Love the List

Over the years, I’ve espoused the importance of lists over and over again as a vital resource for the busy grad student. Today, once more, I find the need to cry out the wonderful benefits of list-writing. So, if you’ll indulge me as I get meta for a brief moment, here’s a list of reasons why lists are important:

  • They keep you organized. Pretty self-explanatory. The key here is understanding you own work habits and figuring out how to support them; “organized” means different things to different people. We all have our own individual ways of working and lists are going to function differently for each of us. Love your list, understand your list, allow your list to understand you.
  • They keep you from forgetting things. If you write it on the list, it’s there for you to see when you’re panicking about it later. Boom. Like magic.
  • They help you relax at the end of the day. Often if I’m in a real panic after work hours, sitting down and writing a list of the “need to do” things for the next day will alleviate this because it helps me see how much I actually need to do and keeps me from getting anxious that I’ll forget any of it. Lists also help me consolidate tasks for the day and see where I am in my work progression and what I need to do next to get where I want to be. If I follow my list, I can’t go wrong.
  • They keep you on track. Before I leave my desk at the end of a very busy day, I write a brief list for myself of what I need to do the next day. This allows me to free my mind for the evening, devote attention to other things, then dive in in the morning right where I left off without thirty minutes of figuring out where exactly that was. At-a-glance information is always better than “I put it somewhere” information; it’s all about trimming minutes off the edges of your many tasks so that you can fit as much as possible into one day’s work.
  • They give you a concrete look at what you’ve accomplished in a day. When you’re working on a giant, seemingly endless project that moves like the desert sands (like… say… a dissertation…), you need this. Without a hard look at the physical facts of what I’ve done with my daytime hours, all too often I feel like I’m spinning in a giant hamster wheel: running hard but never really getting anywhere. Incidentally, treadmill running also feels this way… but at least that gives me a good endorphin kick as a reward for my troubles. If I keep a hard copy list of tasks that I need to do in a day (or period of time), then I can see how much I’ve crossed off the list. I also get to give myself an awesome feeling of accomplishment when I tear up/cross out/scribble over/destroy by fire this page of notes. Boo-yah!

There it is; lists. Trust me on this. You’ll live a better life once you’ve taken their power for your own purposes.

Some random mid-week thoughts

With Twelfth Night behind me, I’ve dived head first into an insane-o week.

The midterms for the course I’m TAing have come due and are in the process of being graded.  This process is otherwise known as “Operation: dig yourself out of the avalanche of papers that just fell on you”.  I’m making pretty good progress (and, without saying horribly much about it, the class is turning out some impressive work – good job, team!).

All of the projects which I had pushed off until after the show are suddenly looming before

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning.  I love roses!

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning. I love roses!

me like the chimeras and dragons they are.  This semester’s big projects consist of one paper (due ASAP), one paper (due in May), one more lecture for my TAship (in two weeks), my German qual exam (mid April), a conference paper that’s written but has yet to be conferencified (beginning of April), and a class presentation (end of April).  Basically I’ve got a series of staggered deadlines for big projects that are all screaming at me simultaneously.

Luckily, next week is Spring break.  If I can make it to next week, I can have the entire week to not be on campus and sit and work in my pajamas all day every day.

This doesn’t sound healthy.

…or it sounds extremely healthy.

One of the two, I’m not sure which.

I just finished translating Grimm’s Aschenputtel (Cinderella) yesterday which means I need to start in on a new piece.  I try to spend an hour or so every day with my German.  I’m thinking of going back to the German Goethe articles I had the library pull for me.  I should also probably return to my grammar book.  But translating fairy tales is so much more fun than learning grammar!

I have spent the last week steeping in Molière.  I’m writing a seminar paper on him and there are a LOT of plays to get through.  My professor loaned me some books so I’ve been trying to (with a moderate degree of success GO ME!) to get through them in a week so I can return them to her.  This means over-saturation in French witticism.  I’m continually surprised (to the point that it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore) about how much more pleasant it is to research something that’s enjoyable to read than to research something you couldn’t give a damn about (or is just torturous to get through).  Though he many not be my man Will, Monsieur Molière is slippery, witty, and wonderful and I’m having fun getting to know him.  I’d be grateful if you didn’t disclose this to Herr Shakespeare; he’s a jealous mistress (don’t believe me?  Read the sonnets).

I’ve had some wonderful professional opportunities fall onto my plate this week (details to follow; I don’t want to give too much away before things are finalized).  Suffice to say you may want to leave the evening of April 23 available (Shakespeare’s birthday) if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Portsmouth, NH.

