The hardest route up Snowden/Yr Wyddfa, the highest mountain in England and Wales, is called Crib Goch. It’s a sharp ridge, uneven and rocky, with some vertical, sheer drops. A risk of ascending this vertiginous route is that some climbers become cragfast: so terrified that they can’t move in any direction. Like limpets, they stick to the uneven rocks, paralysed and overwhelmed.
I’ve never attempted Crib Goch, taking the less-challenging Pyg track instead. But I do think I know what it’s like to be cragfast. Something like it happens in academic life. We can be so overwhelmed by the quantity of tasks we face that we don’t know where to start. The decision on what to do first can be so difficult that hours can pass in a state of inactivity, fearing the mountain of work that awaits us.
And it often is a mountain, of marking, of emails, of incomplete documents, of reading: a mountain just as hard to climb as Snowden or Ben Nevis. It can be done, one step at a time, but you need to know the best footholds and have the right equipment. I don’t blame anyone who succumbs to the terror and clings to the secure ground on which they stand. But they may need help to move forward.
After a vacation such as the Christmas holiday, we are most susceptible to the paralysis. The work has built up while our gaze was turned. We’ve lost momentum and glimpsed a normal life. The mountain looks all the bigger from the bottom. Where to begin?
There have been times when I’ve made to-do lists and tried to prioritise tasks. I now think that this worsens the problem, though. Very often it’s not clear which task is most pressing. Maybe they all are. Then, like Buridan’s ass, we can’t advance because there is no reason to start with one thing rather than another. Only in the last few years have I found my own effective strategy. When getting back to work after a rest, for a little while I don’t bother to prioritise at all. It doesn’t really matter what you do first as long as you do something. Get some of the jobs off your desk and then the next decision becomes easier. Just keep moving. Perhaps this strategy would work on Crib Goch too. Just keep moving; that is, as long as you don’t go over the edge.