Getting things done by letting things go

· mumblings · gtd ·

One of the things I find most difficult (in both my personal and professional life) is letting go of projects that I have committed to, but sometimes it can be the best way to make progress, however painful it might be. I’ve had an exceptionally busy Semester at work, and an additional source of worry and stress outside of work has been piling on even more pressure. On top of all that, I had decided to apply for a grant that had a deadline that fell before Christmas. One of the things I am not good at is admitting when enough is enough. I have a terrible tendency to just try to cope until things overwhelm me.

The most wonderful and most difficult thing about being an academic is the freedom to make decisions about what to work on. Of course, there are a few tasks that are decided for me as part of different roles I take on, and occasionally I’m faced with the possibility of someone telling me off if I don’t get something done by a deadline. By and large, however, I decide what I do. That’s a great privilege, and also occasionally completely terrifying. You have to manage and balance your own time, make sure that you keep projects progressing, and even invent whole new areas for your work to go in.

Even though I was almost the only person who knew about the grant application, it mattered to me, because I had made a promise to myself that I would do it. That’s important when you direct your own work, because you need to be disciplined in order to avoid things sliding. Not doing it felt like admitting failure and letting myself down. And yet every time I thought about what I still had to do before the holidays, and how utterly exhausted and drained I was, the prospect of this task loomed sinisterly over me.

Eventually, I saw sense. It was ridiculous to put myself under such strain: there would be plenty of other opportunities, and I was unlikely to make a good job of it when I was so tired and flustered. I deleted the project from my to-do list, and I can’t tell you how good that felt. Suddenly, rather than a frantic two weeks spent trying to cobble something together, I had a quiet block of time that I could use to re-group. I suspect that many people don’t see being a scientist as a creative profession, but it often is. If you want to make progress, you have to assimilate and reflect on the current evidence on a particular topic, then try to invent a new and elegant way to approach the unanswered questions. In order to do that, you need to be relaxed, and you need to have substantial blocks of time in which you can put together all the relevant information in your mind and play with it to try out new ideas. Now that I’ve let go the task I promised myself I would do, I have space to do that.