Doing It All

I’ll tell you a secret: I’m kind of a productivity freak. I love new software and systems for keeping track of what I have to do and where I have to be and what I have to buy. The Productivity category in the App Store is my favorite. I’m a nerd.

Until last year, I was pretty good at keeping on top of those systems, but it all kind of went to pot when the fall semester started. I had a hard time keeping track of my schedule, because it varied so much, and I just wasn’t used to what teaching was like.

But now I’m experienced (haha), so I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer thinking about how to implement practices and disciplines, using those systems, to bring more order to my life next year. And that’s important: I’ll be a full-time student, full-time professor, part-time editor, and frequent freelancer, plus I’m coordinating the writing program at King’s and chairing a committee and advising a student house, and presenting at least one conference paper, and finishing this book I’ve been editing all summer for contract, and finishing a proposal for (and hopefully starting work on) a co-edited book, and probably other stuff I forgot about. Also, my husband and I like to eat dinner and have clean laundry and relatively clean floors and dishes, and we also like to spend time doing things we enjoy together, like watching movies and going to performances and drinking good beer.

I can already predict what will go by the wayside if I’m not careful: cooking, and exercising, and packing lunches, and reading poetry, and all the stuff that makes us sane, rounded human beings. But building on things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read both articles on discipline and books like Desiring the Kingdom, I’ve been committed to developing some disciplines and habits that automate the process of getting through the week with a maximum of fun and minimum of crazy. It seems like trivializing it a bit, but bear with me: I heard N.T. Wright speak on virtue a couple years ago, and one thing he said that stuck with me is (and this is an inaccurate paraphrase) that developing virtue and character are kind of like forming grooves, so that when it really counts, you automatically go on the right track. It’s hard to learn to ride a bike without using training wheels; it’s difficult for an EMT to administer CPR if he has to pull out the textbook and read along. But if it’s innate, if it’s developed through practice, then the skill is there when the rubber meets the proverbial road.

And, I guess, discipline and living well is character just as much as integrity and honesty and kindness. So that’s what I’ve been considering as I think about this subject.

I kind of hate hearing that perennial question: “How do you do it all?” I dunno. I just make lots of list and do the things on those lists. I think my work is less taxing than, say, raising small human beings full-time, or being a farmer or an investment banker. I don’t own a house and don’t have to spend my weekends doing things to maintain that house, and because I live in a one-room apartment, it takes about twenty minutes to clean it. A lot of my work bleeds into other aspects of my work (teaching writing, for instance, is awfully useful to an editor, and editing makes writing go more smoothly . . . ). And I like pretty much everything I do, which makes it seem fun, not exhausting. And academics know that the rhythm of academia helps tremendously in alleviating tedium and boredom.

But in case you’re still tempted to ask, here’s a few of the things I’ve been working on in order to actually “do it all” with a minimum of crazy. I’m not solidly in the saddle quite yet. But maybe something here will be useful to you. And I’d like to know what other people do, too, because there are many people out there who work as hard as I do and lead organizations and write a book a year and raise four children and take care of a house and probably are superheroes in their off-hours, and still manage to train for marathons and read the paper.

I switched back to using Remember the Milk. I’ve tried at least a half-dozen different task management systems (including Wunderlist, Google Tasks, Things, Toodledo, TeuxDeux, and the good old-fashioned paper method) over the years. All of them have ended up having some strange deficiency (maybe it’s ugly, or overly complicated, or not extensible enough, or – and this is very frequent – doesn’t have repeating tasks), and this summer I decided to go back to RTM, which is still the greatest I’ve used. It is accessible from basically any device in the universe. It lets you keep infinite numbers of lists and organize them in the way that works for you. You can set specific times at which tasks are due; you can set them to repeat; the web interface isn’t gorgeous, but the iPhone/iPad apps are; and it’s only about $25 a year for the Pro version, which seems awfully reasonable to me. It has smart lists that let me do things like easily see what I need to do next today, or what I need to buy at the grocery store (and I can repeat items on that list), or “low hanging fruit” – tasks that will take less than fifteen minutes to accomplish, or things I need to write before the end of the week. Plus, its icon is a cow.

