by Kelly Beischel PhD, RN, CNE

Imagine you’re at your town festival. Droopy strands of lights are twinkling between telephone poles. Music pours out of the precariously hung speakers.

The air is sticky with the smell of popcorn.

A juggler in front of you causes you to stop abruptly in the street. He’s about to juggle a bowling ball, a baseball, and a glass ball. You’re fascinated by his attempt to do the impossible thinking, “There’s no way.”

How will he manage to juggle each of these objects successfully? And at the same time?

But I bet this isn’t far off from your daily life.

Dividing your time between the responsibilities that come with being an academic can feel just as impossible. Right?

Your responsibilities, like the juggler’s objects, don’t carry the same weight. The tasks associated with your responsibilities don’t carry the same weight either. We are often caught between which task to do first because they all appear to weigh the same, to have the same priority. 

Yet, some tasks are more valuable than others. And some, if not attended to, break more readily than others.

There’s good news in this; the year is fresh.

The slate is blank.

This is the perfect time to reflect on your responsibilities and their associated tasks as well as your dreams and desires.

But reflection alone will not get the job done.

It’s even more important to create strategies and systems to meet your responsibilities AND to live out your dreams and desires.

First, reflect on which of your responsibilities feels heaviest?

Ask yourself why it feels heavy?

I’m betting it feels heavy because it’s saturated with energy draining activities. (Or perhaps it’s heavy with your blood, sweat, and tears.:)) Does it feel heavy because it’s holding you back from your true dreams and desires or that important project you want to move forward?

What strategies might you put into place for the coming year to balance your load?

Determine which tasks are necessary but do not require that YOU do them.

And hire a student to carry out those tasks. Like downloading articles, creating or organizing files, creating graphics, running to the library. I readily hire students to assist me. It’s a win-win. They earn money. Plus, working for you helps their resume. And you, my friend, acquire breathing space.

Systemize your processes.

For instance, let’s say a student asks you to write a reference letter. Do you have a process that you follow? Do you require them to complete a request form?  Do you delineate certain times of the week or month to writing reference letters? Are these times calendarized? Or do you try to squeeze this task into your already seam-bursting day? And if you’re like many of us, when we don’t have systems in place for repetitive tasks like writing references, it becomes a brain drain.

Creating and then implementing systems lightens the task. No fuss. No muss.

Eating the frog

is a fantastic way to relieve yourself of the heaviest ball of the day. What is heaviest on your mind? What task is draining you of the most energy? Do that first. Your day will feel lighter.

Using the Pomodoro technique

is a game changer in getting your most important or heaviest tasks done. Choose the time you plan to work on the task (divided into 25-minute intervals). Set your timer and GO! It’s fun to experiment with various apps and timers when using this technique. In fact, I am currently using the Pomodoro connected to [email protected], a music service based on human neuroscience.

Does your load feel heavy because it’s laden with unfulfilled ideas and projects, those ideas and projects that you can’t get to because of barriers such as administrative meetings, meaningless tasks, bouts of procrastination, lack of time? What strategies might you employ to enable you to make your ideas and projects come to fruition?

Try creating SMARTER goals

and take small steps each day that move you toward goal completion.

Even more powerful, state your goal and action steps out loud to someone who will keep you accountable. I never end a coaching call with a client before asking about next steps and putting dates to those steps. It’s effective because it enhances their focus. And they know I am going to ask them about it on our next call.

Reflect on which tasks, like the juggler’s baseball, that if dropped, wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Let these tasks go.

Give them a hardy farewell to either open up more white space or to allow you more time to accomplish what you deeply desire.

And I beg you to drop any task that begins with “I should…” like a scorching potato.

Tasks that, if dropped wouldn’t harm anyone, can also be considered nice-to-do tasks, but what if you love doing these tasks? What if they bring you joy?

Consider how you might lessen the work around these nice-to-do activities?

For instance, let’s say you love to bake for others, but you’d rather stick a needle in your eye than take the time to grocery shop. Could you order your groceries online and pick them up on your way home from work?

Ordering groceries online might be the best invention EVER!

Lastly, which responsibility, if dropped or neglected, would shatter?

A wise friend told me years ago to imagine all of my responsibilities as balls I’m juggling. Then imagine which of those balls are made from glass that if dropped would break.

Think family and relationships here. Writing manuscripts for tenure may be another.

Create systems and strategies to be sure that those glass balls do not drop.

For instance, schedule play dates with your friends and family and calendarize them. Hold yourself to those dates like you would an appointment with the dean.

Similarly, schedule writing time each day, taking small steps each day toward the big win.

We each have responsibilities with associated tasks that are heavy, fragile, and some that are neither but they bring us joy.

Adopt systems and strategies that will enable you to complete your tasks AND fulfill your dreams and desires.

It will make for a lighter year.