Don't Fight the Tide
prioritization productvity work working
Wow! What a great question.
My answer was that I would have spent more time doing the things I loved rather than trying to fulfill the University requirements. By my senior year, I had gotten this concept down pretty well and was dedicating more time to exploring things I liked doing, such as rock climbing, hiking, reading my books, writing in my blog, and becoming a ninja through martial arts and CrossFit. It was the best and most fulfilling year of my life. Don't worry Dad - I did much better in my classes as a result of these self-concerned activities.
One way I was able to give time to myself was to be okay with falling behind in the reading assignments. UChicago is notorious for assigning more reading than a human can possibly read. There was no way I would be able to read an entire book per week per class, on top of the articles and essays I had.
A New Way to Work...or Not Work
Make no mistake: I tried very hard at first to complete the full reading list, even going back to catch up once the due date for the assigned reading had passed. The result was simply burnout. By my senior year, I decided to do what I needed to do to get the essays done and then just forget about it. If I was still reading a book when the due date passed, I moved on and didn't bother trying to catch up. If it was on the final, I'd review or do the reading, but I wasn't going to waste my time playing catch-up all the time.
I related this to my interviewee, but then realized that this advice is not really something I've been following in my day-to-day life after college. There is always something on my plate that needs to get done, and I often get so bogged down in trying to go back and catch up with all the trivia that I never get around to doing the things that are important.
In fact, sometimes I put off the important things, using the unfinished trivial things as an excuse.
Working on my book never seems get done because my desk constantly needs to be tidied up. E-mail needs to be checked. Blogs need to be read. I always seem to spend a lot of time putting papers in order and dealing with e-mail rather than rushing through those things to get to what really matters. I'll spend twenty minutes checking e-mail and ten minutes actually doing work. It's not because I have to, but simply because I get distracted.
I like to keep my inbox tidy, but when organizing takes up more time than the productivity it is meant to promote, there is a problem. So I've decided to be okay with falling behind in the unimportant things like tidying and filing, at least occasionally. I recognzie that a bit of order now saves a lot of time later when you're searching for that important file you misplaced, but I'd rather use my free mintues to do something of value. If I have free time later, I can clean up.
I've basically decided to be okay with letting the tide of work carry me. Instead of trying to stop at every shiny object, be okay with picking up one or two on your way moving towards a bigger goal.
It pays to take a look at your to-do list, and figure out what really matters and what is simply tidying up, busywork, or just something you 'should' do. If the latter category of tasks are keeping you from the things that really matter, maybe you don't need to bother with them at all.