Staying focused with no deadlines

Back at blogging, after much longer than I expected. I admit it, after so long – all my adult life! – in a structured job, being it academic or corporate, I have had some difficulties refocusing my professional activities. I feared this situation, and it is happening. Not having deadlines is great, but on the other hand I’ve always been the most productive when deadlines approached: to me, there is no greater motivation than the slight panic deriving from the realization that you might not have enough time to complete a task, and it is exhilarating when you find out, usually very late at night, that you can actually complete it.

So, for the time being I need to forget about panic and exhilaration and force myself to be organized. First step it has been to set up a home office, which in my case means I replaced my way too old and agonising laptop and iPad with new ones, purchasing all the required software which I didn’t buy in years – you know, I always relied on my work computer. Now it’s time to start writing lists – and sticking to them.

Writing to-do lists, as easy as it may seem, may be a very complicated activity, especially if you start, as I did, reading lists-related topics online. Do you write to-do lists on paper, where you can see them all the time, and they can look back at you, intimidating; or in your computer, easier to carry with you but as easy to ignore or pretend you forgot of their existence? Do you write easy goals on the top of the list, to find motivation in quickly crossing out a few items? Or those quickly crossed out items are going to be a justification to indulge in less productive, and out of focus, activities? Alternatively, if you feel motivated you can start a list with the harder goals on top and feel strong once you completed one or two of the difficult ones. The Internet is generous with articles advocating for all these approaches and more, and I guess that like in most things of life there is no one right solution.

So I will try to find my solution: I never really used to-do list, except during one very productive period in my professional life, may be be my best time ever, when I did write lists with clear benefit. At that time, I was still a bench scientist and many of my tasks where bench related. Now the situation is different and writing took the place of bench work, so that should be an easy adaptation of the method I already know. Which means at the top of my daily list I will have carrying on – or better, finishing – recently started activities; new activities will lay lower down the list, and move their way to the top as I complete the items above. To maximize productivity I usually allow for one exception to this rule: let’s say I am writing a paper and I stumble in writer’s block; instead of staring at a white page or keep rewriting the same sentence for one hour I allow myself to switch to easier items lower on my list, such as reading blogs and newsletters (yes, I will make a list of those to make sure I stay as up to date as possible with as many websites as I can) or screening job postings.

Today I already achieved one important task, I’m back at blogging. Now I have to write my first to-do list in this new phase of my professional life. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Back to work (kind of) already?!

I was writing a long post on the positive aspects that this blog is having on my life and my personality, when I realized that the main message I want to share was getting lost: this is a blog about work and what happens now that I stopped working, at least for a while, so for now I will focus on professional positives.

Quite unexpected ones, I have to say. Three weeks since I quit my job, currently with a main focus on enjoying my free time and thinking how to reinvent myself professionally, job hunting is not a priority of mine. Well, I might have to rethink my priorities: this is what happened in less than 20 days, about 10 days after I started this blog:

  • I had 2 contacts, 1 from a complete stranger, which might lead to consulting gigs
  • I received invitations to contribute to 2 peer reviewed journals 
  • I had 3 phone interviews with recruiters about director-level positions

It looks like I will have to stop pretending I’m on a vacation (for those of you that don’t know me: I live in Topina, near Siena, Italy, in the heart of the Chianti region) and get back to work. At least a few hours a day.

Topina 

I thought I had a busy schedule at work!

I titled my first post on this blog “Not working but not unemployed” and I truly feel the need for a new professional category – and may be it’s already out there, suggestions anyone?
Like most people I started school at age 6, I was in college by age 19 and progressed all the way to PhD, followed by postdocs, then a pharma job. Since I stepped in the first classroom I’ve always been either in the educational system or working, which includes stints at McDonalds flipping burgers, as a janitor, or working in a slaughterhouse, among other jobs that helped paying the bills. Now, courtesy of a reorganization at my former company and a generous severance package, for the first time in my life I find myself without a job. 

Which means my life just got busy!

Doing what, you may ask.

I am a former lab rat and a recovering workaholic, which means throughout my professional life I dedicated an unhealthy amount of time to work, neglecting too many aspects of my personal life. Now, with my wife Monica (btw, we used to work for the same company and she quit her job as well!) I’m cleaning out years of clutter from our home, seeding a new lawn, planting flowers, finishing a long overdue tool shed, spending more time playing with and reading to our almost 6 years old son. I’m also planning to catch up with some reading but so far I haven’t managed to do that.

I started this blog, my first blog! I suspect I have a few things to learn here so expect changes as I figure my way around. I also increased my LinkedIn activity. Next I will probably start tweeting as a complement to my other online activities, more learning and more time required. Oh, I almost forgot: I’m planning to build a business web page in case I should go into consulting.

I’m also trying to figure out what I want to do next with my professional life: a sabbatical in Australia or Southern California; jumping in the consulting world – still a totally unknown arena to me; finding a job in the US, or UK, or Switzerland; invest our severance money in a vineyard in Tuscany; open a coffee shop. Each of the ideas above have had their moment of glory and we haven’t ditched any of them yet.

One of the great perks of my current situation is having more time for physical activity: hiking, running, biking, swimming (and cross country skiing last winter) are just the main ones, but I also tried in line skating and horse riding, and I’m looking forward to sea kayaking in the Mediterranean.

How can Monica and I do all this? A little money helps for sure. But what helps even more is having clear in your mind what really matters in life. I will say it again: I love being a scientist and contributing to knowledge and public health. What I love even more is my family, a sunset, a trip, immersing myself in nature. In short: I love experiencing life at its fullest.

My final message, or rather a question, for you: life is too beautiful to be spent in anything but whatever is best for you. Are you sure your current job is worth missing out on life?

Not working but not unemployed 

Today marks 2 weeks since I quit my job and I hardly remember a better time in my professional life. Don’t get me wrong: I am trained in biochemistry and biophysics, I love my job and I love science in general. Driven by passion and much less by ambition, at the cusp of my pharma career as a R&D manager I had a slow but steady flow of publications and I was invited to speak at 1-2 conferences a year, while providing a meaningful contribution to the advancement of projects and to the training and mentoring of junior associates. By some parameters, one could say I was fairly successful. Then my luck changed, I went through months of suffering and humiliation and I reached a point where I had to pause and spend some time thinking about my life and my career.

So that’s what I’m doing now: thinking and planning.

It’s been just too short since I quit working for my former company and it is way too early to know where this new direction I’ve taken will lead me. So far I have been enjoying my free time and my renewed freedom of thought, which is not always encouraged when working for big pharma. May be even more, I’m enjoying reconnecting with people in my network (which led me to writing this post): high school, college, and PhD classmates, former colleagues, even people I barely recall where and when I met, and yet all sharing a common feature: a desire to reach out and let me know they are there, willing to help if and how they can, even when that just means providing moral support through liking my new status on LinkedIn. And the number of contacts so far has been beyond my expectations, showing that the desire for sharing of experiences and the need for caring for others is much greater than what I previously believed. 

This is all uncharted territory to me, I will try to chronicle my journey with this blog.