Today is the first day of the fall semester, which means that I’m an absolute wreck.
It’s not that I’m especially nervous about heading back to the classroom or anything quite like that (though I’m naturally trying to figure out how I’d like to manage my own masking and COVID care, among other things). The jangly part for me is trying to dial in the shape my life will take–or ideally ought to take–over the next several months.
The summer was loosely scheduled, but the moving parts of each day were decidedly mechanical. I knew with perfect certainty what I’d be doing up until about noon on most days, and in the hours that followed before my partner came home from work I generally knew what I’d be up to. The bad news for me is that I didn’t plan any transitional time into the calendar: I knew I’d be reconsidering my course outlines to get ready for the term in August, but I didn’t brace myself for the temporal lurch that unsurprisingly arrived today. I wrapped up my summer plans on Friday, and today I’ve got to figure out the shape of my days and ways over the next four months or so. A weekend was not nearly enough time to get myself sorted.
Broadly speaking I’m cautiously optimistic about some big-picture prospects. Over the weekend I identified a change in tech that should allow me to dive into some recording ideas I’ve been planning for awhile, and I also came across a movie that perfectly captures the tone I’m aspiring to in both my novel and in the new novella project I started late in July. I feel pretty good about my teaching plans for the semester as well, as I’ve rejiggered many of the moving parts to make them more accessible and student-friendly. I tend to mistrust autonomic optimism, optimism as an unexamined habit of mind, but when enough moving parts align I try to ride out that trust.
To get my mind in some semblance of order–and to capitalize on these strange optimistic impulses–I’m leaning on some old tricks of the trade, which I thought I might pass along today. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, but they are often of use to me when I’m getting ready for change but haven’t quite decided what that change is going to look like.
The first step is broad-based itemization. It’s the kind of goal-setting most of us do when we’ve got longer-term prospects on the horizon. I lost thirty pounds over the summer, for instance, and I’d like to keep that momentum going. I’d like to finish off the draft of the novella. I’d like to figure out how to make better hypnosis recordings. It’s all chunky stuff, stuff that I’ll chip away at over the course of the coming weeks and months–big plot arcs rather than individual scenes.
The second step, then, is breaking apart my ambitions. I find few things more dispiriting than having a long, undifferentiated list of things to do that I can’t actually accomplish in any settled length of time. For me it feels like having a full cognitive inbox, an inbox stuffed with messages that I have no choice but to leave in the hopper. I know folks who regularly open up Outlook and find themselves starting at dozens or hundreds of emails. That’s far too many cathexes for my mind to manage, so I like to break actionable notions down into separate lists. At present, that means I’ve got Optional/Future projects in one (story ideas I’ve got in mind for various calls for submissions, for example, or revisions of older projects that have occurred to me), On-Deck/Ongoing items in another (like the draft of the novella, the refinement of my recording methods for hypnosis content, etc., all of which I’ll nibble at over weeks and months), and Week of August 29th prospects in the third, uppermost list. Those are all items I can reasonably tackle over the next couple of days, like buying a new USB cord or cleaning my computer desktop or getting my books for the term on the right shelf. They remind me that I’m making progress every day, and they keep me from fretting about those pending tasks that would haunt that uppermost list if I were less granular.
Step three is focusing on a) the known and b) the known bits of business that actually fall to me. Left to its own devices my brain can conjure up plenty of junk to worry about, though most of those conjurings belong to the realm of The Unknown. My partner, for example, plans to start up her own business in the coming months, and I intend to help her out in any way I can. But at this juncture I have only a fuzzy idea about what kind of help she might like, so fretting about it inevitably leads me to an array of dead ends. Likewise, I’ll be collaborating with a colleague on a course we’d like to get on the books in 2023 or 2024. Right now, however, the ball is in her court; we’ve got some ideas on the table, but not much progress can be made until we’re both ready to hunker down and get the syllabus written up. I could try to slap some flesh on the bones on my own, but all of that work could be pointless if we decide to move in a different direction. That project, then, gets dropped into the On-Deck file–it doesn’t need to crowd my brainspace right now.
Step four, given the divisions I’ve made, is tackling stuff on the first hop–getting junk done as soon as I’m able. The infinite business we call Adulthood involves the churning of tasks, clearing one item from the to-do list only to add another and another. The longer we leave those items pending, however, the more cognitive energy we expend, at least in my experience (hence the reference to cathexes above). Today I’m meant to blog, for example, so here I am blogging. As soon as I’ve finished the entry I’ll cross it off my list, and then I’ll tackle other items, one after another, until it’s time for me to head to campus. It’s not the sexiest state of affairs, but it will keep me from succumbing from that paralysis that comes with having too much junk to do and too little time to do it. Today could have easily become unmanageable, which would bode ill for the term, but I’m one paragraph away from completing this task and I’ve already got three tasks behind me. Not bad for 8:00am on a Monday, and at day’s end I’ll feel like I’ve made some progress–primarily because I actually have.
The fifth and last step on the day is anchoring the new habits, which I think is important to do any time I alter my routine, the mechanical pattern that shapes my day. It often feels like a cheap trick to me, but it’s really just a substantial, visible reminder of the difference I intend to instate. Right now, for example, I’m drinking from a different coffee mug, a mug unlike the one I used every day this summer. It seems like a trivial change, but every time I reach for it I’m reminded that what I’m doing today is not what I’ve been doing every day since May. Many folks I know consider themselves impulsive, spontaneous people, but I think there are generally underlying patterns–how we eat if not what we eat, how we actually dress ourselves if not what we’re wearing–that we tend to gloss over, some of the foundational habits we have learned to sublimate. Even a slight revision can be enough to remind us that things are a little different, enough to get some new way of living underway.