Kicked to the curb

This morning I’ve already done a ragtag assortment of small tasks. While holding virtual office hours, I checked discussion boards, made a to-do list of teaching tasks, folded laundry, filled out my vote-by-mail ballot, emptied wastebaskets, answered email, and finished one batch of Postcards to Voters before starting another.

Still undone are the committee work and paper-grading I’m currently procrastinating, because the best way to get lots of tiny tasks done is to have several big tasks you’re avoiding.

One of this morning’s emails was from a student who wants to meet with me to devise a strategy for keeping up with his college workload. College is a big jump from high school: most of the work is self-directed with relatively little time spent in class, so many students struggle to manage So Much Free Time without Mom and Dad close by to supervise. The situation is even worse during a pandemic, when hybrid classes mean you spend even less time in class and even more time online, doing (or not doing) work with a more flexible deadline.

One of the most valuable things any student can learn in college–either during a pandemic or not–is how to manage oneself and one’s time. How motivated and self-disciplined are you in accomplishing tasks when there is no one watching except your own Inner Taskmaster?

I am probably a bad person to advise on the matter, given how much I myself procrastinate. And yet, I somehow manage to keep more balls (mostly) in the air than many folks I know, teaching at two colleges while tending a houseful of pets and maintaining some semblance of a civic and creative life.

The question isn’t how I do it but how my student already does. For I’m convinced that even a student who struggles to post to a required online discussion board three times a week has other things in his life that he does without fail at least as regularly. So how did my student establish those habits: how does he remember to show up to his workouts, Facetime sessions with friends, or favorite video games and TV shows?

Truth be told, I wouldn’t get much (if anything) done if it weren’t for Google Calendar reminders buzzing on my wrist, daily Google Keep checklists I update at the start of each week, and countless to-do lists written on memo pads and sticky notes. Even when it comes to enjoyable things that I want to do, they don’t get done if they aren’t On My List.

But that’s what works for me, and even my lists and calendar reminders and best intentions sometimes fail in the face of procrastination, inertia, and seemingly endless supply of Things That Need Doing. Sometimes a ball or two will drop, and you have to clean up the consequences. This too is a valuable lesson to learn in college or beyond.

Vivid

It’s the midpoint of the semester—a notoriously busy time—but whenever it feels like I can’t possible fit anything more on my proverbial plate, I find myself saying “yes” to something more. Sometimes the “yes” is work—yes, I’ll accept a last-minute online teaching assignment I wasn’t planning on—and other times the “yes” is play—yes, I can find time for a walk on a gorgeous autumn day. For good or bad, my unofficial motto has become “people before papers,” and it’s a mantra I invoke whenever a student appears with a question, J suggests we go for a walk, or my body screams for a nap. People and their needs are time-sensitive, but that pile of papers isn’t going anywhere: it will be there waiting for me after I’m done tending other concerns.

Reflective

At both the mid- and endpoint of the semester, I typically practice to-do list triage, the invaluable art of prioritizing items on one’s task list. Given three competing paper-piles, which one do I really have to finish first? This might sound like a simple question, but it can be rather complicated. If I’m commenting on rough drafts, I need to return those drafts in time for students to revise them before the next draft is due; if midterm progress reports are due, I have to finish grading final papers before I assess students’ midterm status. My grad students are typically more “antsy” to get their graded papers back than my undergrads, and grading the first batch of papers, when students at all levels are particularly nervous about expectations, is more urgent than grading the second or third batch. All of these tasks are important, and I’ll finish them all, eventually. But some things can be put off until tomorrow, others can wait until the weekend, and yet others can (in a pinch) be set aside until next week.

Scarlet

In a typical triage scenario, the immediate takes precedence over the long-term. Answering a student’s emailed question takes priority over planning tomorrow’s class, but planning tomorrow’s class is more pressing than grading last week’s rough drafts. Planning tomorrow’s class is time-sensitive: class time is precious, and once a class is over, you can’t go back and re-do it. Over the years I’ve discovered that students are far more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers if they know you’re prompt about answering questions and are present and attentive in class. I’ve also discovered that students are more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers once they realize the level of attention you’re giving to their writing. Students are willing to wait their turn, in other words, if they realize you’re actually going to pay attention to them when their turn finally comes.

Pinked

Whenever I find myself practicing this kind of to-do list triage, I remember the old truism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Busy people know that you can’t do everything at once, so the only way to tackle your to-do list is one item at a time, trusting that it will all get done eventually. Busy people know that fretting over your to-do list does no good: it just consumes time and energy that would be better spent on other, more-productive tasks like taking a walk, taking a nap, or actually getting down to the business of tackling the tasks on your to-do list. Busy people know that the cemetery is full of indispensable people, so it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes it’s sanity-saving to put off for tomorrow something you could exhaust yourself doing today, and if you’re already busy and behind with to-dos, saying “yes” to one more thing won’t necessarily break the back of a camel who’s grown flexible, strong, and resilient from a lifetime of loads.

