In which my ink runs out and I realize there are lots of things that are interesting and important, and I cannot do them all

Last Monday, I faced a post-travel inbox filled with emails that needed replies. Some of them were invitations for things that would take up my time, but that seemed interesting or important or valuable or all three. And, then, of course, there were all the other things I needed to do as part of my job – editing manuscripts, writing letters of recommendation, sending emails to get people access to the lab, analyzing data, etc. And it was also the day where my post on seeing a therapist appeared, which led to lots of interactions on social media, via text, and through email. All of that led me to revisit a question that I am constantly asking myself, and that I surely will never stop asking myself: how should I spend my work time?

I couldn’t get this out of my head, and, as I walked to daycare, I realized that there are three questions I should consider as I evaluate whether to do something:

  • Is it officially part of my job?
  • Am I particularly good at it?
  • Do I enjoy doing it?

I thought about how, ideally, I should try to prioritize things where the answer would be “yes” for all three. And I thought about how I spend a lot of time on things where the answer to all three of those questions is “no”.

When I got to daycare, I knew I wanted to think about this more, and was worried I would forget it. So, I pulled out my notebook in the daycare lobby, propped it on top of the stroller, and drew this:

Venn diagram with circles that say "formal part of job", "things I am particularly good at", and "things I enjoy" Outside those, it says "Why do I do this other stuff?" The last part of the question is in a different shade of blue.

And, as you might be able to tell from the image, as I wrote the question in the lower right, my pen ran out of ink. I was annoyed – it was messing with my ability to get this out of my head quickly before I had to pick up my kid! But then I realized it was also so fitting. My ink ran out as I thought about the things that stretch me thin. How appropriate is that?

It seemed so appropriate that I ended up tweeting the picture when I got home. That led a few people to point me towards the Japanese concept of ikigai:

four overlapping circles "What you love", "what you are good at", "what the world needs" and "what you can be paid for", with ikigai in the middle

Image source. Image credit: wikipedia user Nimboosa, derived from works in the public domain by Dennis Bodor and Emmy van Duerzen

As I got back to my inbox and thinking about how to spend my time, I decided I should be considering my three questions from above, plus one more:

  • Is it officially part of my job?
  • Am I particularly good at it?
  • Do I enjoy doing it?
  • Does it have impact?

That last one can be hard to evaluate, and probably warrants a post all of its own. But there are some things that I know have impact, and some things where I’m not sure, and it seems reasonable to try to factor that in as I think about how to spend my time. So, maybe my new diagram should be:

venn diagram with four circles: "formal part of my job", "things I am good at", "things I enjoy", "has impact"

As I thought about all of this, I realized it relates to something that I have to remind myself over and over and over:

There are lots of things that are interesting and important. I cannot do them all.

Saying no to something is not saying it does not have value. It does not mean it’s not important or worth doing. It is recognizing that there are only so many things I can do, and that I value taking care of myself and not getting myself overcommitted. So, for now, as I evaluate opportunities, I am aiming for ones that maximize overlap on my diagram above, trying to avoid ones that are outside all those circles, and reminding myself that I cannot do it all.


24 thoughts on “In which my ink runs out and I realize there are lots of things that are interesting and important, and I cannot do them all

  1. By coincidence this morning a colleague emailed me to say “no” to a request I’d made. And I’m absolutely fine with that. He’s busy with other priorities and I respect his time. In academia we talk a lot about saying “no” to things, but usually in the context of saying “no” to requests that other people make. We also need to learn to say no to ourselves – as I discussed recently:

    However reading your post has made me realise that what I was asking my colleague to do was not important for me either. It would have been nice to do it, but wasn’t vital. So I was ignoring my own advice about saying no to myself….

    • Yes, I fully agree! Something I’ve discussed with a few colleagues is the snow days we had here at Michigan — well, Polar Vortex days, I guess, where the university shut down for two days. Some of the things I was supposed to do on those days are not going to be rescheduled. What does that mean in terms of how important they really were?

