Staying organized, intensive scheduling, and prioritizing tasks is a critical skill that helps me be successful in my job, like many (but not all!) people in science and academia. In addition to my daily calendar schedule, I have a to-do list organized by both category and priority so I can quickly see what needs to be done next when I find a gap in my schedule, so not a second is wasted and so everything gets done. I think I’m above-average at staying organized and on-task, and have considered it an immutable trait of mine.
And yet, this last year I’ve found myself having a hard time keeping up with all the demands of my job, and not even getting to the items on my well-organized lists. I was having a hard time applying Eisenhower’s Principle, spending way too much time on tasks that were urgent and not important (so many emails!). I was just barely getting through the big and important tasks (lecture prep, grading/feedback). I wasn’t getting to some of the small but important tasks, and some of them just passed by, sometimes without my noticing.
A lot of the balls I began dropping were at home, where I don’t have the same careful scheduling and listing strategies as at work. And I’m not just talking about not cleaning the house. I forgot to renew my kids’ enrollment in childcare for the following year! The childcare turned out fine, but it became a major issue for me and my partner regarding allocation of duties, and trust.
But I was also dropping the ball at work, being late to almost everything, and even missing a couple of (non-critical) meetings. One wake-up call I had was when I realized I hadn’t submitted a student’s letter of recommendation by the date requested. Thank goodness it was at a place that had rolling deadlines, but that event had me scared that my inattention to critical tasks could really adversely impact someone else’s life!
This led me to wonder… how do other people do it all? When I ask this, I’m not taking the usual stance of awe of people who seem to have it all together. Instead, I’m wondering how the people who barely seem to be able to remember to comb their hair are able to do it all? How do those people who have messes of papers and food wrappers on their desks, instead of tidy checklists, manage to never miss a student’s recommendation deadline? Or at least never miss something so major as to get them fired, or disrespected, or to lose collaborations?
And I guess that’s the key. You actually can drop the ball on a lot of things with no serious consequences, other than someone being mad. And some Important Scientists I’ve met seem like they truly don’t notice or care when someone else is mad that they missed a meeting. Some people in this field say you just have to accept that some of the things you’re supposed to do are not going to get done.
I really don’t know if I can make that perspective work for me. I’ve got to check all of those boxes! So it’s the job, right? How is it reasonable for people (i.e. tenure-track scientists) to be expected to do so many things that they must work frantically at all hours and still have to just not do some of their tasks? I know that issue is much discussed and complained about, but my question now is how are so many people so bad at doing all their work, and still able to end up with successful careers? Tell me how to set down the balls and walk away without feeling like I’m failing!