I set hilarious things most people do automatically as tasks. I actually still cannot remember to do the simplest things in the morning or at night. Remembering to pack my bag for the next day is a Herculean effort. So I just set a repeating task for 9pm every night for those things, and my phone yells at me if I don’t cross them off before bed. Since those tasks are easy to accomplish, it gives me that nice I-finished-something frisson. It makes my morning so much easier if I did those three things at night. And if I stick to it, I also don’t miss deadlines. (As an editor, I hate deadline-missers. As a professor, I generally don’t accept late assignments. So I have an extreme aversion to missing deadlines myself.)

I am a committed Google Calendar user. Why Google Calendar, you ask? My computer in my office, which is owned by the college, is a PC. I have an iPad and an iPhone; my husband’s computer is a Mac, and I own a wee little netbook as well. Google Calendar talks to or displays on all of those devices without a hitch, and its interface just got updated and is nice and clean and pretty, so I don’t even mind aesthetics anymore. I use it for everything, and I have lots of different calendars in it, some of which are shared. So personal appointments and meetings and things go on one calendar. Another has things Tom and I are doing together outside of work hours, like plays and performances. TKC business goes on a separate calendar, as do writing deadlines and things of that sort. I even take the time to type the group exercise classes at the various locations of my gym into a calendar, so I can quickly look and see if I can fit a class into a particular day. It’s a little bit of set-up, but once everything is in there, I don’t have to think too hard about what to do the next day. I just get up and look at the calendar and it tells me what to do. I, for one, embrace our robot overlords.

And I keep all my documents in Dropbox. I am ever so grateful to live in the digital age, where being an editor of a journal that publishes almost daily doesn’t mean carting around stacks of articles. I put them all in Dropbox, along with anything I’m writing and tons of archives and I don’t even know what else. It means I can find them wherever I am. This is the one tip I need to start giving my poor undergrads, who are still emailing documents to themselves. Dropbox makes my life approximately eleventy billion times easier.

Also, Evernote and Instapaper. Evernote lets me quickly file away research for articles, recipes, receipts, whatever, just by clipping from the browser or emailing it to myself, so when I sit down to write something or do taxes, I can quickly pull up everything I need. Instapaper lets me save articles to read later much the same way. And they talk to each other now!

I use more software than I think, actually: Mint, for budgeting/finance tracking, WordPress for sporadic blogging, the absolutely phenomenally amazing Flipboard iPad app for reading the web painlessly, and a lot of Gmail filters. The key here is that these all replace some process I’d otherwise have to do myself, and not a process (like baking bread or washing dishes or going for a walk) that adds some kind of humanity to my life.

I am trying (and often failing, but trying) to get up earlier. I hate getting up in the morning. I love staying up super late. But when I am up late, I am probably not working. I am probably doing something completely worthy, like watching The X-Files or reading The Hunger Games. But I do need to also do things, and I have a lot I’d like to read that isn’t dystopian YA novels, stuff I could read in the morning quite happily with a cup of coffee. And so I am trying to become one of those people who gets up really early automatically, at the same time every day of the week, without thinking about it, no matter when I went to bed. It is hard. But I am trying.

I outsource. It’s not cheap to outsource stuff in New York City, and I still do my own cleaning, and would probably feel the disapproval of some Puritan New England ancestors if I didn’t. But I do send my laundry out most of the time (which is, thankfully, fairly cost-effective here), and I love love love love that FreshDirect exists and with competitive rates. Little delights me more than buying groceries from my iPhone while I’m waiting for someone to show up to a meeting. (Plus: it cuts way down on impulse buys and makes it easier to budget for groceries!)

