The System

It’s graduate orientation in my department right now! We’re very busy! All the new students are here, and getting keys, and program checklists, and free lunches, and meeting faculty and each other.

Mostly, they’re getting a lot of advice, for eight hours a day, leavened with the occasional dark warning and intimations of doom regarding deadlines, paperwork, and financial matters.

I’m attending nearly every session, along with the new students, and I’ve noticed a pattern.

All the presenters giving advice about workload and time management and deadlines and milestones and work life balance? They have what they describe as a system.

It’s funny because on every panel there’s at least one grad student, and independently, in every panel I’ve attended, the grad student has referenced the system, and described what they call their own , and encouraged new students to find their own system. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Not laughing yet? What’s funny is that, ultimately, they all have exactly the same system.

It’s not a representative sample of students or academics, of course. It’s a sample representative of the kind of current grad student that volunteers to help orient new students. The kind of grad student that is Getting Shit Done and finding time to Be A Leader in the department.

The system is the dream, right? The system is the dream of never getting surprised by a deadline, never pulling an all nighter, never double-booking meetings, never being frazzled. Of waltzing confidently and calmly through the throng, to the song of your choice, like a fighter entering the ring, fresh and light, instead of being pulled out of the ring on a stretcher like the loser in a prize fight who went the full five rounds only to get knocked out in the last ten seconds. The dream of the system manifests itself in the ritual purchase of colored pens, tape flags, ringed binders with dividers, post-it notes, agendas, wall-calendars, a new purse with a laptop sleeve in it.

The system, ultimately, is not really mysterious or individual. I mean, it’s a system, not a whim. We like to fuss around the edges of it because the system sometimes demands more from us than we quite want to give and so we try to make side deals. That don’t work. The system, though, does work. And here it is:

Write. It. Down:

Have a deadline? Write it down. If you’re taking or teaching multiple courses, and doing service work, and working on independent research projects, you’ll have a lot of things you need to remember, and it will also be hard not to inadvertently book yourself a grading marathon weekend the same weekend you think you’ve set aside to write that conference paper. Write out all your stuff in one calendar.

Schedule it:

“SSHRC application due” is a deadline. “Spend 30 hours filling out online forms, crafting a program of study and revising it, securing references letters, arranging transcripts” is not a deadline. Which is how so many students (and professors) wind up beginning their SSHRC applications three days before the deadline, completely freaking out, and abandoning the project 10 minutes before the portal closes. Everything takes longer than you think it will. Good work happens not in binge sessions under deadline pressure, but in steady and regular sessions over longer time frames. Want to write an article for publication? Plan out 12 weeks of tasks to make sure it gets done. (Sometimes I still binge write at the end, but it’s only after I’ve been writing something for 90 minutes a day for three weeks–it’s more like binge-editing and refining, which is a totally different thing than starting from the 250 word abstract you wrote four months ago and trying to write a 3500 word piece in 12 hours.)

Plan for multiple time frames:

There are things that need to get done today, this week, sometime this semester, or by the end of 2018. Find a way to distinguish these things, and keep them accessible to view: we all do our work in the right-now, but with deadlines and goals of varying urgency and time horizon, if we don’t mindfully plan out the big stuff, we just fuss with the little things and wonder where our lives went. Me, I’m having real trouble “working on my book” when there’s always an immediate dissertation defense to book, a curriculum meeting, a conference proposal to submit tomorrow. The long term goals disappear in a fog of tiny right-now tasks.

The busier you are, the harder it is to work on long term goals. Schedule them. Block out the time in your calendar and commit. Make it real, make it urgent, make it an appointment (“Monday 9-11: library and database search for secondary research on ‘safe spaces'”–this for a book chapter that’s not due for six months).

Know thyself:

You probably would be most productive writing first thing in the morning. Unless you’re the rare night-writing unicorn. So that’s when you need to schedule the writing time. Maybe you like to start your day with “30 minutes of student email” but you know deep down inside that it’s just busy work and you usually stretch it out to 90 minutes of student email, followed by complaining on Facebook about how demanding your students are, then treating yourself to a nice lunch and nap to reward yourself for your pedagogical labour. Maybe you need to vow to not touch your email until you’ve spent 45 minutes reading the assigned text for Monday’s seminar. Maybe you keep planning your writing sessions for 5am, but then you never actually get out of bed. After a certain point, vowing to be different tomorrow is just a way of lying to yourself so you don’t have to do the work. Maybe 6pm is where your writing appointment should be.

Are you “working hard” on the easy stuff so that you won’t feel bad about avoiding the stuff you’re terrified of? Probably. I do this All. The. Time. and constantly have to pull myself back in line.

Anyhow, that’s it. That’s the system. Write stuff down. Make a schedule. Plan for multiple time frames. Know yourself. There’s no real mystery to it, and really, not much call to devise unique ways that you are exceptional and this won’t work for you. Because it really works for everyone, and if you ask most successful people about their “personal” system, this is pretty much what it is.

There are lots of ways of tracking and implementing and incentivizing The System. If you have your own spin, share in the comments! I’m personally getting kind of into the bullet journal, and Raul Pacheco-Vega has written about how the system works for him as an ‘everything notebook’.

One thought on “The System

  1. What a great, helpful post — this is, indeed, “my system” too, though I wish I had caught onto it, oh, in my first year of undergrad. The thing I haven't quite mastered, though, is properly planning for longer writing projects (articles, book chapters). A couple of years out of my PhD, I know how long a conference paper or grant proposal will take to write and plan accordingly, but I still find myself working 24/7 for the last week or two on these lengthier pieces, and even then it takes longer (sometimes a lot longer) than I thought it would. Anyone have suggestions? Is this something that just gets easier with experience too?


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