Not done? Well done!

“When will I be done?” - in a busy working life, with lots of tasks demanding our time, this is a question arises from time to time. 

In the break from work at the end of another year, I am reminded to reflect on the things that I have done and a particular conversation with a group of friends where we discussed what “being done” means to us. The discussion explored the role of different goals in our lives and what we each defined as the point of having freedom from obligations to do what we want. Some of the common themes related to the independence of our children and retirement from work. I also noted a sense that all of us felt that we were really busy right now, and there were plenty of things on the horizon that would also need our attention in the next month or so, but ‘things would get better after that’. This is a recurring theme I have observed both within myself and among colleagues and from other academics who share experiences online.

Of course the reality of our situation is that being ‘done’ is an illusion - like a mirage in the desert that promise of having nothing left to do always vanishes as we draw closer. Of course once we feel able to lift our eyes to look beyond the piles of work immediately in front of us, the mirage reappears on the distant horizon! For me, coping with this involves the following:

  1. focus on doing the things that I am aware of; 
  2. having a system that maximises my awareness of what needs to be done;
  3. accepting that there will be some things that can’t or won’t be done; and perhaps most importantly
  4. letting go of the goal of being ‘done’; 

For (1) and (2), I depend on maintaining my practice of GTD - making sure that all the tasks I am aware of are added to my tracking system (i.e. ‘next action list’) and focussing on small sets of actions to complete each day. This means I am rarely surprised by a task or deadline, unless it is a truly unexpected and urgent event, and I don’t need to worry about whether I have forgotten about a task. Paraphrasing the creator of GTD, Dave Allen, this means I can use my brain “for having and developing ideas rather than remembering them”. For (3), accepting that some things can’t or won’t be done is helped by having a tracking system for my actions and being able to regularly re-evaluate what can be realistically done. An indication that the combination of these activities are helping me achieve (4) is that I find myself increasingly comfortable with having an equilibrium of ~100-120 items on my action lists. It also helps to reflect on both what was done and not done.  For myself, some highlights from my track record of the past year are as follows:

  • Papers submitted / accepted / not written: 3 papers submitted; 0 papers accepted; >3 papers not written or deadlines missed
  • Bids submitted / funded / not written: 1 outline bid submitted (not funded), 1 KTV bid submitted and funded (~£10K); 3 bids not written or deadlines missed
  • Courses delivered: new course in Systems Security, 1 presentation of Software Engineering course alongside updates (albeit late in delivering many items!)
  • Blog posts: 1 post written (this one!); at least 4 blog ideas not completed
  • Books read / not read: 4 books read; >8 books unread (I had a goal to read at least 1 book per month!)
  • Reviews completed (on time) / declined: 4 journal reviews (2 on time), 14 conference paper reviews (11 on time), >6 reviews declined
  • Supporting others: 6 undergraduate mentees; 3 PhD students; 5 colleagues

With the exception of my teaching, PhD supervision and mentoring activities it is seems there is quantitatively is more that I have not done or not been successful in doing. However, in the grand scheme of things I would argue that the importance of the things done and their impact more than compensates for the volume of things not done. Also, it is possible I could have done more had I spent more time on these activities. However, tracking of my working hours suggests that I spent enough time working over the year - certainly more than the 37 hour / week working pattern that my university assumes:

So allowing for leave and public holidays, I worked an average of ~43 hours / week and perhaps some extra things could have been done by working more efficiently or working more hours. However, I don't think this would have made much difference and, more importantly, it is fine that many things were not done.

I share this with the hope of normalising the reality not getting things done and the importance of not putting too much focus on the achievements relating things that were done. This is not to say we shouldn’t celebrate our successes and those of others - we definitely should. But we should also recognise that the things that were not successful or not done are also OK - each represents an opportunity to learn or devote time to something important. In my case, the undone tasks also represent me spending more time learning about and practicing mindfulness meditation, spending time on my own health and wellbeing, volunteering activities and with my family.

So, here’s hoping that 2022 continues to provide opportunities to focus on doing the things that matter and letting go of being “done”!

Acknowledgement: Title image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay


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