I would love to be a naturally productive person, able to self-motivate in any situation and do what needs to be done out of pure principal and will power. It’s a great trait in an academic. As organized and responsible as I may appear to others, I cannot fool myself. And I have an 18-month old who puts what little organization and will power I can claim to the test everyday. Most people would consider me a stay at home mom, but aside from the work that goes along with that, I wrote most of my dissertation and now I am in the planning (read unpaid) stages of some part-time teaching for the fall semester.
Alas! I am a slacker, and after many guilty, nervous years of closet slacking, I have learned to embrace my indolence and inertia as essential to my productivity, not totally contrary to it. As a dedicated, life long slacker, I have spent years honing the craft of getting things done in a pinch – grad school being no exception. This approach to productivity works best, however, when there are minimal interruptions, distractions and other impediments to working nonstop until the job is finished. The more variables and uncontrollable outside factors added to the equation, the lower the chances of completing the task at hand in a timely and competent fashion, which in turn greatly increases the risk of having to come up with poor excuses or turn in shoddy work. Embarrassing! A child is of course, one of the wildest, least predicable variables to factor in to the productivity equation. New, ever changing working conditions call for new, creative working strategies. Also, probably less sleep. That’s usually the first thing to go when children are involved.
Before I go any further, let me be clear: I am not in any way discouraging a healthy stretch of slacking here and there. This is not an anti-slacking manifesto or the coming of age tale of a former slacker. If I weren’t slacking right now, I’d probably google and link some of the studies I have read or listened to on NPR over the years, which would help me make my point. Slacking helps me focus on what is essential. When there is no time for unnecessary steps, they must be skipped. Often, when I am “putting off” working on a project in the strict measurable sense of the term, I am turning it over in my head more or less all the time in what I like to think of as the pre-writing or conceptual stages. I’ll talk about writing, because that’s most of what I have done to this point in my career. This is also the time when I am most inclined to scold myself mercilessly for having nothing tangible to show for all my mental energy and guilt. The blank document or the paragraph that refuses to multiply into pages is the worst! Enter the wildcard. Now that anything I want or need to accomplish must always be done in tandem with taking care of my son, my work habits have changed. I’ve become a little more like that dream productivity monster I spoke of above, but only in short spurts.
Instead, I’ve discovered that there are different types of productivity: one for my zany, mad-scientist style toddler and one for boring old me. Now I get to play with him during my would be slacking time, still achieving a high degree of “doing important things” on his terms and then, when playtime is over and nap time begins, I transform. Play, as I have discovered, is a way of changing perspectives and resetting my mind (kinda like with Facebook,) which can be helpful at sticky, frustrating points in a project. As much as I idealize being totally present when I am spending time with my son, other obligations are usually being mulled over somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind while we are together. That’s just the way it is. But rather than resenting time “lost” working on “the thing,” whatever it may be, I prefer to consider that my son is helping me to open my mind to a different way of thinking, a new way of finding solutions to problems, possibly reminding me of the value of the silliness. When our mutual lesson is over, or put on pause, he can recharge his batteries and I can go back to draining mine.
Case in point: I am currently planning a class that I will be teaching in the fall. The eternal slacker in me knows I’ve still got time and has accordingly shuffled other priorities into place before class prep. But those days are numbered. Yes, I’ve been dabbling here and there, thinking, reading, considering… But soon I’ll have to make some decisions about the texts we will read, the discussions we will have, the assignments I will give. The syllabus! That idyllic document where it seems like anything is possible. A delicate balance of all that I have to offer and the reality of what I can reasonably expect of my students, who are also balancing a lot of other priorities and perhaps even a closet slacking problem of their own. For now, I’m ignoring the nagging voice for the most part and instead planning trips to the swimming pool and the library. I know it’s rolling around somewhere in my brain though. Soon, I’ll reach the tipping point and I’ll pound it out of my head and onto the computer screen. It’s gonna be great!
What are your strategies for getting the ball rolling on important work?