Thursday, June 30, 2016

My "&pf" method of getting things done

This has been a summer of many medium-sized projects.  I think I've knocked out about four referee reports, a bunch of gardening, a new syllabus for my fall calculus class, an improved fence-and-gate for Miser Dog's yard, and a few other projects that don't come to mind right away.  I'm still working my way slowly through writing a talk for this summer's MathFest, and starting next week I'll teach a mini summer course for high school students who might someday become first-generation college students.

In contrast to my mama-bear-sized projects, I'm getting to enjoy the amazingness of people around me who do remarkable feats.  My friend June off-handedly remarked, as we were getting ready for this morning's run, "I'm a little sore today because I rented a jack hammer yesterday."  (A jack hammer?  She's so impressive to me, June is!)   And that same day, my husband on a whim rode his bike 165 miles to New York City.  And then, when he got back today, he took off on his bike yet again to do grocery shopping because "I need 5 more miles to get over 200."   That's 200 miles in 2 days.  Yeah.

So, I'm not renting jackhammers to redo my own concrete window wells, and I'm not galavanting about between cities on my bike, but I am keeping on top of my email correspondence and staying ahead of the weeds in my garden.  And and that's okay; I'll get to be overwhelmed again once the semester starts up.

No, I'm enjoying the chance to spend each day with a mish-mash of activities, circling back again and again to the same projects, seeing them slowly come together and then eventually get crossed off the "needs to do" list.  And so my daily "to do" list has this weird symbol in it over and over again:


That weird symbol stands for "and plan forward".  As in,
  • "calc syllabus &pf"; 
  • "math mag & pf"; 
  • "Leitzel lecture &pf".  
Each time I see that "&pf" I know I've promised myself I'll spend a small amount of time -- ten minutes, a half-hour, maybe even an hour -- on that project today, but it's okay not to finish it yet.  Instead, when I've spent some time on the project, I make a note on a future day to spend more time on it, and then I get to check that to-do item off today's list.

The time management world loves to talk about "big rocks first":  you figure out the most important tasks---the "big rocks"---and do those determinedly, filling in around the edges with the less important pebbles and gravel.  Because, they say, putting in the big rocks first is the only way to fit all that hard material into the bucket of your day.

(As a side note, I have to say I'm totally tickled at how many of the images that come up in a google search involve putting rocks in canning jars).

But for me, my projects this summer aren't dead weight, they're organic ideas with many implications that I want to think about, return to, and that could consume the whole summer if I focused on them without making space for other parts of my life.  My projects are less like rocks and more like this bush that I trimmed.  Once I put the biggest branch (which itself had lots of branches) in the wheelbarrow, there was no space for anything else. I had to take the big branch out, fill the wheelbarrow with smaller twigs and leaves, and pile the big branch on top.
A bush branch sitting on top of the compost heap.
So I do the little things, and I add the big things in a bit at a time.  The advantage of coming back to the same thing over and over is especially helpful if the point of the project isn't just to get something behind you, but also to get something new in you, or more specifically, in your head.  I want the mathematical projects I'm working on this summer to stick with me, and I know that we learn things better when we space out that learning.  So I return again and again to the same paper, each time bringing another 24 hours, or another week, of perspective to the project.

J-son has been working in this fashion, over the course of months, on building a visible engine from a kit that my father bought him.  Back in March, he got stuck (probably because he put something together backwards).  I packed up the kit so that the sight of it wouldn't continue to frustrate him, and "planned forward" to June, when school let out and he'd have daylight time with his dad, who is a total gear head.  Once June came around, I asked them to spend just 20 minutes figuring out what went wrong and how to move forward.  Don't bother to finish it; just spend some time together.  The point is not to get it done; the point is to be doing it.

They actually ended up spending almost an hour together, making a lot of progress, and seemed to really enjoy it.  And they only stopped once my husband realized that the timing belt that came with the kit was the wrong size.  But because they'd gotten so much further than they'd planned, they weren't frustrated: they happily stopped (for now) and contacted the manufacturer for the correct part.  Once that part comes and they attach it to the model, they'll have fond memories of having worked together, and they'll get to spend yet more time together learning about something that they both find fascinating.

It's a good summer. 

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