Post Academic

Breaking Down Big Tasks Into Small Chunks

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on July 21, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionStress and freak-outs are par for the course in academia. You have one goal, especially in the humanities–getting a tenure-track job. All or nothing. That’s why individual grades mean so little. The whole situation seems like pass-fail, with an inclination toward fail.

To avoid failing, you have to trick yourself by breaking up this monster task into small tasks. Otherwise, you’re going to feel overwhelmed.

In the Hamster World, someone usually gets paid to break down large tasks for you. These people are team managers or producers, and good ones figure out who does what and when it should get done. Sometimes, it feels like they’re telling you what to do, but it’s also their job to take a lot of the worrying off your shoulders so you can focus on the task at hand. Here’s how:

Start a daily checklist. I’ve evangelized checklists before, probably to the point where regular readers roll their eyes, but I mention them because they work. Building a checklist is a critical psychological exercise. Instead of thinking “I HAVE TO FINISH MY DISSERTATION OR I WON’T GET A JOB AND I’LL BE A FAILURE … WHERE’S A PAPER BAG FOR ME TO BREATHE IN???” sit down and make a list of what books you have to read, who you need to talk to and what chapters you need to write. Throw in what you need to do to submit the dissertation officially. It might not look so bad.

Image of Legos from Wikimedia Commons under public domain.

Align the checklist to target dates. On the other hand, you might wind up with a list of 100 to-dos. Do not grab the paper bag just yet. Figure out what you need to do now, and then bump those tasks to the top of the list. You don’t need to worry about submission guidelines if you haven’t even assembled a dissertation outline. Then keep those checklists on file. Don’t even worry about them until you finish stage one.

Edit the checklist. Once you write down what you want to do, figure out what’s a requirement and what’s optional. Grad students are chronic overachievers, so it’s good to be ambitious, but don’t lose sight of your primary thesis trying to address every single thing.

Forgive yourself. You’re not going to make every single deadline or check off every task. The either/or mentality of grad school will make this task the most difficult, but breaking down tasks into smaller chunks means you can make adjustments elsewhere so you can catch up.

What other suggestions do you have to keep the hyperventilation and the paper bag at bay.

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