being seen as bossy (which are probably related). But delegate I must if I’m going to keep things moving at the pace I need, and learning to trust others with pieces of a project in which I’m very deeply invested is a prerequisite. Meeting those fears head-on is path-critical.

  • Parallel processing gives leverage. I should give myself more credit for identifying the tasks that will allow the computer to run in the background. The supernova search, my analyses of large supernova samples, and other codes I’ve agreed to run can all be churning at the same time, while I write up my papers. The only trouble is that they involve some setup time. So I’ll encourage myself to see this frantic week as an investment, which will hopefully pay dividends over the next month as my productivity increases substantially.

  • I have to learn to use my system in order to trust it. Right now everything is in flux, since I haven’t really used GTD effectively before. So there’ll be a learning curve as I figure out more about how OmniFocus works, and how to mold it to my own mental habits to help me make decisions in the trenches. This is also important work that is happening as I do my other work, and it takes energy, which I should account for when considering how much I could expect to get done in a day. I should add that this is definitely an important activity, not one I can really ignore, and is made urgent only because of the pressure I’m putting on myself to get all this stuff done in very short order. As I figure these things out better, I’ll be sure to mention them here.

Whew. I feel better already!

1Chocolate may also play a role — within reason.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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