I’ve been procrastinating on this post because it requires me to project a multidimensional process onto the linear (one-dimensional) thread of a blog post.
SHU of The SHU Box blog and I discovered that we are Myers-Briggs polar opposites (she’s ESFJ; I’m INTP) so she asked me about how I organize things in the personal and professional, since she’s a master list maker and I cannot do lists at all (which I think relates to Tactics, where I am strong P, “a prospector”).
I am not sure where to start, so I will just start with some examples and see where we get.
Things that require no action on my part other than showing up somewhere (dentists, doctors, stand-up comedy shows or concerts DH and I like to go to): I put in the phone calendar, set 2-3 alarms (two days early, one day early, the day of) and completely forget about it. The calendar on my phone is the only type of calendar I do not hate with a fiery passion. I never think about these events again until the alarms start. On the day of the fun outings, I invariably don’t want to go; my first impulse is always to cancel whatever I promised I would go to, and I have never been happy about leaving the kids without at least one of us at home (even though Eldest will be 18 in March and is a great babysitter). I know myself enough to know that most of the time I do end up enjoying the event and try to suppress the impetus to flee/be difficult. [My husband, who is my Myers-Briggs near opposite (ISFJ) likes to get in the mood, especially for concerts, by listening to the artist’s songs for a day or two before the event. He is also a planner.]
Planning work trips: I am a big believer in satisficing when it comes to the stuff that I don’t particularly care about. I give myself a fixed amount of time to work on the trip: pick decent flights, book a hotel, perhaps rent a car, and do not think about the logistics of the trip again until the day of. I can go from 100% unpacked to ready to go without forgetting anything in well under an hour, so I refuse to expend any energy on trip minutiae until the day of. Also, I always travel to industrialized places, so if I arrive without toothpaste in Washington, DC, this is hardly an insurmountable problem.
Planning kids’ activities: I don’t care for this, but DH outright hates it (he is super introverted), so it’s usually on me. We keep our weekends low key and are generally either available for playdates, or I am taking Eldest to something music related, or Middle Boy to something basketball or flag-football related. DH takes Smurf to acting (Smurf has a really good voice and an ear for music, so we might do choir with him; we’ll see). I’m the one texting with other parents about drop off/pickup times. (Fun fact: My phone is always on total silence. I check it often enough that I’m unlikely to miss things, but even vibration bugs me. I do set the alarm on my phone to ring when it’s time to end my class. I also set the alarm to wake me up from random naps.)
Kids’ camps: I collect information about kids’ camps throughout the year and file them somewhere in the brain, also bookmark in my browser. They don’t bother me until I decide, usually sometime in March, to devote an afternoon to the activity. Then I sit down and book a whole summer worth of stuff for everyone and it’s done. For this, an essential tool is a printout of an annual calendar, so I have the whole summer at a glance. I don’t know how other people do it, but to me these planning activities hold no joy whatsoever, so my goal is to do them decently and in as little time as possible.
Vacation: I will pick a place where we will go (based on free-floating information, everyone’s preferences/whining, and my own level of adventurousness), find a hotel, book and pay whatever needs booking and paying for, put it on the calendar and again forget about it. I am not one for planning day-to-day activities months in advance. DH enjoys the planning aspect and I am very grateful that he does, because the kids prefer a busy holiday over a lazy one that would be my choice. But planning outing activities is something I freakin’ hate hate hate because it involves committing myself to stuff that I perceive to be of little importance, and my impetus is always to run away screaming. [DH and I drive each other a bit (okay, a lot!) crazy with our packing habits, me with my last-minute mad scramble, him with an elaborate process.]
Basically, if you want me to do something in the future, I need to be able to spend as little time as possible thinking about it and completely forget about it until no more than a day or two before. That’s the only way that I won’t freak out about a commitment simply existing and do anything to get out of the whole thing.
Some things that help:
a) I have a very good memory for faces (never forget one) and a reasonably good one for names, especially once I’ve remembered the face. I don’t know that I am better at this than the average woman, probably not, but DH always regards my ability to remember people and place them out of context as some sort of a superpower.
b) Satisficing: When I don’t really care deeply about the outcome of something, I commit to a set of requirements that need to be fulfilled and as soon as they are, I complete the process. A good example was how we purchased the car for Eldest. As his main driver, I was getting increasingly pissed with my chauffeuring workload last year, and eventually DH agreed to the purchase. DH didn’t want to look for the car, as he’s a perfectionist and would take forever to get the research done and the prospect of it was making him anxious (the car would be absolute perfection, though). I said leave it to me, just tell me what the nonnegotiable features are. We agreed on price under $6k, reliable (Honda or Toyota), and low mileage. I spent an evening looking at cars from dealers and private sellers (maybe 3 hours total), came up with a list of 12 potential ones, we narrowed it down to 2, I emailed the sellers that same evening, we scheduled to see one early the next morning, test-drove it, loved it, went to a nearby bank to get a cashier’s check and bought it right there. By noon, Eldest owned (well, co-owned with me) a fully registered car.
