I had to go to the bathroom this morning, so I left my office and walked down the hall. When I walked into the ladies’ room a blast of frigid air greeted me. The windows were wide open. It’s late November in northeastern China. Whose idea was this? Everyone’s, apparently. All the windows were open in the bathrooms throughout the building. Perhaps I should appreciate the “fresh” air. If they weren’t open, that special sewage scent might be more noticeable. All the toilets at the college are the “squatty-potty” variety, with two places for one’s feet on either side of a long basin-like bowl. It’s essentially a fancy hole in the ground. And plumbing in China apparently hasn’t advanced the “u-bend” stage of piping. Consequently, the out-gassing from everything that gets flushed makes its way back up the pipes and into my nostrils. But the thing is, I had coffee this morning. And you know how it is. When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.
Deadlines are like that. They force action. Rita Mae Brown once said, “A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.” I was thinking about that earlier this morning as I checked my students’ homework. They had to do some internet research in English, and find three tips on time management. As I reviewed what they had written, I was reminded of my former life as an office manager, when I had studied Stephen Covey’s principles, and clung to my Franklin planner as if it were my blankie. I was working for a small but busy environmental law firm in Austin, and found that if I didn’t organize and prioritize, I felt constantly overwhelmed, and often dropped one of the many balls I juggled – professional, personal and community responsibilities to which I felt deeply committed. But as I reviewed my students’ work, I realized I hadn’t used a planner in five years.
Coming to China has changed my life dramatically. I now live in a place where I am essentially illiterate, deaf and mute because I can’t read most of what’s around me, can’t understand what most people are talking about, and can’t express myself effectively in their language. I teach at a local college and write. I have domestic help, so my household responsibilities have been drastically reduced. Both my children are in school. And as for community responsibilities, well, they have shifted from mostly administrative tasks to building friendships and a stronger sense of community in this culture that is so very strange to me. Still, I am very committed to these responsibilities. But every one of them is now relationship-oriented rather than task-oriented. Instead of having to manage budgets, equipment and staff, I teach. Instead of procedures and memos, I write essays, memoir and a novel. Instead of changing diapers and feeding babies, I talk with my children about their school days. Instead of planning and attending meetings, I meet with my friends and we talk about how to make the world a better place, and how we can become better people. We support and encourage each other in our troubles, and revel in the good times.
But I think it’s time to return to time management, especially because I feel I’m loosing sight of my writing goals. My intention was to begin posting weekly on this blog, both to build a community and to increase the amount I write. But I set no deadlines. I also wanted to get into the habit of submitting my work for publication at least once a month, and keep the work circulating. I haven’t submitted anything since September. I was supposed to get a writers’ group formed to generate support and some sense of deadline, but I’ve only sent one text message out into the world to get that to happen, and not followed up. It’s about time to tighten the belt and get serious.
So I turned to my writing resources to dig up what I can find about setting self-imposed deadlines. I found a fine blog post by Patrick Ross, which includes five tips to help make sure I meet those deadlines. He suggests setting realistic goals, breaking down those goals in to bite-sized pieces, celebrating accomplishments and creating and accepting the consequences of failure. One suggestion I find very helpful is: “if you track progress digitally, you should have an easily visible physical representation of it, so you have both the satisfaction of drawing a line to mark your progress, and reminders of your progress every time you walk by the display.” My current time-management tool keeps everything hidden in my little iTouch. Even though there are pop-up reminders, they are not as demanding a reminder as something that is in your face, and frequently reviewed. Ross also mentions that he “changes [his] project tracking lines every few days so it simply looks different, even if the goals/deadlines haven’t changed.” This helps prevent the familiar sight from becoming invisible. The comment discussion that follows adds to the helpful insights and practical tips.
Once I have some self-imposed deadlines set, I will create a calendar of submission deadlines for contests and requests for submissions. Then I’m going to have to brush the dust off my Franklin planner and remember how to prioritize and set weekly and daily goals. I hope it’s like riding a bike. I have a feeling it’s not. I have a feeling it’s more like forcing myself to go to the bathroom when I know there is a freezing wind waiting for my exposed tush. But I have to do it. I have a lot of ideas that need to get out there into the world. And you know how it is. When you’ve gotta write, you’ve gotta write.
What do you do to manage you writing life/time?