Are you feeling overwhelmed right now?
Between the courses I need to register, the paper I need to finish, the side projects that are ongoing, the phone calls I need to make, the reagent quotes I need to ask, and the favors I promised to do, there is little time left. Right now, I find myself just in a “chaotic” state of mind, in which nothing else can enter in my mind, because some implosion might happen, and I don’t want to know the consequences. Really. In a normal basis, I would just label this situation as “I need to take a break”. Consequently, I would open Facebook or YouTube and start procrastinating. Oh, it feels nice! Some time to disconnect my brain from the endless tasks I need to do.
So far, do you feel identified? Well, I must say this is the moment when our inner selves should come to play and tell us that wasting our time will only make things worse. That’s why I think in some moment of our projects and work, we should pause everything we are doing and start decluttering. If we have a mess in our minds we won’t know where to start from. With this small post, I will give six advices that have worked for me in previous chaotic situations.
Take a piece of paper
Make a list of aaaaaaall the things you need to do. All of them, you need to dissect every single task that it’s bothering your mind: courses, experiments, phone calls, meetings, papers to read, emails to send.
Rearrange the items of the previous list according to their urgency and importance.I usually place the favors I promised to do (if they are small), emails and phone calls in the “urgent list”, because I don’t want to give a bad impression to others. In the “important list” I place first the activities with deadlines and those related to my project and courses. Lastly, I place those side project experiments. Why? Because you are in the MSc or PhD to move on with your experiments, the side projects can wait (***for now***). Now that you have a list, you will feel much better to see in a paper everything you need to do. Don’t panic if you see many things.
Organize your time
Wisely organize your week by placing first all those things that were urgent, and then, the other tasks according to their degree of importance. You might fill a whole week or even a complete month in your calendar with all your list items. It can also happen that in order to finish before the deadlines, you might need to work for one or two weekends. But hey, don’t look it as a burden, take it as something that will help you finish your tasks, and at the end will give you peace of mind.
Sometimes, if I have small tasks to do, I use the time of incubations to read those neglected papers I have in my folder, update my lab notebook or run simultaneously more experiments. However, it really depends on how you organize yourself and keep your mind settled in each task. Lately I have been running many phylogenetic trees in the computer, which takes them hours to finish. So very (un)wisely, I was running more trees during the waiting time. At the end of the day, I had 5 or 6 different trees, but no idea of what I was doing.
Therefore, don’t try to do many stuff at the same time, because at the end it’s likely that you will have a mess. It’s better to keep your mind focused and productive on a small number of tasks. There is a figure of speech in Costa Rica that says: “El que mucho abarca, poco aprieta”, in English “Jack of all trades, master of none”, meaning someone who does a lot accomplishes nothing.
Act and leave excuses behind
Do your part and start running the experiments, writing those emails and making the phone calls. Let’s stop the procrastination! Did you know that we prefer to procrastinate rather than work because the first gives us immediate satisfaction? So, in order to make your work more satisfying, motivate yourself every morning, listen to your favorite music while in the lab, make your desk nicer and more comfortable. We won’t accomplish anything if we don’t act.All in all, just as Nike slogan says: “Just DO it”. Moreover, if you need to work many hours in the computer I recommend reading Relly’s post about the “white noise”, it has really helped me to isolate myself from the outside. Finally, act according to your daily goals of your list. Trust me that productivity will lead to self-satisfaction, and that will lead to “high-work self-esteem”(if that exists!).
Take small breaks
No mind works fine if it doesn’t have enough doses of sugar (or caffeine in some instances). For instance, I usually take small breaks every two hours to eat something or have contact with the outside world. It’s necessary that your mind breathes and sets again for more hours of concentration. Take these breaks as small rewards for doing a great job.
"Take these breaks as small rewards for doing a great job"
Set internal deadlines
Many people, including myself, work better when there is a deadline and can work on the project with time. This is important because it gives you the right perspective about the medium and long-term goals of your project. In many ways the MSc or the PhD work like a relationship: “In order to move on, you need to put a closure”. And THIS, is very important for your studies and projects. For example, I set an internal deadline to finish writing a draft manuscript for the end of this month. This will allow me to have all my results organized and discussed for a seminar I need to present next month, and to start with the experiments of a different project. Therefore, you set a deadline so you can move on.
These periods of overwhelming will come and go many times during your post graduate studies. This is part of being under several simultaneous responsibilities. The way we deal with all of them will lead us either to chronic stress or to a productive path. Many times, we find ourselves in a limbo between the two of them, but a positive attitude will assure us to keep in the latter way. So, let’s avoid the frustration and procrastination and let’s get productive. If you are already on the track, it means you have been doing a good job!