To-Dos and Boundaries

As I write this sentence I know exactly how much time until my next break (45 minutes and 39 seconds if you’re interested). When my Activity Timer dings I’ll stop what I am doing, even if I am mid-thought and do something else. Maybe I’ll make a cup of tea, or maybe attend to that unread Facebook message, but most likely get on Twitter. I really have no idea what I will do, but I do know that as soon as my clock is not counting down I am technically ‘off the clock’.

This might seem absolutely insane, but when it comes to productivity and being a graduate student, if you don’t find something that works for you, you’ll find yourself feeling unbelievably stressed at all times. I’m weirdly proud of my own productivity system and after a brief exchange with Thomas Mock on Twitter yesterday I figured it might be worth sharing. By documenting exactly how I do what I do, it’d also remind me to practice what I preach as I enter the last four weeks of the semester here at LSU.

Most of this falls into two categories:

  1. To-do lists and
  2. Boundary setting at the local and global level.

I’ll explain each in turn.

To Do Lists

Some of the best advice on to-do lists I ever received was from Richard Lewis when I was an RA on the Transforming Musicology project. He was managing a huge amount of the project, as well as his own work at the time and I asked him how he did it. He showed me his to-do list. It was a simple text file (come to think of it, I think it was emacs org-mode) and gave me the sage advice of

“only write down something on a to-do list that you can do.”

As dumb as it sounds, think of all the times you have written down something like ‘Write Final Paper for American Music Class’ as an item on a to-do list. You can’t actually DO that in one sitting (and if you DO do things like that, you might have a perfectionism/procrastination problem and HIGHLY recommend this book to read), but you can DO all the component parts of said project. What you have do is find a way to organize all the ‘things’ you have to do and break them down into manageable steps. I structure my to-do list hierarchically into all of the projects or classes that I am currently working on. My to-do list is a text file that I edit with VIM that takes advantage of vimoutliner where you can find here. I access it by opening up my terminal (I also work as much as I can in terminal on Mac because I am easily distracted and like to feel like I am hacking in The Matrix) via an alias command. I just type ‘workflow’ into my command line and it opens up the to-do list. To learn how to set this up, check out this link here.

The file is organized hierarchically and vimoutliner color codes the indents. At the top of the file I have major deadlines that I shouldn’t forget about. As you look down the list there are high level headings like industry, lsu, and personal. Under each larger level umbrella is the actual project which has its own folder/directory (often linked to a github repo because I love those green commit squares). Then under the project are the actual to-dos. Each line starts with an action verb in all caps followed by something I could do in one sitting. Important to-dos get a ; which my text editor colors as red, which I associate with as important.

Here is what my current one looks like:

So when I am ready to work, all I do is type ‘workflow’ into terminal, then I have a whole list of things I can pick based on priority and what I have the mental energy for. By having a few things to choose and having everything written down my work is out of sight, out of mind for when I am not “working”. I often tell people that if I don’t write it down, I won’t do it. It’s a double edged sword because on the positive side, you don’t feel the mental heat I was tweeting about yesterday as things pile up. They are just all on your to-do list and you’ll get to them when you sit down to work. The negative side is that if you use this system and forget to write it down immediately, you will forget to do it.

So with all this stuff to do, how do I actually then do it? In order to answer that question, I need to take a step back and talk about boundaries.

Boundary Setting

The best and worst thing about graduate school is the lack of structure. It’s fantastic in that I can work when I want, where I want, and as long as I meet my deadlines, I wont be hanged, drawn, and quartered by my advisers. It’s terrible in that with no set boundaries, it creates this constant ‘I should be working right now’ culture (a world I am very familiar with coming from an undergraduate degree in music where you just replace ‘working’ with ‘practicing’). To be fair, my advisers would never do that, they might get a bit irritated but they are the nicest, most supportive people ever. I have found that the best way to work around this structure problem is to set very firm boundaries both at a local and global level.

Local Boundaries

One of the hardest things to do with work is to just start. Often I don’t start to work because I feel like the problems that I have to tackle are just too big. Add in a bit of self-doubt, fear of your work not being good enough, and looming thoughts of a terrible academic job market that your peers constantly remind you of and it’s almost like why even bother? The best way I get around that is to just start working by picking a certain amount of time you think you can commit your full attention to something. It might be five minutes, ten minutes, the holy twenty five minute pomodoro, or you might have the juice to sit down for 50 minutes (this session). With that in mind, or knowing what I kind of work I feel like doing (writing, coding, emails) I press ‘start’ on my timer, open up my workflow and pick one of the things I already wrote down to do that could be done in one session. While the clock is ticking down ONLY WORK ON THAT ONE PROJECT. No Facebook, no phone, no Twitter. Don’t even start a conversation with your lab mate that walks in. If they start talking to you, practice saying ‘No’ to them and tell them you are doing a pomodoro session and will be done in 9 minutes and 19 seconds (current clock). When the timer goes off, stop. Even if you are almost done! The reason for this is that so you can get a quick breath so when you press ‘Start’ the next time, you will know exactly how to start your work!

I find that doing this just a few times will get me in a much healthier place in terms of work life boundaries. And the best thing about it is as soon as the clock stops, you’re done and can make a cup of tea or coffee.

Global Boundaries

The other important catch to this system is setting global boundaries. What I mean by this is that you need to start working at about the same time every day and end at a reasonable time. I try to get into the office everyday at about 9AM and leave at about 6PM. It’s a long-ish work day (I take an hour lunch), but the best part is that having this regularity makes me happy. It might seem like I am just doing a 9-5 thing, but since I’m a grad student (and ABD right now) I can just stop whenever I want! The thing is I often do not because I weirdly really like what I do. The whole point of setting boundaries it to avoid burnout!

In addition to keeping semi-regular work hours I also do not have email or slack on my phone. My first music theory professor on my first day of class of undergraduate told us ‘there is no such thing as a music theory emergency’. He is correct. Most problems are not emergencies and the rest you get at night is much better than being on call 24/7. If you are staying on top of your work and working healthily to a goal, this system is supposed to prevent you from running into a place where you are submitting something at the last possible second.

Closing Thoughts

If after reading that you think “Dave, sounds like you just have a cushy grad position, you probably don’t work that hard. On the other hand I work 60-70 hours a week as a grad student!” I would have two things to say to you. The first is that I don’t believe you are as productive as you could be. I’d personally pay for the Go-Pro for you to wear all week and would be interested to know much time people accidentally waste each day looking at social media and doing other unproductive things. The other is that you might consider your ability to say ‘No’ to people. One of the hardest things I have hard to learn is to say ‘No’ and not let productivty creep happen (become more productive, get more time, fill free time with work). Saying ‘No’ is very hard but I actually got a lot of help learning about it when I read Henry Cloud’s book on Boundaries about six years ago. I could do a whole blog post on that book.

While there is something to be said about just falling deep into your work, especially at the start of grad school, I always try to do a bit of self reflection and ask myself if what I am doing is sustainable. The first two years of my PhD were not and it lead to me being very depressed and irritable at times. I really credit some of these ideas I just detailed with moving away from a lot of those very toxic mindsets that permeate many academic’s social media feeds (WORK WORK WORK!). I’d really like to have my cake and eat it too with a healthy work/life balance and this is just one idea that moves me closer to that goal.

Also for those keeping score at home this post took 1 50 minute session, one 20 minute session, then I went to bed, and did three more 20 minute sessions to get it done and posted.