Saturday, February 03, 2007

New Ways to Manage Life's Complexity

We are already two weeks into our new semester. My work right now seems busier than ever before (except for the semester I came up for tenure).

There's a way that I worked harder and longer hours when I first began full-time university teaching, but even so, I was actually less busy than now. I didn't actually have as much going on as I do now. But at that time, it was all new, and the learning curve was steep, as they say. Getting a grip on full-time teaching is a challenge. And for a shy person (like me), the "performance" aspect was initially somewhat scary. The problem was compounded by certain features of the structure of our academic world: newly minted PhDs have a hard time returning to "beginner mind"; and students who feel a bit captive and vulnerable can develop resentment very quickly and easily if they find a course over their heads.

It is nice to see that I now regard the teaching part of my work as the most fun. Almost all of my anxiety about it has totally evaporated. (The only bits that remain have to do with my continued fretting about certain aspects of the structure of academia that I cannot really change, and now I regard myself and my students as allies against these kinds of problems.) I not only feel at home in the classroom (a feeling I could not even imagine in those earlier days), I come alive in new ways. I have great rapport with most students, but when I do encounter students with "issues," I feel strong enough in myself not to take it personally. I do my best. Sometimes we have breakthroughs; other times not. I know that they are on a journey and so am I, and I really do trust the process.

Right now, at the beginning of the semester, as I adjust to a slightly heavier teaching load than I've had for several years, I encounter again the effort of the start-up process. I see my students trying to figure me out, and I am amused by this process instead of self-conscious about it. I put in that familiar work of trying to build a sense of community in the classroom, but I know that I am not in full control. There is mystery. It is alchemy. I cannot predict -- we will just have to see how it develops over the next 12 weeks.

My life is busy because of all else that I am involved in, much not really fully my choice but a product of our changing times.

I was scared of all of this as the semester was about to start, but my recent breakthrough has helped tremendously. I still find this kind of challenge difficult, but now that I know its nature and can appreciate the value of my learning how to live into this challenge, I am not as daunted. I can chart a way forward. I'm not just bewilderingly stuck anymore.

Slowly over these two weeks, I have begun to develop a new way of organizing my work, and it is more quickly successful than I would have expected. So, even though I am busier than ever before, I am actually, for the first time in years, feeling reasonably on top of things at last!

I think that earlier I have talked about my Master List of Projects. I just listed all the ongoing projects I have to attend to, and refer to this list often to make sure I am not neglecting something important in favor of the little urgencies that keep tapping on my door, so to speak, of their own will. Constructing this list was a step in the right direction.

What I've added is that I bought a notebook, small enough that I can carry it around with me everywhere, whose purpose is simply to be my running To Do list. I call this my Notebook of Everything. Whenever I think of something I have to do (that I can't just get done right now), I simply write it down. Here I don't worry about order, or whether something else must be done first. Anything that would nag at my subconscious, generating vague waves of worry for being yet-undone, gets written in this notebook.

Then, I refer to it often. I check off the items I complete, and I add as many new things as I can think of when I open it.

Stuck in this notebook too is the listing of my Master List of Projects. I refer to that too, to generate ideas about specific tasks that need to be added to the Notebook of Everything.

This is such a simple technique, but I find it very powerful. I've always had versions of To Do lists, but I've tended to keep different ones for different kinds of projects in different places. But that was no longer working for me, because I always had the anxiety, when turning to project A and all its associated lists and files, that maybe there was some other more important or urgent project that I should be attending to before I get to that project. The beauty of the Notebook of Everything is that all of the current tasks before me are visible, making it easier for me to prioritize with confidence, and then focus without the nagging anxiety of wondering if I was forgetting something important.

So, it's nice to have some new success at long last in developing a technique that really helps me deal more effectively with the complexity of my life.

I finally feel like I'm moving forward in life again, in small, unremarkable-looking steps. To me, though, this is big. Slowly, my "spirits" are picking up again, and this means everything to me.

In case my techniques are helpful to others, I share them. Yet I'm well aware that "technique" is not everything. I had to get at the underlying spiritual challenge first before technique could begin to make any difference at all for me. We have to work at life's challenges on both levels.


  1. CS,

    Wow, three posts at once. You are feeling energized. I'm glad to see your organization strategies are working. I too am feeling better organized in my new office. One problem I have with getting projects done is that it takes so long to read a serious piece of philosophy. And it is frustrating when you spend 4-5 hours trying to understand and author and finally get what he is trying to say and it turns out it be nothing at all! I do wish people would make the effort to write more clearly in our field.

    While I have your attention how is the exercise going? Are you able to run in all that snow or do you take a couple of months off for it to melt?

  2. Richard,

    Yes, I sure know what you mean about reading philosophy! And I too get frustrated at exactly the disappointment you expressed!

    For now, I'm counting the snow-shoveling and my regular walking to work as my exercise. It's not that it's too hard to run in the cold or snow (though there can be treacherous slippery days), but that I'm adjusting to an earlier schedule (8:30 classes every day of the week!).

    But as the days lengthen and get warmer, it will be easier to bring it back, I think.

    For now -- there is so much unresolved in my life.

    Meanwhile ... how is your research going?

    Would you be interested in coming to the Friends Association for Higher Education conference this June and participating in a Quaker philosophers' discussion I am organizing? If so, please e-mail me (via my "Profile" page) and I can give you further details!