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Project management for academics III: Juggling multiple writing/research projects

Recently, Dr. Gretchen Sneegas (Texas A&M University) asked me how I manage multiple writing projects, a situation she’s facing right now as a post-doctoral researcher. This is not uncommon, even as a doctoral students: in academia, we tend to work on several projects at the same time. The biggest challenge for me is how to continue moving all these projects forward without falling behind. Obviously we are in the midst of a global pandemic, so no strategy that we used to implement functions properly under these conditions. Yet, there are a few heuristics we may be able to follow in order to continue doing our work and being organized even in the midst of all the turmoil provoked by the global COVID19 pandemic.

AcWri highlighting and scribbling while on airplanes

For this blog post, I’d like to speak to two components of the project management structure I use. The first one is Prioritization. I have written before about how I give priority to R&Rs, coauthored pieces, and stuff with actual, real pressing deadlines. This prioritization respects my coauthors and those I owe written output. I have also written before about the importance of prioritizing ourselves BEFORE giving priority to others and yet being able to respect commitments with those we agree to collaborate with. My TOTOs/TOMs (Text I Owe to Others vs Text I Owe Myself) heuristic allows me to ALWAYS make time for the stuff I need to write and still respect my colleagues, coauthors and collaborators.

#AcWri while travelling

The second element I find useful when thinking about project management is the importance of a Project Time Allocation heuristic. This means, how do I choose (from the set of projects I am currently working on), where to focus my writing efforts.

Again, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and we are all overwhelmed, so I wouldn’t want anybody to over-stress. Least of them, ME! I have just recently changed universities, and this moves bring along a lot of changes and a steep learning curve about processes and procedures in the new university. Thus, what I have done is to continue my Project Time Allocation heuristic as I establish myself in this new job.

In my responses to Dr. Sneegas, I wrote about how I have recently eschewed my trusted “Move Every Project Forward Every Day (MEPFED)/Work on One Project Every Day (WOPED)” strategy. I no longer can move every project forward every single day because I am simply overwhelmed with moving to a new job, starting classes in my new university, dealing with holdovers from my previous job, etc. Working on a different paper each day of the week also distracts my brain, which at the moment really needs to focus.

I’ve devised a third approach to prioritization and time allocation, which I call the Research Streams Approach.

While normally I would associate a Research Stream with grant-funded work, this isn’t always the case because I don’t always have funded projects (or when I do, not everything is paid for, or some projects have funding and others do not). So, I can be writing 3 different pieces that come from the same Research Stream, but that have different Research Questions/Puzzles. I try not to work away from similar Research Streams (so, right now I am working a lot on informal water and informal waste aka informality). So, if I write about transnational environmental activism, at the same time (same week/month) as bottled water, as ethnography, I end up a bit overwhelmed. Thus, I write pieces around similar Research Streams around the same time (as it is the case right now, where I’m doing a lot of work on informality).

Below is my thread.

During these pandemic times, I’ve experienced some duress (my parents are aging, I decided to basically move in with my Mom so I could be near her and my Dad, I still have my own house, so I need to travel back-and-forth to Aguascalientes, I switched jobs) so neither of my previous approaches (MEPFED/WOPED) gave me the peace of mind I needed to move my research forward knowing that I have a very immunocompromised body and that my parents and I are all at risk because of COVID19. So I’ve moved to a different approach, what I call the Research Streams Approach (RSA).

I often move across areas (water, bottled water, wastewater, solid waste, environmental activism and protests, water conflict, polycentricity) and disciplines (political science, public policy, public administration, human geography) and methods (ethnography, experiments). One of my Research Streams is “Comparative Qualitative Methods”: comparative ethnography, comparative case studies, process tracing across countries/subnational contexts, etc.

Another Research Stream is Waste and Discards” and yet another one is “Bottled Water”. I am currently writing two book chapters: one on doubly-engaged ethnography for bottled water and discards and another one on research methods to study waste. Both of these combine 2 Research Streams nicely.

I am also writing 2 papers on informal waste and informal water vending. Both of these papers fall under combinations of Research Streams (Water and Informality, and Waste and Informality). So I am also trying to stay within the informality theory scholarship for reading/writing. I also got invited to write a paper on the politics of climate change in Mexico. I do write on climate politics but it’s more rare. So I had to basically set aside every other writing project to re-read, delve deeply into the climate literature. I know it, but I have to re-read.

I struggled with finishing this book chapter because I am often removed from the climate literature. Had it been on informal water or informal waste, I would have cranked it out in a couple of weeks easily (I am healthy now and my psoriasis/eczema/dermatitis/chronic pain receded). But contrary to other projects (where I applied either MEPFED or WOPED), this time I stayed with the climate politics literature until I was done (I sent it out last week). So now I’m back to informality, ethnography, waste and water. These are areas where I write comfortably. I’ll probably go back to Bottled Water stuff in about 3-4 weeks time, once I get these four pieces out.

Writing while travelling

One proviso to the Research Streams Approach (RSA). If I get an R&R (a revise-and-resubmit), I listen to every senior scholar who tells me “DROP EVERYTHING AND RESUBMIT”. This is super-hard for me, and I often times dread working on R&Rs. I am super, super, super afraid that “one wrong move, you’re an organ donor”. That is, I am scared that if I screw up the response to reviewers I will not have my paper published (I do have posts on R&Rs too!).

But the more senior of a scholar I become, the more used I get to the fact that if my paper doesn’t get published in journal A, it’ll end up in journal Z at some point (or in a book, or elsewhere).

I no longer have absurdly high expectations of where I am going to publish.

Thus, while I eschew making recommendations, I would suggest that regardless of which approach you take (MEPFED/WOPED/RSA/write whenever my care obligations/health allow me to), you should TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES FIRST, especially your health and well-being.

These are not the times for productivity. If I write about stuff like this, it’s with the understanding that whatever I do I’m doing it to survive this pandemic, continue my research, teach as well as I can, and not kill myself in the process.

Take care of yourselves.

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