What should I do next?

Have you ever asked that question of yourself? If so, you’re not alone. Pretty much every writer, or really any kind of knowledge worker, has faced that problem says Paul Silvia in his book, How to Write Alot. He writes, “We rarely get to write only one thing … While working on the book or grant or touchstone article, many other projects will drift down onto your writing pile” (39). Many workers may not face a pile of writing projects, but they will face a pile of projects nonetheless. So do we prioritize what’s on our plate and know what to work on next? The stakes are fairly high because human beings don’t multitask well (39). Silvia explains that many workers fall into what motivation scientists call behavior chatter: jumping from thing to thing without really making progress.

Therefore, we need to pick a way of setting priorities. Silvia sets out five ways for picking what to write (or work on) next:

Most Important

The first way to prioritize is to pick the project “closest to your scholarly heart” (40). Often, this could be a thesis, dissertation, important article, or book.

  • Pros: You hammer away at an high-value project. Such a project will usually produce the most results.
  • Cons: High-values projects can take months or years to complete.

Most Urgent

You work on the project with the closest deadline.

  • Pros: You actually finish stuff.
  • Cons: You can be ruled by the urgent. Work on important, long-term projects can suffer because you’re constantly focusing on upcoming deadlines. Sometimes urgent things may be uninteresting or unimportant.

Most Exciting

You jump into the project that excites you in the moment.

  • Pros: Work/writing will be fun.
  • Cons: Excitement can quickly fade when you’re in the throes of a projects. Our feelings are fickle.

Easiest

You tackle the easiest project

  • Pros: You get a quick win which can build confidence and make you feel productive.
  • Cons: The best, most-important things are usually never easy

Oldest

The project you started first gets worked on first.

  • Pros: You keep from having a huge backlog.
  • Cons: Old projects may grow stale. Urgent projects may suffer.

Writers, and knowledge workers, have many different projects flying at them most of the them. therefore, Silvia is realistic about prioritizing work. He knows that there’s no perfect rule: “Managing many projects is a fiendish optimality problem in which writing’s big variable—if a project is important, urgent, old, fresh, easy or fun—tug against each other” (41). Therefore, he suggests that honest reflection is the best way forward. We need to think about why we’re working on a problem, and ask the question, “Are we making the most of our time?” (41).

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