Busy, Busy, Busy…
I have, once again, entered one of those delightful busy periods that threatens to rip all of one’s best laid productivity plans into a pile of once good intentioned but now useless shreds. The reasons fit the standard litany: end of the semester work colliding with a random cluster of grad student-ey administrative work colliding with three trips in four weeks.
We’ve all been here…
The Panic Schedule
Most students follow a similar strategy to cope with this scenario: the panic schedule. The idea is simple: you list out everything that needs to get done during the crazy period and then make some attempt to come up with a schedule that covers the crunch. Sometimes, however, this mega-list approach fails to provide the desired salve to your aching productivity soul. You don’t trust it. You find yourself constantly reviewing what’s coming up and trying to re-convince yourself work will get done. Deadlines collapse into other deadlines. Too much work is squeezed into too tight spaces, and soon your days fall back into chaos.
In this post I want to describe a simple variation to the panic schedule that helps me both plan busy periods and remain calm throughout.
For me, my panic schedules begin and end with the visual. Specifically, the first step I take when faced with a busy period is to print a blank calendar for the month(s) ahead. (I get my blank calendar templates from this web site.)
I then follow, roughly speaking, a process that looks something like this:
- List out all the projects that need to get done during the hard period. Label each with its deadline.
- Add all deadlines plus relevant travel, appointments, and other date-specific obligations to the calendar. (I tend to draw dark boxes around these items to make them pop out.)
- Estimate the number of work days needed for each project.
- Start adding project work days to the calendar. I sometimes invent extra visual flourishes to help distinguish certain important work. This helps me quickly visualize exactly when the most important projects are going to get done. (A necessary stress reliever.)
- Shuffle, edit, and tweak until you feel confident that no one day is unrealistically packed and everything has a place.
- Panic when you realize there is too much and you can’t satisfy (5). At this point start canceling and negotiating. Following the 4D method, you might start getting rid of obligations or re-negotiating different future dates for non-urgent tasks. Then go back to (5).
Case Study: My Visual Panic Schedule
I’ve included at the top of this post a scan of the visual panic schedule fueling my May. Notice the visual improvisation. I have stars around the editing work for my big research paper due next Monday (because not getting this done is a particular source of worry). In some places I added arrows. The big deadlines and travel dates have nice drop-shadows because, as everyone will admit, drop-shadows are awesome. Etc.
The big picture idea here, however, is that I have taken a lot of work that has to get done in a short period of time, and then made the plan to handle it visual. A 10 second glance at the calendar reassures me that everything will get done and that the schedule makes sense. A long list containing the same elements would not provide the same relief. My mind sees a list and thinks: “This looks long, is this really going to happen?” And then it stresses. On the other hand, it sees this calendar and can say: “Oh, I edit today. Good. ” And then it relaxes.
It’s a simple trick to improve a common strategy. And like the best simple tricks, its impact is significant.