Working in “snack size” portions

Serving of tortilla chips with salsas.
Image credit: PxHere

The myth every year, as I plan out my summer, is that I’ll be able to take advantage of summer’s unstructured time to work more deeply, in longer time blocks, than I normally can during the academic year. And sometimes that’s true.

The reality, particularly this summer, is that I’m finding more success in working on smaller, “snack size” portions of projects for shorter time blocks. Allowing me to chip (ha! pun not intended) away gradually at the various projects on my plate, making gradual forward progress (mostly) on each.

I knew I was burned out going into this summer. But I hadn’t realized how much being burned out impacted my ability to think, concentrate, and execute until I actually had time to think, concentrate, and execute. Burnout means that my brain really can only think in snack-size chunks right now. I could lament the fact that this is happening, or I could embrace it and run with it. I chose the latter.

Sometimes working in snack-size chunks means that I am constantly thinking about other tasks while working on different tasks. So far, this hasn’t been the case. Maybe it’s because I honestly don’t have enough mental energy to multitask in that way. Maybe because when I planned firm boundaries around my work time this summer, I primed myself to focus on single tasks at a time? Whatever the reason, I’m not going to dwell on it — it’s working for now, and that’s all that matters.

Working in snack-size chunks has been a lifesaver this week for a very different and unexpected reason:

Positive at-home COVID test
Our family’s COVID-free streak comes to a crashing end.

I am fortunate that (a) my case is mild, likely because (b) I’m vaxxed and boosted, and (c) I was able to get Paxlovid, which has helped with the symptoms. (I’m beyond annoyed that (a) I am the most cautious member of my immediate family and yet I was the one to bring this home, (b) I HAD A SECOND BOOSTER SCHEDULED THE DAY I TESTED POSITIVE because of course that’s how the universe works.) Working in snack-size chunks on the few things that absolutely have to get done this week has helped me manage my energy levels while sick. That was even true during the first couple of days when the fatigue was at its worst: oftentimes, the snack size was a single chip. Now that I have more energy, the snack size work chunks remind me not to push myself too hard as I do the important work of healing my body.

Do you work in snack size chunks, or does your work time look more like a long, leisurely meal? What food metaphor would you use to describe how you’re working this summer?


New month, new season, new plans

Sticky notes with tasks attached to papers with category headings
Low-tech planning never gets old.

I plan my year mostly according to the Carleton calendar. Rather than dividing the year into quarters, I think of my year in quintiles (similar to Sarah Hart-Unger’s system): Winter Term (January through mid-March), Spring Term (end of March through mid-June), Summer (mid-June through August), Fall Term (September through Thanksgiving), Winter Break (December). Starts and ends of terms form natural start and end points. Plus, each term — and each break — has different rhythms and priorities.

Because of the course releases I get for my administrative and service loads, I had a minimal teaching load this term, just a Comps group and a 1-credit seminar. Neither of which requires grading or exam-giving or final project-wrangling. And given that I’ve already started on a couple of my summer projects, I used Wednesday — the last day of Spring Term classes — to start planning out my summer goals and intentions.

I kept the spirit of the process I describe in this post. I’ve been thinking in the background of what I want my summer to look like, and in particular how to balance work with the rest I so desperately need after 2+ years of pandemic academia. So I was able to capture, summarize, and triage all in one step. I put projects on sticky notes that I stuck on big sheets of paper labeled with categories (“STEM Board”, “Research”, etc.) with columns for each month. (See the picture at the start of this post for a visual.) Doing so allowed me to see if one month was getting too “heavy” with projects and to move things with more flexible deadlines around. I then looked at which sticky notes ended up in the “June” columns and set my June goals accordingly.

I haven’t done the calendar wrangling portion yet, nor have I slotted tasks into specific weeks. But I’ve been keeping pretty good task lists for each project, so I just need to sit down and work backwards from my target due dates to figure out which tasks go where. I’m also going to experiment with blocking off specific times of day to work on specific tasks / projects. I’m hoping this helps me context switch / prepares my brain to concentrate on one task at a time instead of worrying about all of the tasks all of the time. But I’m also using this strategy to put strong boundaries around my work time, to preserve time to rest, rejuvenate, have fun, and work on non-work projects. And to take advantage of the flexibility my job affords — something I’m not always great about doing.

How are your summer plans shaping up?