Frost on mums

When I was a fresh-faced and earnest young undergraduate, the pastor of the evangelical church I attended at the time said something that has stuck with me long after I drifted from his particular theology. In response to a group of bleary-eyed congregants sneaking in late to Sunday morning worship, Pastor R proclaimed from his pulpit, “Preparation for worship starts the night before.”

Callery pear

It was a lesson I didn’t initially appreciate. As a college student, I procrastinated as much as any other student, which often meant staying up late to finish work I should have done earlier. Although I wasn’t much of a party animal, there were plenty of Saturday nights when I stayed up late doing homework: going to lengthy church services on Sunday meant doing a double-dose of homework on Saturday night. Still, Pastor R’s advice made sense to me intellectually. If you want to be bright-eyed for Sunday morning worship, you shouldn’t stay up late on Saturday night. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect.

I no longer go to lengthy Sunday church services, but I’ve finally come to realize the wisdom of Pastor R’s advice. Preparation for teaching, I’ve learned, starts the night before. If I want a busy teaching day to start smoothly, it helps if I pack my lunch, arrange my books and papers, and choose my outfit the night before. When morning comes, there’s always so much to do and plan–so many morning woulds clamoring for attention–so it helps if the basics are already laid out and ready to go.

Berries

During this month of NaBloPoMo, I’m learning that preparation for daily blogging also starts the night before. Last year, I learned that producing a month’s worth of illustrated blog-posts is easier if you’re in the habit of stockpiling images to use on days when light and inspiration are sparse. This year, I’m taking my practice of planning ahead even one step further. In addition to shooting extra pictures to use on a proverbial rainy day, this year I’ve tried to write an initial draft of each day’s post the night before. Knowing that I have a literal head-start on each day’s blog-post makes it that much easier for me to finish and publish that post.

Instead of reverting to the procrastinating ways of my college days, it feels reassuring to know that on any given November morning, I have photos and at least a rough draft (rather than a completely blank screen) to start with. I may have drifted from Pastor R’s evangelical theology, but I’d like to think that my newly acquired habit of starting something important the night before would make him proud.

Snow on fence

No sooner do I get home from Ohio, it seems, but it’s nearly time for me to go back to school: another example of time slipping out of my fingertips.

In one sense, I’ve already been back to school for more than a week. My new online term started last Monday, so two classes of students and I are well into the second of our eight weeks together. But for me, “back to school” refers to face-to-face classes, and those resume next week. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out where half of December and January have already gone. What happened to the long winter break I’d looked forward to during a busier-than-usual fall semester?

Feral in the snow

Time has a way of slipping away regardless of the traps and snares I set in its path. Yesterday I sat down with my Book of Lists–the notebook I use to organize teaching and other mundane tasks one to-do list at a time–and made the first set of lists for the new semester. For each day, a page; on each page, a list. Today, tomorrow, and the day after: here are the tasks, chores, and errands I have to do between now and then.

I have almost an entire book filled with such lists, and time slips away still. Do you know how many times I’ve lamented in occasional scribbled journal entries (some kept in the Book of Lists, and others elsewhere) about how I need to “tame time” through more efficient list-making, scheduling, and other time-management techniques? Despite all my organizational tips and tools, time refuses to slow for me. No matter how many times I make my lists and check them twice, time still continues to fly.

Tangle with tracks

Time, I’ve decided, is a wily creature that delights in wriggling from our grasp, creeping away into any tangle or thicket where we with our calendars, to-do lists, and time-lines cannot follow. Yesterday as I made yet another set of lists and noticed how my current Book of Lists is nearly full, I wondered whether I should keep it once I’ve moved onto its successor. I keep my journals–I have a portion of my bookshelf where they stand numbered and dated as they keep the time written within their leaves. How much more indicative of my days, I thought, is each day’s to-do list with its assortment of tasks Done and Still Undone?

They say Saint Peter stands at heaven’s gate with the Book of Life, a list he checks for the souls of the saved, their names appearing like a entries in a maitre d’s reservation book. Isn’t Saint Peter’s book merely a mythic version of my own Book of Lists, a whole lot of lives chronicled in his while mine keeps track of merely one? Time can’t be tamed, but it can be tracked, noted with each line-item like a snow-stamped footstep. Where have my days gone, and what (if anything) did I accomplish with them? Only the Book of Lists knows, if I dare page back and double-check the checked.

The second photo in this entry is intended as a visual reminder that even in the snowy wintertime, furniture sometimes chooses to go wild.