How do I stay organized at work?
Everything work-related is in my head and I don’t mind. I imagine the inside of my head as the body of the pirate ship or the foyer to a castle or an opera house: a large three-dimensional space with balconies and/or chairs (basically pockets where something could be placed on the side at different heights). Now you can imagine tasks to be floating colorful blobs, like what you would make out of cotton candy or slime. Each task has many attributes: how large, what color, shape, smell, etc. These correspond to how important a task is, how much I care, how interesting it is to me, how urgent, etc. These different floaties float around, hit one another, sometimes they merge, sometimes they hang out at one of the balconies for a while before they come back out, sometimes they completely vanish, and their attributes constantly change over time. I think the key aspects of this ‘organization’ if you can call it that are dynamics (change over time) and how I feel about doing a task (VERY important). I am a major procrastinator when I don’t really want to do something, usually because I don’t really think that what I promised to do is actually important.
I also crave lots of intellectual stimulation and need variety, because if something is boring it is very hard to care about doing it, and if I don’t care, then it’s very hard to make myself to it. Which is why I keep adding every more intellectually stimulating hobbies and they tend to find their place in my life and stay there, occasionally taking up more or less of my time. I think this variety helps productivity because I can always find something I want to work on, even when what I should work on isn’t that. (It’s a bit like farmers planting different plants in the same parcel in different years, which helps maintain the long-term fertility of the soil.)
Having a set schedule with predetermined periodicity for anything without a very good reason is a recipe for disaster/resentment on my part. This, I cannot fake. If I truly believe that something is foolish, ill-conceived, or otherwise a poor use of my time, there is no way to trick myself into believing that it is, in fact, important. All I will ever want to do is procrastinate or cancel. Best case scenario is I half-ass it.
For instance, I don’t mind teaching at all, or regular office hours four days of the week when my office is full every time. I resent office hours twice a week for a small class when no one shows up. I resent weekly faculty meetings because I think they are a poor use of everyone’s time and I am delighted to schedule class so that I miss half an hour of the meeting every week.
I don’t want to have weekly meetings with each grad student, but only with those who actually truly crave this interaction and have new stuff to show me every week. Most students are happier, as am I, meeting on an as-needed basis. If a student is stuck, I will clear out my afternoon and spend hours trouble-shooting; I will go for days, as long as needed, rather than lock us into weekly meetings where they’re gonna show up half the time with nothing really new to discuss.
I really really really like to keep my schedule as open as possible, which means few recurrent meetings, especially on the timescales that are too short for meaningful updates (a week). Then I have a lot of freedom of choice as to what I work on.
I think the keys to my productivity are stamina, a broad portfolio of professional and personal projects, and self-indulgence.
I am very much NOT a person of balance and routine, but one of extremes. I crave late nights and overwork, when I fire on all cylinders, followed by days of slouching about, deflated. I can work more than most people when there’s a deadline and I love it. But then I need to go into a cave and watch Netflix and sleep. Then I might come back with the urge to clean my house. A big problem is that every routine eventually gets on the chopping block because this perpetual turmoil is a defining characteristic of my modus operandi (*sniff* 4:30 am exercise, I miss you *sniff*; maybe in the spring again; maybe something else).
As I said, my projects are like these floaties whose size, shape, and myriad other attributes change over time. I maximize productivity by trying, as much as possible, to do the stuff that I crave to do at a given moment. When there’s something I really itch to work on, there’s little point in avoiding to scratch it. Refusing to do what I want to do and instead trying to force myself to focus on something I am supposed to do only works if what I am supposed to do is really, really, REALLY important TO ME (which basically means a grant deadline). Otherwise, it won’t happen. It makes much more sense to let myself work on what I want to work on until I am sated, and then when I am a little tired and a little less fired up, I have a better chance of tackling something that doesn’t excite me. I call this the “cake before dinner” approach to work and I believe that’s key to getting large amounts of intellectually challenging work done.
For instance, if I have an itch to work on a new short story, there’s no way I am working on anything else unless I work at least a bit on the story. That’s the only way to move that giant balloon out of my face and have it deflate it a bit, so I can get to the stuff behind.
I definitely have a bit of an obsessive nature; having stamina helps.
How do I keep track of details? I don’t know; I just do, I guess. In my work I am naturally very detail-oriented, and to me focus = details. My former postdoc told me I was the most thorough person he’d ever worked with. If I’m really focused, I just don’t miss things.
In my work, I need to understand things as well as I possibly can, and once I’ve understood them, it becomes easy to talk about them or write them up or make a PPT or whatever. But before truly understanding, comes a long time of just wallowing in data. Looking at data lots of different ways, asking more questions and getting more data, thinking about the math, reading, just kind of sitting in it, letting it permeate my consciousness and subconsciousness, until it all comes together. I think this comfort with not knowing, the ability to withhold judgement is key to the scientific process, or at least to my scientific process. Just letting the problem be a tiny floatie, floating and bumping into other things, coming into the foreground every so often after it’s bumped into something else, growing over time…
Do I forget things? Not really, but I also have a great capacity for doing a half-assed job. Maybe that’s what satisficing really is. Or, a nicer way of putting it is (as per gwinne and undine) doing things at 70%. Whenever something I don’t actually care about (and there’s a lot of that) can be done at 70%, I do it. Soooo much can be done at 70% in one sitting.
