The best-laid plans…: Dealing with “demons” that interrupt planning

I have this irrational habit of procrastinating by reading how-to-get-organized books and articles. I am always looking for the holy grail of productivity, and although I know it doesn’t exist, it hasn’t stopped me from going “oooh! Shiny!” when I see something interesting or new I haven’t heard of yet, and then reading all about it.

In the end, it always comes down to the same list of recommendations: keep track of what’s going on or needs to be done and don’t keep it in your head, review regularly what you’ve got on all your lists, break the large projects into small bites, and begin doing something. That “something” should in my case not be “read more things that might get you unstuck” because I am not really stuck, I’m just lazy and sometimes lack internal motivation. Nothing quite like a deadline!

This spring break I am reading How to Make it All Work by David Allen of How to Get Things Done/Getting Things Done fame, and Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What came through Interlibrary Loan the other day and they complement each other nicely.

Allen’s technique of dealing with things that tug at your attention by externalizing them (writing them down and then figuring out what the next action is to make that feeling go away), is something I’ve been doing for years, but it is nice to be reminded of the need to do so.

Jensen introduced me among many other useful things to the concept of inviting the “demons for tea“: addressing head on your worries, fears, gnawing anxieties in all sizes and shapes, in particular the ones that stop you from writing. Once you give these space to be examined at leisure, they often disappear as figments of your imagination.

But this morning I realized also that sometimes you just need to get out your best demon-slaying gear, invite the demons for tea and then confront them because they actually aren’t going to disappear unless you do something to them.

I had laid out my day to start with grading the remainder of a stack of papers. But then I became aware of something gnawing at my attention. So I invited the creature in for tea (or rather, morning coffee), and then it wouldn’t leave or disappear when I externalized it. It was real, and I should do something about it before I could continue with my day: it made it quite clear that it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I’m running a re-designed version of my “China’s Magical Creatures (and where to find them)” course, and in the second half of the semester the students create a small research project that results in contributing a chapter or section to an open access textbook. This is the first time I’m doing this project, so it is exciting and somewhat terrifying at the same time. As an experiment, there is potential for things to go wrong, and I know there will be room for improvement in later iterations of this course. And because I hadn’t planned out the second half of the semester yet in detail, this dragon-like thing showed up on my doorstep and demanded I do something about it. I couldn’t quite kill it, because underneath it’s a fun and friendly thing (and I need it for this course!), but it was now a growling, hungry project that wouldn’t be put in a box to be dealt with later. It demanded in no uncertain terms food, attention, and some chin scratches.

So out went the grading, and instead I spent a couple of hours plotting contents of the sessions we still have, due dates for the scaffolding exercises for the chapters, and at which points in the semester we need “editorial” meetings as a class, to get the textbook looking good and coherent, until I felt the project was back under control. I still have to put all this up on the course schedule for the students, but that can wait until after the grading is out of the way. For now, the project is happily purring in its box, with a full belly and aware that it is still loved, the promise of a walk around the park soon making it dream of great things.

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