Year Two: The Early Months

It’s October, and the semester is in full swing. I’m teaching, taking two classes, prepping for prelims, writing a paper, and giving my first talk at GSA in less than a week(!). Suffice to say, I’ve been incredibly busy. With so much on my plate, I’ve had to get a lot better at time management over the last six weeks (has it really only been six weeks?). At the start of the semester, I would look at the huge whiteboard looming above my desk, covered in scribbled to-do lists: lab tasks. writing tasks. teaching tasks. more writing tasks. It was totally overwhelming, and I found myself ending each 10+ hour workday feeling frazzled and unsatisfied with my work. Obviously, I couldn’t keep that up for four months.

Instead of staring at a seemingly insurmountable task – “Write the India paper!” “Write the NSF grant!” – and freezing up, or procrastinating in a seriously impressive way, I began to break these huge goals down into reasonable goals, then into truly bite-sized bits. Then, every day, instead of seeing WRITE A PAPER on my to-do list, I’d see things like “Research specific topic X” or “Find more papers for supporting idea Y.” These made my goals and deadlines seem a lot more manageable as well as approachable. Seems obvious, but it took me a year to figure out.

The other key thing I changed, I think, was being realistic about what I should expect to do in a day. Teaching and taking classes really helped with this, actually, because I couldn’t allocate all day to writing or working on figures. Rather than putting eight items on an impossible to-do list, now I put more like two or three very reasonable goals. “Finish grading last week’s homework.” “Work on editing Figure 2 for the paper.” “Don’t eat all the chocolate at your desk.” (Okay, that last one is impossible, and we all know it.)

Honestly, even with these mini-goals, I still sometime work ten or eleven hours and feel like I didn’t get anything done. Part of that is because I have other, non-research time commitments, and part of it is because I’m human and my brain fizzles out after x hours of staring at a figure of precipitation over time and trying to figure out HOW TO MAKE THE GRADIENT LOOK GOOD IN ILLUSTRATOR. Some days are just better than others; the key is, as far as I can tell, hanging on for the ride.

There are two months left in this semester. Three months until my prelims paper is due; five until my oral exam. Six days until my first conference presentation. Four days until I leave for said conference. Twenty minutes until I head home for the day. Bite-sized bits of time culminating into my second year.

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