By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
Welcome to August! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and academics everywhere are freaking out.
In April, the three-month summer break seems like an endless expanse of time. You forget (again) how this break never ends up being as long or as leisurely as you expect. In this state of unfettered optimism, you plan an impossibly long summer to-do list.
Of course I can finish four articles, collect data from 1000 participants, and redo six classes. No probs.
In the stark light of August, those uncompleted (or even untouched) plans fill you with self-loathing and dread. Your stress level begins to rise higher and higher as the clock ticks louder and louder.
The thing about stress is it hijacks the ability to plan and make sound decisions. This hijacking might explain why, when faced with too little time and too much to do, many of us double down.
You know you’ve doubled down when you start convincing yourself you can still get everything done…in a quarter of the time. Like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, you figure there is some secret combination of moves that will save the day. And it usually goes something like this: I just need to work more, write faster, sleep less.
Doubling down is a horrible strategy. It never works...evah!
Okay, it might work for a bit. But, and this is important, it is NOT a sustainable strategy. Working at a frenetic pace without rest and recuperation reduces alertness, productivity, and performance. The exact opposite of what you want.
Breaking the end-of-summer stress cycle requires admitting you are human. You have limits. And to work healthily, not everything you planned to do will get done. Yes, you must let some things go.
This is hard...very, very hard.
BUT it's much better on your stress level and self-esteem to admit your humanness now and develop a realistic plan. Waiting will only make things worse.
I know what you're thinking: if I could plan realistically, I wouldn't be in this mess. No worries. I’m here to help. We can do this plan-making together. All you need to do is AIM.
AIM is a simple triage process I use with stressed clients who can’t figure out where to focus their time. It requires placing each item on your to-do list in one of three categories– Acute, Important, or Minor.
All the items that have to get done this summer go in this category. Be careful not to confuse have to get done with want to get done or should get done. Have-to items are required for your job security/success and have non-negotiable due dates. Examples are an R&R with a hard summer deadline, a tenure portfolio due the first day of fall semester, a fall course prep.
This category is for items that don’t have an immediate deadline but are important to your future goals. Examples are a major overhaul of a course you're not teaching in the fall, a grant proposal that you can submit in another cycle, almost-completed articles you can choose to work on now or later.
All leftover items go here – like those things you thought would be great to do this summer but can be done in the distant future, if at all (e.g., reading all the articles in your discipline’s main journal, organizing your file cabinets, starting a new research project when you already have several in various stages of completion).
Your mission - if you choose to accept it* - is to prioritize your time so you complete all the acute items (at least) while still taking breaks, sleeping at least 7 hours per night, and spending time with family and friends.
The trick here is focus. This means not working on anything in the important or minor categories until you've completed everything in the acute category. No matter how tempting. Stay strong.
If you’re lucky enough to have time left over after completing your acute items, move to the important category items. And so on.
If you aren’t so lucky, you will need to let the important and minor items go…at least for this summer. Again, this is not easy. It helps to have some self-compassion. Keep reminding yourself that you are only human, you are doing the best you can, and you are choosing to work in ways that maximize your productivity AND your health.
Good luck! This tape will self-destruct in five seconds*.
*For you millennials out there, these references are from the Mission Impossible TV show that aired a long, long, long time ago when tapes were still in existence.
[A previous version of this post was published on this cite in 2017.]