What if…?

Last night I sat in the courtyard and thought about what it would be like to just have to do one thing. What if instead of a gazillion projects, plus teaching, plus running kids around, plus meal planning, plus everything else, I only had one project. Just teaching one great course. Just planning amazing meals for my family. Just writing one article, from beginning to end.

It is an absolutely delicious idea. Doing just one thing means focus. Clarity. Intention. Understanding. Calm. Presence.

I started dreaming about doing just one thing while listening to a podcast for entrepreneurs. It was an interview with a man who had started several successful businesses. He was talking about how he burnt out and had to go on a hiatus from work and actually enter a mental health care facility to recover. Now, he said, he only works on one project at a time.

I scoffed and rolled my eyes. One project at a time! Wouldn’t that be nice! He must have a huge team of people working for him, both at work and at home, I thought. And that idea has been eating at me ever since: what if I could work on just one thing at a time?

It seems impossible in academia. Through my work teaching academics how to write and publish more, I’ve realized something very important: Doing academia means doing project management. And just like we are expected to just miraculously know how to teach our subject matter simply because we are high-level experts in it, we are expected to know how to be project managers with no previous instruction. Very few Ph.D. programs teach doctoral candidates to be higher education teachers, and even fewer teach them how to be project managers.

Yet that is what we are: project managers. And not project managers for just one type of project, either. We manage writing projects, grant projects, laboratories, curriculum development, planning courses, mentoring students (and the list goes on). This is why we feel like we have so many balls in the air. If we were a company, we could hire a project manager. But we are individuals, mostly working by ourselves to figure out how to coordinate all the moving parts in all of our projects, and to actually be able to finish some of them.

Which is why doing one thing is so enticing. We are pulled by so many projects and we are always dividing our attention. What could happen, I thought, if just one project got my full attention for some length of time? I believe I could think more deeply about it, invent more creative solutions, come up with a new angle on it. And isn’t that what we, as academics, are supposed to do? But who has the time?

I’m not a person who likes to believe that things are impossible, so I started to try to figure out a way to do just one thing in academia. The most reasonable idea that I could come up with was to consciously create times in my schedule to focus on just one thing. I can’t do this all the time, but occasionally–once or twice per semester?–I could carve out time for deep attention to one thing.

How to Focus on One Thing in Your Academic Career

Here’s how it might look. Figure out your lightest day of the week. (For me, this is Friday.) Then go to your calendar and block off two of these light days per semester during this academic year. These are your one thing days. Guard these days with all of your might. If you need to, physically go somewhere else on those days–somewhere where you can concentrate and not be interrupted. Schedule your email autoresponder to say you are out of the office. Take it a step further and make sure that all of your home responsibilities are taken care of for that day. It’s pizza for dinner and it’s being delivered. Or cook ahead. The idea is that all of your mental energy will go to just one thing on those days.

A retreat is another way to do just one thing. Maybe a retreat is something that you’ve been dreaming about doing. Whether you create a retreat for yourself or go on a get-away retreat, a retreat gives you the perfect excuse to focus on just one thing. And it’s something that our colleagues (and department chairs) can understand. Imagine saying, “I’m not available this week because I’m on a writing retreat.” It would be one of the few times in academia when you are “allowed” to do just one thing.

Here’s to wishing you the delicious, luxurious ability to do just one thing.

Hugs,

Cathy

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