  2. How do you think these priorities, and perhaps their relative weights, vary as one progresses in their career? In a sense I can see early career people (e.g., graduate students) having much narrower priorities which gradually broaden into what you describe above, but this may be an overly simplistic view. In particular I think there is an extreme pressure (real or perceived) to emphasize things which look good on the faculty job market, and I suspect this shifts substantially once someone has a permanent position. At least, this is my naive hope. 😉

    • I definitely think they shift over one’s career! How much will differ for different people, of course. Your comment reminds me of this post by Stephen Heard:
      where he says, “My papers are certainly one way I contribute to progress in my field, but they’re not the only way; and lately I’ve become convinced they’re not – by a long shot – the most important way. To put it even more strongly: I could not publish at all and still be making major contributions to my field.” For me as a grad student (and I think for many other early career folks), papers seem like the top priority. But, for me (and, again, for many others) that shifted over time. I’m on sabbatical now and spending a substantial amount of my time on projects that are not related to my regular research. Some people think this is the wrong way to spend sabbatical, but my thinking is that, if I can do something that would help move the needle on mental health in academia, that would be much more important and impactful than writing a couple more papers.

  3. These Venn diagrams are also helpful for career exploration, in a “what color is your parachute?” type of way. This HBR blogpost and Venn diagram was super helpful in encouraging me to be honest to myself about my best overlap of skills, interests, and impact: (The relevant example of Enric Sala didn’t hurt, either!) I think it showed in my cover letters that I had concentrated my job search on the positions I was truly interested in, which I feel helped land the job I have today.

  4. Makes sense that Things I’m Good At and Things I Enjoy are opposite. Most of the time you don’t enjoy what you aren’t good at, I guess. (Though I still play racquetball and I prove weekly how bad I am at that.) Since there is no spot on a 4-circle Venn for opposite circles to only overlap with themselves, you can at least ensure either enjoyment or skill in job assignments or impact.

    One possible consequence of being too strict about satisfying this Venn is limiting personal growth. Taking on things you aren’t obviously good at or skilled in occasionally is useful. But I understand that’s an ancillary point and when you say yes to something like that, it would be very deliberate if you were following this framework.

    • Yeah, I was also thinking about whether there are things I enjoy that I’m rubbish at. Cross-country running is the most obvious one for me. I was on my college team, and I loved it even though I was one of the slowest guys on the team. And I still jog a bit and enjoy it even though I’m much slower now than I was in college. Surely it’s common for people to have leisure activities or hobbies that they enjoy even though they’re not very good at them.

      EDIT: Ooh, just remembered I tried fencing in college too. It was a blast but I was absolutely rubbish at it. Same for acting, and improv comedy. I really enjoyed both but wasn’t especially good at either. 🙂

      I enjoy teaching, but probably some people would say I’m fairly bad at it given that I lecture more than half the time.

      Thinking about others I know, I had a friend in college who was a double major in English and physics (as you’d probably guess, she was an avid sci fi reader). She was by her own admission not good at physics compared to other physics majors–a C student in classes where the average mark was a B or B+. But she enjoyed physics all the same.

      And surely it’s common for people to have jobs they’re skilled at but don’t especially enjoy. You have to make ends meet somehow.

    • For me, “things I am good at” probably does not including making 4 circle Venn diagrams. 🙂

      My original hand drawing had “things I am particularly good at” (where the “particularly” was trying to indicate “relative to others”). When I tweeted it, I said that maybe I should make thing “things I have talent for”, but someone noted that omits the things that we’re not naturally talented at, but have worked hard to become good at. Teaching is like that for many people.

      For me, one thing I discovered in college is that I can like things I’m not good at (e.g., climbing, running, cross country skiing).

      • “Things I’m particularly good at compared to others” seems like a key consideration here. Comparative advantage and all that.

        I definitely feel like “blogging” is my comparative advantage, professionally. A big part of it at any rate.

      • Yeah, for me, blogging fills the “particularly good at”, “enjoy”, and “has impact” circles. It’s not a formal part of my job, though sometimes I daydream about what it would be like if it was. 🙂

      • Another thing I’ve found interesting to think about is how much “I’m willing to do this and others aren’t” should factor into comparative advantage. One example for me: I think I’ve been more willing to talk to reporters than many (though certainly not all!) colleagues, but I don’t think I’m particularly good, especially at video interviews. (I think I come across as overly earnest in them.) But if showing up is half the battle and most people don’t show up, does that make me relatively good at it given that I’m willing to show up?

