“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” -Thoreau
Common refrain from faculty (that may be a symptom of Impostor Syndrome): “I just can’t do everything.”
My response: “Yes, you’re correct. You can’t. None of us can.”
We have essentially two key limitations in the battle to do everything, as I see it. First, our day has 24 hours in it. We can fight that one all we want and pretend it’s not true, but that’s the day we’ve got. Then there’s the second limitation of energy. We’re not set up like the Energizer Bunny to simply go…go…go…quick battery change…go…go…go. I’m sure almost all of us can think of the last time we tried that (all nighters in college, anyone?) and the net effect is never what we hope it will be.
As mentioned in the July Reading Round-Up, I’m working my way through Eric Barker’s Barking up the wrong tree right now. Chapter 3 has a great section talking about someone brilliant who has a chronic illness that can be incapacitating. This individual adopted a strategy for many years of accomplishing one thing a day, even on the bad days. Sometimes that meant that he was only able to cook dinner if that was the day’s goal; the key was to choose that one thing and do it.
Here’s what he had to learn that we all try to superhero our way out of at some point in our career: every single choice that we make to do something means we are choosing to not do something else. When we spend hours on Facebook, we’re choosing (perhaps only subconsciously) to not work on that research project that needs our attention. When we spend time working on that research project, it comes at the time expense of watching Game of Thrones. When we spend time with our family, it comes at the expense of finishing the day’s charts. If you have a background in economics, you’ll recognize this immediately as every choice we make in life having an opportunity cost.
If you have a young family or an aging parent, focusing on them may be your first choice for a few years and it may require you to choose to let something slide from a scholarly or administrative perspective. If you’re building a career as a researcher, you already know that forces choices about what you can and should do from a clinical perspective. If you’re trying to stay mentally and physically healthy, you might choose to save that manuscript where it is right now and leave for yoga or go out for a run (note: I often find that by doing this I end up being more productive, perhaps because it gets my brain into a different space).
Again, every time we choose to do something, we are choosing to not do something else. That alone means that we can’t do everything.
Here’s a thought experiment for you, cribbed directly from Chapter 3. What would you do if you were ill and could complete only one task per day?
There’s your answer to what matters most to you, and what should be done first.
And when you thought, “It would NOT be clean my house!”, that’s probably a hint to you too.
Here’s to a week of making wise choices, one at a time, that allow us to do those things that matter most. What is your big goal this week?
(Title credit to Leigh Neumayer, content idea credit to Jamie Lewis)