Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

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The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.

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(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!

Kim

 

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On scheduling

In my last post I mentioned I’m on sabbatical. When I did that, I bet some of you went: “ARGH! Why can’t I be on sabbatical too!

Don’t feel too bad, at least not on my account. Because the truth is I suck at sabbaticals: nobody is worse than me at sorting out life during unscheduled, unplanned time. I’m pretty much useless without frameworks and extant demands to concentrate my focus. I joke that I only took on my last book project, Theatre & Feminism, because I was moving across the ocean, changing jobs, and taking on some caring responsibilities for my mom – I needed a work project to help de-stress my busy life.

Alas, I now have ANOTHER book project – the kind with a contract, a deadline, and a hard-at-work-already marketing team – and it needs to get written on this here research leave, which ends in late December. I spent July trying to recover from my winter and spring teaching obligations, August moving house, and September, so far, has been eaten up with a combination of works taking place at my new place, and self-imposed, utterly unproductive angst about all the other kinds of works NOT getting done around my new home office.

In other words: I need to fake up a framework for myself, and fast.

Cue the un-schedule.

the-unschedule

What’s an unschedule? Basically, it’s a schedule you create for yourself that prioritizes all the life/fun/”in the way” stuff that normally gets left OUT of a schedule, and which then of course takes over anyway, and guarantees that your schedule is not actually going to function as intended.

I learned about the un-schedule when I first began my job at Western, during a Teaching Support Centre workshop on work-life balance, from my (now) friend Tracy Isaacs, one of the professors behind the terrific blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. I still recall Tracy opening her talk with these words: “I’m on sabbatical right now, so of course I have balance.” What strikes me as incredibly ironic – yet also entirely useful – looking back on that presentation now, is that Tracy located her work-life balance in her un-schedule. Without scheduling of some kind, in fact, sabbaticals do not generate balance; they are not magical work-life re-jiggers. A sabbatical can easily become a stressful black hole for people like me, who are normally workaholics and operate effectively under pressure.

So, how does one make an unschedule? Mileage varies, I’ve found, after some informal googling. The one rule is that you start with the immoveable stuff (food! sleep! school run!), followed by the “for you” stuff (exercise, haircuts, reading, coffee with friends). Then you either schedule, or leave blank, the spaces around them, which can in theory be filled with work tasks, life tasks, or whatever else needs doing. The principal is simply that, by starting with a realistic look at your habits, your commitments, your pleasures, and the actual time each takes, you can more logically set out a day or a week that genuinely represents your needs.

I spent today working at the British Library; in “un-schedule” fashion, I started with immoveable commitments (one fun: lunch with friend Bridget; one less so: adjusting a piece of writing I need to present on camera tomorrow). Then, once they were completed, I turned to my spreadsheet app, created a blank schedule document, and got to work.

Before I take you through my process, here’s what the finished product looks like:

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My first order of business was to delete Saturday and Sunday from the picture altogether. I do not work on those days, period. (That’s a hard and fast rule, UNLESS it’s term time, I’m teaching, and something comes up that simply cannot be readjusted into the week. I also don’t check my work email on weekends, which is a decision I made last fall and it’s been a life-saver.)

Next, I tried to work out what blocks of time I needed: an hour? Less? More? I quickly realized that each day, for the purposes of creating a one-page, at-a-glance weekly schedule, needed to include the same time blocks, but that each day would never really look the same, task wise. I decided that this will simply mean that some days “10-12” will be more like “9:45-11:30” or “10:30-12:30”, depending on the day and the tasks at hand. Not a big deal; the schedule, after all, is a guide, not Big Brother. I can adjust on the fly.

My next job was to identify stuff that simply has to happen each day. Right now, given sabbatical, there’s honestly not a lot of that: few meetings, fewer demands on my time from colleagues or students. Cue momentary panic: my life is empty!! How can I be so unproductive?? Then, I closed my eyes and pictured Emma the dog giving me the side-eye she uses for all purposes of emotional blackmail. Problem solved.

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(Emma says: you HAVE to take me walkies. RIGHT NOW.)

I began to un-schedule in earnest by filling in my morning routine. I am not an early riser (8:30 is optimistic, people!), and I like to walk Emma first thing (actually, I permit myself to be herded to the door first thing). I like to check email over coffee. This takes time. Empty the dishwasher, make a smoothie and some eggs, tidy up, water plants in the garden… I’m not going to pretend these things don’t happen, and don’t take up to 2 hours, depending, in the morning. That’s the way I like it. So into the schedule it went.