SHU asked how I don’t forget stuff for a kid’s party. I don’t know. I might mull over for a while in my head what type of party we’ll have, but once I decide what and where, I very quickly book everything, send out the invitations, and then don’t think about it until the day prior. Then I get up that morning, go to the party store and wherever else needed, and just get everything. As the party is my focus for the morning, I don’t need a list. We’ve had all sorts of parties (3 kids), from swim parties to bounce-house parties to parties in our own home, with a magician and the need to feed everyone. Even with the latter, I can get from zero to completely ready to go in just a few hours.
Also, I don’t meal plan in the sense in which I see people do it (go shopping with recipes). I cook the vast majority of daily repertoire from memory and/or I improvise. I go look at what looks good/speaks to me and shop around that. Usually I will take requests from family before I go to the store, so that might motivate the choices. We usually have pasta with beef sauce (a somewhat lazy pasta Bolognese) once a week, as it’s everyone’s favorite. One or two rice-based dinners per week, usually a stir fry with rice or what I call a ‘deconstructed burrito.’ Weekday cooking is based on my energy level. Sometimes we have soup and homemade panini. Sometimes we all have hot dogs. Sometimes I saw something yummy during the week and a great-looking eggplant reminds me of it and that’s what I cook. I hate planning meals in advance; if I need to cook something and I’m not in the mood to cook it (often tired after work on the weekdays), I will end up not cooking at all and pick some hot food along the way instead.
I don’t know if what I’ve written makes sense to people. Basically, I operate by devoting short burst of focused attention to things that require little intellectual effort, without giving them much thought the rest of the time. “Done is better than perfect” or satisficing or doing things at 70% would be my motto here. For the stuff that does require serious intellectual engagement or creative thought, or things I really care about, I generally mull them over in the background, low-level, for a very long time. They work their way through my subconscious and fly into and out of my consciousness, along with many other problems I think about, and they change and grow until they’re ready to be acted upon. “Cake before dinner” is my motto here, doing what I feel like doing first, then the stuff I care less about but that should get done. I have a grant deadline in a couple of weeks; I’ve been thinking about this grant, on and off, probably for the whole past year.
The morning shower in an excellent place to think about what I need to cover in class that day and how exactly I am going to pitch it. I have never taught the exact same way twice; course offerings change based on the class composition; doing every lecture from scratch, just me and the markers and the white board, is the way that really works well for me (I will sometimes show a short movie or some specific images, but I don’t use PPTs). Every class gets their own drawings of de Broglie and Schroedinger (always a big hit :-), SpongeBob and Patrick, as well as assorted snakes and dinosaurs and random other bits. Plane waves and conjugate variables in general can be illustrated through characters sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Since we’re in the middle of the Winter Olympics, the other day figure skating gave an excellent foray into the tensor of inertia, which segued into the concept of the eigenvalue problem of linear operators. But I digress…
The female colleagues I know well enough in real life are all very different from me, in that they are consummate schedule upholders and list devotees. IRL I do know one or two people who are ‘all over the place’ like me, and they are male.
Then there’s really the question of how much you know someone, IRL or online, from the limited information we learn to give one another after we’ve grown up… Someone asked me a week or so ago if I envy others and if others envy me. I said I know for a fact that I do envy others, but I don’t think that anyone envies me, or at least I’m not aware of anyone envying me, to which the person who asked the question chuckled. We really don’t know very much about what other people think or feel. I don’t think most of us actually lie online, but we do allow for just a very narrow outlook into our worlds, even those of use who are nominally open (e.g., me blogging anonymously); for instance, DH says I am not like I am on the blog, that on the blog I sound really serious and I’m not like that at all. I think people who blog under their real (or real-ish) identities tend to curate more, especially if they are lifestyle bloggers so their income is tied to the projected persona, but even those of us who don’t still relay only part of the information. That doesn’t mean people are pretending per se, because pretending to be someone you’re really not is actually quite taxing. For instance, me blogging about lists and planners would require a Herculean effort. Seriously! Lists and planners are so far from being me that there’s no way I could pull it off, or the effort required for me to become some online planner authority would far surpass any potential usefulness of such an endeavor; someone who is truly a list maker is, of course, also much more than a list maker, but that’s not to say that they are not being truthful about being a list maker. It’s just one part of their persona. Scalzi wrote about it eloquently somewhere — about us showing just bits and pieces online, and that being OK.
Double phew! Time to post this, before it morphs into an untamable beast.
Thoughts? Questions? (Just noticed undine’s most recent post! Hi, INTP sistah! *waves*)
Blogosphere, how do you stay organized, especially if you are not a list aficionado?