"Yes, but what do you *do*?" A new response.

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI've been spending the past week or two trying to get my groove on with respect to work. I scared myself quite badly with how overwhelmed I got at the end of last semester, and how quickly. I vowed to myself not to let myself get sucked into such unhealthy patterns, and then beat myself up over and over because of how often I tell myself not to get sucked in, and then how I get totally sucked in again.

However. It is a new year. So I have another chance to start over. And am apparently trying to do so publicly, as what else would a blogger do? Besides, I don't want to give anyone the impression that I hate my job. I don't. At least, I don't hate it when I actually feel like I'm spending my time doing important and useful things. And I wasn't feeling that much or often in December.

So, how to do my job differently? It comes back to reminding myself what I am supposed to be *doing.*

Over the holidays, when people at parties asked me what I *do,* I tended to say, "I'm an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University." Sometimes I got questions about what that actually means, but I didn't really realize until today I don't describe what I *do.*

In November, December, if you'd asked me, I would have said that I attend meetings, and jump when other people tell me to. And then I would go crawl into a little cave of self-loathing.

So, early in 2009, I'm trying to clear some mental space. And to start with, I'm going to restate what my job is, what I'm supposed to be *doing.*


My job is to think creatively about gender and engineering education, and to think about, write, and teach in ways that result in a change in how engineering education is done in the US. That is supposedly why they pay me the big bucks.

My job is not to jump to the email whenever someone needs something from me. My job is not to bend over backwards for others because I am a nice person. My job should be structured so I eat and sleep enough, and should not twist me into a horrible person to be around (my husband, in case you haven't figured it out already, is a saint.)

In fact, Merlin Mann of 43folders fame sums up my predicament pretty well here:

So I'm trying to clear some space to actually get down to *doing* what I *do.* Here is a start I've made:

  • Pure procrastination is not really a problem for me, but brain static is. So I've made my first page of Safari go to this page. I'm not sure it is helping too much yet, but it is having me think a second about whether I should be interrupting my task to do whatever it is online.
  • I've bought copies of OmniFocus (on the advice of a friend) and OmniPlan and I am planning my research out for the next 6 months. I'm doing mental sweeps on OmniFocus, and setting time estimates for how long each task should take. I know this risks overplanning and making me inflexible, but at the moment I'm paralyzed by the thoughts of how much I have to do -- so far, these have helped unclutter my mind and start to grapple with the broken-down tasks that will build up to the big tasks. We'll see.
  • I've redug out ATNFM and put it next to my bed. I'll try and read a little each night again.
  • I've started writing down what I've done in a cool little book so I can see what I've done, as well as what I have yet to do.
  • I've done massive triage on my email and I'm going to try to be more vigilant about a) doing email at the end of the day, and b) not feeling guilty about not being able to respond to everything.
  • I'm going to start holding meetings *only when there is no other way to accomplish what needs to get done beside meeting face to face.* And the Law of Two Feet will hold, especially for me.

I know, this is just a start.

All of this is intended to help me learn to actually spend time on the creative, innovative work I was really hired to be able to do, and to be WAY more intentional about how I spend my time. Hopefully that will include more thoughtful and content-rich blogging, and less whining. Which should be good for both me and you.

Wish me luck...

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My job is to think creatively about gender and engineering education, and to think about, write, and teach in ways that result in a change in how engineering education is done in the US.


Wish me luck...

Oh, indeed I do. Because it's important in its own right, because as a practicing engineer it's near to my heart, and because (as noted previously) the subject touches my family directly.

Oh, yes -- I'll second the suggestion to reward yourself for deliverables. For me there's nothing like having a fine-grained project plan on my wall and coloring in progress arcs. "Fine-grained" as in, "something to color in every day."

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

Woo! Good skill to you!

I have the same problem... I can say I'm a grad student and even explain the basic gist of our project, but what do I actually do? Fight with code? Fight with data? No, I need to better define what positive things I do. Thanks for the inspiration!

Very inspirational post! I like your idea about only checking email at the end of the day. I tend to be a slave to email, and constantly let it interrupt what I am doing - not a great way to be productive.

I'm also very bad about doing things for others - I have a hard time with confrontations and saying 'no'. One of my resolutions is to stop feeling guilty about putting myself first sometimes.

Good luck for 2009!

I have installed GMail notifier and I will be notified each time a new email arrives. I process all my emails immediately as soon as they arrive because I thought that increases productivity. But you do have your point too -- that checking emails at the end of the day isn't a bad thing at all :D

Hi Alice,

I have been doing this for a few years and I am still rubbish at keeping on top of things.

Anyway, I thought you might appreciate looking at this book when it comes out in April.


No matter whether you are a believer or a skeptic, it has something really important to say from the world of child development about the origins of adult belief.



I have installed GMail notifier and I will be notified each time a new email arrives. I process all my emails immediately as soon as they arrive because I thought that increases productivity.

Just the opposite. There's a good bit of research showing that every interruption to a high-level thought or work process costs close to a half-hour. If you check mail more than twice an hour, you're very unlikely to enter your most productive mental states at all.

The industrial psychology peeps suggest structuring your day so that you have most of the short tasks grouped (e.g. meetings always in the afternoon) so that you can have a solid block of uninterrupted time for deep thinking (e.g. in the morning.) One of the reasons that so many "knowledge workers" find themselves working late into the evening is that it's the only time that they can actually get anything done without interruption.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

Happy new year, and good luck with all of these. I need to do a bit of that myself...

I'll start with also taking my copy of AFTNF out and continue reading it (and applying it).

Reading my email not before 11am is something I did last summer and it worked quite well for me(as opposed to jump at each incoming email). I seemed to spend much less time dealing with them.