It’s the midpoint of the semester—a notoriously busy time—but whenever it feels like I can’t possible fit anything more on my proverbial plate, I find myself saying “yes” to something more. Sometimes the “yes” is work—yes, I’ll accept a last-minute online teaching assignment I wasn’t planning on—and other times the “yes” is play—yes, I can find time for a walk on a gorgeous autumn day. For good or bad, my unofficial motto has become “people before papers,” and it’s a mantra I invoke whenever a student appears with a question, J suggests we go for a walk, or my body screams for a nap. People and their needs are time-sensitive, but that pile of papers isn’t going anywhere: it will be there waiting for me after I’m done tending other concerns.


At both the mid- and endpoint of the semester, I typically practice to-do list triage, the invaluable art of prioritizing items on one’s task list. Given three competing paper-piles, which one do I really have to finish first? This might sound like a simple question, but it can be rather complicated. If I’m commenting on rough drafts, I need to return those drafts in time for students to revise them before the next draft is due; if midterm progress reports are due, I have to finish grading final papers before I assess students’ midterm status. My grad students are typically more “antsy” to get their graded papers back than my undergrads, and grading the first batch of papers, when students at all levels are particularly nervous about expectations, is more urgent than grading the second or third batch. All of these tasks are important, and I’ll finish them all, eventually. But some things can be put off until tomorrow, others can wait until the weekend, and yet others can (in a pinch) be set aside until next week.


In a typical triage scenario, the immediate takes precedence over the long-term. Answering a student’s emailed question takes priority over planning tomorrow’s class, but planning tomorrow’s class is more pressing than grading last week’s rough drafts. Planning tomorrow’s class is time-sensitive: class time is precious, and once a class is over, you can’t go back and re-do it. Over the years I’ve discovered that students are far more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers if they know you’re prompt about answering questions and are present and attentive in class. I’ve also discovered that students are more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers once they realize the level of attention you’re giving to their writing. Students are willing to wait their turn, in other words, if they realize you’re actually going to pay attention to them when their turn finally comes.


Whenever I find myself practicing this kind of to-do list triage, I remember the old truism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Busy people know that you can’t do everything at once, so the only way to tackle your to-do list is one item at a time, trusting that it will all get done eventually. Busy people know that fretting over your to-do list does no good: it just consumes time and energy that would be better spent on other, more-productive tasks like taking a walk, taking a nap, or actually getting down to the business of tackling the tasks on your to-do list. Busy people know that the cemetery is full of indispensable people, so it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes it’s sanity-saving to put off for tomorrow something you could exhaust yourself doing today, and if you’re already busy and behind with to-dos, saying “yes” to one more thing won’t necessarily break the back of a camel who’s grown flexible, strong, and resilient from a lifetime of loads.