Breaking (it) down?

Hello again. Before starting this post I want to thank everyone for their great feedback and engagement with the ‘Addicted to our desks?’ series. It was a real pleasure to write and I’m so glad that it was well received and helpful. It’s great to hear from those of you who have implemented some of the tips. If you ever want to get in touch with me, you can do so here.

In this post I want to talk about break downs! Or perhaps more accurately, breaking things down. I’ve reached a point in my PhD where things are starting to get busy, one of those times where marking, data analysis and planning for my next study all seem to coincide – and it’s easy to start getting rather stressed and anxious about starting things.

When faced with a large task, it is my default to freeze, to think ‘this is far too much, I can’t handle this’ and then I am frozen in fear. This freeze might happen for ten minutes after realising I have a lot to achieve, or it can last for ten days, which is obviously a bit more of an issue in terms of productivity!

I had many many people over the years, who when I told them how anxious and overwhelmed I was feeling, would ask me ‘have you tried breaking it down?’  Ugh, that old nugget. It was so frustrating, I’d think – it isn’t that easy. Even if I break it down – I’ve still got to do it!! But nowadays I am a huge advocate of breaking things down. I just needed to learn how to do it. And the irony is, if I find myself close to or mid breakdown, it’s usually a sign that I need to break down whatever it is that is driving my anxiety!

There are a number of ways I do this, and maybe some of these ways might help if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and close to break down.

What is manageable for you?

We all work in different ways and manageable is very different for all of us. Take two individuals and their versions of manageable will no doubt differ greatly. But also, take one person and ask them what manageable means and chances are it will differ for them at different times. A late night for example, or a cold, will change what is manageable for them.

Manageability might mean quantity, or quality,  it might mean a different form. A task based approach or a time based approach? Breaking down big tasks into mini tasks might be helpful, but equally if you know you need to spend two days on something, you might want to break it down into hour or half-hour blocks.

Find what works for you

Perhaps an app on your phone can help you track tasks, or your outlook calendar keeps you on top form. Or maybe the pomodoro technique works well for you. Maybe you need to ditch technology altogether and resort to a trusty old written list. It’s important to play around and see what works for you. It doesn’t matter if it seems silly, or it’s unusual, or it’s completely cliché, what matters is that it works for you.

Changing the way you write lists

I was notoriously bad at not only writing really unrealistic to do lists, but also putting tasks on there that were simply unachievable in one step. A recent example was getting things booked for a conference in London. In the past that would have gone on my list as something along the lines of ‘sort conference stuff’. Now however, I’ll take a moment to write down a detailed to do list and list all the steps.

So, ‘Sort conference stuff’ becomes: book hotel, book travel, register. If that still feels overwhelming I break it down even further. Book hotel becomes: check conference location, look for hotels nearby, book hotel, print confirmation. Book travel becomes: check nearest train station to hotel, check cheapest option, book cheapest option, print/collect tickets. This can sometimes make it seem like there is more to be done, but these are very small manageable things on a to do list. And the best part of a to do list? It’s got to be ticking things off hasn’t it? So this means more things to satisfyingly tick off, without actually doing any more work than you initially would have done with the original list!

Visually record progress

Whilst the list technique is good for lots of different tasks, it’s not so helpful when it comes to having a lot of the same thing to do; maybe marking assignments or as in my recent case, transcribing! I had about 10 hours of audio to transcribe. I could have written down each audio individually and ticked them off as I did them, but that didn’t seem like it would be satisfying or represent my progress, especially as each audio was a different length. So I decided to experiment with something different.

I’ve recently started using a bullet journal to organise my time, my PhD and my life in general (there is a post to come on that!) and I made a spread to help me manage the transcribing. In this case it involved breaking each interview down into five-minute blocks of audio. This allowed me to shade in one little box every time I completed five minutes of audio. It did feel slightly like a child’s sticker reward chart – but it worked! It also helped me to squeeze in small slots of transcribing when normally I would have thought “oh there’s no point in doing any transcribing, I’ll only manage to record a few minutes of audio”. But this system was a game changer, because I could see how all those short stints of transcribing added up to the whole. Before I knew it transcribing was going smoothly, after dreading it for a week or two when I knew I needed to get it done.

The benefits of breaking down big tasks

For me personally the benefits of breaking down tasks have included less procrastination, reduced anxiety about starting big tasks, enjoying tracking my progress and learning new things about the way I work. Most notably, I have to be able to see, track and record my progress. And I’ve also had really good fun discovering that a new system like a bullet journal has the potential to revolutionise the way I approach things!

I know that for me, one thing that was important to get a handle on, was my pesky mind! Telling me that I should be able to do these big tasks, that I was weak or intelligent or unskilled in some way because I couldn’t just tackle one big task. But the truth is, I CAN, I’ve just got to find a new way of doing things. One that works for me, my mind and my body. Ultimately, breaking down my big tasks has saved me from many an emotional breakdown myself! Which means I’m in a good place to tackle whatever I’m faced with. Win win!

Until next time, wishing you many super achievable, manageable, broken down tasks, and no personal break downs! 🙂

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