The Problem

It was a week after finals. I was standing on a sunny, weathered deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and crying.

There’s something about finishing the school year that gets me every time, and I think it has to do with going from the ultra-structured, minutely scheduled days and weeks of the semester to near-complete summer freedom. While in class, I make lists of all the things I would get done if I only had the time; summer holds this promise of expansive creative liberty and infinite utopian possibilities.

My design will flourish.
My ability will blossom.
Life will be glorious.

So I detail on binder paper margins the 30,000 things I will make, improve, experience, accomplish when May finally arrives, and promise myself that this time I’ll be able to do it all.

But when classes end, I’m left with 30,000 things to perform and about 13 weeks in which to do them. It’s too much, and I crumple: sometimes doing a lot, but discouraged over what I didn’t finish — and sometimes unable to face the sheer volume of tasks I set for myself, and doing nothing. I am overwhelmed by my own enthusiasm.

This particular May I was on a family vacation, giving myself a full week off from thinking about what I wanted to get done, because I could feel the overwhelmèdness looming over my shoulder. I had no definite plan (always a red flag for me: I need a definite plan), but I dreaded making one because it meant — get this — looking at a calendar and figuring out how much time I really had until the first week of class.

Spring semester of junior year had its peculiar difficulties, and I wasn’t ready to think about school again. I felt that putting a number on the weeks made it too real, made my summer too short, and I was frankly avoiding it: which meant I had no way of breaking down the projects I wanted to accomplish into time-oriented steps (another thing I need: time-oriented steps).

So I was crying.

Crying helped me here, because it snapped me into several realizations:

I was upset about a problem that I could articulate, and could therefore solve (“I’m worried about my summer productivity and feel overwhelmed by all that I want to do”).

— I already knew the solution to that problem, I was just avoiding it (“I need to make a list of what I want to accomplish and pair that with a realistic timeline”).

— There’s a deeper problem here, then: laziness and procrastination (“but I don’t want toooooo!”)

— …which has now been articulated and can now be solved.

I immediately went inside and looked at the calendar.

From that day came a sprawling, intimidating summer plan. It helped me, first of all, to realize that all I wanted to do was probably not feasible, and to prioritize the important stuff — design- and life-wise (summer is summer, after all, and I have friends and family who are also important. I can’t expect to work all day even without pool parties and picnics).

This plan included a variety of goals that spanned from varied design work — extending a school project as well as creating something out if my own head — to teaching myself some new software and deepening my skills in those weaker areas.

I figured out how many weeks I had in which to accomplish things, then detailed a typical week based on my summer-internship schedule to get a better idea of the true free time I’d have each day. Then I prioritized my projects, broke them down into measurable steps, and gave each a viable amount of time (based on my week’s scheduling). A few other things — books I wanted to read, for example — I labeled as every-day tasks: a chapter a day would get me through in plenty of time and keep me from burning out, and I felt like I could take a break without getting behind.

It was still ambitious, but not nearly as overwhelming it was to look at the pure list in all its massive ambition. I have options. If I don’t want to work on AfterEffects today, I can sketch my alphabet, because I have a handle on how much time I have and what my restrictions are, and I still have the daily projects that semi-structure my time.

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deryn joy

deryn joy

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designer, writer, consider-er. I like to think I think, but it's more of a navel-gazing issue. www.derynjoy.com