Last summer I wrote a blog post asking if we should all step back, look at our job duties, analyze what is truly important, and then do only that, i.e., should we be doing less. Today I want to discuss two related ideas: applying that “do less” concept to our to-do lists, and coming to terms with tasks we take on because we think we should.
I was recently introduced to Loleen Berdahl’s blog and was struck by how useful I found her posts. In particular, a 2021 post focusing on triaging your do-list based on urgency and necessity. The concept is simple: take your to-do list and be ruthlessly honest about what can be deferred. She recommends that you focus on the immediate two weeks ahead of you and determine (1) what must be done in those two weeks, (2) what items have deadlines in those two weeks but whose deadlines could be deferred, and (3) what items could be done after this two week period ends. Once you’ve done that, your first task is to let others who are expecting items in those latter two categories know that they must wait. Be direct and unapologetic. Do not provide new, specific deadlines. You have already determined that doing the task later is acceptable, and now you’re giving them plenty of notice that you won’t be working on it in the next two weeks.
Loleen stopped her post there, but I’ll take it one step further — how many items on that to-do list shouldn’t be on the list at all? We all have duties we have to do for our job and for our families. But many of us with overwhelming to-do lists have the habit of taking on additional tasks because we think we should. These tasks can take many forms: coordinating an event, speaking on a panel, editing a colleague’s paper, carpooling your kid’s soccer team, attending a work event. The tasks themselves aren’t bad. It really is important to support our colleagues, our institutions, and our communities! But those “extra” tasks also need to give back to us or be sustainable in other ways. Too often this type of emotional or social labor is asked of us with little in return.
So look at those tasks and ask the hard question of “does it have to be me?” If your school asks faculty and staff to attend an event, do you go because you know you’ll enjoy it or do you go because you feel guilty that if you don’t go, not enough people will attend or the library won’t be represented? When a colleague asks you to edit their rough draft because you’re good at it, you’re effectively taking work off their plate. Are they likely to help you with your workload in other ways down the road? The other kids need to get to soccer practice somehow, but will the other parents share the carpool responsibility or reciprocate in other ways in the future? If the answer is no — you won’t enjoy it, they won’t reciprocate — then maybe your answer needs to be no. Maybe it’s time for it to be someone else’s turn.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.