By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Lately, a number of grad students have been asking me for tips on managing workload, time, and priorities. As this problem is not, of course, unique to grad students, there are many websites, books, and methods for teaching us how to be less stressed and more productive. For example, at a recent VH@Duke lunch for first-year Ph.D. students, we had a lively conversation about something called the “Eisenhower Matrix,” which was developed decades ago and looks like this:
As we discussed the Eisenhower Matrix, there was a surge of energy in the room. The matrix gave us permission to re-evaluate all the “important” things we did, and I suspect we all felt more organized, purposeful, and efficient just gazing on the four magic quadrangles.
I can’t speak for everyone else present, but by the time I returned home that evening—to a messy kitchen, a heap of unfolded laundry, and strident calls for dinner—I wasn’t liking the matrix so much. The imaginary 1950s CEO for whom this model exists likely had an imaginary stay-at-home wife and two imaginary administrative assistants to “delegate” things. (And powerful people can “decline” things that don’t advance their goals, but what about the rest of us?)
Gender and politics aside, the matrix also predates the internet age and the permanent state of information overload in which we now operate. Not only does the internet present constant distractions from our work, but it runs on the false logic that Everything Is Important, feeding into our Fear of Missing Out.
There’s a delightful book by Carolyn Parkhurst I used to read to my kids, called Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly. A 5-year-old and a 2-year-old are playing “cooking show,” and they break for a commercial. Henry and Elliebelly hold aloft some toys and yell.
Henry: BUY A CAR! BUY A GIRAFFE! BUY A ROCKET SHIP! BUY SOME PUDDING! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!
Elliebelly: NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!
This scene sticks in my mind, because I’m reminded of it almost every time I log into my email or social media accounts. (HEY! HERE’S THIS THING AND IT’S REALLY COOL AND YOU NEED TO ACT NOW!!) I suspect that this feeling of overwhelm is especially acute for introverts like myself, but it’s a plague for everyone with an internet connection.
To make matters worse, I’m part of the problem. I work in higher ed professional development, which requires me to constantly tell academics what they need (but may think they don’t). So many of my emails go like this:
Me: HEY, I PUT TOGETHER THIS REALLY COOL PROGRAM, IT’S BETTER THAN A THREE-RING CIRCUS WITH DANCING ELEPHANTS, AND IT’S GOOD FOR YOU LIKE BROCCOLI AND YOU SHOULD CHECK IT OUT.
And the responses inevitably fall into three categories:
1. Grad student or faculty: Hey! That sounds really cool! I love dancing elephants so sign me up!
2. Grad student or faculty: Harumph. I have a [dissertation/monograph/program review] to finish, so get back to me:
a) In three months;
b) After I return from field work in inner Mongolia;
3. Grad student or faculty:
While responses in the first category naturally make me happy, I confess to having been the kind of graduate student and faculty member more likely to respond along the lines of No. 2 or No. 3. I completely understand this response, and on many levels it’s a healthy one.
To do the focused, sustained thinking and writing vital to your academic career (what Cal Newport calls “deep work”), you need to eliminate as many distractions as possible. But while shutting out competing claims and irrelevant information will help you write a dissertation chapter, there’s always a trade-off. When you finally emerge from your writing stupor, 30 pages in hand, what have you neglected? It could be something relatively benign, like a bunch of dead houseplants and a mountain of overdue library books. Or it could be more serious things, like your mental or physical health, your kids or your marriage.
Work-life balance is a constant round of messy negotiations and trade-offs, and no matrix or management book will change that. But taken with a grain of salt, things like the Eisenhower Matrix can help us remember to revisit our priorities, especially so that we don’t miss out on important things.
For example, the matrix can easily be adapted to help us reconsider the kinds of information we pay attention to each day. Shutting out everything unrelated to the dissertation is an option, but not a healthy one. The question becomes what you pay attention to, how that information will advance your goals, and how much time you allocate for this each day. Do you have a habit of relegating professional development emails and newsletters to Quadrant No. 4 (Not Important/Not Urgent)? If so, I encourage you to reconsider—especially if Instagram updates from people you barely knew in high school now occupy an unseemly share of your attention (we’ve all been there).
Finally, while matrices and books have their place, for the most helpful time-management and productivity advice, ask people you admire how they get it all done. I didn’t do this enough in grad school, but when I did, the answers were both gratifying and memorable:
- There are two kinds of academics: those who get articles rejected and stop trying, and those who get articles rejected and keep trying.
- Every day you write is a good day.
- Drink scotch.
All real pieces of faculty advice; feel free to try out all three and let me know what works.