A More Flexible Approach to Planning

calendar-660670_1280Before I used to start any task, whether it was completing a batch of marking, writing an article, or preparing for a lecture, I always spent some time in advance planning how long the task would take and how much time I would need to devote to it each day.

For instance, if I was aiming to complete an article within two weeks, I might set a goal of writing 750 words per day, or if my marking deadline was in 10 days and I had 70 scripts, I’d aim to complete 7 exams per day. This is the approach I had consistently taken over the years and at first glance, it does seem like a reasonable approach to planning.

There was, however, something very crucial that I had been overlooking in my planning process, or to be more specific, an incorrect assumption that I was making. I assumed not only that every day that I worked on that task would be the same, but also that it should be the same. After years and years of doing this, I can attest to the fact that this could not be further from the truth. What I encountered in reality was a much greater degree of variance between each day that I spent working on a task.

There were days when things just flowed and I ended up exceeding what I had hope to accomplish in that day. Then there were the days that I struggled to make any progress whatsoever. Sometimes the progress I made during the exceptionally good days would even out my lack of progress on the ‘off days’, and I would still hit my targeted deadline. Other times I was forced to go back to my initial schedule and amend my completion date. This never felt particularly good!

Despite knowing that my instinctual approach to planning doesn’t work, I still sometimes feel drawn to plan in this way. What this demonstrates is a reluctance to acknowledge that ‘off days’ are inevitable. Acknowledging this would not only lead to a messier schedule, it would also feel like I was somehow inviting more of those days in, which I definitely did not want.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to realize the value in taking a more flexible approach to planning by building in time for less productive days and unexpected delays. Now, on the days when I accomplish less than I would have hoped, I try not to make it a big deal. I can see that what I used to perceive as a ‘bad day’ was not really a bad day at all – it was simply an outcome of the fact that no two days will be exactly the same.

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Do You Have Difficulty Switching Off?

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People talk about ‘switching off’ from work as though it were simply a question of flicking a button and going into relaxation mode. When it comes to longer-term projects, it can feel challenging – if not impossible – to draw a line between work and non-working time. This is because even if we don’t physically bring our work home, we often carry the mental weight of it with us.

I certainly found this to be the case when I was completing my PhD thesis. No matter where I was or what I was doing, some aspect of the work was always on my mind. I didn’t know what it meant to switch off or how to go about doing it. Not only did my inability to detach mean that I never had a proper break, it also made my work a lot less enjoyable.

As we approach the holiday season, I’ll share a few steps that have helped me learn how to switch off from work.

Step 1

Set an end to your work day in advance: The first step is to set an end to your work day before you even start working. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, having an end time set in advance will help you to make the most of your working hours. Most of us are taught the virtues of being a hard worker from a very young age, so the notion of consciously and deliberately taking time off work – rather than taking time off when we reach burnout or exhaustion – can feel quite alien. Yet the value of carving out some non-working time in your day and making this non-negotiable, will far outweigh any initial reluctance and discomfort with this step.

Step 2

Find an activity unrelated to your work: Now that you’ve set an end to your work day, it’s important to fill that space with something other than work. If we don’t fill that time, it is more likely that work will creep back into the space we’ve carved out. Try and select an activity that is completely unrelated to your work. It might be a long-lost hobby, a sport, a craft, a language or anything else that you’ve been interested in trying but haven’t managed to find the time for.  At this point, I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t afford to do a hobby or take time off each day… I have so much work to do’ which is something I’ll address in the next step.

Step 3

Give yourself permission: Much of the resistance to switching off stems from the fact that many of us don’t feel like we can afford the time off or that we even deserve it. With so much to do, the prospect of deliberately switching off can quickly develop into feelings of guilt. The next step I recommend is to actively give yourself permission by tackling the guilt head on. For this step I recommend something along the lines of a PhD process journal. This will enable you to work through any feelings of guilt and give yourself the permission you need to switch off.

Step 4

Adopt a transition activity: Sometimes the challenge with switching off relates directly to the type of work we are engaged in. This is a result of the fact that nearly all research projects involve expending a great deal of mental energy on tackling complex problems. The nature of PhD research makes it difficult to go directly from the lab, the library, or the office into relaxing. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful to try and adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and downtime. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping, as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Step 5

Carry a notebook with you: Even if we were to strictly observe the above steps, our thoughts may still gravitate towards work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of the best ideas I had during my PhD came to me when I wasn’t actively trying to work on it. This is why I often recommend that students carry an ideas notebook with them. That way, if an idea comes to you, you can quickly make a note of it and return to it the following day instead of getting caught up in that thought when you are trying to relax. This allows you to remain receptive to thoughts and ideas without having them derail your downtime.

