How I Learned to Love the Calendar

I stare back at you…silently mocking your good intentions.

In my undergraduate years, I took pride in never using a calendar, planner, or other sort of organizational method to keep on top of my work. Of course, I also took pride in such dubious feats as skipping 67 classes the Spring semester of my freshman year (We had a competition; I won going away), failing Calculus (not once, but twice!), and numerous engagements in petty larceny.  So “things I was proud of as an undergraduate” is not a list of academic success items, to say the least. 

Even though I eventually reformed my wayward academic habits (hell, I even started taking notes!), the whole scheduling thing continued to elude me. When I started my Ph.D. work, I bought a really neat planner and honestly intended to use it to the fullest. I would have my classes, assignments, research and writing times, and TA duties all in front of me for easy reference. I loved that planner. It looked so professional. It reflected my hopes and dreams. I filled it out before the beginning of the semester with as many items as a I could anticipate. I even used new pens, with different colors.

I kept at it for a week. I have no idea what happened to that planner. It probably ended up the same place all my other good intentions did in grad school: Half-Assed Land. (It’s a magical place, full of procrastination and ennui. Come for the promises, stay for the angst.)

There were other sporadic efforts at planning as I started my faculty career, but they all fizzled out, too. I abandoned these doomed efforts at self-management and returned to that undergraduate sense of pride in “not needing” a planner. DAY PLANNERS ARE FOR CORPORATE DRONES AND ANALLY-RETENTIVE BULLETHEADS! I SCOFF AT YOUR BOURGEOIS FETISHIZATION OF EFFICIENCY!

Pro tip: Don’t think this way. I became the embodiment of the Absent-Minded Professor. That stereotype tends to imply that other people think it’s sort of cute, in a quirky way, and that smart people are just, you know…different. In real life, however, people get pissed when you miss commitments and have to reschedule meetings. In real life, most people think that absent-minded professors are annoying jackasses. In real life, jumping from event to event, remembering things at the last minute (or past then), and always having to react to things like they’re plot twists in a detective novel gets old really fast. I was exhausted from committing all sorts of mental energy to just surviving the day, with little left in reserve for anything else.

But what really suffered was my writing. I was the classic binge-writer. I could (and probably still can, though I really don’t want to try) write for six- and eight-hour stretches, stopping only for caffeine breaks. I’d pound out thousands of words, and most of what I wrote was actually pretty good. But after those marathon sessions, I was DONE–for days, if not weeks. So I’d get further behind deadline, and then have to do another all-day jam session (usually on the weekend) to catch up. And then immediately get behind again because I was spent. Rinse. Repeat.

Not now...I'm writing!
Not now…I’m writing!

Finally, I was able to rewrite my narrative of calendar-averse professor and get my proverbial shit together. It was for no more complex reason than I had to. I was falling too far behind on projects I cared too much about to keep operating the same way I did as a knucklehead sophomore. The key for me was my Android tablet and smartphone. Using a Calendar App that actually synced with my Outlook account from campus (A+ Calendar-highly recommended!), I was able to cobble together a system that works for me. I have paper calendar printouts on my office bulletin board for quick reference, but my go-to calendar is synced across my laptop, tablet, and phone. I color-code events according to categories like class prep, writing, meetings, consultations, and such. In short, I have become what my undergraduate slack-assed self used to scoff at. And in one of my few manifestations of maturity, I’m actually OK with that.

But here’s the payoff: not only am I not forgetting meetings (and thus not pissing off my colleagues), but I broke the binge-purge-burnout writing cycle. Daily writing, as any successful academic writer will tell you, is absolutely crucial. If you want to be productive, an hour or so a day of steady work is a hell of a lot better than eight hours of frantic keyboard-scorching every other week. For me, reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot was transformational; his tone, diagnoses, and recommendations were exactly what I needed, when I needed them. Silvia’s methods are ideal for those of us at teaching-oriented institutions, where not only the courseloads, but the service and advising loads may also be higher than an R-1 university. And pride of place among those methods is scheduling time to write every day, and then writing every day. Ass. In. Chair. And the ways he suggests for developing and maintaining that commitment have been successful for me.

As we hurtle toward another semester, then, I revel in my color-coded, synced-up, constantly-curated calendar goodness. OOOO–CYAN! THAT’S A GREAT COLOR FOR OFFICE HOURS. Laugh if you want. Many people do (and not just at my calendar. There are many, many, things). But I get to have time for everything I want to do as part of my job: teach, write, collaborate–because I make that time and then guard it fiercely. And I still have a life.

That alone was worth trading in my knuckleheaded affectations for.

[Image credits: Calendar from Wikimedia Commons; Funnie the Hamster from Flickr user Laura Blankenship]

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