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  • Steven Lee

Organization Saves Time...and Sanity

I recently read somewhere on social media that procrastination is a manifestation of anxiety. A similar though related problem is not knowing where to begin. This can place a stranglehold on your research progress--to the point where you completely forget about certain projects at the cost of obsessing over others. What's worse: many of your shiny new undertakings can be stalled for reasons that are beyond your control. Not only do you fail to satisfy your passion, you can come close to burnout with nothing to show for your efforts but frustration.

Today, I decided to create a spreadsheet of all my research projects (10 total as of this writing). I set the title of each paper as well as the prospective journal and various check points (whether I obtained data, if the paper has already been written, if I have shopped the abstract to said journal, and at which submission in the process that particular paper is). For some reason, I never gave serious thought to do this until today. The concept of organization is quite familiar to me. After all, I use a similar spreadsheet for client projects. The impetus for this organizational intervention? Yesterday was a day of monumental irritation where little was accomplished but much time was spent. I revisited a data set I used during coursework one year ago. For some reason, the latest version was larger--too large, in fact, for any of my devices or software to handle. I literally could not open the files to clean or manipulate the data.

It's important to remember that days like yesterday do happen. To minimize the collateral damage to yourself, your loved ones, and your career, it's important to treat your research agenda less like an obstacle course and more like a call list. There are certain key aspects involved in this reorientation.

Deepen your "to do" list

I am really bad about this one. My list sits on my desktop (where I can't even access it if I'm not at my computer) and consists of fragmented sentences loosely cobbled together with a numbered set of bullet-points. Instead, place three activities under each task. If you complete one activity, cross it off your list. If you run into a problem with an activity, detail the issue, then start the next activity. If you are stuck on all three activities and no further progress can be made in the present, move on to the next task.

Juggle your commitments

One of the professors who spoke on the doctoral student panel at the CFP colloquium last month stressed the importance of making time for and focus on your research without distractions. That is extremely important, but there is a parallel truth to keep in mind: Your research projects will always be at different stages--research question formulation, data manipulation, formatting, revising in light of reviewer comments, etc. Due to the infinite universe of things that can go wrong at any point in the process, you must be mentally prepared (and exert the willpower) to switch things up. Admittedly, there is a judgement call as to "when enough's enough," and that's something you must figure out for yourself. There does come a point, however, when your efforts really are futile, and you're burning rubber for no constructive reason. To this end, consider allocating time to each individual task. This will ensure quality time with your favorite projects while avoiding the self-resentment of neglecting older, equally important, ones.

Acceptance is the first step to retainment (of your sanity)

Perhaps the single toughest obstacle to progress in your research agenda is...yourself. It's easy to be sucked-in to the false narrative of expert = needing no help. When you think about it, that's largely why you're an expert in the first place--you have chosen to specialize so finely in one particular area that you necessarily spend less time doing other things and mastering other subjects! We need to move beyond the perceived shame associated with asking for assistance and admitting that there's something we simply cannot do. Sometimes, we really are out of our depth. Other times, we are too focused on one aspect of a problem that we fail to see the simple solution before our eyes. Regardless of the precise issue, it helps to delegate that responsibility to someone else. It doesn't necessarily mean you can't do it--just that you don't possess the current resources (including mental resolve) to accomplish it now. Even if it's as simple as opening a stupid data file =/