Scheduling!

By popular demand (one person), here are some of my thoughts on scheduling.

Scheduling and Personal Psychology

Why does scheduling help you become happier? Of course, there is the obvious stuff:
– helps you remember things like meetings and deadlines so you don’t look and feel like a complete asshole all the time
– helps you know when you can do things socially you may be invited to do, instead of constantly canceling/rescheduling (see above re: looking and feeling like an asshole)
– empowers you far into the future, as even when someone says “what about May 12th, two months from now?” you can be like “BOOM, I am free at 2:00 that day” and blow the person’s mind out of their butt
– helps you conceptualize amounts of time–if you can see that you have a deadline for a manuscript on Monday the 14th, you know you can’t plan to go camping the weekend before, e.g.

But there are deeper wells of happiness to be doused via good scheduling (<--new metaphor I just made up, I think it is very "hip"). You know this thing where you finally sit down to write, or grade, or read something for your own research, but you can't fully focus on it because your mind keeps racing around to all the other stuff you need to do / might be forgetting you're supposed to be doing? This was my friend's biggest problem--the friend at the conference who worked on her schedule with me--as soon as she finally got the kid to sleep and sat down to write something all she could do was anxiously fish through her weird piles of post-its and old receipts with half-intelligible scrawls on them, wondering if she was forgetting something, worrying about all this other stuff on her multiple to-do lists. The hours would go by and suddenly it would be too late and no writing got done at all. This is a huge problem for modern people with complex jobs--we are all spread way too thin, but in certain kinds of careers the types of tasks you have to do for your job are just so wildly various. Other jobs I have had in my life pretty much entailed just one or two tasks that you had to essentially do all day (answer the phone; file stuff; data entry), but other jobs, like the one I have now, entail a really broad swath of daily activities that can become overwhelming to keep track of, and that's not even to mention all the random shit you have to keep track of just as a human person, like doctor's and vet's appointments, remembering that you have to buy donuts for your TAs every Thursday, grocery shopping, etc. So you are constantly distracted from whatever task you're currently trying to do, because you're constantly failing to keep accurate track of everything, and you never trust that you're not actually forgetting something or that you ought to be doing something else right now. This makes it impossible to actually get anything done. Another problem of the complex job is figuring out how much time every different task takes, and accurately planning for it all. There are tiers. TAKES FOREVER: - write a book - research and apply for a big grant - plan a conference TAKES ALMOST FOREVER: - write a syllabus - put together a reader - write a conference paper TAKES HOURS: - some kinds of grading - read a book - write and submit an abstract - read 83 job applications DOESN'T TAKE THAT LONG: - other kinds of grading - prep for class - research some easy question for a committee you're on - answer student emails etc. I think managing all the different, fluctuating time commitments required by all the different elements of a complex job can be part of what feels so daunting about getting organized. Good scheduling helps you break down tasks into manageable chunks that are fit into appropriately-sized blocks of time. We used to joke in grad school that you can't just put "write dissertation" in your day planner! You have to break that shit down or it'll never get done. "Become better person on Monday." These things take time and baby steps. Think of scheduling like therapy, like doing something good for yourself that you believe will put yourself on the path to the truer, richer, happier version of yourself. Commit to it. It only works if you commit wholeheartedly. You have to submit to it like alcoholics submit to a higher power. You have to admit that you are helpless and you have to turn over that helplessness to an external source, in this case your day planner. Good scheduling is as much a psychological and spiritual practice as it is anything literal you write down on paper. It simply won't work if you don't commit 100%. Be Honest

If the first step toward good scheduling is committing 100% to the concept (see below for more on this), the second step is being honest with yourself. There is no point in lying or bullshitting with your schedule–no one’s ever going to see it but you (and the people you show it to when you are bragging about your awesome schedule), so there is no reason to dissemble like we do at a conference when we claim we stay up until 2 every morning working on our book and it’s so great and easy, when everyone knows that EVERYONE actually conks out in front of 4 straight episodes of “Girls” with a large wine.

