There’s Plenty of Time Left in 2018

How can you make the most of the rest of the year? Victoria McGovern explores some ways to answer that question.

November 5, 2018
 
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About 11 months ago, it was New Year’s Eve, and millions of people resolved to be better in the new year. We all would be thinner, more organized, more healthy and fit, more effective at work, more domestic at home, and ahead on our reading (or not so behind). We would each find ourselves leaping from bed every morning to write concise, insightful prose for 45 minutes before yoga, yogurt and journaling. We would in 2018 become so much more like our best selves than the wretched beings 2017’s fading light seemed to reveal.

Time marched on. Today, we have exactly eight weeks, or 56 days, left in 2018. That’s plenty of time to set our work and lives into pretty good order for a happy end to the year. There are 16 weekend days, eight Friday nights, as many as 35 workdays, one of the most secular holidays (New Year’s Eve) and several religious and cultural holidays celebrated with verve and joy by members of our communities. Like any other eight-week block, however, we could easily lose the entire time to procrastination, binge-watching Netflix and woolgathering about what life would have been like if we’d made different choices.

Fortunately, time is granular. While we have few decades, and not many years or months, we have so many minutes and seconds that we tend to forget what luxuries of time surround us. Even when time is short, there’s usually vastly more of it than we remember. How can we use some of that time to finish the year feeling prouder of our work, happier with our relationships and less overwhelmed by the rhythms and chores of our daily lives?

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they focus on fixing imperfections. Once we are more than 80 percent of the way through the year, however, the idea of attaining perfection by Dec. 31 is completely off the table. Who needs that kind of pressure? My own list of top priorities falls into four categories: work, household, friends and social obligations, and family and me. Yours is probably similar. Of course, we may have other priorities: health, recreation, public service and more. But the main categories are those I’ve listed.

So how can we make the most of the rest of 2018? I’ve explored some ways to answer that question below.

Doing the Right Small Things Can Make a Big Difference

At work, what is the most fixable thing on which you have fallen behind? What small-to-medium undone tasks do you hope your adviser won’t ask about when you run into that person unexpectedly? Does something smaller than your dissertation or qualifying exams make you feel anxious every time you see it on your calendar or to-do list? It might be writing an abstract or a letter introducing yourself to a potential collaborator -- the type of task that can stir fear of not knowing enough or not being important enough.

Pick your smallest big burden of this kind and deal with it. Using a timer to break the effort into half-hour chunks may help you settle down and start tackling it. Once you’ve begun, you can often complete this kind of task much faster than you’ve anticipated.

Another day, try the same idea at home. Does your laundry pile make you feel incompetent every time you see it? Are all of your potted plants dead? Has the vacuum cleaner become a sculptural element of your decor, standing in its austere beauty in the middle of your living room in need of a placard: Untitled, [Your Name], 2018? Don’t get too ambitious. Don’t resolve to make your home pristine. Just take the one manageable task that is making you disproportionately unhappy and do it.

It’s easy to see where this is going.

Are you avoiding any good friends because you feel guilty about having not called, written or “been there”? Did you neglect to celebrate a wedding or new baby because you couldn’t afford a gift or get your act together? Pick the friend who is most likely to laugh, “Silly you, I love you anyway!” and get in touch. You’ll be glad you did.

What can you do for yourself and your family that is as direct and useful? Consider starting with this: sit down in a favorite spot with your beverage of choice. Invite your cat if you must. Think back on the last parts of past years. What are your best memories? Having spent more than a third of my life expectancy in and around educational institutions, it’s not surprising that November and December are full of memories of exams and term papers that I should have written earlier or, in later years, graded earlier. But most of my memories are about people -- moments that seem impossibly bright in my mind -- and good bad decisions: “Let’s make gumbo. No! Let’s go to New Orleans!”

In the end, whether I was a student or teacher, everything got done, and then the year was over. I don’t ever remember cleaning my dorm room, but I seem to have survived. After age 18, November/December became the season of going home, and now the trip home reminds me of what good fortune it is to have a scholarly life. Not the least of that is the typically long break between the end of December’s work calendar and the beginning of January’s. Even when I’m working, the time feels open and free. In my family, this time of year is about cooking together in our small kitchens, laughing, celebrating and being the real us, together. We’re bookish people who love to write, and we still read the newspaper together in the morning.

Who are you, when you’re home? How can you spend more time on enjoying your family and less on list making, chore doing, shopping and still feeling that you’re falling too far behind? Don’t let the urge for perfection obscure the simplicity of the things that make you happy.

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Now, let’s say it took you half a day to address the smallest big burden in your research life, a half a day to eliminate a home energy-sapper that had been weighing you down, two hours to catch up with one neglected friend and two hours to ponder the history of your holiday happiness. That’s only eight hours of making your life marginally better over the course of eight weeks. Why stop there? These two months contain 80,640 minutes, and the 480 minutes you’ll have spent will have barely put a dent in the vast span of time between today and the end of the year. What else could you do to build on this good start?

Let me offer a few more suggestions in the career/work category:

If you plan to be a faculty member someday, invite two or three assistant professors who know you a little out for coffee. Ask them for insights about being on the faculty. Talk with them about how you fit into groups, and ask them who at the institution, or at prior ones where they’ve worked, might be good role models for someone with strengths like yours. Fit is a much bigger issue than most graduate students and postdocs understand, so a conversation like this (and following through on it) can substantially change how you prepare for the future.

Clean up your email box. Few people, especially in academe, have their email under control. But seeing the number of unread messages climb is a stressor, and replying to emails late feels painfully rude. Taking an afternoon to throw away or archive mail from before the beginning of the semester, then unsubscribing from things you don’t need, will reduce the feeling of being behind and make it easier for you to stay caught up. Best Practices for Professional Email provides more ideas for making the most of your mailbox.

Make a map of how far you’ve come. Diagram your intellectual growth over time. When did you get interested in research and scholarship? If you’re considering going beyond the professoriate, when did you realize the skills you learn through obtaining a Ph.D. are useful elsewhere? What ideas captured your imagination? What do you think about those ideas today? What insights have led you through your training, and in what new places could your view of the big picture find relevance?

Depending on how your mind works, you might end up with an outline, a timeline, a calendar, a mind map, a spaghetti-form diagram of your own invention or something else entirely. Whatever form it takes, you may be impressed to see how far you have come, and in how many directions 2019 could take you.

Bio

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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