Monday, June 10, 2013

Physician, Heal Thyself: Taking My Own Advice

It’s summer now.  All of the exams are scored, grades assigned. It’s time for a little reflection….

It occurred to me at the recent inaugural AASE conference (which was great, by the way!) that
this last year was really busy for me.  Not in a “Wow, I surely did accomplish a lot this year” way, but in a “Man,this year was so busy that I feel like I got very little accomplished” way. 

If you are like me, then any given day during the semester could look something like this:

    9:00 a.m.:        Eat breakfast while returning yesterday’s e-mails.

    9:45 a.m.:        Make a to-do list of the things I want to accomplish today.

    10:00 a.m.:      1-on-1 meeting with struggling 2L.

    10:30 a.m.:      1-on-1 meeting with 1L.

    11:00 a.m.:      Prep for 1:00 class.

    11:15 a.m.:      Interrupt prep to meet with a walk-in student.

    11:30 a.m.:      Return to class prep.

    11:45 a.m.:      Another drop-in.

    12:00 p.m.:      Skip lunch to complete class prep.

    1:00 p.m.:        Teach class.

    3:00 p.m.:        Return to office for office hours.

    4:00 p.m.:        Grab lunch.

    4:15 p.m.:        Eat lunch at desk while reviewing a past exam for the next student meeting.

    4:30 p.m.:        Place partially eaten lunch on credenza and meet with struggling 1L. 

    5:00 p.m.:        Ask 5:00 appointment to be patient, because the 4:30 meeting is going long.

    5:10 p.m.:        Begin 5:00 appointment. 

    5:30 p.m.:        Ask 5:30 appointment to wait about 10 minutes.

    5:50 p.m.:        Apologize to 5:30 appointment for the late start. 

    6:55 p.m.:        End 5:50 appointment, which went over an hour due to my “late start guilt.”

    6:56 p.m.:        Look at partially eaten lunch on credenza.  Decide to take a bite.

    6:57 p.m.:        Throw partially eaten lunch away.  It has turned.

    7:00 p.m.:        Call my wife, and tell her that I’m working late tonight.

    7:05 p.m.:        Work on faculty committee work.

    8:30 p.m.:        Begin reviewing today’s e-mails. 

    8:45 p.m.:        Begin reviewing student work sent in today’s e-mail.

    9:30 p.m.:        Look at the list of things I meant to accomplish today. 

    9:35 p.m.:        Choose to leave work notwithstanding 90% of my to do list is not done. 

    9:36 p.m.:        Promise to do better tomorrow.

    10:15 p.m.:      Grab dinner at a drive through to eat at home.

    11:00 p.m.:      Go to bed.

    1:00 a.m.:        Wake up with indigestion.

    1:05 a.m.:        Check e-mail before going back to sleep.

    1:10 a.m.:        Return e-mail from a troubled student. 

    1:11 a.m.:        Troubled student responds.

    1:13 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student.

    1:15 a.m.:        Troubled student responds.

    1:17 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student with a very clear, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

    1:20 a.m.:        Troubled student responds with “just one last question.”

    1:22 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student.

    1:25 a.m.:        Troubled student responds. 

    1:30 a.m.:        Turn off my phone and promise to e-mail troubled student tomorrow.

Does this seem at all familiar to you?  Am I crazy?  Because I have to be honest with you, I originally was trying to be funny when drafting the sample day above.  But it occurred to me by the time that I finished that it was all too realistic.  I absolutely have days like this.  A lot of them.  And please note that as I string days like these together, there’s nothing on that list that says “spend six uninterrupted hours working on scholarly writing” or “go off-campus for a weekly afternoon of community service at local high school” or “work out” or “read for fun” or “eat lunch at a reasonable hour” or “write that blog post that you promised Amy Jarmon months ago.”

As I think about this, I wonder how I get anything done.  I’m so busy, and there’s always so much to do.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  I like to be busy.  But I realize, looking at the schedule above, that my days are so full that a lot is getting missed.  I realize now, in my head, that my thoughts sound a lot like a law student’s:

                “I don’t have time to do everything.”

                “Where am I supposed to find the time?”

                “I’m working really hard, but I always feel behind.”

                “I have so much to read.  I can’t get anything else done.”

                “I can’t think beyond tomorrow.”

                “I’m not sure how I’m going to get everything finished.”

                “I’m not getting enough sleep.”

                “I don’t have much personal time.”

                “I’m not procrastinating.  I just can’t get to things until just before they are due.”

                “I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to get all of my work done.”

