My post this week is a follow-up on last week’s suggestion to plan for failure (https://www.katherinefusco.com/the-mindful-academic-writer/this-semester-plan-to-fail ), in which I suggested the importance of being honest about when in the semester it’s unlikely you’ll get writing and research done.
If that’s a more macro look at the time of an academic life, what I’d like to say here is that being mindful about how we spend the minutes of our days can be a similarly important way to be gentle with ourselves, if we frame it right.
Time logging gets a bad wrap, and, at times, rightfully so. In my first book, I wrote about industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor who subjected workers to his infamous stop watch in order to develop “one best way,” a process of labor organization that privileged systems over individuals. Too, in American literature courses, I often teach the time logs of both Benjamin Franklin and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. My students and I often remark on the rigidity of such systems.
But I think part of the trick here is that while time logging often makes a bad master, it can be a good tool (and I suspect that Franklin, who has a pretty good sense of humor throughout his biography—often noting his failings—would likely agree).
If a time log isn’t being imposed upon one as a managerial tool, it can be a useful method to reflect on the way we spend our hours and minutes—which is to say, the way we spend the days of our lives. And though this may still feel a bit scary or bad (realizing, as a 2016 Nielsen survey suggests, that we spend upwards of five hours a day watching TV), I’d like to suggest that used well, time logging can be a way of freeing ourselves from guilt and mindfully setting more realistic expectations.
Here’s a little example—I like to write in the mornings. Historically, I have maintained a faithful 8-10am writing time, either tucked away in a corner of the cafeteria adjacent to my building or at the internet-free coffee shop near campus.
This year, I have had a repeated disappointment. Each morning, I’d crack open my laptop and see the little digital clock display reporting out an unavoidable truth: 8:25, 8:45, 8:50. Kind of disappointing.
But, logging my time, I came to a realization: the shift in my writing time was reflecting a change in a different area of my life. After several years, I have finally purchased a non-scary bicycle that I’m riding to work most days. This shift has health, economic, and environmental benefits. Also, and this is super-banal, it means I need to blow dry my hair in the mornings so I don’t have crazy helmet-hair. Between this nod to vanity and the extra time that biking takes, the truth revealed by the adjusted time log in my planner reveals that it’s now more reasonable to imagine that my writing time needs to shift to somewhere closer to 8:45 or 9:00.
This now means that rather than whipping myself over my failure to show up for my appointed writing time each morning, there are decisions to be made. Do I want to write until 11, rather than 10? That’s possible on days I don’t teach. Can I add an afternoon writing session or two? Yes, but I’ll need accountability. Whichever the case may be, an adjustment is in order, but not a bunch of guilt. Though this year, it’s biking that means the way I pass the hours of my days has changed, it could as easily be something else: a family issue, health concerns, a change in course schedule or departmental commitments.
If time tracking sounds interesting, I’d point you to Laura Vanderkam (http://lauravanderkam.com/). I’m especially fond of her book I Know How She Does It, which, in addition to showing the time logs of many successful professional women who have children, makes an argument for encouraging young women to enter the sort of high-powered professions perceived as incompatible with family life. Her tone is refreshingly matter of fact. As it turns out no one, really no one, is working 80 hours a week!
Used as a tool to impartially diagnose, tweak and readjust, time tracking can be a way to see if time spent matches priorities and also to get real in a way that may mean setting yourself up to succeed rather than inflicting upon yourself a daily Sisyphean task that guarantees guilty feelings. It needn’t mean doing things faster or more efficiently; instead, it might just mean becoming aware of how your time is being spent. After all, who has time for guilt? Have you been watching the new American Crime Story? There’s so much good TV to watch!
I am a proselytizer for Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) program (https://www.facultydiversity.org/) —if you’re affiliated with a university, you should check and see if you have an institutional membership! One of the hallmarks of this program is the “Every Semester Needs a Plan” workshop, which involves identifying out and planning goals every semester.
Having these goals is crucial to measuring progress as you go and also having something to aim at to focus your energies so that you don’t fritter away the weeks on work email and TV murder mysteries (insert your own addictions here).
But as important as it is to plan for success, it’s also important to plan for failure. Part of being mindful about one’s writing or other creative practice means knowing both what doesn’t work in a generalized way—in my case, writing in the evening—as well as special circumstances that tend not to pan out.
Sometimes failure sneaks up on you. For example, I happened to have low-level anemia when I was pregnant. As it turns out, no iron, no energy. As a result, rather than making the progress on my book and blog that I had hoped for, I spent a lot of time on the couch binge watching The Killing and reading Karin Slaughter novels (I highly recommend Cop Town, by the way). For matters like personal or family illness, it’s hard to know how to plan ahead.
