Maximize your effectiveness: Rein in overextending

by Ryan Nitz, Head Editor, INALJ Alaska

Maximize your effectiveness: Rein in overextending

ryan.nitzAside from my career as a librarian, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time as a student of music. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some brilliant pedagogues. One of the most important things I’ve learned on the journey so far is that overextending myself is counterproductive. It’s a little counterintuitive, because when you’re working on something that you feel very driven to accomplish, there is a natural tendency to get very enthusiastic and work, work, work, practically non-stop and with little or no thought as to whether this “strategy” will be effective. While you’re in the middle of one of these marathon work sessions, it sure feels like you’re getting things done, doesn’t it? Well, chances are there that, the further into the work session you get, the little mistakes that escape your attention—or maybe you do notice them, but you’re on a roll and don’t feel like stopping to make corrections—start to get bigger and bigger. Pretty soon, whether or not you know it’s happening, you pass a threshold beyond which your focus is no longer sharp and your work, even though it feels positive and beneficial, is actually counterproductive.

There is plenty of research available that suggests that the longest duration of time a human can effectively focus on one task is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 minutes. After that long, it’s better to stop and do something else for a little while, maybe 10-15 minutes or so. Applied in the process of learning a skill or perfecting some kind of technical execution, the benefits become noticeable nearly right away. Simply put, you are able to pay better attention, and stop repeating (and thereby teaching yourself) mistakes. When the work session is over, you step away and let your mind wander somewhere else for a little bit…maybe a digital stroll on over to to check out some job listings… Once you’re back, you’ll find that you are more easily able to refocus and, rather than spending time and effort correcting the mistakes you might have previously allowed yourself to learn and incorporate into what you’re doing, you can confidently begin to build on the progress you’ve made.

I’ve experienced good results putting this approach to work in many facets of the job search. It’s a great strategy to employ for combing through vacancy announcements. It works well for the careful work of updating the old resume or CV. I’ve found it especially effective when composing cover letters, which is something that I always find myself spending quite a bit of time on. More than a few times I’ve caught myself about to submit a cover letter to XYZ institution, describing how great a fit I’ll be at ABC institution or something. Noticing that kind of thing while there’s still time to fix it, instead of a couple of days later when it’s too late to do anything about it, is valuable to say the least.

Another benefit of this time management strategy is that, for people with certain personality types involving a proclivity to let your work overrun your personal time, it can help steer you down a path towards preserving your sanity. That may sound a little hyperbolic, and I guess it is, but for those of us out there who struggle to find the sweet spot of work-life balance, anything you can do to exercise control over your work time—rather than letting your work time take control of you—is a step in the right direction.