How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern. — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I haven’t actually read The Writing Life before. I found this quotation (and many others from the same book) in a Brain Pickings post from 2013. Maria Popova, the brain behind Brain Pickings, has her own quote-worthy moment when she describes The Writing Life as being about, partly, “the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not.”
I struggle between those two poles regularly. “Struggle” is probably inadequate. I feel like a humanoid pinball ricocheting between them! On the one hand, I get things done pretty efficiently at work and at school; I don’t like procrastinating, and I prefer regular routines (I even go so far as meal-planning). On the other hand, no one has mastered the art of the slothful day like I have, and I often feel like certain private hobbies of mine — ahem, harp-playing at the moment — fall by the wayside as soon as something else comes up.
I try not to feel much guilt about any of that, but it would be nice to “catch my days” and “defend them from chaos and whim”! (Being a nerd, I immediately imagine a stalwart schedule errant waving a tiny sword in the face of all chaos and whim.)
So for this week’s blog, I’m taking a page from Dillard’s book (and Popova’s blog). I decided to try out the weekly schedule template that we recommend in-house:
Want one of your own?
The steps to make one of these are pretty easy:
- Include all your fixed commitments. For me, that includes work, class, and taking Millie out for herculean amounts of exercise (at least for me). The schedule’s earliest block starts at 8:30am, but I get up at around 7:20am to take Millie out for thirty minutes and get ready for work.
- Include health activities. Millie takes care of all my cardio, but I’ve recently re-discovered rock climbing so I’ve started going there on some evenings. I also love to cook so I give myself lots of time for that — but since I just cook for myself, I also end up with lots of leftovers, so major cooking nights only happen every other night or so. I also generally like going to bed at around 10:30pm on most nights. (Millie just goes out for a quick bathroom break before bed so I didn’t bother putting that in the schedule.)
- Include all regular homework hours. I have about one assignment in my class every two weeks, pretty short readings, and I committed to writing review notes every weekend.
- Include all flex commitments and down time! I scheduled in my weekly meal planning and grocery-shopping, but apart from that, I just left a lot of empty space to schedule as I see fit. Things like laundry, friends, Skype, phonecalls, housecleaning, general doggy errands like nail-clipping and baths, probably lots of things I’m forgetting.
When I help a student make a schedule like this, the process often helps them feel a greater sense of control over their workload and their self-care. Once the schedule is complete, they can take a step back and evaluate whether they are over-committed or whether they truly do have enough time to finish everything they need to while still feeling like a human being. A lot of people prefer building schedules on their phones these days, which is fine, but I think there’s something extra soothing about writing everything out on paper and then colour-coding. (That may just be me.)
Looking at my own attempt here, though, I’m not sure that this schedule is a realistic portrayal of any one specific week. It might be because, for me, every week is pretty dramatically different due to the nature of my job; for example, my parents have Millie right now because I’m working most nights next week while we interview candidates for the volunteer program. Many students who use this weekly schedule create a new one each week, which allows them to make those changes as needed.
Generally I prefer not to schedule everything out hour-by-hour like that. What I have found works best for me, at least outside of crunch times, is to prioritize what needs to get done every week (on top of the obvious things like walking Millie or going to work). The interesting thing I’ve found is that this list has evolved to include really important self-care activities I’ve learned about myself over the years, too:
- Do homework and review notes by Sunday night
- Plan meals and buy groceries every weekend
- Have a good conversation with a friend at least once every three days
- Do one super-fun and exciting thing per week
- Be at home, on average, for three of five school nights (to hang out with the hell hound)
- Save at least 30 minutes before bed to read
This list doesn’t sound like much. I suspect a lot of it comes from the fact that my current job is so social during the day that, being a secret introvert, I often feel burnt-out in the evening. It’s so tempting to just stay in and veg — especially when the weather is really icy and cold out, since I don’t have a car.
However, when I don’t have a nice and chewy conversation with a non-work friend for more than a couple days in a row, I start feeling pretty blah. The same thing happens if I don’t raise my heart rate a couple times per week doing something more active.
And for those of you who care more about “productivity” than “presence,” my productivity always dramatically decreases when I’m feeling blah, too. So taking care of my own wellbeing and connection with others actually improves my ability to do homework and review notes, too!
(I actually dislike thinking about wellness in terms of how productive it’ll make you, but that’s a blog for another day.)
Even if an hour-by-hour weekly schedule isn’t for you, I encourage you to think about a) how you currently, actually spend your days, and b) reflect on whether you can or should make any changes to that routine, based on your mood or how satisfied you are with your work. You may find it helpful, like I do, to have an honest-to-goodness checklist of “things you must to to feel happy and fulfilled in your life” and then just work your way down that list each week. I find that if I don’t have a little checklist like that to remind myself of what’s important, I spend an awful lot of time feeling vaguely unhappy and then self-medicating in the evenings with some good ol’ Netflix … which really doesn’t help matters.
I realize that my artistic talent, at least when it comes to creating schedules, isn’t too great, so I want to leave you with a much more beautiful way to think about time. (Imagine how much time you’d need to make one of these puppies!) Here is the Visconti Book of Hours from the late fourteenth century: