Put One Foot in Front of the Other

As we move into the next phase of the coronavirus crisis, Victoria McGovern asks, how can we slow down and focus on fewer, more meaningful goals?

May 18, 2020
 
 
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Whether you have been thriving during the COVID-19 lockdown or are in your April pajamas reading this on your phone while eating last night’s melted ice cream like soup, you probably had some big ideas back in March about the multiple projects you would accomplish while you were isolating at home. Odds are, you have not started them all yet. Maybe you haven’t started any.

Even though states are now reopening and universities and research institutes are working to allow more campus-based research to resume, the need for social distancing in workplaces makes it likely that people involved in research will be doing significant amounts of work from home for at least the next several months.

Graduate students and postdocs are rightly concerned about how their research careers will be affected. The immediate future is not going to be simple or neat. As we move through the summer and then into early fall, it is important to find ways to make steady progress. Your career and your mental health depend on it. Your coursework, research project, reading, outside interests, home life and the integration of all parts of your life continue. You can’t just stop, even if it feels like the world has.

Tomayto, Tomahto

Few graduate students lack book knowledge of how to move forward. You can create a plan, make a list and set a timer -- or better yet, a tomato-shaped Pomodoro timer. (Wait. Do they sell those on Amazon?) Yet four hours later, you’re sobbing over a video about a penguin that swims 5,000 miles every year to cuddle with the man who rescued him from the rocks when the bird was but a peep. No wonder your ice cream melts.

Even those who are doing well in isolation may find their multiple goals going astray. Taking on too many projects -- finishing a paper and writing a draft dissertation and cataloging your books and training your turtle to come when called and redoing your home in apartment-friendly, peel-off wall covering and learning yoga from YouTube -- may be manageable these days. But is it really necessary to turn this rare gift of unstructured time into a marathon of diverse achievement? Making a project out of taking Fridays off might be a good idea.

Resolve to do better.

Like New Year’s Day and the first day or school, the reopening of access to your lab or research environment is a new beginning and a good excuse for making some resolutions. "Resolution" did not start out as a word about austere detours toward virtuous behavior. It came from the idea of loosening things up by reducing them to their smaller elements. If a journey of 1,000 miles begins by tying your shoes, then tying your shoes is an enormously important step in the right direction.

What’s daunting varies for each of us from moment to moment. On any given day, the idea of taking on a simple task can generate the same feeling of dread as high-stakes activities like beginning a job search or writing a dissertation. That is one reason some of us are living in our pajamas. In contrast, some people seem to be knocking out projects one after another. Some are introverts reveling in a long stretch of quiet, undisturbed days. But some who are churning out project after project are driven to jump from thing to thing, wanting to feel in control of something at a time when so much that we took for granted seems to have evaporated.

Neither living in your pajamas nor turning too many whims into projects is healthy in the long run. How can you either return to the world of the zippered-clothing wearers or slow down and focus on fewer, more meaningful goals as we move into the next phase of the coronavirus crisis?

One way is to reinterpret your time in manageable pieces -- not with a short, task-focused, timer-based approach but by setting your sights two weeks ahead. Two weeks is a long enough time to get something done, whether your aim is drafting the skeleton of your dissertation’s introduction or getting all the dishes in your bathtub washed and back in their cabinets.

Ready, Steady, Go

You know what your state of mind is today. Maybe you are so overwhelmed that doing more than brushing your teeth seems impossible. Maybe you have so much pent-up energy that if it were not for social distancing you would have reorganized all your neighbors’ bookshelves, not just your own. Think about whether you should seek crisis counseling. Your institution will have resources available for you, or referrals. This is a very strange time. Asking for a little help can be a good idea.

When you feel you can give attention to the near future, think about this: What is one self-contained thing you would like to get done in the next two weeks? It might be an educational goal, like taking a short online course, or a health-related one, like taking a walk now and then or breaking a recent habit of staying up all night. It could even be a goalless goal, like relaxing for a few days rather than picking up another project.

Two weeks is not long enough to launch a massive new effort, and it is not so short that the time will simply escape from you. Better yet, you do not have to tell anybody else your goal. Just pick some small thing you want to do and do it. I have done this during other stressful times in my life, with goals ranging from painting my shed to writing a friend a proper letter to revising a paper.

The thing you focus on should be resolvable into parts so that no piece of it is so large as to derail you. Buy the paint with little thinking -- some pleasing color from the mismixed paint-markdown cart. Fix the wonky door hinge. Wash away the dirt that has spattered up the walls from hard rains all winter. Take a hammer to the corner where a piece of siding has fallen away. Paint the walls. Paint the doors. Paint the soffits. Paint the fascia. Tap the lid back into the can, clean and secure. Wash the brushes. Put what is left of the paint in the shed or give it to a friend who has something small that needs painting.

In the end, two weeks and one task are through. When you ask, “What did I do with my time?” the answer is in front of you. You painted a thing that needed painting. You made one of the universe’s specks a little better, even just for a moment. That is not a small thing at all.

Bio

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. In isolation, she favors terry beach wear. She is on her fourth set of two-week COVID-19 lockdown goals. Her current aim is to further refine her already resplendent panna cotta.

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