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Give Yourself a Break

 

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Do you find it difficult to take a break from your work? I can definitely sympathize with this feeling. When I was a student I was extremely reluctant to take breaks and vacations for fear that I would fall behind in my work. I remember feeling like I had so much to do and was constantly running behind schedule. So I actually started to bring my work with me on holidays. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

What I learned was that mixing my vacation time with the expectation to complete work is a recipe for disaster. Not only did I not complete any of the work that I had hoped to do, I also didn’t fully relax or enjoy myself when I was on holiday either because I was plagued by ‘work guilt.’ So there was no actual benefit to going on holiday and afterwards, I would return feeling even more stressed out than before I had left. Ironically then, it was after I came back from a vacation that I felt most in need of taking one!

Our willingness to take breaks says a lot about how we view ourselves in relation to our work. When we are reluctant to give ourselves a break it is often because we don’t feel like we deserve one. There may be a sense of enormity surrounding the tasks we face and a belief that we haven’t made sufficient progress to warrant taking time off. So it is actually our own judgments that prevent us from taking breaks.

The tendency to judge ourselves is especially strong whenever we encounter a stumbling block in our work. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely in those instances where we feel least deserving of a break that we would benefit most from taking one.

 

Multitasking: The Opposite of Mindfulness

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Whenever the word multitasking is used, there is often a positive connotation associated with it. The fact that I can prepare dinner and chat with a friend on the phone while simultaneously ordering a book on Amazon is typically perceived to be a good thing. And so the assumption is that I should be happy that I am a good multitasker. Since the ability to multitask is viewed as such a valuable asset, it is not uncommon to find people referring to their multitasking skills on their CVs and in job interviews.

Despite the positive connotations associated with multitasking, being a multitasker is something that I consciously avoid. Attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once takes us away from the present moment, which is one of the core principles of mindfulness. Focusing on multiple tasks in a single moment creates a feeling of being scattered and pulled in several different directions. When we say no to multitasking, we allow ourselves to fully complete a task before moving on to the next. In so doing, we remain completely present in that moment and as a result, we end up completing tasks with greater ease and fewer accidents! It can also bring greater focus and enjoyment to what we are doing.

So there is a lot to gain in saying no to multitasking and there are several small action steps we can put into place to help overcome the urge to multitask. For instance, switching off our phones when we are working, designating set time periods in each day to check email, and also setting clearer boundaries between working hours and relaxation time. While these may seem like little things, they can all yield important results in helping us to stay in the present moment.

‘I’ll Be Happy When…’

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How often do you find yourself uttering the words ‘I’ll be so happy when it’s done’? The ‘it’ in this sentence could be any number of things, but it usually refers to a particular project or task you are working on.

I found myself saying this seemingly harmless phrase all throughout my time as a student. First it was ‘I’ll be happy when my exams are over’ and then it was ‘I’ll be happy when my dissertation is done.’ By the time I reached the PhD level, I felt as though nothing could give me greater satisfaction than completing my thesis. Surely this was the moment when I could finally relax and be happy – after all, the PhD was the highest degree I could obtain and the culmination of several years of hard work, so what could possibly come next?

As soon as I had jumped over the PhD hurdle, I quickly found out that there was a host of further ‘I’ll be happy whens’ waiting for me on the other side: I’ll be happy when I land my first academic post; I’ll be happy when I publish my thesis as a book; I’ll be happy when I get my first major research grant, and the list goes on and on. It literally never ends, as there is always something else to reach for and something else to be done.

So waiting until things are crossed off a ‘to do’ list before relaxing and taking a breath is not a sustainable approach to work. It also makes us prone to ignoring the importance of enjoying life – even in the midst of writing a conference paper, marking, or whatever the task may be. Moreover, by placing so much emphasis on getting things ‘done’ and reaching our destination, it’s all too easy to overlook the satisfaction that comes from the steps we take along our path.

Coming to grips with the reality that there will always be things on my ‘to do’ list has encouraged me to stop saying ‘I’ll be happy when’ and to instead ask: how can I be happy now?