Getting Sh*t Done | What's next?



We just tracked how we actually really for-real spend our time for awhile, and then we tried to estimate, given the length of time we kept a time diary, what the results were (or are) of how we currently spend our time.

You could be pleased, or very disappointed, or somewhere in between (or somewhere further on either end of the spectrum) with the results of this analysis. But keeping the diary is almost a passive act, right? You weren't changing anything as you were doing it, just noting what you were already doing. And the act of analysis itself was just some thinking, maybe some writing, general fuming, eating, drinking, throwing things, hugging your dog, whatever.

But even though we can now see what we have been doing, we still don't know what we're going to do as we move forward.

"What's next?"

Don't stew in self-loathing or guilt -- those are useless emotions right now. The past is the past. We're moving forward. Let's borrow from the Aaron Sorkin canon here. Ask yourself, like all your favorites on The West Wing, "What's next?"



Step back and think, "Well, I was doing these things in these ways and these seem to be the results. Do I want the same results? Or do I want different results?" Think about how you want to spend your time, think about what you want to accomplish. And of course, don't just think about your work. Don't shoehorn your life into your academics, shoehorn your academics into your life. Ask yourself a sh*t ton of questions.

  • volume | Do I want to do more? Or less? (You're allowed to think in terms of "should" here, especially if there are looming/overlapping concerns, like a job hunt or a health issue.)

  • quality | Do I want to do better than I've been doing? Or learn how to settle for less than perfect? (Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good!)

  • health | Are you as healthy as you'd like to be? Are there things you can do to take better care of yourself, and does that require that you spend more time on certain things (e.g., sleep, exercise, activities that make you happy) and less time on other things (e.g., cleaning data, reviewing articles for journals that have rejected you, serving on 79 committees that seem to meet only to talk about meeting again, driving children all over God's green earth)? Knowing those things, what can you do to feel healthier?

  • goals | This is a big one. Where do you want to be in X amount of time? Are there things you need to do between now and the upper limit of that time period in order to achieve those goals?

  • values | They say (yes, I know, "they") that you are what you do every day. Take me, for example. I value my creative work. But if I'm not writing my fiction regularly, is that me valuing my creative work? Nope. Time tells. How can you make sure your time represents your values?

For Example

My research partner and I did part of this recently when I went to visit her in Paris. We didn't do the personal stuff together, but we did all of this with regard to our research -- the sitting back, thinking, evaluating, and then planning part.

We've been working together for the better part of four years, as of this writing. We've jumped at the opportunity to do some things and we've failed, we've jumped at other opportunities that have succeeded, and we've hacked away at other things that are still in progress (that we hope, of course, eventually do succeed). Our work together is made a bit more difficult by the fact that we've always been far from each other -- I'm based on the east coast of the USA, and she alternates between western Europe and north-central California. This January was the first time we'd physically been in the same room since we first met in Chicago in 2014, and first worked together in Boston that summer.

Having that extended time together -- ten days over winter break -- gave us the nerd luxury of both space and time to be thoughtful and purposeful about what we do next. After all, as much as we love just spending time together as friends, eating croissants and talking, we have a world to take over.

This allowed us not just the physical space, but the mental space and time, to really stretch out and think about what we wanted to be when we grow up -- as individuals and as a research partnership. What do we want to produce? What do we want to have to show for all this legwork? What jobs do we want to have in five, ten, 15 years? How can we make sure what we're doing now, and in the next year or so, sends us both on these individual and joint paths?

These conversations weren't re-hashing things we already knew. To the contrary, they identified some pretty gaping holes in our efforts. I, for example, want to do public sociology, so we made it a priority to sign me up for an Op-Ed Project seminar. We both want to write a book, or books, so I'm sharing all the notes I'm taking on the publishing industry with her, and plotting out time to write a book proposal and search for an agent.

We had these vague hopes before, we held them in our little nerd hearts, but we weren't really doing anything specific in order to achieve them. Especially not in our daily lives. Now we're trying to structure our time differently -- short-term and long-term -- in order to facilitate the achievement of these much less vague, much more concrete goals.

Connecting the dots: Building a body of work

Now that you know what you've done (just look at your CV), what you're doing (look at your time diary), and what you want to do (from your big picture "What's next?" conversations), you want to connect all the dots. You want to build a purposeful, cohesive body of work.

A lot easier said than done. But there's one surefire way to help.

Concept Maps

I'm the type of person who's interested in a lot of different things. I shouldn't bop around all over the place, though. There should be a logic to what I'm up to. And probably in the order I do those things, too.

So Marie and I drew a concept map (pictured below) connecting all the ideas we've already written about, the ideas we want to write about in the future, and how they all relate to each other.

Color in the squares on your concept map to mark what you've already done, and then you can figure out -- and write out -- "what's next."

Marie and I planned out almost the full year ahead, so we listed out as many projects as we reasonably expect can and will fill that time. They are listed in chronological order, and each paper builds on the previous by adding another layer to our analyses.


There are two other things that this list of projects identifies (before we move on to the next phase):

  • Which of the two of us are taking the lead on which project. The first author does all the legwork, especially up front, and the second author gets to make and suggest revisions at select points in the process.

  • The month by which we want to be done with a first draft, and with a first round of revisions, on each project.

Up next, I talk about my to do lists, and how you can use them to manage longer-term projects more effectively.