But sometimes, if you reflect on the rhythms of semesters past or the way infrequent but recurrent events have tended to go, you can plan for certain kinds of “failure.” To take this particular season of the academic calendar as an example, you might think about what kind of work you tend to accomplish when your department is hosting job candidates for campus visits. If you’re neither a super human nor a jerk who doesn’t contribute to the good of the department, chances are, you’re unlikely to make major progress on research or writing goals for this limited period. Ditto the weekend your parents come to visit. In the comments below, feel free to add other examples of events that are both disruptive and predictable.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we write off whole semesters or let ourselves off the hook entirely. Rather, I think we’re more productive and have a better time with both our writing and these disruptive events when we mindfully plan for periods when work might unfold at a different pace or not at all. Perhaps for the week of campus visits, you might write in your agenda “enjoy meeting job candidates;” or perhaps you could set a modest and optional goal, “if I can rough draft X grant application, great.” This way, you’re not setting yourself up for a guilt trip over a task that you never should have assigned to yourself for this particular period in the first place.
The flipside of planning for failure is also reflecting on your process and calendar to see when and whether there are super-productive periods coming your way. For me, travel to and from conferences is often hyper-productive because there’s simply nothing better to do on an airplane or in an airport than work. So, while you may give yourself permission to fail at your regular writing practice for a few weeks of the semester, perhaps you’ll also identify certain periods as super work times.
The point in either case is to look ahead and do a little planning that reflects what you know to be true about the rhythms of your work and personal life. This doesn’t mean that you’re letting yourself off the hook or being lazy; instead, being realistic about both your creative work and the things that may disrupt it may just mean you get to enjoy both more.
In 2011, I was living in Nashville, Obama (bless him) was still the president, and none of my hair was gray. Also, Lindsay Lohan was in the news for her bad behavior and the leaked photos from her disastrous Playboy photo shoot.
I do research on celebrity and matters of identity, so I was fascinated by the fact that Lohan, a star in decline, was recreating famous Marilyn Monroe photographs in the upcoming issue of Hefner’s magazine. For the first (and only?) time in my life, I bought an issue of Playboy, I poured over photos of Lohan and Monroe, and read creepy interviews with Hefner—the man bought a cemetery plot next to Monroe, saying “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up." As someone who had recently finished graduate school and was beginning to emerge from the attendant insecurities, I also identified strongly with the two actresses who struggled to be taken seriously. (It’s still the case that any time someone mentions the Monroe reading Joyce photo, I want to punch him)
And so, over a series of months in 2011-2012, I wrote an article. I sent it to a pop culture journal, where I received a very dismissive review that explained that because the reviewer had not heard about the Playboy spread, it wasn’t culturally relevant. In the meantime, I was on the job market, working on my first book, getting married, and starting my first tenure track job.
In general, the Lohan-Monroe essay languished. It remained on my CV as a “work in progress,” and, periodically, I’d add it to a list of yearly to-dos. In 2013 or so, I submitted it to a feminist journal that was probably a sight too high for the piece. More rejection, more languishing.
There are a couple such pieces in my life, including a significantly more high brow essay about Saul Bellow and The Partisan Review, which a reviewer described as “a very strange piece” and a piece of literary nonfiction about my husband (Maybe he’s happy to have the piece molder? It’s a loving essay, but still.).
I suspect that lots of writers and creative workers engage in a similarly optimistic to-do list shuffle, bumping failed or failed-for now projects from calendar to calendar, CV to CV, despite the guilt or sinking feeling such projects inspire.
In addition to making a new calendar this particular New Year’s season, I’ve also taken on Apartment Therapy’s January Cure (https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/categories/the-january-cure), a very manageable challenge that involves doing one small thing each day to whip one’s house or apartment into shape (clean one drawer, buy a plant).
Day three of the cure introduced an ingenious mechanism: the outbox. Not a trashcan, not a storage container, the outbox is a place to park things you suspect you should get rid of but that maybe you’re having a bit of trouble letting go. The idea is that you let things sit in the outbox for at least a week before having to make the decision to keep, donate, or discard. For items that feel emotionally loaded or guilty, it can be a way of easing your grip slowly. As a quick example, my outbox now contains a (in my opinion) crappy book by an author I normally love as well as five or so yoga straps. About the first, I have a weird guilty feeling about getting rid of this author’s book, as though she’d somehow know. About the second, getting rid of the yoga straps counts as an acknowledgment that I’m not planning to teach yoga anytime in the near future—unless you got really into Fifty Shades of Gray and built your own dungeon, no one besides a yoga teacher needs the fifty feet of straps I’ve acquired. The outbox is a nice place to park these things. Normally, when faced with the idea of donating or selling these two, my response is a whiny but…maybe…I want that? No, the answer is no, I don't, but I need to ease out of my ownership of these items.
