So Many Projects, So Little Time

A meme which reads: She believed she could. But she needed a break. So she said no. 
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Happy New Year to those who use the Gregorian calendar! I have some more personal posts coming down the pipe soon, but I wanted to tackle a topic that was weighing on me this week: how to choose which projects to pursue. I don’t know what your feeds/emails look like but mine are teeming with cool opportunities right now, and I was suddenly seized with a paralyzing panic. So much remains unknown to me about how this year, or indeed this semester, will go now that I have a baby at home and starting my Assistant Director of Composition role. In the past, my tendency has been to pile on until I’m drowning, but I like to think I’ve become more strategic about my work load over the past several years (being employed full-time for a change helped in this regard). Still, I am struggling with conceptualizing just how much bandwidth I’ll really have to do work this year. At the same time, I thrive on having at least some research-related work on my agenda even though my job is decidedly not a research position. So what to do? Below are a few questions that helped me decide, so I thought I’d pass them along. These questions should be helpful as you consider adding any project/promotion/service to your plate.

First, does it excite you?

This one is tricky because many things can excite you – too many things – and then you end up overwhelmed or unable to actually finish anything that you start. On the other hand, I really think you should weigh your enthusiasm heavily in the decision to pursue a project. Especially if you are a POC or a woman. Because, man, do we often say yes to things we really don’t want to do! As they say, a “yes” to something means a “no” to something else. While that expression does not motivate me, specifically, to not overcommit, it is a true expression given the finite nature of time. So I recommend always starting with the question: does the project excite you?

Consider Your Big Dreams and Research Themes

A while ago I wrote about dreaming big dreams and deciding on your research themes – gestures of looking forward and looking back to help you set about having a career with intention. I would add that it helps to have these written down somewhere – the dreams and themes – so you can consult it when the time comes to choose a new project. Does this new project get you closer to a dream? Is it captured in one of your research themes? These aren’t the only questions you should ask yourself. You can always develop a new research theme or add a new dream if the project really excites you. But the dreams and themes are there for a reason, so let them guide you.

How much work is it really?

This question is easier to answer if you’ve been around the block a while. That is, if you know how long it takes to write a research article and if you know yourself well enough to have a realistic sense of how long it takes you to write a research article. Or chair that committee, co-teach that class, etc. Even if you aren’t sure, attempt to be honest with yourself when you answer this question. Write down all the components of the project so you aren’t kidding yourself about the full scope of work and then consider if you do or will have time to tackle them.

Ask Your Writing Coven

Or your colleagues, your postpartum therapist, a friend who knows you really well, your mom. Try to process it with someone who really knows you and/or your profession. They might know, for instance, that you tend to overcommit, so they will help you resist the urge to pile on. Or they might know that you are, in fact, very capable of doing X number of cool things and you should go for it. For me, I recently asked both my postpartum therapist and my writing coven because they know what I’m dealing with – newborn baby care and academia – and I felt they could give me the best advice about my potential choices. Interestingly, they gave me opposite advice, but I valued both perspectives. Talking it out with them did, ultimately, help me choose a path.

File It Away for Later

Sometimes an opportunity comes along and it *does* excite you, but the timing is just off. You might not have enough time to meet the deadline or it takes place the semester you’re on maternity leave. Chances are, it or something like it, will come up again. This occurred to me recently about a grant I wanted to work on, but right now I am not only too busy to write the grant but to do the work that the grant would help me do, so I’m filing it away in a grant spreadsheet to possibly tackle next year.

You Can Always Bail

As a persistent obliger/upholder, it pains me if I have to quit something I started – especially if it involves other people. It pains me so much that I can remember with great clarity each of the times I’ve had to do it in my career. But the truth is, we don’t have a crystal ball. Even if we ask all the questions, consult our closest allies, and be honest with ourselves, we cannot anticipate the curveballs that come our way. And sometimes, we just make bad-for-us decisions. You can always bail. Don’t let the fear that you will have to stick it out through the worst life has to offer – through toxic supervisors, through grief, through physical or mental challenges, through intense caregiving, etc. – prevent you from pursuing the things that excite you. My mom used to tell me that there are no bad or good decisions; rather, there are decisions which have consequences and we won’t know if they were good or bad until after the fact (and our perspective on whether they were good or bad will change over time). Better to live with the good/bad consequences of our decisions than live a life of indecision.

Is there anything you would add to this list? What do you ask yourself when making a decision about a new project/job/opportunity? Or what do you tell yourself?

Drop a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Mastadon (which I highly recommend btw) and LinkedIn. Also, I have a substack if you’d like to subscribe!

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