Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Procrastinator

Dream sequence

The candle on the center of the bistro table tosses shadows across the crisp linens. The host tips the delicate goose neck of the decanter, filling my glass with a deep and distinguished red Bordeaux.

“What are you celebrating this evening?” he asks.

I raise my drink in a solitary toast.

“I finally turned the isotope analyzer on.”

The equipment seems straightforward and user-friendly, so why the long wait? There were lots of reasons. Some of them good. I’ll wait until my teaching responsibilities conclude for the term, until the lab clears out a bit and there is more working space, until I receive an updated manual, until I am back from the long weekend, and so on. To be fair, I did need some coaching to get things going since I am exploring new territory and am working with new lab equipment and processes. On top of that, I am not a tinkerer. I can build a mean IKEA bookshelf, but I don’t know the proper names and types of tools or how to improvise and create MacGyver-style contraptions that will automate my PhD. And although taking accountability for a component of the lab is an exciting responsibility, it is also intimidating.

I am an average procrastinator, according to the procrastination survey at Procrastination and Science (n.d.). This is not a surprise and may actually be a bit too gentle of a description. I like to avoid discomfort and tend to put off tasks that involve perceived risk, like the possibility of making a costly mistake or compromising my personal safety. At times, the fear of messing up can be paralyzing, preventing me from making progress or decisions. Ironically, the act of procrastinating often causes more stress than the actual task, as I agonize over the decision I plan to make tomorrow instead of taking action and just getting it over with.

Inspired by a graduate student workshop on procrastination, I established an Eisenhower Matrix – a living task list that I periodically update with upcoming deadlines and milestones complete with categorizations of importance and urgency. It is a useful place to start when I am feeling disorganized or overwhelmed. A quick review allows me to ground myself and clearly define the minimum amount of work that needs to be done, the nice-to-haves that would enhance my work, and the activities that can be dropped from my plate with little consequence.

So what about writing posts for this blog? Shouldn’t I be doing something else right now? Although in general, maintaining a blog is an extra indulgence and isn’t urgent, my goal of posting a few times a month comes with a small sense of self-imposed urgency. Particularly if I want to build a following and keep readers interested. And spending time reflecting on my student experience definitely isn’t time wasted. I wish that I started engaging in regular self-reflection earlier as a way to learn and continuously improve as a student, professional, and individual. So like other self-care activities, taking time to write outside of my research project will continue to reside in the non-urgent, but important, quadrant of my matrix as I continue to balance my daily demands with a few fun extras.

Learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix:
Eisenhower (2017) http://www.eisenhower.me/. Accessed on May 18, 2017.

Learn more about procrastination:
Procrastination and Science (n.d.). https://procrastinus.com/. Accessed on May 18, 2017.

© SF Jones, 2017


The new you (with new boundaries)

It’s rare to be offered an opportunity to completely reinvent yourself. Over the last few years my professional self has experimented with making changes to improve efficiency and well-being. Unfortunately, most of my changes were short-lived. It’s hard to turn over a new leaf when everyone around you still expects the old one. Generating buy-in from colleagues and supervisors can be a challenge and in almost every circumstance, I surrendered to my old habits and abandoned my plan. Starting a new degree can be an opportunity to redefine your professional image and establish balance and boundaries within a new community.

Virtual ways of working have introduced new dimensions of flexibility into the workday. Technology allows many employees and students to work from remote locations, while still maintaining collaborative relationships with colleagues. Flexibility can also promote peer collaboration on a local scale. For example you could change your cluster of neighbours depending on who you need to work with on a particular day or during a particular project. A few years ago, I had a lightbulb moment while working in this type of environment. I noticed a correlation between visibility and volume of spontaneous work requests. Being visible meant being included – a huge benefit when working on projects that require collaboration. But being included in every discussion can also be disruptive, especially when you are included because you just happen to be there rather than because you have something unique to contribute.