The next thing I noted – and this is slightly un-un-schedule-y, but whatevs – was that I wanted to block off at least 2 hours a day for sitting in front of my computer, email program closed, writing (or trying to write – staring blankly at text I reject as sub-par but have as yet no idea how to fix also counts for something). That damn book deadline means I need to generate about 4000 words a week until Christmas; that’s a lot of writing, but it’s not unmanageable for me. I reason that I’ll need 12-16 hours per week to generate that amount of content, unedited; so two hours each morning, every morning of the week, takes care of the bulk of that.

And so we come to lunch. I always eat lunch, but lunch for me rarely consists of just eating. I am extremely active: an avid cyclist, swimmer, rower, and I practice Iyengar yoga (among other kinds). Which basically means I’m an endorphin junkie. Without the endorphins, work goes less well, period. So, to be realistic, I blocked off 2.5 hours for lunch-hour activities each day; for two of those days I scheduled a bike ride (which, until the snow flies, will likely take the full 2.5 hours), while for one I scheduled a swim, and the other a yoga class.

This part of the scheduling task was actually hard – not because I don’t know how much time I need for lunch-hour activities, nor because I didn’t know what those activities might be, but because I’ve just moved to my new city, and so don’t actually have my new workout routine in place yet. (Will I like the yoga classes I’ve identified as “good timing”? Will I want to swim every Friday?) This realization prompted another brief moment of panic: how can you make a schedule when you don’t even know WTF about your new life yet AAGGHH?? Which I solved by reminding myself of another really important detail: the schedule is not fixed. It’s flexible!

If in three weeks it turns out my exercise routine *actually* looks very different to what I’ve scheduled, that’s fine: I can just change the schedule, moving the work stuff around as needed. That’s the power of the un-schedule.

Which brings us to the afternoon. I am not an early riser/morning person = I like to work late into the afternoons; that’s why that block begins each day at 2:30pm and continues until 5:30, with an option to extend to 6:30pm as needed. I know myself; I’ll get going in the afternoon and might not want to stop. I won’t want to cook, let alone eat, before 7pm, guaranteed. So this is a very logical, practical organization of my time.

And what about the tasks that slot into that 3-4 hour window? I’ve recorded these as “primary or secondary” tasks, to reflect that some days I’ll want to return to the morning’s writing, and some days I know I won’t. I also have other stuff on tap – blog posts to write, new work by colleagues to read, as well as other research projects bubbling to the surface. I edit a journal, Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, which requires some concentrated time; I’ve scheduled an afternoon a week for that work, and hope (for a change!) to restrict it to that window of time.

In four of these afternoon slots, you’ll notice that I’ve also added a note: “may include travel to Toronto.” I now live within Toronto’s public transit corridor, which means I can visit friends, see theatre or films, or head into the city for meetings very easily. The bus and the train are both options for me; both take an hour, and both are ideal work zones. I know I’ll want to visit the city at least once a week, and I know I can combine that travel with work on public transit very easily. It made sense to remind myself of this in the schedule, so that if someone invites me to a meeting in Toronto I can honestly say: I have M/T/Th/F from 2:30pm; what works for you?

Which brings us to 7pm. “Stop working!” I’ve told myself in each evening slot. Why? Because I might not stop otherwise. I might have not been as productive as I want to be in the day, or I might be stuck on a tricky paragraph; I know myself well enough to know that, if that happens, I’ll keep pushing until I fall down from hunger or exhaustion. (Again, the principal that drives the un-schedule is self-reflexive honesty.) But if I’ve followed the schedule, and it’s 7pm, then, dammit, it’s time to stop. Tomorrow’s another day. And look! Wednesday might include an optional evening activity (there’s nothing scheduled at lunch yet… we’ll see), plus there’s restorative yoga on Thursday nights at the studio near my house. A great excuse to shut the computer down.

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(Looks odd, feels great. BKS Iyengar always knew when to stop working.)

How’s this going to go? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m going to stick as closely as possible to the schedule for the next couple of weeks and note what needs adjusting; then I’ll rejig it to reflect aspects of my weekly reality I could only glean from living through the schedule. (I might repost it at that point, if I learn useful things in the process; stay tuned.)

For now, I’m going to try to operate by the following three principals:

  • all the activities in the schedule are valuable. I will make time for all of them – even the damn dog walking – as close to the slotted time as is reasonable.
  • the schedule is a guide; adjustments on the fly do not equal failures.
  • the schedule is flexible; it should flex with me. If I bend too hard to meet the schedule’s “demands”, it won’t be sustainable.

Meanwhile, if you work to a similar (or similarly-spirited) schedule, please let me know what you use and how it works for you! I’m very keen to understand how others cope with the sabbatical conundrum.

Kim