I often tell students and colleagues that despite the many hats I wear, I have no organized system for managing my time. Instead, I've found what works for me: (1) Agree to do a bunch of things, largely without considering whether I have time to do them. (2) Put deadlines on my calendar. (3) Ignore projects until deadlines begin to loom. For big projects, it may start looming a month or two out; for smaller ones, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. (4) As the deadline approaches, a pressure wave begins to build in front of it. And when that pressure wave reaches a critical level of stress, I begin to work on the project.
Since the semester is approaching, a number of pressure waves have started washing over my days. The syllabus pressure wave peaked right after Christmas, and ever since then, I've been handling the two massive syllabi I'm in charge of putting together. A FAQ that I was assigned to put together for our website was actually due before the university closed for the holidays, but because I knew that the deadline was largely self-imposed, the pressure didn't hit until a week before the university reopened; my intuition was that I just needed to have it done before my boss came back to work.
Right now I'm facing two deadlines: a complicated report for a subcommittee due Jan. 13, and a paper for a February conference that's supposed to be submitted by Jan. 20. At the beginning of the week, I was lying awake at 3 am wondering how I could get those projects done and still pull together all the hundreds of details for the syllabi at the same time. But it turns out that I've gotten an extra week of intensive work time while my boss is still on vacation, and I've been able to spend unbroken hours cranking out the syllabi.
That means the report and the paper still haven't been broached. I fully intended to do so today. But I fell victim to one of the intriguing side effects of my time-management non-strategy: Mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing when a project that will require major thought and creativity is due.
In fact, if it weren't for this side effect, I don't know that I'd ever get the more boring or repetitive parts of my tasks done. For example, after polishing off three minor to-do's this morning (giving me the sense of accomplishment required to keep the deadline pressure wave tamped down), I spent the entire afternoon copying and scanning texts, turning them into PDFs, uploading them to our electronic library system, arranging them in the right order, and making sure that the reader matched the written syllabus. I spent a couple of hours standing in front of the copier -- holding it down so the book would lie flat, watching the green bar of light slide to the right, opening the lid and turning the page, rearranging the book on the platen, and waiting for the last copy to slide out so that I could press the button again. Then I peered at the monitor for another couple of hours -- grabbing the PDFs off my e-mail, renaming them and saving them in the right folder, uploading them to the server, adding them to my class's collection. Rinse and repeat.
It was largely mindless work, although I did have to solve the problem of a too-large PDF saved from the New Yorker digital edition (by printing it out in black-and-white and scanning the printout at a much lower resolution). And it did need to be done, although I could have parcelled out the work in little batches throughout the semester -- the readings only need to be available online just-in-time, not in a complete coursepack at the beginning.
But its great virtue was that it allowed me to be productive without having to embark on the two major projects. When I know the deadlines are coming and time is short, I can't simply be idle -- the guilt and stress absolutely prevent that. I can, however, do something other than what I should be doing, something that needs doing but doesn't require any outlay of creativity. At the end of the day, I've dealt with the pressure wave, something has been accomplished, and most importantly, I've pushed those bigger problems into tomorrow.