Organise my paralysing anxiety, please
October 3, 2011 7:50 PM   Subscribe

How can I be organised and productive without becoming overwhelmed?

I'm currently in what is probably my most stressful semester of grad school (or life, maybe)--I'm preparing for my oral exam (qualifying exam/dissertation proposal/whatever else these things are called). I don't actually have that many things to do, but I can't multitask--I just work on one for a couple of days and completely forget about the others (and forget what I was doing).

For example, I spent the last week studying topics for my exam and then went back to working on my paper this weekend. Surprisingly, I could pick up where I'd left off, but I have a homework assignment (yes, I still have a course that gives homework) due Friday, which I've now all but forgotten about. Tomorrow or Wednesday, I'll start panicking about the homework, drop working on the paper, start feeling unprepared for the general portion of the exam, go back to studying for that and repeat this cycle forever, with nothing besides the homework assignment really getting done well. (And somewhere in there, I remember I have student HW to grade and lose an evening to that.)

Historically, when I try to make to do lists, I end up being paralysed by the length of the list. Of course, when the list is in my head, I'm paralysed by that as well. So, hive mind, what can I do? Is something like GTD the answer? I've always assumed it would just make me more stressed--I can't get into the habit of maintaining a Google calendar, as there's too much upkeep. Or something. How can I learn to stop working on one thing, do something else and be able to pick up the first again efficiently?

Right now, what little organisation I have is in a pocket Moleskine calendar (which is just for unusual appointments--the doctor, the vet, etc.). I have an iPad. I don't use it for anything particularly organisational, unless we count carrying around lots of PDF files. But if that's what your brilliant idea involves, I have one. Fundamentally, I seem to be a paper person. I've used most of the things mentioned in this post, which is asking something a bit different, but related, and not kept going with any of them. (I use Bibdesk for citations and just dig through vaguely organised PDF files on my computer or printouts for articles. Or grab them from the arXiv every time I need to reference them.)

(I have spoken to my advisor about this, who is in the 'get the paper done, then worry about the rest' camp. And he's right--it seems I've got to pick something and that's the biggest priority. But implementing that plan is the tricky part. Particularly when my brain is going 'But you have homework due!')
posted by hoyland to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Before anything else, try reframing your expectations. You say things like "I'll start panicking", "start feeling unprepared", "repeat this cycle forever". I understand that you're basing these predictions on experience, but you're asking this question here with the hope that you can change your usual experience.

So, to begin with, how about assuming that things will go well, rather than assuming that you're going to fall apart as usual? A bit of positive thinking is a good way to begin the process of rolling up your sleeves and knuckling down to whatever needs doing.

I used to begin classes each semester thinking, "How on earth am I going to master all of this within the next three months?" But after a number of successful experiences, I began to think, instead, "Hey! Look at what I'm going to become a little expert in within the next three months!" I found that simple reframing to be very useful in helping me get started.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:17 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Set specific times for specific tasks. Say, 6-8pm for homework, a half-hour break, then 8:30pm-11pm for the paper. Stick to that schedule, so you don't feel like you "should" be doing something else during that time.

Don't panic if you haven't finished something during that time, the point is to get yourself used to scheduling yourself for specific times for specific tasks. With unspecific time, it seems like you "should" get everything done at once, and that can be paralyzing.
posted by xingcat at 8:32 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've found though that the best way to get things done when you're juggling a lot of different projects is to give into your own momentum. If you wake up on a Thursday, and your brain has decided while you were sleeping that it's time to work on that essay, then go with that, even if you'd decided earlier in the week that Thursday was going to be a grading day, or whatever. Your brain has its own logic, and if you trust that your brain isn't actively trying to fuck you over, then you can give into that logic and not waste so much energy fighting against it.

I decided to try this a couple of months ago, and it was weirdly scary at first. What do you mean, I'm just supposed to do whatever I want to? But it turned out that I'd been trying to hold myself to this strict artificial schedule because I was terrified I was lazy. It also turned out that when I did cut myself some slack, I didn't end up just lying around in my pajamas all day, reading trashy novels. Instead I get these weirdly specific, urgent directives from my brain: 'It's TIME to work on that German essay!' Alrighty, then. And those directives cycle through according to their own weird logic, so after two days of: 'GERMAN!,' I wake up the next day, and as I'm eating breakfast my brain goes: 'Alright, it's time to go back to the library now.'

I've also found that when I stop freaking out about all of the work I'm not getting done, and go along with my brain when it wakes up and says, 'Today is a good day for dumb television,' which it occasionally does, then I find out a day or two later that my brain was really processing stuff in the background. So just when I'm starting to get really mad at myself for being a lazy bum, I wake up the next morning and my brain presents me with a nice clear thesis for the paper I was flummoxed about, or a way to solve the problem with my argument that I was stuck on.

Now, sometimes sharp deadlines don't allow you to give your monkey mind free rein like this, but I've also found that it's easier to buckle down in a pinch to finish something if I'm not already worn out by fighting against all my own natural inclinations for weeks at a time. All of this is dependent, I think, on your actually liking--for the most part--what you're working on, but if you're in your third year of grad school I imagine you do.
posted by colfax at 8:39 PM on October 3, 2011

The strict artificial schedule doesn't work for me either. If I have several projects going at once, I get out the kitchen timer. I set the timer for the first project, work 90 minutes or whatever, then wrap it up and put it away.

Take a little break, then on to the next. If you work this way, you will generally find that you give that specific activity your undivided attention and waste very little time.

Since I've been doing this, my productivity is way up, and my procrastination is way down. I can do pretty much anything for an hour or 90 minutes without agonizing, and the stuff gets done.

Even housework.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 10:02 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

when I try to make to do lists, I end up being paralysed by the length of the list

Make shorter lists for the top few things you need to do. Write down the other things on the list you keep in your head on a different sheet of paper and put it in a cabinet.
posted by yohko at 12:06 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Instead of a to-do list, try putting mini-deadlines on your calendar. That will give you some flexibility while still keeping you on track. Like if you have a paper due, you might give yourself deadlines for an outline and a draft. Even if you don't stick with them exactly, it is a way to mitigate that vague "shouldn't I be doing something" feeling of dread.

Also, even though it's tempting to see the due date as the deadline, you might want to assign yourself an earlier deadline if you need more time to get other homework done.

You said you "can't get in the habit of maintaining a Google calendar", but could it be something you set up at the beginning of the semester before your workload ramps up? I did that this semester and it's been helpful - you could just include whatever readings, tests, and deadlines are on the syllabus. Even if you never plan to look at the calendar, you can set up email notifications to email you a day (or more) before the event, and you can have your daily agenda mailed to you at 5am. That way, you can have the calendar bug you instead of having to remember to check it every day.
posted by beyond_pink at 9:39 AM on October 4, 2011

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