Zombie projects and the ‘forever homework’ of academic life


Like many academics, I have too many things on. By ‘things’ I mean projects of all shapes and sizes, from ‘write a book on neurodiversity and the PhD’, to ‘Fix up the Bootcamp page on the ANU website’.

Exhibit A: I’m going on Sabbatical in the UK from May to August. To minimise disruption to the team, I bunched my first semester of teaching into two months. At the same time I stupidly decided to do a new podcast series with my sister about the Apple TV show Severance:

(it’s going to be a blast, you can listen to the teaser trailer and subscribe via your favourite pod platform here!).

This ‘little’ side project involved about 10 hours of watching the series (again) and writing notes, about 20 hours recording episodes, and at least 40 more hours editing sound. I did this in the evenings and on the weekend by the way (sadly, a recap podcast about a TV show doesn’t really fall under my job title of ‘Director of Researcher Development at ANU’… although it might if I was a media academic, dammit!).

Making this podcast was so much fun, but objectively it was a ginormous time suck. Side projects like this are one of the reasons I never feel like I have enough time to finish everything I want to do, no matter how fast or hard I work. And I constantly make it worse by taking on yet more things when I should be divesting.

It’s important to realise this feeling of ‘never enough’ is intrinsic to academic work and not something you will ever ‘cure’.

The ‘too much work in progress’ (WIP) cycle tends to start early in an academic life. The PhD is the beginning of signing up for a life of ‘forever homework’: where the amount of work you could, should or want to do will always exceed your capacity to actually deliver. The business of making knowledge is limitless and we are finite creatures. All that you can do is manage your relationship to the work – and your feelings about it. And that means learning when to say yes to new things and when to let go.

Making decisions about where to focus your attention are not always within your control of course. Most of us, with the possible exception of billionaires and nepo-babies, must trade off complete freedom to explore and create for a wage from an employer. But where you can exercise choice, it’s important to develop your own ideas of what constitutes a worthwhile project and what doesn’t.

I do like Loleen Berdahl’s matrix for assessing shiny new ideas, where she catalogues prospective projects in four ways: waste of time, low hanging fruit, soul sucking abyss and strategic investment. (If you haven’t subscribed to her excellent Substack yet, do it – I’ll wait).

While I think Loleen is 100% right in her categories, my problem is I can never recognise a soul sucking abyss before I find myself in it. And, of course, feelings can change: what seems like a soul sucking abyss while you are doing it, can end up being a strategic investment and vice versa.

Exhibit B: I had a blast conceiving and building the Whisper Collective website with my colleagues Narelle Lemon and the Research Whisperer crew, but this website is proving too technically complex to maintain and none of us have time to finish building out the review pages properly. We recently started talking about turning it into something simpler so it doesn’t become a soul sucking abyss.

Exhibit C: I agreed to co-author a paper with Adrian Barnett for the BMJ Christmas edition because it sounded like fun, but it totally stressed me out at the time because I was juggling the launch of PostAc. I remember writing the literature review by the side of the pool while my kid had swimming lessons. However, that paper has gone on to be the one with by far the most downloads and earned kudos of my entire career. It opened doors for me professionally (such as a recent piece commissioned by Nature) and no doubt played a part in my promotion to professor. I’m so glad I did this paper, but I came close to pulling out many times.

So my point is this: even experienced people like me just can’t tell where it’s worth putting energy. Here’s my hot take: as far as possible, work with good people on interesting problems and trust it will work out. This means, becoming an excellent project manager and, sometimes, strategically retiring a project or two.

How do you tell what project to retire and which one to stick with? Dominica DeGrandis points out that anyone with too much WIP will also have Neglected Work. Neglected work has the potential to turn into Zombie projects – they look alive, but have already died…. She has a really great description for neglected work in her book Making work visible:

“Neglected work is perishable. It ages. And like rotten fruit, it’s wasteful. Fruit is expensive, consumes space on the countertop, and gets old and mouldy and smells bad. And who wants that?”

Identifying neglected work is a good way to start getting hold of your WIP load and making sure you know which projects might become Zombies. You can start identifying neglected work by doing a project audit. But maybe I need to go back a step: lots of people don’t know how to usefully think about their work as a series of projects and can confuse tasks and projects.

A project, according to David Allen in Getting Things Done, is a deliverable that takes more than one step to complete and may involve the work of other people. A task is a single action step that moves your project along. If you take Allen’s definition of a project as a starting point it’s likely you have way more projects in your life than you think.

A project audit is a way of identifying which project is getting love, and which are being neglected. Let me explain by breaking down the work I have on my desk at the moment. Here’s a list of deliverables I’d like to get done over the next six months.

There’s three key work things I need to do before I go:

  • Finish analysing the PRES data and write paper (by start of April)
  • Deliver a good HDR induction week (1-4 April)
  • Do a PostAc report on the PhD job market for [paying client] by end of April

At the same time I want to:

  • Make a couple of On The Reg podcasts before I leave Jason alone with the pod for three months.
  • Finish the Severance podcast with Anitra.

While I’m on Sabbatical, I want to:

  • Get some of the ‘The bullet journal for Academics’ book done.
  • Keep blogging, once a month (but suspend podding).
  • Visit people and do fun things around the UK and Europe.
  • Start migrating the Thesiswhisperer website off WordPress.
  • Start writing book on Neurodiversity and the PhD

Each of these deliverables will consist of multiple projects and many individual tasks. For example, ‘start writing a book on Neurodiversity and the PhD’ would have at least six sub-projects. Let me outline them, because this book is a PhD sized project in itself:

  1. Compile a reading list to get my head around the existing neurodiversity literature in education.
  2. Load selected papers into MaxQDA and set up coding strategy (this is how I do literature reviews).
  3. Code papers and memo in Obsidian to make a bunch of raw material for writing.
  4. Write book proposal outline and socialise it a bit with trusted people.
  5. Identify and contact a publisher to discuss how to approach the market.
  6. (if necessary) design a research project involving PhD students to fill in knowledge gaps.

Writing this down was helpful – now here’s the project work I am currently neglecting:

  • Promoting the new ‘Be visible or Vanish’ book I’ve just completed with Simon Clews (sorry Simon!)
  • My romance novel, which has four chapters written and seems to have stalled.

Now I have identified my neglected work, I will find a way to get it done or cross it off the list. The ‘Be Visible or vanish’ book will be out in the world, so it can’t become a Zombie now. Declaring it Neglected has forced me to think about what needs to happen (I will probably try to organise a book launch while I am in the UK).

Sadly, I think my romance novel might have turned into a Zombie … but you never know, it may come to life again! (Probably when I retire 🙂

I hope this post has helped you start thinking with a project mind set. I suspect I have more to say about projects, but that’s enough for now