Track, review, keep or toss.
Isn’t being overwhelmed one of the nastiest nemesis of (young) academics? The field appears to favour, select and push “all around” profiles. In High Energy Physics this can translate as: « student alpha did both a physics analysis AND had a detector project ». The source of the tension lies partially in the quest for this « Glorious AND ». As a result, PhD students and postdocs start many projects in parallel. Too often, they wrap up few or even none of them during their contracts.
A side effect of the hunt for the « Glorious AND », as well as the illusion of effective multitasking, is the lack of a sense of pride in what we do, since projects are rarely completed.
Nota bene : even when you complete a project the todo list is so long with other projects that you can hardly enjoy it
What are your good hours?
While we all know that we need to focus and not be distracted, we all turn to email or our phones when we encounter a difficulty in our work or are faced with a boring task. By the time we return to our duties, we forgot a bit where we were and one has to start all over again.
Every person is different and has their own natural rythme, some are bright morning birds and others may be more night owls.
Talking about High Energy Physics here and the way we are organised, it is difficult to plan your schedule entirely freely. This being said, if you know which one are your best hours, switch off all notifications of emails etc, during those. You may ask right away “but what if my supervisor looks for me?”. We all dread for the apocalypse while we switched off emails.
You could consider to have a conversation with your supervisor(s) or close colleagues to let them know that Monday Wednesday and Thursday from 9:30 to 11:00 you are off the grid and focusing on work. It takes a lot of discipline and practice to implement this and probably even more to respect other people’s good hours.
How often did I catch myself thinking but where is C. ? I really want to show her this. Well she is focused and I can show her this plot in two hours – trust me in the grand scheme of things this will change nothing.
Tracking is very much person/field/seniority dependant, however the core idea remains invariant.
One decides what is it they want/need to work on. For PhD students or young postdocs the topics are often determined with the supervisors. The trick is to pursue both a fine tracking and coarse one.
The day to day organisation of the work is our own responsibility and this is where the fine tracking comes into play, it can be daily or weekly. You may ask yourself:
How much time do you want to or can spend doing project X ?
How much time do you want to or can spend on reading papers and educating yourself?
How much time will tedious unavoidable tasks take you ?
This is an example of your fine tracking. Now the coarse one you can do every three months or each time you feel that things are unbalanced. Planning long term projects is an art in its own right and it requires a high degree of brain flexibility given how hard it is to budget the unknown. Sometimes you may think you are almost done and boom you encounter a nasty systematic effect and that’s three months delay on your project.
Review can be done when you prepare your coarse tracking list. One personal recommendation is to not to do that when you are tired and fed up with life. Prepare a cup of your favorite beverage, take a deep breath and be very honest with yourself. Honesty is key here.
What did you (honestly) spent your time doing, was this aligned with your original plan or not?
If yes good for you, was this what you really wanted now that you’ve done it? If yes great continue.
You didn’t follow any of your plans and you are miserable? Please don’t beat yourself up, this won’t change anything and it will only make you feel worse. Take a sip of that beverage and think small incremental changes.
You are the conductor of your work and life, no one will tune it for you.
Keep or Toss
Keep or Toss may be self explanatory but probably the hardest to implement.
There are only so many hours in a day, and as much as we may wish otherwise we are only humans with limited capacities and bandwidth. What’s important is to know well the perimeter of our capabilities. These are not constant in time they can expand or shrink.
Your world of potential can feel tiny when it’s time to write down your PhD or meet a deadline for a grand application. These strong constraints are simple mechanics but cheer up this too shall pass. Knowing what’s possible is not straight forward and with time we get to know ourselves better.
To give an example there are some projects that I was not ready to let go, I transported them from one review to the other and marked them with an incremental index. Fast-forward after a few rounds I still did nothing about them. Then I have to be honest with myself and accept the reality which is that either there are not the hours in the day. Or maybe I don’t care about them as much as I thought, otherwise they would not been tackled already.
Keep or Toss may feel painful but ultimately it’s liberating.
None of what I am telling you here was natural to me, it took me many iterations to find a set of parameters that work for me. And even when something works it’s not a fixed recipe and I always have to adapt with what is going on in my life.
That’s it folks, I discussed this thing with many students and postdocs so I thought I will write it down in case it can be helpful to others.
The picture attached are for those who may required a reference.