One of my favorite lines from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is an epigram from Goethe: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” Whenever I find myself burdened with tasks and thus sorely tempted to hurry, I remember this quote and slow down. Hurrying, I’ve found, doesn’t help me get things done any faster; instead, hurrying only frays my nerves, causing me to make clumsy mistakes that are counterproductive. Rather than wasting an ounce of energy on hurrying, when I’m busy I make a conscious effort to slow down and be meticulous. There’s a sweet spot between hurrying and resting where you are maximally effective, without any superfluous action.
This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I spent much of my 20s and 30s hissing and sputtering like a sparkler, with lots of flash and crackle, but very little targeted energy. In those days, I spent a lot of time running around looking busy, as if wringing my hands and complaining helped me get anything done. Only as I’ve grown older have I learned how to marshal my resources. When the hours are short and your to-do list is long, you can’t spare even a moment of misspent energy. Everything you do must be targeted: focused. There will be time to fret and panic later, after you’ve finished your tasks, but right now, it’s time to focus on the task at hand.
These days I teach in the mornings, and I have about two hours of chores to do before I leave. Setting my alarm for what I call Zen Center hours–that is, wake-up at 5:00 am–means going to bed earlier than I do in the summertime, and it also means doing as much as I can to prepare for a full teaching day before my head hits the pillow the night before. On a good night, I prep my classes, pack my bag, and set out my clothes the night before so that everything is ready when I wake up. Like a firefighter answering a call, I slide swiftly down the pole of the new day, ready to face the exigencies of whatever arises.
When you teach at multiple institutions, you learn very quickly how to be organized: if you don’t, you’ll end up at the wrong job on the wrong day with the wrong supplies. This year like last, I have my trusty laptop bag perpetually packed with teaching supplies, and this year, I’ve added an additional organizational element, packing a separate zippered pouch with the relevant textbook and teaching journal for each college where I teach. On any given morning–or, better yet, on any given night before–I slip the appropriate pouch into my bag, and I’m ready to go to whichever campus–this way or that–where I’m teaching at that day. As long as I remember what day of the week it is, I’ll steer my car toward the appropriate campus, and once I’m headed in the right direction, the rest of the day takes care of itself.
Goethe’s proscription against resting doesn’t mean you have to perpetually busy yourself with busywork: pausing is not the same as resting. When I clean the litter box that two of our cats, Groucho and Scooby, share in a bedroom apart from our other cats, for example, I stop after moving the box from the wall and scrubbing the floor underneath. While waiting for the floor to dry, I sit with either a book or my iPod, quietly reading or checking email while either or both cats curl around me, pestering for petting. Stroking a cat isn’t mindless diversion but an intentional pursuit, your attention keenly focused on the creature rather than the task at hand. Just as walking meditation isn’t break from meditation, only a break from sitting, pausing to pat a pet is no less important than the chores that precede and follow.
That epigram from Goethe nicely dovetails with another quote Dillard includes in The Writing Life, this one credited to Michelangelo, who allegedly scrawled it on a scrap of paper found in his studio: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” No matter who you are or where you live, the days are short, with not a moment to spare. There never has been enough time, and nobody’s days are getting any longer. Given the sobering shortness of our days, why would we waste even a minute either hurrying or resting when we could instead focus on the task at hand?