Technology has also contributed to a culture of immediate response. Depending on the communication tool being used, we often know when a recipient has read a message – another form of visibility. And we get impatient when we know that someone has looked at a communication, but hasn’t responded. For me, deciding how and when to respond to digital and face-to-face requests is a boundary issue. It can be hard to institute new habits when you have already established a pattern of answering emails over the weekend or giving tutorials during your lunch break.

During an impactful career counselling session I remember being asked – what does a fresh start look like? The beginning of a new academic program, perhaps at a new institution or in a new city, is an opportunity to implement your wish list. Looking back at my master’s program, I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to become part of the graduate student community. I wish that I maintained a more organized file structure and that I spent more time writing at the front end of my program. I have a long list of items that I would change if I could do it all over again.

Leveraging these regrets is a smart way to get started with a new challenge. Will I maintain regular working hours or adopt a flexible schedule? How will I network within the Department and the greater University community? What quality of work will I turn in? How much is good enough? What type of teaching assistant do I want to be? Will I answer emails on evenings and weekends? Or reserve that time for family? What do I think I could have done better in the past to promote happiness and well-being? And it isn’t just about the negative – what did I do well that I want to repeat or prioritize?

A new graduate program will be full of new teachers, mentors, and connections who will inspire and guide you along your journey. Complement this with self-coaching. Make use of your personal experiences and take advantage of the opportunity to try a new approach. I’m standing at the beginning of a new adventure and I’m not going to miss my chance to do it all over again.

© SF Jones, 2017

Overcoming the curriculum vitae coefficient of static friction

I recently completed an exercise in listing all of the courses I participated in during my eight years working as an industry geoscientist. I knew I had participated in a lot of learning events, but had never meticulously catalogued and categorized them. This effort required a whole evening sitting in the center of a cardboard box Stonehenge, sorting through the dusty archives of my former job. In the end, I counted thirty-three courses. All complete with titles, dates, locations, and instructors of record. The full list included classroom-based and field courses, international and local events, detailed geology curriculum and more broad health and safety and project management topics. I realized that I had been hoarding a wealth of experiences and transferable skills that I barely even mentioned on my resume. The comfort of job security had progressively eroded the discipline of even this duteous list-maker and I found myself cursing – why didn’t I just keep track of this at the time?

Now, I’m being a bit hard on myself. Building my metaphorical detective web of strings and photos to reconstruct almost a decade of learning experiences was an enviable accomplishment, but it required less effort than expected. In 2013 the home that I rented was inundated with floodwaters from the unruly Bow in the infamous southern Alberta floods. Unfortunately, the result was a lot of lost intellectual resources –soggy course work, textbooks, and lab notes that were destined to mould and decay. So in comparison, my disorganized piles of papers and field guides were actually not that bad!

Updating an out-of-date CV can be a daunting task and I had been suffering from resume-writer’s block for some time. But my inability to spruce things up was not really related to disorganized or missing documents. It was fear. Fear that I would discover that I couldn’t produce detailed proof of the activities I participated in. Fear that I had forgotten key accomplishments and that I wouldn’t be able to access my own memories of these experiences. And fear of discovering that I had not effectively made use of the opportunities that had been presented to me.

It turns out, none of these fears materialized and after biting the bullet and spending the upfront time required to inventory my archives, I actually felt pretty good about tackling my extreme CV makeover. Although the courses and workshops were not academic in nature, properly including them in my list of accomplishments added diversity and depth to my portfolio and will provide nuclei for discussions in future interviews. I even experienced an unexpected whirlwind armchair vacation reminiscing about stratigraphy in Utah, carbonate platforms in Spain, and estuarine processes in Washington. And the lost notes and texts are just that. Gone. There is no way to restore them and although thinking about them still causes periodic flutters of anxiety, all I can do is continue stocking my cache with the new skills and knowledge I am acquiring now.

© SF Jones, 2017