Ever since childhood, I have been afflicted by the curse of multitasking. Well, more than multitasking, it’s taken on the form of ‘task hopping,’ where I cannot sit with a single task for more than an hour or two before having to jump to another one.
Multitasking is often seen as a good skill to hone, and honestly, it is great in some ways, like when you can listen to music and write a paper, or if you can spend time with friends and family while simultaneously knitting a sweater (disclaimer: I cannot knit). However, when it takes on the form of something like “write two paragraphs of a research proposal – edit a few essays by your writing students – paint a bookmark – back to the research proposal – oh, look, music is playing, let’s dance! – time for a walk – oh shit, the research proposal is due at midnight, I have an hour left!” … then you’ll understand why I don’t advocate it….
I do juggle quite a few things, some more basic and obvious than others. Cooking, cleaning the house, buying vegetables, watering plants, and making the bed are all daily tasks (or weekly, unless I want to run the risk of overwatering my poor plants). Those can’t be ignored, no matter how much PhD work I have or how many hours of writing I’m trying to fit into a day. These are the unavoidable tasks, and I keep a list of them in my planner just to remind me that mundane life exists as well.
Do you manage to get work done?
Then come the career-related tasks. For me, a researcher, that involves multiple sub-tasks for every larger task. Task 1: PhD synopsis writing and literature surveying. This comes with sub-tasks like reading three papers a day, communicating with my guides, revising research questions, talking to peers and seniors about framing questions, and planning field work.
Task 2: my work as a writing mentor with Scholastic-Asia. This task doesn’t come around more than once a month, but once it’s time for the workshops, it acts like a full-time job. I have to teach for two hours a day for ten days, regardless of other work commitments, usually from 5-7 or 6-8 pm. Then I have to read my students’ work progress each day (usually in the after-lunch hours when I’m sleepy and least productive) and make comments to help them along, and plan lessons as well. After each ten-day workshop, I must compile the final stories of my students, edit any that are lacking, give personalised feedback to each child, and write a mentor’s note summarizing the batch. It’s a whopper!
Then comes Task 3: Youth For Nature. New issues release each quarter, which means it’s a year-round job (unpaid, I might add) of coming up with a theme for the next issue, writing a call for articles and artists, communicating with contributors, editing articles, and compiling and publishing each issue. Our small team gets a couple of weeks break between the release of an issue and the start of planning the next issue, so that’s always a task in the back of my mind.
So you never stop working on your career?
After these major tasks, I also keep a few less important tasks on my schedule to give me breathers. I cannot – fundamentally cannot – do multiple large career-oriented tasks in a single day without scheduling easier tasks as breaks. So what are these less difficult tasks? First comes writing. Whether it’s working on one of my book manuscripts or writing popular science articles (I’m currently writing three and it’s like juggling in a circus), writing is an intrinsic part of my life. This is the place I try to turn my passion and hobby into a way of earing a side income, and to be honest, it’s been working quite well thus far! Another fun task is practicing dance. I am trying for my B.A. in Bharatanatyam, and that means practicing adavus, dances, and also learning theory on the side. I love studying Bharatanatyam theory – it’s such a refreshing change from ecology – but I’m still trying to be more consistent with this task.
So what about my mental and emotional health?
And finally, the hobbies that have no purpose except to give me my mental and emotional well-being. Yoga and zumba, journaling, painting (I’m still working on this skill), taking walks, dancing to random Hindi music, and meeting friends. These cannot be ignored. If I (or anyone) tries to focus entirely on work, burnout becomes a real threat, and I think it will be harder to come out from burnout than to simply schedule my day in a way that I keep breaks in between tasks to help my mind take a well-deserved break.
Some people believe that taking breaks in between tasks is a sign of weakness. But in my experience, breaks are a necessity if we are to succeed at what we set out to do. It’s about the larger goal. I want to be a better researcher and complete my PhD, but it will never be an overnight transformation. So, I have come to terms with doing a little each day towards this goal and not stressing if I don’t see instantaneous improvement. The same goes for dance. I may not attain the perfect aramandi today, but I know that practice over a week will give me noticeable results.
Maybe the key to multitasking isn’t switching constantly between tasks or trying to do two at once, but just scheduling them in a way that you fall into a rhythm that doesn’t leave you burnt out at the end of each day.
So what do I do to stay productive yet sane?
Well, I use a planner. My planner is my everything – I schedule even the most random things like dance breaks and walks because it makes me happy seeing a good mix of difficult and easy tasks on my daily list. I also write down groceries because, let’s be honest, those are easy to forget until you open the fridge and find it empty. Then, I use a really awesome Android app called Focus To-Do, which has been a game changer for me since I started using it (2 weeks down and counting!). The app lets me schedule and prioritize tasks, sort them by tag (i.e., PhD work, YFN, mental health), and decide how many Pomodoro cycles to set per task. I love the Pomodoro technique – I work for 25 minutes without taking a break, and then take a 5 minute break. After four cycles (25-5-25-5-25-5-25), I get to take a 15 minute break, which is great for things like brewing coffee, taking a walk and socializing for a bit, or just resting my eyes from the screen.
I’m not a person who can work late at night and luckily, I know it. My day starts early. I try to wake up by 5:45 am and get some work in before I head to yoga at 6:45 am. Then, I return, eat breakfast, work for a bit, and then pack up to go to work. The key? Making sure I don’t sleep too late, and even if I do, trying to wake up early and reset the cycle the next day. The hardest part is making sure I don’t break this cycle even on weekends, and trust me, I sometimes find myself slacking off and doing just that.
So here are my go-to tips:
- keep a to-do list and schedule easy tasks and hard tasks both
- find your most productive time (mine is morning) and schedule your most difficult or time-sensitive tasks then. If I try scheduling PhD work from 2-3:30 pm, I know I’ll not finish what I set out to do. Find your best time and respect it.
- take breaks! There’s no point in sitting at the laptop and telling yourself you won’t get up until you finish a task. Your brain isn’t wired like that. Be generous with yourself, and you’ll find yourself finishing tasks much easier.
- Use a focus app to keep you accountable and on track. Trust me, you’ll cheat on your schedule otherwise!
- Try the Pomodoro technique for maximum productivity. I get no benefits (monetary or otherwise) from telling you this, but all I can say is, it works for me, so why not?
Good luck, folks, and I hope this helps you on your productivity journey!