      • Yeah, “somebody’s got to do it and I’m somebody” is a very different reason for doing something than “this is my comparative advantage”. It’s interesting to think about the different contexts in which each reason might apply.

        The original context of the comparative advantage argument is gains from trade in economics. If you’re better at producing X than you are at producing Y, and I’m better at producing Y than I am at producing X, and we both want some of X and some of Y, each of us should specialize on producing what we’re best at producing, and trade with the other to get the other thing we want. Even if I’m better at producing both X and Y than you are. Obviously, there are various assumptions implicit in that argument, such as that trade itself isn’t too costly.

        But more importantly in the context of this thread, the analogy between trade and other areas of life is loose and hand-wavy. So while I was quick to endorse blogging as my “comparative advantage” earlier, in fact that’s an awfully loose use of “comparative advantage” on my part. Maybe so loose as to simply be incorrect! Saying that blogging is one of my strengths and that I like doing it certainly are reasons for me to blog. But they don’t establish that blogging is a comparative advantage of mine. Because there’s no sense in which I trade some of my blogging for other things I want, that are produced by other people.

        Thinking about the “somebody’s got to do it and I’m somebody” argument, I think that applies most strongly in the context of organizations or institutions that can’t function unless certain roles are filled. Your university department needs a chair or head, it needs someone to teach course X, etc. But “talk to reporters about science” doesn’t seem like an organizational role that needs filling. I mean, yes, somebody somewhere needs to do it–but somebody somewhere *is* already doing it. So I dunno. If you don’t like talking to reporters, and don’t feel like you’re as good at it as you are at blogging or writing papers or whatever, well, are you sure that the “somebody’s got to do it” argument applies when “it” is “talking to reporters”?

  5. In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day, and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings 🙂

    Your play on pooh inspired me to look up the books and read all the chapter titles, which reminded me that simple pleasures some times are the most importanr

  6. This post has me thinking back to the story of ecology grad student Diane Orihel, who put her PhD program on hold to lead the pushback against the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area. Despite being a self-described introvert with no experience in political activism, who didn’t enjoy much of what she made herself do:

    On the one hand, her story is a great example of the impact you can make by doing something that needs doing and that no one else seems willing to do, even if it doesn’t play to your own strengths and isn’t something you enjoy. On the other hand, it also illustrates just how difficult and costly it can be to you to make a big impact that way.

    I’m also thinking of the various links we’ve done to stories about scientists running for political office in the recent US federal elections. Many of those scientists had no political experience, made lots of sacrifices to go into politics, and worked very hard to learn things that didn’t come naturally to them and that they didn’t particularly enjoy. And some were elected, but others lost in the general election and still others didn’t get through the Democratic party primary. Without wanting to criticize anyone at all, and granting that hindsight is 20-20, I wonder if all of those scientists would make the same choice to run for office again, knowing what they know now. Or if in retrospect some would feel it wasn’t the best use of their time to run for federal office, given that there were better non-scientist candidates who were willing to run.

  7. While I (kinda…perhaps badly?) had this conversation with myself and others during my time in academia, I don’t think it became totally clear to me what my venn diagram looked like until I entered consulting. It could be that I was just at the right stage of my career/time in my life to see that diagram a little more clearly, but I do think that the switch to consulting had something to do with it. It reminds me of Brian’s post from a little while ago about what academics can learn from business – this is an example of something I’ve learned (and am still learning!).

  8. What about as a graduate student? How do you say no to your advisor when the additional projects handed to you are not related to your dissertation, cannot be published (or may be allowed to be published only years later bc of funding source), and are not interesting to you? Those projects are for grant money from industry. I expressed multiple times that I don’t have time and are not interested/don’t have motivation, and you can tell from my advisor’s face that he is not happy about me not wanting to do what he tells me to do, while there are 2 other students in the lab (but they are graduating). Although having the discussions, in the end, I am the one who do all those experiments, also resulting me lack of sleep and rest. And I found out that he has a task that he again may tell me to ‘help’ in the near future which will definitely take up my time and energy while i am busy with my own research in order to graduate soon, and I am contemplating on how to say no.

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