How to Get School Projects and Tasks “Unstuck”
No childhood is complete without a trip to the circus and the awe-inspiring performance of the lion tamer. With a flimsy chair, this performer effortlessly controls the “king of the beasts.”
We wonder how such a strong animal can be rendered helpless so easily. Later, we learn the secret. The lion attempts to focus on all four legs of the chair at once, and in doing so, he fails to focus on anything. Like you and me on our worst of days, he is “stuck.”
Remember the feeling you had the day before school opened? Everything was labeled. Books were neatly stacked. Bulletin boards were fresh. You were ready to seize the day. And more than likely, that first day was a good day.
Fast forward several months. Things show up faster than we can get them done in this busy environment of middle-level education.
Our well-intentioned plans grow dust. Loose ends are too numerous to count, and nothing seems to be moving forward. The stress of the approaching holidays makes it all worse. Welcome to the world of “stuck.”
How do we find our way back from the “Valley of the Stuck” to the land of control and peace of mind? How can we move forward on our goals and make it look easy?
Trap It: Your Signature Tool
Like chopping trees with a dull axe, trying to “catch up” by “diving in” is usually counterproductive. Start with a cup of coffee and your planning tool of choice. It may be a task app, a paper planner, or a legal pad.
What tool you use is less important than having a consistent one. No concept is more important than putting every commitment into the tool you select.
Gather the sticky notes, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous notepads that represent semi-reminders of promises you made to yourself and other people. Enter them all into your “signature tool.”
Add those random thoughts that aren’t written down anywhere, yet wake you in the middle of the night. It’s only when you get it all in there, front and center, that you can start finding your way out of Stuck Valley.
I am a big believer in using a digital task list. An article I wrote for MiddleWeb in August discusses my recommendations in depth. But let’s look at several options.
Organize It: The GPS of Life
The idea behind a GPS involves two basic concepts:
- Determine the destination.
- Follow the steps one-by-one until you get there.
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”
When the destination is ill-defined, the best GPS in the world is worthless. I like to take those unclear “destinations” and word them as statements that are either true or false:
- “Math books!!” becomes “Missing math books have been received.”
- “Term paper” becomes “Term paper for graduate class has been submitted.”
- “Christmas?” becomes “Christmas presents for family have been purchased.”
- “Lose weight” becomes “Exercise and eating plans have been established.”
Follow these steps if you use a paper planner:
- Devote a page to each goal. Turn to the back of the planner. Devote this section to housing your projects and goals. Label a separate blank page with the name of each one.
- List the steps. Take each goal, one at a time. For some, you may be able to list 10 steps. For others, you may only be able to list one. The more specific and clear the steps, the better chance you have of doing them. Unlike the lion, you are focusing on “one leg of the chair” at a time.
- Integrate the “next step” into your daily plans. Harvest the first step from each goal you identified. Decide on a day you will do that next step and enter it on the page for that day. Continue until you have a solid next step assigned to a specific day for each goal. When you complete one step, flip to the back of the planner. Grab the next step for that goal and select a day to do it.
Follow these steps if you use a digital task list:
- Create a new task for each goal. Start the line with a double “x.” Enter the goal. Phrase it as a statement that is either true of false.
- Decide on the next step for that goal. Place it to the left of the “xx.” In the note section of that task, list all the other “next steps” you know.
- Pick a date you wish to do the next step. Enter it in the “Due Date” field.” As you complete one step, copy and paste the next one in its place and assign a new due date.
Your task list will read something like this:
- Check with principal on status xx Missing math books have been received
- Outline the paper xx Term paper for graduate class has been submitted
- List the people to shop for xx Christmas presents for family have been purchased
- Ask Jane about the plan she followed xx Exercise and eating plans have been established
The task on the left of the “xx” is specific and easy. You can’t wait to attack it and get it done. On the right is the “why,” the destination you will reach after completing the series of next steps.
Sir Isaac Newton told us centuries ago that “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” We have all experienced being “on a roll.” It’s in those moments that we experience focus, fulfillment, and fun. We start to see the relationship between the little things in front of us and the great things we see on the horizon. Planning the day before the day ever starts is the secret of making your days count.
Do It: From “Stuck” to “In Control”
When the alarm clock sounds tomorrow, your world can be different. You won’t worry about kids with no math books, fear you will fail your graduate class because you didn’t complete the term paper, envision Christmas morning with nothing under the tree for your family, or feel guilty about the extra pounds. You’ll replace worry with action.
Instead of worrying, you handle four easy tasks:
- Have a quick conversation with your principal.
- Create an outline.
- Brainstorm a list.
- Talk to your friend Jane.
Each task has 100% of your attention for a short time. Unlike the lion, confused as he tries to focus on everything at once, your focus is laser-like. Just like the GPS, you focus on each turn along the path, one-by-one.
As your gift for reading this far, here’s something to make holiday shopping more organized. It starts with trying to figure out for whom you need to buy. When you get to the end, the gifts have been bought, wrapped, and delivered. You can relax and enjoy the season!
Frank Buck (@DrFrankBuck) served as a middle-level teacher, principal, and central office administrator during a career of almost 30 years. He now speaks and writes about organization and time management. He is the author of the new second edition of Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders. Get more ideas from Dr. Buck at his website, FrankBuck.org.