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On focus

My supervisor warned me recently about how small responsibilities can pile up. Her strategy is to take 3 straight days to work on a project (a paper, proposal, etc.) because by day 3, your focus is so concentrated that it's much more efficient than continuously returning to the same project for many days over a few weeks. But when things get busy, distractions eat away at your ability to focus. One of the worst, she said, was email: administrative, teaching, and miscellaneous emails pile up and erode productivity, meaning that she doesn't ever have 3 straight days to focus on one project.

Things work a little differently for me. I like to move between projects, to tackle multiple things in a day. I enjoy the feeling of crossing things off my to-do list, and since email is the biggest part of my graduate assistantship, I like to read and respond to any that come my way ASAP so that they're not hanging over me (leaving small tasks undone for days, on the other hand, brings on a productivity-quenching inertia).  This is also true for my project-management roles, where I need to keep communication and documents flowing between many people. And by breaking up the workday, there's room for all kinds of side projects, like trying new recipes, board games, or workouts (like rock climbing!)

Some side projects, like Spontaneous Generations, The Bubble Chamber, Philopolis, and even this blog are exercises in honing the kind of skills useful in academia: managing and assigning tasks, planning events, and even writing regularly (whether or not you happen to be in the mood). To that end, I'm committing to being a more regular blogger. Stay tuned for a post here every week, as well as the Bubble Chamber's Weekly Roundup (plus the occasional full-length post when I can come up with one).

Work-life balance ("what is that, again?" my supervisor joked) is something academics discuss at length, and is a frequent topic on The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since I'm moving into the proposal stage of my PhD, I've been more conscious of how work-life balance affects mood, energy level, and motivation for academic work. With any luck, the habits I'm setting up now will serve me well in the months (years...) to come.


  1. Good post Ellie. I'm much the same way. I work best when I have a few things on the go, so that when I get bogged down with one, I can move on to another. If I try to work for three straight days on one project, I go up a few levels in Skyrim. On the other hand, it's very easy to take on too much (as your comic suggests). I've certainly found this recently... so it's tricky. You work best with a few things on the go, but take on too many and the long-term projects will never get done. Definitely something I'm struggling with.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about "one thing too many." There's a really fine threshold above which I don't really seem to function well at all.


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