Ernest Hemingway famously advised writers to stop writing when you know what will happen next. That way, when you pick up the project again the next day, you’ll be excited to pick up where you left off, and will have a pretty good sense of what you should be doing.
That’s good advice, though of course many of our tasks in higher education aren’t exactly “rewrite the last page of Farewell to Arms 39 times.” (I like to imagine that Hemingway entered this into OmniFocus as “rewrite ending 40 times,” and never quite got to tick the action as completed.) There are articles and books to read, papers to grade, letters to write, grant proposals to evaluate, committee meeting minutes to draft, and more. They’re all important tasks, but they’re also a challenge to schedule, because one usually will not be able to complete them in one sitting. There will be interruptions, or the task is just too long to finish.
Eddie Smith has recently suggested that these tasks frequently turn into bogs of procrastination, because you have to keep gearing up to re-start the task, over and over again. To combat this tendency, he’s developed a habit of creating to-do items called “resume tasks”: items that explicitly indicate where you are in a project. This way, you quash that feeling of having to start over from scratch, and you don’t have to waste time finding yourself in the work. Here are two examples he gives:
▪ I almost never have time to read a long PDF in one sitting, and unless I’ve got it stored in iBooks, there’s no chance the PDF will be on the same page when I see it again. So I try to fire a simple task into my inbox: “Start reading again at p. 42”.
▪ Recently I was working on a project that required me to watch some instructional videos. If I got interrupted during one of them, I would make a task to “Resume watching video at 15:30 mark”.
On the one hand, this sort of thing is kind of obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less useful. I often find myself leaving browser windows open for
hours days a week or so, waiting for a chance when I can count on having time to watch something in its entirety. Every time I cmd-tab past that browser window, I get a little pang of anxiety.
Committing to giving yourself cues about how to resume these simple tasks, especially if you use tools that let you write or read across your devices and locations, lets you reclaim chunks of time that might otherwise easily be frittered away, and, as Smith suggests, helps you “build confidence” that you’re making appropriate progress.
Do you have a strategy for picking up complex–or just long–tasks where you left off? Let us know in comments!