“Free time,” research backlog, and debt.

Animation of papers piling up

Giant to-do lists can be so panic-inducing that they benefit from being tackled via analogy, with the cognitive distance that analogy provides. One analogy that works for a lot of people is to think of your research backlog as financial debt. The two are similarly anxiety-inducing, but for some reason it’s easier to see the obviousness of needing to calmly and methodically address financial debt than to see that obviousness when it comes to scholarship backlog.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony of the fact that many of us would rather imagine confronting a giant pile of assorted financial debt than confront our actual to-do lists. And many of us are also confronting actual piles of financial debt, too.

Conversely, for many of us the topic of debt ordinarily causes us to either glaze over or freak out. So we would not be choosing to use a money-based framework if it weren’t super helpful. This one’s especially helpful, I think, for academics who find themselves with “extra free time” in the form of a sabbatical, course release, or even things like the lower workload associated with rotating off a committee.

I talk with a lot of scholars who have a backlog of 4 to 7 overdue items, or ones that require a rush job to be on time. For many, that’s in addition to their “actual project” that they’re trying to complete. This is a huge source of overwhelm: you fight to get space to get to your work, and when you finally get there, it’s exhausting just to stare at your list.

What you need, as my friend Jenny says, is a plan.

This sounds obvious, but everyone forgets it right when they need to remember it. You need a plan because you need to confront some kind of structure, not chaos, when you sit down to your research: even if you don’t need to be told exactly what to do, you need a multiple-choice question, not some kind of free-response thing.

You know what people have spent a lot of energy thinking about, that turns out to be really helpful? Credit card debt. Or maybe debt in general. Debt is scarier than research backlog (as many of us know firsthand.) And having multiple debts to repay is scarier than having a bunch of research deadlines. Most of the time.

So, experts have come up with two main approaches to paying off debt. With either, you choose a first-priority debt (or two) to pay off while making the minimum payments on everything else. Then once you have those paid off, you apply the money you were using to pay them off to the next-priority debt. The difference is in how you choose where to start:

  • If you take the avalanche approach, you start by paying off the debts with the highest interest rates and work your way down. This is the most financially efficient, and it’s satisfying in the long term.
  • If you take the snowball approach, you start with the smallest debt and work your way to the biggest one. From a strictly financial perspective, this isn’t the best approach, because you’re paying more interest. BUT it works because it keeps you motivated: when you have more debts to pay off, it seems really grueling, and so having a relatively frequent payoff (literally) keeps you going. Then by the time you get to your biggest bills, you have good motivation, and you can spend all that money you were using to make minimum payments on all the other stuff, so you have great momentum.

The analogy between paying off debt and getting to your research doesn’t stand up to super-intense scrutiny, but playing with it—even contemplating the differences—does provide food for thought to help you decide how you’ll proceed to lower your research backlog.

The snowball approach part is clear: if you start by picking off some smaller things, you’ll get a morale boost and some momentum that will help you when you turn to bigger things. The downside is that the time it takes to do that pulls you away from the other payments you need to be making.

What about the avalanche approach? What’s analogous to the higher interest rates? (And what about minimum payments?) One nice thing about thinking figuratively is that you can customize parallels the way they work for you, but here’s how I personally am inclined to think about it:

Interest rates are how much you pay for not doing that particular item. What kinds of costs are you paying? Gaps in your cv or your promotion file? Worries about letting down people you’ve made commitments to? Other kinds of stress? Most of us face some combination of the same handful of costs, but how you pay them depends on your personality, your life circumstances, and how the different pieces fit together. Just sitting down and assessing what those costs are and how they compare in the different projects you’re working on can be an incredibly valuable exercise.

Because when you pay off a debt, you can turn around and spend your minimum payment on something else and thus give it more energy, I like to think of minimum payments as the “noise” each undone thing creates in your life. Getting 5 little things done might not directly get you tenure, but it can create space in your brain that you can spend on the not-so-little things that will get you tenure.

More recently, people have started talking about the “snowflake” approach, which is compatible with either of the first two. The snowflake approach involves finding small amounts of money wherever you can, making sure that when you “find” $5 or $10 or $100, you don’t let it disappear, but put it toward paying off your debt. It involves appreciating that both snowballs and avalanches are made of tiny snowflakes.

That’s another analogy that holds true for getting your scholarship done. Some of us have what seems to me to be a supernatural ability to seize tiny moments of microfocus, like in the car. Those add up over time, and they contribute to your sense of momentum. But even for those of us who can’t, it’s worth the effort to pocket those small to medium-sized snippets of time that you can suddenly find yourself gifted with, and using them to turn toward your scholarship.