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Posted on Jan 15, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey | 4 comments

3 Reasons To Put On Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others


Now that the holidays are over, I’m back in grant-writing mode at work. As usual, I’m trying to balance the regular workflow of the lab and regular meetings with the extra workload of coordinating and writing a fundable grant (well, four of them in the next few weeks).  In the past, this would have me in a panic, and staying up all night trying to get just the right combination of clarity and convincing in a too-small page limit.

Over these many years, though I discovered that the grant does not benefit from exhaustion and vending machine food.  To get the work done, I have to cut back on time usually spent on other tasks.  Since I am also less willing to sacrifice my personal time, this means I have to find time during the workday.  So, I took a close look at where I spend my time.  I mean with a timer.  What I found was truly surprising.  I am not very good at predicting how long things take.

Here is why:

1. If your door is open, you are going to be interrupted.

Interruptions come in many forms.  One is the actual door being open.  My students, employees and colleagues all feel free to stop in with a question, a request for a favor, or just a visit.  But the open door can be the ping of a new email or the phone ringing, too.

2. When things are boring or frustrating, you look for distractions.

This can be a peek at Twitter or a game of Candy Crush, but it can also be another task.  I find myself picking up simple tasks to do when I am stuck on a decision or problem. I really like this strategy, and often use it to let problems percolate through my brain, or let the frustration subside so I can start again from another perspective.  But when you are under a deadline, choosing to focus on tangents can really reduce productivity. Somehow, having the timer made this dilemma better. If I knew that I had only another 15 minutes before I had to move on to another task, I could hang on to a problem instead of letting my mind wander. I also had the strong motivation to finish up what I was doing before I stopped working, so I would not have to face the same problem again when I started.

3. When you allow yourself to be distracted, you are working for someone else.

The hard truth is that if you answer every email immediately, stop what you are doing every time someone has a question, and “just taking a quick look and giving some feedback on my paper”, you are not focused on your own agenda or priorities,  but working under someone else’s.  If your priority is to get a big project done, you have to focus more on that than other things.

How can you realistically manage this, when you are responsible for other people as well?

Here’s what I did:

1.  Close my door.

I have some Post-it notes on the inside of my door.  They have description on them of what I am doing, and how best to contact me, ranging from “please knock if you need me” to “send me an email if you need me”.  I might have my email off, though.  The people in my group have access to my calendar, and they know what an emergency is. They will knock if something is on fire.  This is not a metaphor.  Things sometimes catch fire.

2. Focus on the task.

This could be going to the library or a coffee house to work, or putting on some music.  Somehow, this cues me that I have separating myself from the rest of the world. I’m not sure if this is just a way to provide white noise to block out the discussion outside my door, but it works. This also means letting some things slide, like non-urgent meetings and packing elaborate lunches.

3. Engage more in the lab’s activities.

Normally, I have my schedule of meetings and work in my office or the lab.  I let my group members do the same for themselves for the most part. When I am busy, I make sure I know what is happening every day so I can be available when I might be needed, and I work out details with my group members before they get started on an experiment. Then I can close the door and not worry about those details, and there is less need for my real-time availability. I also let the group know what I am working on so that they can cooperate with my modified workplan.

I’m not sure if I can keep this up for the 6 weeks or so that I am busy with these proposals. Keeping balance over long periods of time is difficult. Or, maybe this will be a more permanent plan.


How do you find time for special projects?


 Photo credit:  Debbie Ramone
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  1. What helpful advice! The last big project I had was writing the book. We actually had to leave the house and write at a local coffee shop or cafe. This was sometimes difficult because we were “regulars” and had people who had grown to know us, our goals, and were so sweet to ask us how we were doing – but it was distracting nonetheless. I said no to a lot of social engagements that I may have attended were it not for writing the book. It was so important that I actually found it really helped me shed some of my silly shoulds and focus on what and who was important. It is still an ongoing challenge for me!

    I hope you’re able to get your work done and have some fun too!

    • Thank you! I just finished reading your book, and it was such a fun romp though your wonderful transformation.
      I wonder how a noisy coffee shop (with strangers) makes it easier to focus. The other thing that is helping keep on track is the social events, both in person and visits to the blog. Having something scheduled after the work is done helps keep me on track to finish.

      • I know, it sounds counterintuitive. The buzz of the coffee shop energized me most of the time. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. It was a great deal of fun to write.

        I love your whole idea of having something outside of work. I didn’t have a life outside of work when I was teaching in the public schools. My life was work, and everything suffered. Now I’ve reached a nice balance where I can feel productive and enjoy the other things in life!

        Hope you have a wonderful Friday!

        • Maintaining sanity and balance is a major goal after many years of only work!
          I’m going to try the coffee shop today for energy.


  1. Lunch Hour | Find a Simpler Life - […] interrupted.  Even when I’m eating lunch. Lately, when I need to concentrate on a task, I close my door…

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