A schedule is a net for catching December

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. — Annie Dillard

It was the last writing class of term today, and my students and I did a planning exercise. As usual, the exercise was a useful to me as it (I hope) was for them, and so I’m sharing it here in case it is useful to others, too.

The first thing is to reflect on the social space that we enter into as academics and writers in December. There are some things specific for grad students about talking with friends and family over the winter break that I think faculty don’t experience so much, though in general people who aren’t in the academy can’t be expected to ask questions that don’t trigger extreme responses in academics. Still, the meme that goes “Over the holidays don’t ask grad students bad questions like, How is the thesis going? Ask them better questions like, Would you like this free money?” has a lot of wisdom. So, it may be worthwhile to do some active preparation for talking with non-academics about education and research work in social and family settings. A few options:

1. Prepping a small card that you can simply hand to inquirers that says something like “Because it is difficult to explain my thesis topic, I have prepared this short illustration of what I am working on with key words defined” or “I have worked out a policy with my thesis supervisor/ therapist forbidding me from speaking about my thesis; please accept this small sketch of a cat in lieu of conversation about what I am working on or how much longer it will take me” or “Thank you for your interest in my thesis topic; I take it as an expression of love! Sadly, I am not able to speak about it for secret reasons.”
2. Prepping some version of the above but without the card. This can be aided by taking the attitude that while there are some people we encounter who are actively trying to be mean about our research (either that we are doing it at all or because of the specific topic we’re concerning ourselves with) many people are asking questions like “Wow it’s taking you a long time to finish your book” that sound aggressive or make us feel bad when what they mean to be saying is more like “I care about you and I don’t understand this weird thing you’re working on but I assume that it’s important to you and so I am trying to ask you about it.” So our response might be to try to speak to that impulse rather than to the content of their question.
3. Planning to give a useful evasion such as “my supervisor and committee seem happy with the stage I’m at!” or just an outright lie “It’s going so great! I’ve never been happier.”

The basic structure of the university schedule lends itself to a host of very predictable writing difficulties, most of which we actively disavow in our thinking and feeling about writing. Indeed, as Nick Mitchell has gorgeously discussed, the idea of being “off” – for the summer or winter breaks – can produce a poisonous kind of disavowal that structures much of the affective and material conditions of universities. My current obsessions with bad faith have hailed me to think about what it would mean to foreground what I actually know about what’s going to happen and to behave accordingly – and, more, to talk explicitly with students about these things.
One thing we academics in general might think about the winter break is that it will be a time when we can do a tremendous quantity of writing work, magically transforming everything that didn’t happen over the fall term into abundance, redeeming any laziness we think we manifested, validating our existence as productive scholars, etc. Of course on some level we might know that this approach is both unrealistic and self-cruel, but it still offers itself. There are at least two problems with the view that we have nothing but time ahead of us and therefore we’ll do an enormous quantity of high quality writing:

1. We probably don’t have as much time ahead of us as we think we do – on the wage-work side the end of fall term involves a lot of clean up, marking, talking about marking with students, managing inputs from other people, finishing prepping syllabi for winter term, and so on. On the personal side, December is often a month where we encounter all of the baggage that trails along behind the entwinement of capitalism with christianity with the monogamous couple form of reproductive futurity – it is a lucky person who doesn’t have some form of difficult feeling around taking up or resisting “The Holidays” in terms of family, friends, lonesomeness, meaning-making, meaninglessness, and more. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, have really sweet relations with my family of origin (and no expectation to exchange presents with them), look forward to wonderful time with chosen family this month, and I still feel the intense pressure of December’s imperative to spend money and have a good time in order to recover from the fall and start the new year right. The practical side of this pressure is that there are often just a lot of days that are a write-off from the point of view of writing for any number of reasons – travel/family time/being felled by grief at the first holiday after someone’s death/anxiety attacks.
2. Even if we do have expansive meadows of uninterrupted time in which we can at last, at last, sit down and get some writing done, we skirt the dangers of a) procrastinating on actually starting because there is just so much time there’s no reason to start yet; b) binge-writing such that we fall into a slough of despond the next day after completely emptying ourselves out; c) reinforcing the ultimately both wrong and cruel practice of only writing if we have big uninterrupted chunks of time. These emotional patterns of relating with our writing don’t actually help us, and it’s better to take an approach to writing that is kinder and more sustaining. At the same time, of course, sometimes there really is time to dig in to writing in December, and it would be nice to enjoy that!

So, I’m a fan of making a very stern schedule for what each day will hold in the month of December. In my class, we do this in this order:

*Identify three days in a row that will be purely devoted to wallowing in activities that are non-work, that are pleasures, that rejuvenate, that set us up for ease when we come out of them. These days can’t include coordinating or attending stressful family dinners, or New Year’s Eve parties, or work events. They might involve napping, baths, reading that has nothing to do with research, screen time that is just for pleasure, games, time outside, dates with friends or lovers, cooking and eating, and other activities that feel just really good. These days off are important for re-setting our attention, allowing our constant vigilance to relax, and tuning our parasympathetic nervous system a bit.
*Block out time that will be required for attending holiday activities, or for grieving holiday activities that you won’t be participating in, for pre-event anxiety and for post-event processing. Recognize that it is not reasonable to expect to do work on the same day as any “holiday” activity, though sometimes work does happen.
*Identify two longer chunks, of approximately three 45-minute writing units each, that can be carved out of work weeks, and three smaller units that can be distributed on various days. If there is a longer writing day, such as a six-unit day, it’s important to always assign a one-unit day directly following to avoid post-intensive-writing-despair. The general idea is to have a thread of continuity for the writing work with even one short writing session happening every few days.
*Check to see that in each work week retains at least one day off of writing or work and redistribute work scheduling if needed.

If you’re like me or my students, it will be a bit shocking to see how little time there is actually left in the month for writing. But this realization can be a source of softness and kindness for ourselves, instead of worry: it is better and more generous to accurately plan our writing time than to imagine that we have unlimited time and that we’ll produce unbelievable amounts of gorgeous prose. As always, it’s better to plug along, showing up for the time we’ve planned, allowing our schedule to scaffold our attention so that we can work on things with both hands. And then, when we’re not scheduled to write, to thoroughly enjoy our life.

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