Taking Charge of My Schedule

Want a sense of control over your life, or at least the illusion of it? Write things down, do them, and cross them off.

I don’t know about anyone else out there is academia, but this semester has felt particularly busy to me so far. Even though I’m technically taking two classes instead of three, and am working on campus rather than driving to Newport News twice a week for my assistantship, I still feel like my days are fuller than ever. Between finalizing reading lists, TAing, and gearing up for semester research projects, I feel like I’m as loaded down as ever with work in one form or another.

Based on conversations I’d had with other students, I suspected this semester was going to be especially hectic, so during the first weeks of school, I implemented a more regimented schedule.

Last year was a bit experimental for me. After working in an office for several years where I was expected to be on-site from 8:00-5:00, I was open to trying different types of working styles and habits. Over the summer in particular, I had lots of time to play around with my schedule, and determine what worked best for me in terms of writing and reading. While I already had a good sense of how I worked, my summer of experimentation verified the following:

  1. I’m most focused in the mornings.
  2. Unless I’m writing a draft of a long essay, I work best in smaller chunks with short breaks rather than long stretches
  3. If the weather is beautiful, I won’t get anything done until I go outside.
  4. I get as distracted as anybody else, especially when it comes to cat videos.

That last point was particularly humbling, as I’d always prided myself on what I considered my especially focused attention span. As I’d already learned from an online writing workshop, however, I’ve always worked better when I set time limits, I just didn’t realize it when I was younger because I timed it to music.

So when the fall semester approached, I decided to try out something I haven’t done before: set a schedule for myself. I did this partly to reinstate the formality that I’d lost when I left the museum, as I always managed to get a lot done within those hours and had gotten used to the evening being dedicated to free time. Knowing that I’ll be finished with classes this semester, I thought it would be a good idea to start following a schedule now so that I’ll stay on-track when I’m reading for comps next semester, and the dissertation after that. I also figured that following a formal schedule will make my transition back to the working world easier whenever I’m finished at William and Mary.

I’ve broken down the schedule by semester, month, week, and day. I set my writing time in the morning, when I’m most focused. During the rest of the week, I have specific days set aside for homework in different classes. Wednesdays through Fridays I read for my Mobility seminar, for instance, while I dedicate Friday afternoons and Saturdays to my Religion to 1900 seminar. Mondays are spent working on reading lists and research, while Tuesdays and Thursday evenings are my prep days for TAing. Naturally, there’s some give and take to this setup, after all, no schedule should be so procrustean that you can’t make any adjustments, but this is what I’ve been following for the last few weeks.

Most radically of all, I try to take Sundays off so that I can spend time with Brandon and work on other interests. After years of having the weekends off consistently, I know I need time to myself, devoid of school work, if I’m going to successfully finish this program. For me, it’s no longer about pushing myself 200% and burning out, because I’ve already done that and it’s not worth it. Instead, I aim for working steadily and consistently, and that includes taking downtime.

So how do I keep track of all this? I actually use a variety of methods. I’ve used Google Calendar to map out my entire semester, so that I can keep track of the big picture in terms of upcoming assignments and tasks. For weekly schedules, I have an ongoing Word doc where I write down what I need to accomplish on which days. And for my daily schedule, I’ve been writing things down on a little chalkboard I got from Colonial Williamsburg and keep in my desk, mostly because it’s satisfying to cross things off as I complete them. I probably got that from the Frog and Toad story about the list (and yes, I know Toad loses the list and feels bereft without it, but I don’t write mine on scrap paper and let them get blown away by the wind either). Through these three methods, I can keep track of both immediate tasks and plan ahead for longer-term objectives.

Would this schedule work for everyone? Probably not, I imagine a lot of folks would find it a bit rigid. It work for me though, and that’s what matters.

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