We’ve spent some time talking about the big goals for a developing academic, developing the “uber-skills” of scholarship, creativity, communication and time management. These four (and the other parts of your life) underlie your strategic vision, your basic roadmap. But while having a map is an essential part of reaching a destination, you still need a detailed set of steps to get there.
One psychological barrier, as outlined by David Allen’s Getting Things Done, is “stuff”. The central idea is that much of our day to day anxiety arises from unresolved, ambiguous list of expectations. Allen defines stuff as
anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.
In other words, only by dealing with “stuff” can you feel on top of things. Furthermore, as you proceed through graduate school you will find, without active preemption of “stuff”, this will be harder and harder to do. This is because you will accumulate projects as a natural result of being an active productive scientist. The insight of GTD is that nothing drives away the desire to tackle hard, creative, and worthwhile tasks like the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.
Stuff comes in various flavors (and we’ll address many of them) but the kind that is easiest to deal with, and with the least effort (i.e., more “stuff for the buck”) is email.
Nothing wilts the spirit like 400 emails in your inbox. Here’s what you do to help get your life back:
1) Set your email to refresh once an hour, turn off its little “ping!”, or better yet turn it off altogether. Email is addictive in the same way that gambling is addictive: it’s random reinforcement. You hit refresh because your email program just may give you a big dose ‘o good news (“hmmm, maybe I’ll hear from Ecology about that manuscript today”). More probably, it’ll yield a fun distraction from the hard work at hand (“oooooohh, that crazy YouTube, thanks Mom!), but not always. Sometimes it’s just a plea for cash from Nigeria. But that’s the attraction: who knows what will show up when you hit refresh….it’s….a mystery.
[Time elapses while the author hits refresh......two emails from Apple about a Valentine's day sale.]
2) The two-minute rule. OK, you’ve spent an hour struggling with that experimental design and its time to reward yourself. You hit refresh……
Oh Joy! Fifteen messages! OK, plow through them, one after the other. Your goal is to get each out of your inbox. Most you delete. Some you relocate (see below). But, and here is the most useful nugget of advice from GTD, if you can get it out of your life in 2 minutes, just do it. This may mean sending some information to a pal who requests it, or skimming a TOC from one of your favorite journals. It may take time from the task at hand, but it banishes an email from your inbox. The two-minute rule is an empirically wonderful thing for eliminating stuff of any kind. Moreover, you will astound and amaze the sender at your effectiveness. Already, you are two steps down the road to chairing a department.
3) Create an ACTION folder and use it. If there is something you have to deal with soon, but it takes more than 2 minute to deal with it, slip it into this folder. Now, on your weekly todo list, place a reminder to empty your action folder on M, W, F. Situation under control, important stuff placed where you know you will find it again.
4) Create a HOLD folder and use it. This is for stuff that will come in handy soon for projects that you are currently working on. So if the email needs a response, its ACTION. If you can use the info soon, it’s HOLD.
5) Create an ARCHIVE folder and use it. This is for everything else. Some folks will recommend that you create multiple folders for every project, broken down by this that or the other criterion. Or that you tag software with a variety of keywords. Sure, fine, if you receive craploads of mail and/or you’re into typing Boolean searches to shave off precious seconds when searching for an email. But most folks can find what they’re looking for using the sophisticated search engines already build into Mail, Outlook, or Gmail. And those search engines will only get better over time.
So there you have it. A few simple things that you can do right now that will convert an Inbox right out of Brothers Karamazov to one that is so empty and pure that you can smell the sweet prairie wind whistle through it.
Score: You 1, Stuff 0