Learning To Stop Short of the Brim

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast of the Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide to mention a simple change that has made a huge difference in not only how I spend my time, but perhaps more important, how I feel at the end of each day.

I’m finally learning to prioritize.

211872_overflowing_glass_1A while back, I decided to stop trying to pour everything I could (and everything everyone else wanted me to do) into the finite space and time we are all given each day. I had become tired of the continual overflow of tasks, goals, and emotions, with spills everywhere and no time to clean them up.

Instead, I asked what would fit comfortably in the room and hours available to me, how I could stop pouring before I reached the brim. Before going to sleep each night, I got in the habit of spending a few moments considering what was essential at this period in my life—and what was not.

My list began to shape itself as follows, in no particular order:

  • Work (this includes both my teaching and my work as a writer and freelance back-of-the-book indexer)
  • Family (especially my marriage and relationship with our son)
  • Self Care (with a particular focus on learning to say “no” to some things so as to say “yes” to my higher priorities)

The result is that I slowly started to prioritize those three aspects of my life. I began to focus more on teaching well (and, I hope, better each term) rather than going through the motions, writing regularly and “doing my dance anyway” (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Gilbert) rather than always pushing my creative self to the edges of my life, and nurturing relationships with my family, friends, and myself rather than taking them for granted.

It’s a work in progress, but already I notice a positive change. I feel better about what I do get done and less guilt about what I don’t. My psychological energy level is higher. And I am getting better at saying “no” without feeling guilty.


Is there more I’d like to be doing had we but world enough, and time? Absolutely. Are there other items that could be on my list or that other people wish I would prioritize instead? No doubt. Can other people comfortably focus on more items than three without major spillage? Yes.

For now, however, just as for blogger Simon Hørup Eskildsen, three is my focus limit.

What is your priority list? How many areas can you focus on a time without overflowing?

Planning vs. Doing

planningDo you regularly set aside time for planning, or, like me, do you sometimes allow planning and deciding to seep into space that should be spent on doing and writing?

Natalie Houston has an excellent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about her personal productivity tips, including the importance of separating “deciding from doing”:

“Over the course of a week, I typically work on several different kinds of projects, with different timelines and different activities. In order for me to make sure that I’m on track for deadlines and balancing my responsibilities appropriately, I need to devote some clear-headed thought to planning my schedule and my task list for each day. If I have two hours of writing time scheduled in the morning, then I don’t want to waste any of it figuring out which writing project to work on. The mindset I bring to planning and scheduling is really different than the energy I bring to writing and for me it’s best to match them to the right task.” Read More

The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog (also on Twitter and Facebook) is a terrific source of information and inspiration for creating a productive writing life, regardless of whether you are in a classroom.

If you don’t value your imaginative life, no one else will

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport, book author and writer at Study Hacks, a blog which explores “patterns of success.” His most recent post, “Welcome to the Post-Productivity World,” speaks to a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of time, writing, and big-picture living:

Productivity, of course, is still important. Most mature work philosophies require that you can organize what’s on your plate. But when you’re guided by a philosophy, this organization becomes the easy part. Your drive to accomplish what you believe needs to be accomplished has a way of sweeping away the ineffective.

It’s hard to judge an era while still in the middle of it, but from all accounts I think this Age of Workplace Philosopher represents an exciting shift in our thinking about work and happiness. The more seriously we struggle with the question of ‘What defines a good working life?’, the better off we are.

I recently finished writing a proposal for a new book, which has led to some reflection on my writing career in general—how it started, the twists and turns of the past 20 years, where I am today, where I want to go. I’m sorting through how to organize/consolidate my blogs now that I have the one at Psychology Today in the mix. I’m doing the difficult but necessary work of prioritizing, pruning, planning, preparing. It feels good.

Cat at Window
photo: Milan Jurek

I’m also taking a long, hard look at my time. Like everyone else, I have 24 hours each day, and how I spend them is no one’s responsibility but mine. For a writer, or at least for this writer, some of that time might look to the outside world like frivolous fun, downtime, anything but work: reading the writing of others, making notes for future projects, networking with other writers, staring out the window, taking a walk while listening to the latest New Yorker fiction podcast (something I highly recommend), even writing blog posts. It is all part of what Joyce Carol Oates calls the imaginative life (from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art):

All the desks of my life have faced windows and except for an overwrought two-year period in the late 1980s when I worked on a word processor, I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming, or brooding. Most of the so-called imaginative life is encompassed by these three activities that blend so seamlessly together, not unlike reading the dictionary, as I often do as well, entire mornings can slip by, in a blissful daze of preoccupation. It’s bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window (I recommend it).

Without this imaginative life, we might still be productive, but at what cost? I know that when I give in to the temptation to pack every spare hour or moment with tasks, as I have during the past couple of weeks, when I don’t build in cushions of time between activities for reflection and creative synthesis, my writing suffers, my mood suffers, everything suffers. I may still write as much, just not as well.

I have said some difficult “no’s” to people recently, and I’m not yet finished. It’s not easy. No one said it would be. Sometimes I feel like Donald Sutherland in Animal House when he stands in front of his students and pleads, “Listen, I’m not joking. This is my job!”

What defines a good writing day for you? What “no’s” are you willing to make that day a reality, to be able to say “yes” to the imaginative life of a writer?

Working (and Writing) Smart


From the Harvard Business Review blog network, Tony Schwartz discusses multi-tasking, anxiety, creativity, and pacing in  Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By. You’ll find much in this concise piece to discuss, debate, and perhaps apply.

On multi-tasking:

“The worst thing you can do as a boss is to insist that your people constantly check their email.”

On anxiety:

“Put bluntly, any time your behavior increases someone’s anxiety — or prompts any negative emotions, for that matter — they’re less likely to perform effectively.”

On creativity:

“As it turns out, the creative process moves back and forth between left and right hemisphere dominance. Creativity is actually about using the whole brain more flexibly.”

On pacing:

“Rather than systematically burning down our reservoir of energy as the day wears on, as most of us do, intermittent renewal makes it possible to keep our energy steady all day long. Strategically alternating periods of intense focus with intermittent renewal, at least every 90 minutes, makes it possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.”