I stumbled across an old post by nicoleandmaggie on productivity and it reminded me of a topic that had been on my mind a fair bit, especially of late. Namely, I have been really having problems with lack of motivation and lack of focus for a while now. It has to do with the general boredom/burnout I am feeling about my work, but while I am figuring out where the motivation is gone and how to gain it back, I still have to maintain the operation of my group, i.e., I must keep writing papers and I must keep applying for grants in order for everyone to remain funded.
A little while ago, I reported that I had received a sizeable single-investigator grant from a federal agency. The submission was to a special solicitation with a preproposal, and they reviewed every stage (preproposal, proposal) very quickly. Between the proposal encouragement notice and the proposal due date I had a fairly short time to write the full grant.
Even with my lack of focus aside, the short clock on the proposal also came at the most inopportune of times, just weeks before that conference I had organized (there are multiple posts on that experience that I haven't had the patience and/or time to write). So I had this very important proposal deadline, but even if I were to cancel group meetings and collaborative meetings for a couple of weeks, I still had to work on the conference website, logistics, questions from attendees, catering issues... And yes, listen to my own students' talk dry runs. None of this boded well for focusing on a complex technical task of writing a proposal on a very short timescale.
I caught myself panicking. Literally, with heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Thinking "OMG, there is no way I can finish this by the deadline." This deadline was first internal, which I really try to make because I am sick of being scolded by the Sponsored Programs Office (SPO) person. I told her that I would do my very best to meet the internal deadline (which BTW I feel is arbitrary and largely unnecessary in many cases, such as with single-investigator grants) but that I am working at capacity, putting in really long hours every day because I have the deadline as well as the conference... Then, at some point, I said "screw it" and simply took a few more days to make the proposal just right. I have certainly angered the SPO person by submitting past the institutional internal deadline, but it was still 3 days prior to the actual deadline. As usual, the proposal was submitted within an hour of me forwarding it to SPO. But this is a tangent-rant that I seem to have whenever I submit proposals...
Back to the time crunch. I was really panicking and was all over the place, unable to focus, unable to get anything done, paralyzed by the sheer enormity of the task. This grant was based on my previous attempts, and I had received enough feedback on it, but even beyond these criticisms I knew something significant had to change. I could tell it din not quite have that special spark that it really needed to have in order to get funded. Something was missing. In some ways, writing over an old text is harder than writing from scratch, as you keep thinking that you have finished more than you really have and keep getting lured into the old lines of thought. But, I couldn't just scrape everything (references!) because the turnaround time was so short... At the same time, I had to scrape quite a bit of it in order to clarify my ideas and present a more compelling proposal...
So I did what I should probably do much more often. Each day, I would write down what I would do in great detail, partitioned each daily assignment into very small bits. Like, "30 min to clean up figs 6 and 7 and finish subsection 2.3". When it comes to my work, I have serious perfectionist tendencies that usually make it hard to simply finish things and not go back to endlessly tweak them. I can usually indulge my work-related perfectionism to a point, but this time I had to really curb it in order to make the deadline. For instance, once section 2.3 was done, it was absolutely not to be touched again until the next-to-last read-through, which was also scheduled.
This partitioning into teeny-tiny chewable bits, forcing myself to finish a task and cross it off , and preventing myself from going back had really calmed me down and helped dissipate much of the anxiety. Of course, the fact that this micro-scheduling works is probably not news to people who work well with lists, but I am not one of those people. For me, lists are usually more pain than they are worth: they don't come naturally and I don't trust myself that I will put everything down, so I carry a copy of everything on my brain as well in whatever list or calendar I am using. When tasks are in my head, they are color-coded, multi-dimensional, overlapping, and ever-changing clouds (sort of). I have never figured out how to get lists to do this for me.
While writing this proposal, I felt like a horse with blinders on (or at least how I envision a horse with blinders would feel): I kept taking deep breaths, telling myself to just focus on the small task before me, that nothing else matters. Just redo that figure. Just write 3 new paragraphs and enter those 5 references and be done with the subsection. I was amazed at how good of a time I was making (and how low my blood pressure was being).
So this is a story with a happy ending, perhaps because there was a real deadline before me. It's been much harder to implement the partitioning and strict scheduling (and much easier to get distracted) with open-ended projects, such as writing a paper.
What are your most efficient tips for focusing and productivity enhancement? Are you deadline-driven or self-paced/self-motivated?