Personal honesty! WHO THE FUCK EVEN ARE YOU??? What works for you? What are you good at? What are you bad at? Here are some questions to ponder, as you begin the journey toward good scheduling. Answer them HONESTLY:

– what time of day are you most productive, and most happy about working? It doesn’t matter if this is a time of day that is socially weird, or different from your partner’s productive time of day, or whatever. Identify it sincerely. Do you like to get up, make coffee, and immediately get to work? Or do you like to sleep in, putter around, do other chores, and then get to work around noon? Or do you like to go out into the world and do fun stuff during the day and then work late into the night?

– what kinds of time-chunks do you most enjoy working during? Are you one of these people who likes to write for one hour every day, something which I find completely incomprehensible? Or do you prefer, as I do, to have vast tracts of completely free time in which you can write for 6 hours straight and then put it away until your next 6-hour chunk, a week from now? Do you like to work a little bit, then get up and do something else, then come back? Or do you like to go marathon-style, and grade all your papers at once?

– when do you need to go to bed, in order to lead a healthy life? Some people can’t go to bed early, or they just lie there tossing and turning. Other people would benefit from going to bed earlier but they fight it and stay up late. What are your true personal sleep needs? Obviously you can’t just sleep all day long, don’t be a pig. But within a certain reasonable time frame, what kind of sleep schedule makes you feel the most alert and happy?

– ASIDE FROM YOUR WORK, what other things are important to you, in leading a happy and healthy life? Do you need to exercise or go outside? Do you have a dog who needs walking? Do you really want to learn how to bake bread or fly a kite? Do you have kids, or want to have kids? Is it important to you to keep going to band practice, or to sit and stare out a window for 30 minutes, or do you want to have a social life or are you trying to go out on dates with strangers in hopes of finding a mate or whatever? Whatever this list consists of, for you personally, first you need to HONOR IT. Part of the bullshit of my line of work–and I imagine there are lots of jobs where this is the case–is that it’s like a badge of honor to give up all other things in your life. I know people who LONG FOR CHILDREN who have chosen not to have them solely because this job doesn’t really allow for parenting. Also, academics are legendarily unhealthy, often living on ramen noodles and going weeks without using a single muscle in their bodies. I think that is fucked up! I think we need to all stop colluding in the fiction that this job has to eat up the entirety of your life. Yes, sometimes you will need to go many weeks without a day off, but that can’t be ALL THE TIME. You have to learn how to draw lines, how to honor and value the other shit in your life, and how to do that shit without guilt. It was so awesome, the other day I had coffee with a cool professor I’d just met and he told me very frankly that for the entire first month of his sabbatical all he did was sit and look out the window into his backyard, and read novels, and cook elaborate meals for his children and wife. He said he didn’t even THINK about the book he was supposed to be writing. He said it was amazing. I loved that he didn’t try to bullshit me about how he works for 18 hours a day and hasn’t seen his children in a week. He owned this month of doing nothing and he spoke of it with love. Anyway, make a list of shit that is important to you aside from your stupid book that 6 people will ever even read, or writing pages of comments on papers that perhaps 30% of your students will actually even read, or such and such.

The main thing about honesty in scheduling is that, if you create a schedule that isn’t in keeping with your natural rhythms and at least some of your true heart’s desires, the schedule won’t work, and you will fail to adhere to it, and you will end up feeling even worse than you did before. This is the truth of all those failed New Year’s resolutions, where like suddenly you think you’re going to go from never exercising in your life to going to yoga class five times a week. Guess what? It ain’t gonna happen! Be honest! Go to yoga once a week for starters, maybe! As a wise person once said, thou shalt not bite off more than thou can chew

Your Day Planner

Once you figure out who you are and who you want to be, you have to make a schedule and commit to it 100%. Luckily, committing 100% to good scheduling is actually pretty simple. ALL you have to do in order to commit 100% to your new scheduling psychology is carry your day planner with you everywhere you go. Take it to the movies, take it on dates, take it when you go out for a ramble in the woods with the dog. Just always, always put it in your bag. ALWAYS. No exceptions, especially at first. As you get better at it, you can start leaving it at home when you go to the gym or something. But you have to learn your lines before you can forget them, and you have to always take your day planner with you everywhere before you can start leaving it at home sometimes.