And on that note, I should return to the mountain to defeat the midterm dragons.  They’re becoming rather insistent and I’d rather not walk away smelling of scorched hair.

Back in the Saddle

Today, after much grumbling, grousing, self-bribery, and stalling, I finally climbed back in the research saddle.

Okay, “finally” may be a bit overblown (I’ve only been gone for a week), but I could feel the projects piling up and the stress of amorphous far-off deadlines was really starting to get to me.  I knew that it was (honestly) past time to get back to my journey on the road of completing coursework, but I just couldn’t seem to find the motivation.  Twelfth Night and some particularly stressful situations in my personal life have been taking a lot out of me and it’s not even the end of the day these days before I’m tired.  I’ve been waking up from full nine-hour nights of sleep tired.  I’ve been going about my days just trying to eke enough time out of my schedule to get the things I absolutely need to do done.  Far-off projects got back-burnered in favor of imminently approaching deadlines.

Well, the nearby beasts slain, it was definitely time to start on those quickly approaching things.

As usual, I started with a list.  Nothing helps me more than my giant whiteboard.  I know

The whiteboard after today's re-eval.

The whiteboard after today’s re-eval.

I’ve expounded upon its merits before.  It’s extremely useful to me to know exactly what I have on my plate and exactly when all that is due.  Making lists helps me to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.  Often, I make several lists: things that are long-run stuff, things that I need to do on a given day, things I need to do in a given week, things I need to do before I can take the day/weekend off, etc.  I find that the very action of writing this down helps to calm me when I begin to feel overwhelmed.  The above-the-desk hovering keeps me focused, on task, and reminded of where I’m going at all times.

Once I had that, it became easier to prioritize tasks.  I have a general map in my head of these projects and what it’s going to take to blow them out of the water.  I don’t tend to micro-manage myself (at least on paper) if I can possibly avoid it (some days I can’t).  I know what each of these things are going to demand of me, and I know how to break those down into smaller bite-sized chunks.

Having a mega-list means that, so long as I go down the list each day and ensure that I’ve done something towards accomplishing each bigger task, I can finish the day and be done with it.  There will always be more work to do; I will never be absolutely finished.  I sleep easier at night (and, perhaps more importantly, find it easier to take some much-needed time to unwind at the end of the day) when I know I’m on track for my big projects.  I find it easier to relax when I know I’ve done a certain quota of work.

It’s great for self-motivating.  I write my deadlines in a scary color (often red) so that I know they’re hard deadlines and that I HAVE to meet them.  I thank every teacher who ever red-penned work of mine for instilling the “red is important” feeling in me; I use it to my great advantage these days.

I did my daily grind work (caught up on my reading, took a gym trip, checked in on all my syllabi to make sure I wasn’t missing anything), and then I took the afternoon to start rolling.  I’m a born researcher; I’m good at it, I like doing it, and it is the kind of task that self-fulfills and self-motivates.  Doing research just makes me want to do more research.  There will always be more questions, more things to find out.  All I had to do was push the snowball over the hill and stand back.

So I did.  I made a list of books I need to grab from the library.  I looked up some articles.  I reviewed my notes on the topic I’ll be teaching to the undergrads in a little under a month and reconnected with the material.  I put some thought into my conference presentation.  I returned to my German translation.

A Broad, her Bud, and the Bard; leggo me, PiC, and Will who now sit on my desk (...picture included because I've spent too much time at my desk today)

A Broad, her Bud, and the Bard; leggo me, PiC, and Will who now sit on my desk (…picture included because I’ve spent too much time at my desk today)

Sometimes, ritual is important.  In academia, it’s very easy to float through life not really having any sense of what day of the week it is or any rhythm to your work because your schedule changes so dramatically so quickly.  These tasks that I had been putting off were things that provide normalcy and stability to my wild, gypsy life.  Doing them re-centered me and re-focused me.

And I feel a lot better now.  A lot more in control of my semester, a lot more on top of my work, and a lot more ready to face the coming months.

I’m not going to say “bring it, coursework”.  I’m not going to say “I own you, academy”.  Hell, I’m not even going to say “YEA! I AM AWESOME!” until I’ve had another couple days like this, but things have definitely taken a turn for the better.  Here’s hoping that I can stay in the saddle and wrangle this bronco on home.  You know.  Before the summer hits and I have to hide away underground and study non-stop for my comps.