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Five Hints to Help Overcome the Inertia of Overwhelmedness

January 2, 2010

It’s just about time to return to school after a break and I am already feeling what I call the inertia of overwhelmedness, that feeling of having so much to do that you don’t know where to begin. I worked steadily at things even while I probably should have been relaxing, but nonetheless, now I must face the reality of meetings and deadlines and due dates and all the other things I could pretend for a couple of weeks didn’t exist. I know that overwhelmedness isn’t a word, but it should be. I find that it’s often necessary to turn verbs into nouns or nouns into adjectives or otherwise play fast and loose with parts of speech in order to make my point. Feel free to do this yourself. It can be quite satisfying to see your creation in print.

But back to that inertia. The biggest challenge I face with almost any task is getting started. This is why I find procrastination so fascinating and have become such an expert on the topic. I am very good at working hard while putting off some of the things I have to do because I haven’t a clue where to begin. I imagine that working on something is as good as working on everything. Sadly, it isn’t. Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost and you will have egg on your face if you’ve forgotten to work on one of your chores.

Perhaps you have faced similar procrastinatory challenges. Here are my top five hints for overcoming the inertia of being faced with too much to do and too little time to get it done in:

First, make a list of everything you need to do. I do mean everything. Don’t leave anything off. Do this quickly, though; otherwise, making the list can become the ultimate procrastinatory activity. You can add to it as you think of additional things. Once you have your list, check it for papers and projects and other things you need to determine topics for. Choose your topics week one and get them approved if necessary so you can immediately begin thinking and collecting information.

Second, put important deadlines and due dates on your calendar, highlighting them in some way. Add other obligations too, including any related to family and friends that will impact your time. Whatever kind of calendar you use, put everything onto one—multiple calendars pretty much guarantee that something will get forgotten.

Third, set internal and artificial “progress” deadlines for yourself. Don’t rely on outsider prompting to remind you that you should be working on something. Make sure that you have research located early. Have a deadline for doing so. Block out time for writing and for studying for tests and such. A paper, for example, really should be finished at least two days before it’s due so that you will have time to let it sit before you do final proofing and editing. (I am such a dreamer, aren’t I? What is the last minute invented for if not for finishing up a paper?)

Special note here: I am infuriated by papers I receive that have not been proofread. I am not talking about spelling errors or errors in mechanics that may have been mistakes students were unaware they were making. I’m talking about the blatant repetition of a sentence or paragraph that even the most minimal of proofreading would have caught. I’m talking about sentences that start, but don’t end. I’m talking about the sudden appearance of all caps for several sentences without reason. I’m talking about the obviously-in-need-of-fixing stuff that I don’t want to waste pen effort on. Clean it up, people!

Third addendum: Don’t be tempted by other enticements once you’ve set these internal study dates with yourself. I say this while being fully aware that you will be tempted and you will probably give in. At your peril. If only I could control the world.

Fourth, Start file folders, real or virtual, for every paper, project, or other obligation you must keep track of. Yes, I know you have notebooks and so forth, but everything you work on will benefit from having a dedicated space in which to dump crucial information you don’t want to have to hunt for later even though you don’t want to have to process it immediately. I really prefer using paper first and then starting Word.docs based on what I’ve collected in my paper files, things like reminders to myself, newspaper and magazine articles, notes regarding possible internet sources, and other stuff that would take time turn into useful, integrated electronic data.

But you do what you want. I know you will anyway. Knowing what really works for you as far as compiling and accessing data is a crucial skill of success in school—and at work. My worst quarter ever was one in which I tried recording everything. Real time lecture-listening twice. Ugh! This may work for you, but it was agony for me and I still ended up writing things down so I would remember them. There’s something about the brain/hand connection that helps me learn.

Fifth, Work on everything regularly. This may just mean reviewing notes or going over the requirements for the assignment, but the goal is to keep the things you need to accomplish fresh in your memory so you can let your subconscious work on them.

And here’s my final piece of advice for the new term. School is easy. All you have to do is read your syllabi, go to class, complete the assignments on time, participate, and read the text and other assigned materials. That’s a big all and when you add the alls from multiple courses, it can lead to the inertia of overwhelmedness. The problem with such inertia at the start of a term is that it is so tempting to do nothing—there are weeks and weeks ahead and nothing seems very urgent and after all you need to thoroughly understand everything before you get started working on anything, right? Wrong. Generally, we don’t know what we don’t know until we begin trying to actually do the thing.

Unfortunately, putting things off can lead to despair which, while it can be overcome by intense bursts of scholarly dedication, is likely to leave you much more stressed than if you take my advice and get started early working on everything that needs to be done (she said smugly).

What can you do to make this term even better than the last?

The ability to concentrate and to use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business—or almost anywhere else for that matter.
• Lee Iacocca

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