This is true, too, for some of these bad old writing projects. They need an intermediate parking place while I come to terms with the fact that La Lohan is unlikely to have a career renaissance at this point.
Inspired by Erin Marie Furtak, I have a “publishing pipeline” drawn into my planner (https://www.chronicle.com/article/My-Writing-Productivity/236712), but I’m thinking that in addition to quadrants for the various parts of the writing process—brainstorming, reading primary sources, reading related scholarship, abstract drafting, etc.—I need a special place to contain the projects that probably need to be let go, even if I’m not quite ready to do so just yet. I could mix my metaphors and call this my “out box” or, keeping with the pipeline metaphor, maybe this is my sewage pile or the leak into my aquifer. In any case, it seems valuable to park these languishing projects outside my to do list or calendar—capturing them somewhere so they aren’t forgotten, but also recognizing that perhaps their time has passed.
Unless some screenwriter is currently putting the finishing touches on a Lohan project I don’t know about--please?
Whether you are a semester-based person or someone whose job operates year-round, January is a moment of fresh starts and new commitments. Also, for those of us who try to maintain a creative practice, it can be a time of trying to get back in the saddle.
I have to admit, starting something new is often more appealing than recommitting to the old. In addition to its lack of shininess, the old is often freighted with guilt. During the fall semester, I didn't blog as much as I would have liked, and I rarely made it to my morning yoga class. Recommitting to these practices for the New Year entails reflecting on the way I didn’t always follow through on my goals for 2017.
Recently, I had a provocative reminder of the way practice is a special kind of commitment to one’s self. I’m participating in the wonderful Meggin McIntosh’s “Academic Decluttering” workshops (they’re ongoing, if you want to join me: https://meggin.com/classes/academic-decluttering/). In a recent session on calendar clutter, Meggin asked a question that knocked me back a bit. Where on your calendar are you lying?, she asked. The surprise of this no-nonsense phrasing inspired me to take a hard look at the previous months of my electronic calendar.
To my disappointment, a lot of what was on the calendar was more a wish list than an accurate reflection of how I was spending my time. In particular, my non-academic writing and my yoga practice were the unicorns here—fantastic beasts living in the fictional world of my calendar, but nowhere to be seen in my real life. Taking stock of the way I was lying to myself wasn’t fun, but it was a useful shakeup as I was closing out the old year and looking forward to the new.
Despite the downer of reflecting on how I haven’t measured up to my ideal self—she’s also thinner, wealthier, and better dressed, while we’re at it—I know there’s good news about practice-based goals. Unlike performance-based goals, such as selling x amount of something or running a 10k at a certain pace, practice-based goals are less zero-sum.
On the one hand, calling oneself a writer but never writing makes a liar of you (and not the good, fiction-writing kind), as does calling yourself a painter when you’ve not picked up a brush, or a meditator when you’re not sitting in silence. But, the refreshing thing about making a practice-based goal rather than a performance-based one is that these goals are largely in our control and simply executing the action, whether well or poorly, puts us back on track. It’s a nice low bar—I like it.
Unlike the performance-based goals at which I might fail (running a sub-55 10k) or over which I have no control (winning a teaching award), my practice-based goals are relatively low-hanging fruit. When I post this blog entry, I’ll be back blogging. When I showed up bleary-eyed to the yoga studio, I was back practicing yoga. Now, it’s always possible that I may not continue, but just getting myself going counts for a lot. I’m not promising to write beautiful prose or to execute the perfect Chaturanga; I’m just committing to regularly doing these things, however badly.
When I do a little online research on “practice’s” etymology, I’m reassured that the word’s history supports the modesty of my aspirations. Coming from the Latin practicare, which means “to do, perform, practice;” by around 1400, the word takes on the simple meaning “to do, act.” Nowhere in the entry is there any promise of excellence.
So, as I approach the New Year, I’m trying to move beyond self-flagellation to think about tweaking behaviors so that I can make good on my promises to practice. To help myself get to yoga, I’m trying to build in both habit and accountability: I’m planning make more regular my visits to the studio by making them always Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then I’ll attend a rigorous weekend practice at least once a month to keep me honest. For my blog writing, I’m using a strategy of conviviality: joining a new Friday writing group that meets during the time I want to write my blogs.
If you realize that you’ve fallen off from practicing, what might help you get back doing the thing? Are there barriers of location, isolation, or timing in your way? What might help you back towards being the person who performs the activity, however messy your practice may be?
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