You take it everywhere for two reasons:

1. Because that’s part of how you commit 100% to good scheduling–you build the trust relationship with your day planner until it is so strong that you know without having to check that your day planner is there with you, such that if anything comes up or pops into your mind, you know you can open it and check in with it instantly, wherever you are

2. Because stuff constantly comes up that you suddenly remember, and need to write down or check and see if you can do it; or stuff suddenly pops into your mind and you can’t remember when the deadline is; or you run into someone who says “hey lets get a drink on Thursday” and you need to know if you can do that, AND once you ascertain whether or not you can do that, you need to write down “getting a drink with this dude” in the “Thursday” slot of your day planner, RIGHT THEN AND THERE. This is the second part of the trust relationship–you have to have your day planner with you constantly so that you learn to trust YOURSELF. You must come to trust all those past selves of yours, who you benevolently trust to have written down everything the current version of yourself ought to be doing right now.

If you can trust that this is the case, YOU BECOME FREE. If you look at your day planner to see what you’re supposed to be doing right now, and it says “write abstract,” then you know you can sit down and work on your abstract without worrying that you are forgetting something else. You bring focus into your work life. It is wonderful and refreshing.

Materially, the actual day planner itself is very important and must be carefully researched. There are many different kinds of day planner and they all appeal to different kinds of brains in terms of how they are laid out. I spent a long time before I finally found the one that works best for me. It’s by Quo Vadis and it’s called “academic minister.” I like an academic day planner because they go July-July instead of January-January, so you can have all your day planners all lined up and each one is one academic year.

For a couple of years when I first started teaching, I used the Un-Calendar, which has a similar layout to the academic minister but the dates are all blank, so you can fill them in yourself. I found this useful in terms of not wasting huge amounts of space during summer break/christmas break, etc. But once I started a TT job I realized that I needed a day planner with the dates already in it, because I am doing some serious long-range future planning like I have never done before. You would not believe how far in advance meetings get scheduled and deadlines get announced, plus I’m currently teaching this insane huge class that entails 12 different lecturers I’m supposed to schedule and communicate with and get documents from by one week before each of their lectures, and so I have to be able to flip ahead constantly and see what’s coming down the pike.

aminister

This is my day planner. It’s laid out in a way that really works for me. It’s big–it’s basically 8×11 or close–and you can see the whole week at once (note: also, you can buy just the “refill,” instead of the whole huge leather-bound affair, and the refill is only like $11). Each day has its own column, with the time of day in half-hourly increments. Then on the right-hand side of each week, there are big blank columns you can use in a variety of ways. They have it set up in categories: calls to make; emails to write; things to buy; things to write. I ignore those categories and use the blank columns as my weekend to-do list. So in each weekday slot I fill in my schedule and the things I have to do that day–deadlines, or prepping at 8 a.m. for a class at 10 that day, etc.–and then, as the days of the week pass, my weekend to-do list slowly fills up with all the short-term stuff I have to get done–writing a quiz, grading a big round of papers that just got turned in, contacting this or that lecturer, anything I’ve been assigned to do for one of the committees I’m on, etc. And there are certain mostly unchanging tasks that are always on the weekend to-do list, that have to do with writing a book or a paper–big projects. So in addition to all the stuff that piles up over the week, there are also always big things on there like “research new chapter” or “read 10 books and write paper outline” or the like.

Because I don’t have kids, I’m able to give my entire weekend to my to-do list, so I don’t need to break that list into hourly chunks on an actual schedule. Once it’s the weekend, I can just get up, make my coffee, and sit down at my desk and work all day long. So at that point I just kind of approach the to-do list based mostly on priority but also on what I’m in the mood for. I usually spend the first day of my weekend taking a break from the daily grind of school and instead working on my own writing–my book, a conference paper, research, etc. Then for the rest of the weekend I chip away at the to-do list, saving course prep for the following week for Monday, the last day of my weekend.

