A toolkit for sustainable progress

As we approach the beginning of the autumn semester, I’m already missing the open calendar and minimal meetings of the summer months. Despite the greater flexibility the summer offers for my work schedule, it is often accompanied by dips in motivation where I feel a lot of resistance to furthering professional projects. In these last few weeks of the summer, I have noticed myself frequently reaching to tools in my kit of “things that I try when motivation is low.” Many of these “tools” are mindset-based and some are literal (e.g., Cuckoo Timer). I’ve decided to share some of those tools here, with the acknowledgement that these are things that work for me and might not work for everyone. This list has evolved over the last 10 years through trial-and-error and self-reflection and is also influenced by myriad works of others: books, conversations, podcasts, and social media content (some are listed below but I cannot possibly list them all!). I hope that in those times when work feels hard or just less-than-ideal, some of these approaches may help you reframe “work” to decrease resistance.

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zin
  • Playing Big by Tara Mohr
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • Chelsea Tanner’s content
  • Adam Grant’s social media pages and on the Rich Roll podcast
  • Brad Stulberg on the Rich Roll podcast
    • shoutout to Dr. Julie Martin who encouraged EED postdocs to read Deep Work and Playing Big
    • in reviewing the authors I added to this list, I noticed the lack of diversity in the authorship, and wanted to call this out because in drafting this post, I’m encouraged to make an active point to seek out work from BIPOC, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ communities

Manage your energy versus your time.

I am a firm believer in tuning into your energy levels and then adjusting expectations and tasks accordingly. For example, I have gone through periods where I do a 5 or 10-minute meditation in the morning and observe what’s going on in my mind and body: Am I feeling fatigued or refreshed? Are my thoughts racing or quiet? What is my mood? If my mind and body give me the green light, I will jump right into a high energy task; red light, low energy task; somewhere in between, medium energy task. For this to be most successful, it’s best to designate energy levels for your tasks and have those written down wherever you track your tasks. For me, some examples include high: drafting a discussion section for a manuscript; medium: making edits to existing curriculum or manuscript text; low: grading and data management. Of course, energy and time are very intertwined, and it is impossible to divorce the concept of time from our work lives. So, I find this approach works best on days when you have several meeting/teaching-free hours devoted to solo tasks. Importantly, a morning check-in can reveal unexpected things that are going on in your mind and body and are always important to listen to!

Pick just ONE high energy task per day.

Following on my approach to managing energy, it’s important to aim to tackle just one high energy task per day. For every working day during which I have 2+ hours devoted to solo work time (“deep work” as Cal Newport says), I pick just one high energy task that I promise myself I will devote energy to. I usually choose something that takes a good amount of activation energy to begin (again, like writing). You’ll know which tasks these are because they’re likely the ones on your list that are “very important, not urgent” and keep getting pushed to tomorrow. I think it’s important to pick just ONE because the moment you have two things, you may prioritize the one that takes less mental energy. In practice, this works 3 out of every 5 times I set a high energy task intention. It’s not perfect, but it usually gets me to start to tackle some daunting tasks and lowers the activation energy substantially when I turn to it again on another day.

Change up your task list and scheduling approach if it’s not working for you.

There are an incredible number of strategies and tools for to-do lists, task lists, scheduling, bullet journaling, the list goes on. I have used very detailed to very “big picture” approaches including Miro board, written lists, iPad lists, lists in personal journals, lists on single fluorescent pieces of paper, notes on a Phone app, Evernote, my Outlook calendar … you get the idea. The takeaway is not that one is better than the rest but that different tools might serve you better at different times. Every few months I find that I end up changing my approach to scheduling, to-do lists, and goal setting. Regardless of the approach, what I have found the most helpful is doing a big-picture brain dump of everything I’d like to do during a set time, from one-week to one-semester, and grouping those tasks by category (e.g., research, teaching, professional development, service, personal, exercise). I start by planning my high energy tasks to be distributed across the time period and then do more detailed scheduling from there.

Align your to-do list with your values.

Sometimes certain tasks bring up a lot of resistance for a variety of reasons. It could be because it’s something you “have to do” for someone else, something that you associate with failure, something you simply find tedious and unenjoyable. Aligning your tasks with your values is a good approach for helping with this. How can you approach your to-do list in a way that reframes tasks so they’re FOR you? Not in a way that will result in you beating yourself up if you don’t complete everything or in a way that seems like it’s for other people? (<< This language comes from Chelsea Tanner!). An aside, I highly suggest taking some time to write your values down and treat this process as constantly evolving. Many others have written about this including several of the sources I cite above.

Practice a “soft” focus.

I used to approach work with the perspective that focus needed to be intense. We always hear about individuals having laser focus to accomplish great things. I found, however, that approaching a task that was especially mentally taxing gave me incredible anxiety. I often felt like I need to “gear up” to start the task and that ultimately resulted in procrastination. I need to make this cup of coffee before I start. I need to clean out my inbox so I can focus. I need to do smaller, shallower tasks to “work up to it”. The Headspace meditation app has a course on Focus where I originally heard the idea of approaching focus with a gentle or soft attitude. The premise of the course is that focus is a calm and serene state, not a tense state where your fight-or-flight nervous system is on high alert – the latter is not sustainable. This approach is especially helpful to me during heavy writing phases.

Taken together, the common theme across these ideas is to approach your work with a balance of self-discipline and self-compassion. The mindset approaches I’ve included here help to uncover whether work resistance is because of a very real physiological or mental cause (e.g., illness or depression) – always listen to these things! – or due to something less serious that you can approach with curiosity. Remember, Stress + rest = growth; stress + stress does not = growth. There is the axiom that “mood follows action” and sometimes with work resistance a nudge using one of these tools can really help get out of a rut and make work progress sustainable.