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Musings on Deadlines, Overcommitment and Time Management

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Oct. 30th, 2008 | 04:34 pm
location: International House Cafe, Berkeley

It's come up more than once, lately, in casual conversation and blog entries and other forums for meandering thoughts that we grow up and learn and live in a world of deadlines, and that maybe some attributes of that world make the transition to adult life just that much harder.

I miss being a kid, sometimes, because what I was supposed to be doing at any given time and what was supposed to be done at the end of any given day was completely unambiguous. Even in college, that was true. There was a bit more wiggle room around what had to be done at the end of every single day -- instead it was the end of every second or third day or every week, but the hard and fast and abundantly clear deadlines remained. In grad school they extend further, to the end of every semester, if that and in some vague sense, the end of every year. It's hard to make a map for a future you can't quite see and predict a realistic amount to accomplish.

I probably also managed my time better, doing much more in a day than I do (or at least, feel I do) now... and not because I didn't have the internet or because I had more energy. I did more in a day because I didn't stop to think about how long any given task would take. I went busily from one task to the next, either as the bells at school or the times of my dance classes and play rehearsals and work schedule permitted. And I still found time to maintain a website with mostly hand-coded HTML and write and draw... in High School, I carried a sketchbook with me and was content to work on a drawing for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, trusting that the drawing would be finished when it was done... it didn't have a deadline. These days, when I find myself with that last 5 minutes before I have to be heading out the door or arriving at practice or rehearsal or whatever I often find myself deliberately wasting them -- playing games on my iPhone, checking email for the 60th time, anything to kill the minutes between me and my next activity.

I think I'd get more done if I viewed things in terms of what I can do in any given period of time (and was less hard on myself for not quite finishing every last bit) instead of what that time is to short to accomplish. I've been better about this in the last couple of weeks, in some ways -- I seem to thrive on overcommitment; to have many projects in the air and many responsibilities to many people has a way of focusing me. So, I joined a can can troupe and got more serious about my dancing and set some real goals for my science (with a real reward structure for meeting them)... and decided, while I'm at it, to list some items on Etsy because, you know, the worst that happens is that over the course of 4 long months they don't sell and I have them to give as gifts. And the best that happens is that they do, and I find out that people actually like the stuff that I make and I invest more of myself in making more things.

Choosing not to do something because I'm afraid I might fail is not the kind of decision that I want to be making. "What if?" is not one of the lingering questions I want to spend my life with.

In one conversation with an old friend we discussed the unreasonable and irrational deadlines that we begin to set in our personal lives -- be engaged by 27, married by 30, first kid a year later, second two years after that. 2 kids and own our own home by 35. I'm making up the numbers, but I've seen the overarching life plans figure into the decisions of more than one friend and acquaintance. Or worse, when the deadlines pass and find that our lives are nothing like the lives we've planned, we feel like failures, no matter how happy we are with our life as it is. (This is me and grad school. No matter how many times I repeat to myself that I am where I am because my mother died and this forced a detour into doing a Master's Thesis and a Master's is absolutely not nothing, I feel very behind. I wanted to be close to finishing by now; instead I'm two years away at best).

Of course, with all the other projects, I'm not as productive in the lab as I probably could be if I spent all my time working on being a scientist. Some days, when I should be working, I don't, because I am busy working on the things that belong to my "outside interests" and I feel terribly guilty about that. I'm working on letting go of the guilt.

Sometimes, I think my greatest challenge will be to accept that balance is very like a swaying walk along a precipice, a journey and a process and not a destination. I've become so accustomed to a mentality of goal-setting and deadlines finished or imperfect-bug-good-enough-to-be-abandoned projects that it feels like sometimes, everything in life becomes a destination. At least, I seem to err on the side of thinking along those lines.

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Comments {1}

life is but a dream

from: anonymous
date: Nov. 12th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)
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Towards the end of grad school (the first time around) I found out that a fellow student and I both had the same secret deadline or dream - to write our first novels by the time we were 30. Neither of us did, although it looks like by 40 we will have each written a book, albeit non-fiction. The other things just happened - graduating, marriage kids - not necessarily in that order. So did the accidents, breakups, sicknesses, deaths.

We all author our own lives, for better or worse - but mostly we get to write them in retrospect. Just take care that you're not accepting too many challenges, saying yes here there and everywhere just because you were asked and you want to be good. Perfect, never mind good.

Swaying along a precipice sounds scary. I think life is more like rowing gently downstream - you can't exactly see where you're going but you can enjoy the view.

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