By sticking to a schedule, you slowly come to do it more and more naturally. Like you slowly figure out how long everything takes, such that you can trust that you can get all four of your preps done on Monday, so you don’t need to think about them until then.

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Here is a sample week from my day planner. The days I actually go to campus are filled up hour by hour; the other days are empty (save for things like a hair appointment or any other actual appointment or deadline time) because on each of those days I’m just working methodically through the to-do list on the right. I wanted to show you an example from my day planner because I want to emphasize an important point, which is that this system works EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT NATURALLY A VERY ORGANIZED PERSON. Look at my day planner! This is not a neatly, clearly filled-out week. I’ve scribbled shit all over, including important phone numbers that should really have their own special location for easier access. My to-do list is not written in any kind of order; it’s not prioritized or really all that compartmentalized. I am not by nature a very organized person–I work in clutter. Clutter is my achilles heel and one of the great challenges my husband faces in being married to me. I think in terms of piles. To be fair, I know where everything is in those piles—when I look at this page from my day planner it makes perfect sense to me, and its messiness does not stress me out at all, and actually I remember even months later that I wrote some phone number down on this page and I can quickly find it. So this is how scheduling looks for someone who is compromising on their natural slovenliness. It can be done! Believe it!

How You Actually Create Your Schedule

This is the fun part! Don’t worry!!

Start with a blank piece of paper.

Actually, first of all, if you have a partner you live with, you might want to do this exercise together, because there are negotiations and compromises involved and you can’t fully do this part of the exercise unless you know what their schedule is as well, especially if you have kids or even a dog. So, both of you (or however many people you are partnered with, in these groovy times!) sit down together, each with your own big blank piece of paper. Orient the paper horizontally, not vertically.

Make a column for every day of the week, starting with Monday.

Methodically fill in everything you have to do every Monday. Any recurring meeting, your class times, office hours, etc. When do you pick up the kid from daycare? What time do you wake up? Write it all down in the Monday column. Then do the same for all the other days.

Now, the next goal involves making your dreams a reality, within the immovable confines of this part of the schedule, which you have no control over. This is where partner negotiations come in. How much time during your week do you need to carve out for other things? For me, these things are primarily:
– writing
– grading
– course prep
– going to the gym
– misc. domestic chores and projects

What is this list for your partner, and when do THEY like to do the things on the list? A major example from my life is that the old man and I were constantly annoyed with one another because we each felt we walked the dog more often than the other did. When we finally sat down with our schedules and had an honest talk, we realized that the real problem was that we were both trying to walk the dog during times that didn’t fit in with our ideal schedule. Once we actually realized that I like to work in the morning and he likes to work in the evening, it suddenly became obvious that we should just switch our dog-walking times, so he walks him in the morning and I walk him in the evening. This made everything so much easier and nicer. A related example would be if you have a kid, you can figure out together which days and times make sense for each of you to pick up/drop off the kid at daycare.

This is where all your honest list-making comes back into the game. If you’ve identified the fact that you like to write in the mornings, then you need to find a couple mornings in your week where you can draw a square and put “write” inside of the square, and nothing else. Then, in negotiations with your partner, you can be like “look, on Tuesdays I’m able to have this rad four-hour chunk of writing time in the morning. How about if you take the kid to daycare on Tuesdays, so I can focus on writing?” And then the partner gets to say “That’s fine, but look over here, on Thursday nights there’s a yoga class I really want to take, so is it okay if you pick up the kid on those nights?” and you look at your schedule and you’re like “sure, that works,” and then you BOTH WRITE THESE INTO YOUR SCHEDULES.

