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You Will Never Get It All Done

The Chronicle’s ProfHacker and Inside Higher Ed’s GradHacker have this week collaborated on a series of posts about productivity apps and systems. I’m constantly in search of the right way to organize my working life, to keep my focus, and to keep my eighty-bajillion (that’s an approximation) projects moving forward, so I’ve been reading these posts with great interest.

The two that most spoke to me, however, have taken a philosophical approach, stepping back from the relentless determination to do ALL the things! and instead thinking about how we decide what to do and why. On Monday, Natalie shared her personal productivity rules, and I was struck by her sense of trying to take care of her future self — doing things now, even when she doesn’t really feel like it, in order to make things easier on herself later on. So much of my work ethic is focused on NOW NOW NOW that doing something like packing lunch before I go to bed at night, so that I don’t have to worry about it in the morning (because I know perfectly well that I won’t worry about it in the morning, and will instead find myself out paying too much for yet another salad) would never occur to me. So I’m now pondering the ways that I can do a better job of taking care of future me.

And then, this morning, Jason issued a clear reminder of why it is that I need to look out for future me: “You will never get it all done,” he says, so making choices about what to do, and when to do it, requires a careful consideration of what’s really important to me, what my values are, and how I can best support them.

“You will never get it all done” flies directly in the face of the advice I’ve given myself ever since I was a panicked undergraduate, looking at the stack of work that I had to do and the looming deadlines by which it all had to be done: “Relax,” I’d say to myself then. “You’ve repeatedly faced this moment at which the amount that has to be done simply cannot fit into the time allotted, and yet despite that seeming impossibility, you have always somehow managed to get it done. And you will this time, too.”

That little speech got me through college, through grad school, through thirteen years of trying to balance a full teaching load, an active research agenda, and a metric crap ton of administrative work, and it always worked. I’d calm down, draw a breath, and dive in — and somehow, it all always seemed to get done.

But as Jason notes, “the more you succeed, or the more things you do well, the more opportunities will present themselves.” And I find myself in the entirely privileged circumstance in which the opportunities are expanding astronomically. This situation requires a different kind of self-talk, because once I say yes, once I add the opportunity — the commissioned article, the invited lecture, the advisory board — to my to-do list, I’ve committed myself to getting it done. And one of the best ways that I can be kind to future me is by ensuring that those commitments are to the things that best support the work I want to do, in the deepest sense.

What matters most? What do I want my work to accomplish? It’s perhaps not surprising that these productivity posts have me pondering such enormous life questions: today’s my birthday, and while it’s not a big round numbered one, it’s one of those that often moves you out of one demographic category and into another. It’s a moment for taking stock, for thinking about where I’d like to be when the next milestone birthday rolls around, and how I might best get myself there.


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