Are you setting yourself up for failure?

While I don’t have anything against failure (and have written repeatedly that I think it’s a good thing), I am against doing things that ask for failure. What do I mean by this? I mean that failure will happen, but you shouldn’t be giving it a helping hand along the way.

As a grad student, you generally have what often feels like a zillion tasks competing for a chunk of your time. These may be research related, course work, TA responsibility, family obligations and so on. How you decide to juggle these tasks, which ones you give more priority to, will determine if you will succeed and how quickly. I say juggle, because often you will have competing tasks with identical priority, and so it becomes impossible to rank them. Instead, you need to decide which task at the given moment should take precedence – it might be the one you’re more willing to work on, or the one which can only be dealt with during certain times of the day (think running an errand while stores are still open).

However, just as important as it is to juggle all of those tasks, it’s also important to know your own behaviour. To be able to identify your triggers or situations that end up meaning you spend lots of time on tasks that aren’t even on your to-do list. Tasks like watching another episode of TV, or reading an extra chapter in your book. There’s nothing wrong with these tasks, except when you use them to escape from your actual work.

For me, I have two main triggers.

  1. The internet and mindless (or even mindful) searching.
  2. Netflix/TV shows.

The first trigger I’m sure lots of us share. Reading random articles. Checking out blogs. Catching up on the news. Participating in some small game that then sucks you in. Or reading comments and ending up in situations like the xkcd comic Duty Calls.

The second trigger is kind of odd for me. I’m not actually a big TV watcher. I rarely turn my TV on. However, with my Netflix’s account, I’ve been working my way through series like Numb3rs, the Dead Zone and Lie to me. Why? Mostly because they’re there. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be watching something else if I wasn’t watching Netflix, but I’d probably be watching something I own and have seen multiple times. And that’s different, because it’s easy (easier?) to ignore and tune in and out of shows that you’ve seen. After all, you already know what parts you like/dislike and what’s boring and can be tuned out. This isn’t true for shows you haven’t seen. And, I find if I tune out, I end up having to rewind because I’m lost. (Probably a good thing I’m not watching a show like Lost – I’d have to watch every episode twice, at least.) And, it’s easy to say “oh, it’s just a 40 minute episode, I’ll get back to work right after.” But, the next thing you’ll know, it’s been two or three of them, and your whole morning has gone by.

By knowing your triggers, you can at least plan around them and try to set up situations that won’t let you fall into them. For example, I had my Netflix account on hold for about 3 months before reactivating (and only doing so when I was sick, bored, and couldn’t focus enough to work). When it comes to endless browsing, there are many software programs out there that you can use to disable access to various websites during specific times of the day or for set blocks of time. I haven’t used any, so I can’t recommend one. One method that does help, is to try to turn some of the mindless surfing into more mindful surfing. And I don’t mean changing what you’re looking at, but making the conscious choice of when you’re going to mindless surf. For example, if I’m eating lunch at my desk, it’s perfectly okay to browse the news sites; after all it’s hard to code and hold a sandwich.  Or I know I have 15 minutes before a meeting, which is not enough time to get started on a new task.

I’ve found, that the more I keep myself on track, ie the more tasks I get done in a reasonable amount of time, the more actual free time I have. Time where I can do whatever I want without feeling guilty. Instead of watching that episode of TV but feeling guilty because I’m still suppose to be working on x, I can just enjoy it. It’s a pretty nice feeling. In fact, it’s much more enjoyable to be watching an episode of tv or surfing the internet without that feeling of guilt, which can actually help motivate you to stay on task in the future.


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