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Breaking out of Triage Mode

My to do list is healed and in use!Last week, Heather noted the rise of “shadow work” in academia—all the labor, email, organization and other support work that can easily fill the bulk of the day. As I thought about this trend, I realized that most of my to-do list is taken over by shadow work: the tasks (and, yes, meetings) that need to get done so that I can get back to my teaching and research. But this means as I progress through my to-do list each week the necessary tasks for daily productivity overwhelm the hard to itemize and more ambitious work. The result is more and more time spent in triage mode, putting out fires to get through the week, and less forward movement on long-term projects.

There’s been lots of great ideas at ProfHacker on managing your to-do list during breaks and getting things done. But unfortunately, all the organization software in the world can’t help with sorting priorities, and there is as of yet no app for adding extra hours to the day. Here are a few strategies I’ve been trying to get my ongoing projects back on my radar:

  • Set small goals — and force yourself to stick to them. When a to-do list I’m facing for a day is particularly overwhelming, it doesn’t matter if I’ve put a milestone for a larger project on the list. The work with “real” deadlines will always get done first. Thus, I rely on collaboration to create accountability. Nanowrimo (and the “scholarly” version some are trying this month) works in part because it moves a normally solo task into a public, collaborative space–with accountability and deadlines. It’s easier to get something done when the audience waiting for it. Take, for instance, Jason’s strategy for using meetings with students to trick himself into clearing grading backlogs.
  • Keep projects visible. Consider using a to-do list app or program that easily prioritizes both big and small tasks, such as Things or my personal favorite (for its many ways of intruding into my life and reminding me to work) Remember the Milk. At the same time, I’ve found there’s nothing more tempting than a new to-do list or productivity application, and I often have to remind myself that setting up the new “perfect” organization system in the latest great app is *not* the same as being productive!
  • Control your time-killers. Lifehacker has a great guide to taking control of your email, which is the black hole of my daily shadow work–hours pass, and my inbox has never hit the elusive state of zero. I now set a timer whenever I even approach the task of dealing with email, and after 15 minutes I move on to something else. Letting emails interrupt all other work is an easy way to get pulled away from larger tasks.

How do you manage your larger projects, particularly in the face of shadow work and the approaching end-of-semester madness?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy]

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