                “I guess I’ll just do the best I can.”

I hear these complaints from law students every day.  And I genuinely believe that I give them really good advice.  So, I wonder, how might I advise myself?  Here is some simple, familiar advice that I now offer to myself, and possibly to those of you who are like me:   

        1. Make a schedule.

Plan out what you want to accomplish each day.  Don’t just put “write” or “work” on your calendar.  Plan days with detail. For example, set aside reasonable stretches of time to work on
individual tasks.  Keep in mind all that you must accomplish in a given day.  Set aside time in your schedule to accomplish each task and to complete the tasks overall.   

In addition, engage in long-term planning.  Look weeks (even months) ahead to see what deadlines exists or what longer projects must be completed.  Estimate the amount of total time that you need to complete those projects and then spread the bigger tasks out, working on a little bit at a time, rather than trying to accomplish all of it at once.  All nighters are often a reflection of poor planning.  If you plan better, hopefully you won’t be spending the last day or two before a deadline working insanely to finish your project. 

        2. Focus on one thing at a time.

Even though we all think we can multitask pretty well, you might find it helpful to isolate certain tasks.  When writing, find an environment that is free of distractions – though you should know yourself and avoid an environment that is too quiet, if you know you won’t be productive there.  An hour spent meaningfully on one task is probably more efficient than three hours spent on that one task while simultaneously trying to accomplish other goals or spending those hours in a state of distraction. 

        3. Build in time to care for yourself.

It is important to eat and work out and spend time with family.  Don’t just expect that time to appear.  Plan it out.  Put “Lunch” in your schedule, and put “Work Out” in your schedule at specific times.  Then, respect those times.  From now on, you are unavailable to do work during those times.  You’re going to feel better if you eat and exercise regularly, and the remaining hours in the day will be more energized and productive. 

        4. Prioritize tasks.

On busy days, figure out what must be done and what can wait.  Reschedule a meeting if you must; ask for extra time on a task when you can.  Then spend your day focusing on the most important things but avoiding the guilt about the other, less important things.

        5. Do not allow one task to dominate your time

It is all too easy to get sucked into working on one task to the exclusion of all others.  Don’t let this happen.  Even though you have prioritized tasks, and one seems (or is) more important than the others, do not let that one task allow you to fail on all the others.  I see this all the time with my students who are working on writing assignments.  The writing assignment is due this week.  It will get a grade.  It seemingly is the most important thing on the schedule.  Students work all day and night on the writing, simultaneously falling behind in reading, outlining, class attendance, and other obligations they have.  While working on the paper with extreme multi-day focus is actually an understandable decision when one is taking a snapshot view of a student’s life, less so when looking at the “movie” version.  Decisions have consequences, even the well-intended decision to focus on only one thing that happens to be due this week.

        6. Grind.

Sometimes, you will find yourself in a position where you will have to grind.  By that I mean that you will be busy, tired, working late, irritable (is that allowed in ASP?), hungry, and overwhelmed, among other things.  But you have to press forward; keep working and check things off of that to do list.  Things will settle down, especially if you plan ahead a little better, and you’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

        7. Just start working.

If you’re feeling paralyzed about work, sometimes the best thing you can do is start working.  Overwhelmed by the amount of research you need to accomplish in order to write a scholarly article? Just sit down at your computer and start writing the article, figuring out the finer points of research focus as you go.  Need to grade exams, just pick one up and start reading it.  Need to give Paula Manning-type feedback on a paper, just get started.  Need to write a blog post, just tap into your thoughts and get started.  Don’t worry about perfection, just do some work. 

One of my favorite pieces of advice for students who are having trouble outlining is the advice to just get started.  The task seems so overwhelming to them, so I say this:  Imagine riding a bicycle on flat ground, or maybe even a little uphill.  When you first get started, you have to stand up, shifting your weight on the pedals, rocking the bike side-to-side, in order to build momentum slowly.  But, after you have momentum, you find that the pedaling is easier, you can sit down on the seat, and you can still keep up your pace with less intense effort.  So, dig down and spend a little extra energy to just get started.  You’ll find that once you do, the going forward is much easier, as is forming the belief that you are able to keep moving forward.

I am going to follow my own advice.  Starting today.  (Well, maybe tomorrow, because today is almost over.)  Ask me at the end of the summer if I finished my article and book.  If I don’t give you the right answer, point me back to this blog post.  Please.  Because it’s going to be busy in the fall.  Really busy.  So the time for productivity and accomplishment is now. 

Happy and productive summer months, one and all!

 (Russell McClain)

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