I schedule blocks of time in which to do things. I think this might sort of derive from some combination of the Pomodoro Technique and GTD, neither of which I’ve ever really read about in any detail.  But, for instance, I am blocking out a full day and a half (a luxury, indeed, afforded by dear academia) for writing for my MFA program. I plan all my lectures at the same time each week – during office hours, happily. I have chunks set aside to answering Comment emails, corresponding with authors, and editing articles. And I plan to spend an hour or so each weekend chopping vegetables and fruits and putting together a couple of dishes to have during the week. It’s somehow much less odious to get things done when I have the block on my calendar.

I am learning the value of practices and automation. I sort of hate the idea of having devices that tell me what to do all the time. Maybe it’s my quote-unquote free spirit or my general millennial dislike of having people tell me what to do, but I want to take it easy and be all yoga-y and buck the New York system of insanity. But what I’m realizing (yet again) is that I need the systems and the automation to be spontaneous. Not having to think too hard in the morning about what to do when I get out of bed (early!) means I can think about other stuff, like creative ideas for projects and what I want to make for dinner that night. Spontaneity and creativity happens within the bounds of discipline and automation. It’s easier to move things around for special events and activities if I have them in place to move around. I know this, of course. But I need to remind myself frequently of it.

I am sticking to the practice of Sabbath. One day I don’t want to be automated or productive is Sunday. And actually, having that day in my week makes the automation of the other six more palatable. I might live by my robot overlords six days a week, but on the seventh, they rest. And so do I.

Note what I don’t have to deal with: childcare of any kind, mowing the lawn, rigid 9-to-5 schedules, or insane business travel, though I did my fair share of that last spring and will do some more this year. I have a summer off from teaching and a long Christmas break. All of my employers are aware of each other and all of my work complements other work. I don’t have to have a “day job” to be a writer because all the stuff I do is related, in some way, to what I love doing: writing, thinking, and talking about the world.

That’s why this works for me. My friends who have young children have vastly different lives, and I am in awe of them. But I think the ideas of automation and keeping track of yourself are actually profoundly helpful for “doing it all.” (And taking breaks, too: I wrote this on a break from a summer editing project, believe it or not!)

What do you do?

4 thoughts on “Doing It All

  1. We need FreshDirect over here in the Chicago suburbs. Grocery shopping is one of the biggest time drains I have. (Although admittedly it would improve if I were more disciplined with menu planning.)

    I’m thinking very seriously about outsourcing house cleaning. Part of me is horrified at myself, but the other part is gleeful.

  2. Amazingly, I manage without much of anything[1]. I am too cheap to buy a smartphone, and my inherited iPod Touch’s calendar doesn’t get used much, since it tends to sit in some lost corner of my bag. I only rarely put appointments on my work’s Exchange calender (and that’s done mostly to avoid someone booking a meeting during that time). I was in the habit of using Vim’s TODO plugin, but then I stopped using Vim for various reasons. I’ve yet to replace it. I also have a weird system of labels and stars in GMail for keeping track of stuff I need to do/respond to.

    I suppose I should consider myself lucky that I can remember this stuff. I should, however, considering using shopping lists, as I tend to forget things.

    [1] I have more than once gone to the office without my laptop.

  3. I love reading about people’s organizational styles . . . thanks for sharing 🙂

    What do you use to save and collect articles/essays that you read online? I have been using Delicious, but only because I don’t know of any other good options. Is Evernote a good option for that?

    Also, I know this probably isn’t on the top of your list of things to do, but have you found a program or site to organize your library?

    Happy summer-ing!

  4. @Alaina: that’s exactly what Evernote is best for! Plus it clips full text (if you set it that way) so it is accessible offline/if the link goes dead, and searchable, to boot. And I use Goodreads, but not for my library . . . I dont really track my library, unfortunately. But if I did, Goodreads would still be the best for that (and it is free!).

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