I’m a great one for To Do lists. For me they work especially well when I’m organized enough to have items broken down into bite-sized projects that I can go along and knock off. When my lists are working well I rarely finish everything on it in one day. I rewrite my list and re-prioritize all the items that don’t get crossed off along with the new things that come up each night for the next day. I keep all the lists in sequential pages of a notebook, so I can refer back to old ones, and they become a reference of what I have done. Although it may sound like cheating, “organize list” often appears on my list – but my list maintenance takes time and I like to give myself credit for doing it along with that satisfaction of crossing something off.
My lists serve a more important purpose than just telling me what to do, they keep track of those things I don’t get done. My lists make a certain pattern very obvious: some of my most treasured projects stay on the list day after day after day without making much (or any) progress. In general, these are my projects that require thoughtful, focused attention. I marvel that even though they are of fundamental interest and importance to me, and that of anything on my list these would afford me the most intellectual fulfillment, they often get shunted down the priority list for matters of “greater urgency”, or because I have time only for other, less taxing tasks.
How to motivate starting and keeping up with a non-trivial, thought-, time-, and energy-consuming project? I have worked on a book for several years now, with my productivity waxing and waning. My most prolific (and exhilarating) experience with it was when I applied for a summer fellowship at the Whiteley Writing Center at the University of Washington. That external commitment (and the flexibility of my husband’s academic appointment, which allowed him to take over the family management for that time), allowed me to clear my calendar and move my book to high priority for a month and a half. I came home with a mountain of references, a full draft, and tremendous enthusiasm... and then we went back to the usual routine. I strive to find the balance where I can commit to my intellectual projects enough to keep the inspiration and motivation flowing, while still keeping up with the more immediate and do-able portions of my never-ending lists. How do people do this?
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