Monday, August 13, 2007

On Scheduling One's Days and Shaping One's Week

I liked what I said in a recent posting about the importance of making time every day for writing, in order to keep the momentum going. Robert Boice, author of Professors as Writers, makes the argument that even spending a half hour every day when life is busy is enough to keep the momentum going.

When I realized that I needed to reorganize my files, I knew even then that I must not let this take over my summer research time. I wrote a note to myself to continue to preserve mornings for research and writing, and then spend afternoons continuing to organize my papers.

But I did not follow my own advice. I stepped up my efforts to get better organized, in part because I wanted to get it done before my surgery, knowing that facing that mess afterwards would be daunting (and physically difficult, for a while). So I lost the momentum for writing. But also, I did not finish getting organized either.

So, now I'm in the worst of all possible worlds, in this respect. I still have piles of papers all over the floor. I've lost my momentum for writing. I also have been forced to stop running for a while (but can probably pick that back up in a couple of weeks).

Yet, in a way, I don't mind. I rather appreciate the radical disruption of all of this, as it provides me with an opportunity to regard my life from a very basic level and see what's what.

And here's what I see: I find myself surprisingly, and wonderfully, restless. I feel a deep energy stirring, wanting the restoration of my health so that I can pick all of this up again. I have needed a deep and total rest. I have needed to attend to nagging health worries that I had been denying or putting off. I feel re-made from a basic, physical level, and ready from there to re-make my life.

One of the things I have done lately is to put together my fall schedule in a new way. As usual, I put in my class times, meeting times, office hours, and such, but then I also scheduled in daily times for writing that I vow to hold as sacred as class time. I gave a lot of thought to where in my days to schedule these times -- where will my energy be fresh, and my motivation high? Most of my classes are in the mornings, and so I scheduled this time to follow my classes, because I do come out of classes on a kind of high, filled with ideas I'd like to develop more fully.

So, after every morning class, I am going to give myself a half-hour to check e-mail for anything urgent, and get a cup of tea, and then I will go to my library carrel to work on writing for an hour or an hour and a half (2 hours on Fridays, when I have no afternoon classes). I will restrict administrative work to the afternoons.

Key to this plan is to regard these times as inflexibly fixed as class times. Professors do not skip out on classes to attend committee meetings or catch up on administrative work. Class times are the most solidly fixed features of a professors' schedule. So, why not regard writing time the same way?

I anticipate that there will be pressure to sacrifice these time periods now and then, and so my rule for such occasions is that if I must change one of them, I can do so only if I also reschedule the writing time to another time that same day.

But I actually think it may not really be too much of a problem. Most committee meetings are in the afternoons, because the morning times are popular times for teaching. One of my writing times, for example, is Tuesday, 10:30-noon. If someone is trying to schedule a committee meeting, it is highly likely that someone else involved teaches during that time.

So, the art of scheduling in time for writing involves (1) choosing a time that does work well in terms of your own energy flow, and (2) finding a time that also is not likely to be a prime time that others will want to use to schedule meetings.

Another new scheduling experiment: I'm going to try to adopt the practice of spending one hour every weekday evening on grading or otherwise attending to student work, instead of bunching it up for marathon sessions on weekends.

And I will leave weekends completely open, letting myself spend some time on Saturdays catching up on whatever needs catching up on, or working further on writing. Sundays I will try to keep as "sabbath" days again -- this worked for a while last fall, but fell apart towards the end and was hopeless in my ultra-busy spring (but I have good reason to think that this year won't be that ridiculously busy again).

My rule for sabbath is really pretty simple: I ignore anything anxiety-producing but otherwise do whatever I want. Ignoring all "work" altogether is the ideal, but I do not make this a hard and fast rule. It can be hard to precisely define what counts and what does not count as "work." And sometimes what technically counts as "work" can be fun and soul-restoring for me. But more to the point, what the sabbath is for me is especially a time for reorienting myself to being guided by the Spirit. I try to live like this all the time, of course, but my busy and highly-scheduled life can erode that sense over time, especially when things get really frantic. And so I find it helpful to have sabbath days as weekly times to "reset" how I orient my life, in case that is necessary.

Having thought through a schedule for my days and weeks, based on past experience of what tends to work well for me, makes me very optimistic about the start of a new school year! I have a feeling that this will really work for me. We shall see...!


  1. CS,

    It's good for me to read about your efforts at organization. I hope it inspires me to do better myself. This idea about making a firm commitment to write every day is an excellent one but I find it hard to put into practice. I find I've just got to read a certain article before I can finish writing a paper and then that reading just seems to get me off topic and I find it is days or even weeks before I sit down and actually write something. I'm thinking that I should insist that I actually spend time WRITING not just reading or thinking or taking notes for a piece, but actual WRITING. Even if most of my "writing" time is spent in reading I am going to try to make sure that at least a half-hour is devoted to actual writing or editing.

  2. Richard,

    Yes, I know what you mean about how reading can greatly slow down one's writing. Maybe this is especially a problem in philosophy: the reading can be so rich and dense, and we feel that doing it justice does take a lot of time and thought.

    Robert Boice's advice about reading and notetaking is to try to read as quickly and strategically as possible. Zero in on just what is relevant to your own writing project, and limit your notes to one page per source as a way of focusing your time and attention just to what you need.

    Boice's advice was a revelation to me, not because I was unfamiliar with this method, but because I was surprised to see someone giving permission to take such "short cuts"!

    I had developed a similar method when highly pressed for time as a student writing papers for classes (but always felt guilty about it). And I also have learned that this is a good way to prepare for teaching. In teaching I learned that if I took detailed notes on a reading for class, I would get lost in those details in class and lose my students. But when I take "super-condensed summary notes," then I stay focused in class on the central points (and yet still remember the details when and if I need to refer to them to respond to a student's question, or when it is otherwise pedagogically relevant to go into detail on a point).

    The key may be finding the right balance between zeroing in on what is relevant to one's purposes, and giving the work the attention it deserves on its own terms, letting it inspire new directions of thought that you may then want to develop in future writings.

    What I tend to do is take different kinds of notes. On one page, I do try to zero in on the purpose for reading this. But I also have another sheet of paper for noting other ideas inspired by this reading.

    One more thought: when I myself say "writing time," I really mean "research and writing time," and so this time can include reading. But Boice encourages still doing some actual writing every day. Some of that writing, though, is idea-generating or idea-mapping writing. I'll write more specifically about this soon.