If you like to write in little hour-long chunks every day, you need to identify where those chunks can go, within your existing schedule, and put them in there. What kinds of settings are more conducive to certain kinds of tasks and not others? For example, I can grade quizzes and papers even when I’m in my super-distracting shared office with a billion people constantly coming in and talking to me. That is a task that I find it easy to multi-task during–it doesn’t require intense focused concentration. So, lets say you are the same way, and so you look at this schedule you’re building, and you see that on Tuesdays there’s this weird 2-hour zone between commitments. Maybe that could be your grading time, where you get all or some of your grading done. That way, your bigger blocks of quieter free time can be reserved for heavier tasks, like reading or writing. If this sounds good, then draw a square around that 2-hour zone and write “grading” in it. Also, think about tasks that can be combined. “Grading” goes perfectly with “eat lunch” for example, whereas office hours do not, if you feel awkward about eating around other people, as I do.

Work methodically through the week–don’t skip ahead. Get Monday done, from 8 a.m. until bedtime, and then move on to Tuesday.

When you’re done with the whole week, now take one step back and see if there are any ways you can smoosh your week around to make it conform more easily to your natural ways of doing things, as outlined above. For example, the thing with asking your partner to pick up the kid on Thursdays so you can go to yoga. Other examples might be: you have hour-long recurring meetings with grad students scattered throughout your week. Can you switch those meetings so that they all happen in a row, thus potentially opening up bigger zones of free time on other days? Wherever possible, maximize the time you have to spend actually in your office—try to fit all your office hours and meetings into those times. For example, my friend whose schedule we worked on at the conference–once we sat down and wrote it all out it turned out that on Thursdays all she had to do on campus was this one meeting with a grad student. Once she saw this and really visualized it, she realized how easy it would be to just move that meeting to some other day. BOOM, all of a sudden her Thursdays are now completely free for writing. Furthermore, since she’d already identified the fact that she can only really productively write from about 8 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, we decided that on Thursdays she can pick the kid up EARLY from daycare, and have Thursday afternoons be a fun special mom/kid time, thus alleviating some of her guilt at being a bad mother. Two birds!

Three birds really, because by totally confining each task to its own special slot in the schedule, she also gets to be more fully present with each task. When she’s writing on Thursdays, she knows that’s all she’s supposed to be doing on Thursdays. When she’s with the kid, she knows that’s all she’s supposed to be doing right then. So she can just enjoy it, enjoy her kid instead of constantly trying to write work emails on the sly while the kid begs her to get off the computer.

Okay. Once you have negotiated and finagled your way to a functional schedule, THEN you transfer that schedule into your day planner. Fill out every single day for the whole semester (or whatever your personal block of large-scale time is), with every meeting, every class, every time you pick up or drop off the kid, every block of writing time, every block of grading time, when you eat lunch, when you go to the gym, etc.

YOU DID IT.

Now all you have to do is carry that shit everywhere with you. Whenever anything comes up, whip it out! “I can do next Tuesday at 2:30” you’ll say with confidence, and then you’ll immediately write that down in the Tuesday 2:30 slot. Do this constantly, every moment of your life, for one month, and I guarantee you will be cured and your life will be better. Report back.

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4 Responses to Scheduling!

  1. yelena says:

    oh man, i still remember your epic filing advice! thank you for this. i think i just realized why i feel so overwhelmed and scattered all the time at work and why being an independent scholar with a full time job is so hard. this post has renewed my confidence that i can do both. hurrah!

  2. Jeannine says:

    i love this so much–i have an elaborate task list system in a notebook, but not tied to particular times for accomplishing those tasks. one reason for which being that i used consistently write up what i’ll be doing in every block of time per day, but tasks would extend beyond their allotted time or there would be tasks where i’d see, oh time to grade now, and just not. do. it. (and then I am filled with self-loathing) I am pretty disciplined but…there’s this. Any advice? build in breaks? be more disciplined?

  3. Sam says:

    I am starting to implement this a little at a time. Mostly I am thinking hard about scheduling! And also I am deciding what I need to do to be happy and making sure I have room for it in my schedule. The actual writing down part comes next.

  4. Leander says:

    Awesome post!

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