People keep asking me how I can do all the things I do, and the question always surprises me, because from my perspective, I don’t get nearly as much done as I’d like to. But it’s true that my life is very, very full, and I do use specific strategies to get as much done as possible. So I thought I should write about what I do . . .
Sometimes the answer is that I don’t. I miss deadlines, get things in late, fall flat on my face. Fail. That happens. Sometimes I forget things I shouldn’t have forgotten. And then I remember and have to apologize . . . But when it does work, how does it work?
This is what my life looks like: I teach full-time in the academic writing program at Boston University, which is a major research university, and I’m a faculty member at the Stonecoast MFA Program, which means that I mentor graduate creative writing students. They are both jobs I love and feel incredibly lucky to have. I’m also a writer, so I’m always writing — and I usually have a deadline of some sort, because most of what I write at this point is solicited. People ask me for stories, which are due on particular dates because the anthology has to be edited and go to print. This year, I’ve also been working on a novel, which is almost done. That’s taken a lot of time . . . And I have a ten-year-old daughter who is with me part of the week. Today, for example, I’m writing this blog post, I’m going to the library with my daughter to return books, I need to do some work on the poetry collection that should be coming out this summer, and I’ll be reading over material from one of my creative writing students. Then, I’ll work on the novel. I want to get the entire novel down on paper (this will be the second draft for most of it, although the first draft for the last few chapters) before I leave for Budapest in a little more than a week. In Budapest, I’ll be taking four weeks of intensive Hungarian, with the hope that eventually I can relearn enough Hungarian to translate fairy tales. Before I leave, I need to finish some administrative stuff for Boston University and . . . oh, never mind, it’s going to take too long to describe it all. Let’s just get on to the How To. I think there are basically three things I do:
You have to prioritize ruthlessly. I mean in part that you need to learn to say no, usually to people you like and want to help. You have to learn to say, “No, I can’t get you a story by then,” or “No, I can’t meet with you that week.” You can’t do everything, so you have to figure out what is most important for you to do. You have to know what your priorities actually are . . . More on this in a minute.
(Priority: having a beautiful apartment justified bringing this little table home from a thrift store. I carried it for about a mile . . .)
It helps a lot to be organized. To have particular places where things always go. I have a binder for my Boston University teaching that contains all my notes. A folder for my Stonecoast teaching. Separate folders set up for each on my desktop. In my apartment, there are spaces for specific things, and when things are out of their spaces, I put them back. I’m not naturally an organized person — I don’t think any of us is, naturally — so I got into the habit of being organized, of doing the dishes before I went to sleep, making the bed when I got up. Organization is a habit, like exercise. Once you get into a habit, it’s more trouble than not to follow it. If you want to do anything, make it a habit . . .
And it’s essential, I think, to simplify as much as possible. There are things I need to do that I don’t want to spend a lot of time on, because they’re tedious and don’t really contribute to either my joy in life or accomplishing my goals. So I try to make them as simple and automatic as possible. Like paying bills, or doing taxes.
I try to create a life in which I’m spending most of my time doing what I actually want to. Oh, I may not want to do every single thing connected with my projects — I don’t wake up wanting to grade 50 papers or go over copyedits. But those things contribute to my overall goals. When I do them I get a sense of accomplishment, because they’re helping me accomplish the things on the list.
(Priority: I didn’t list this below, but one of the items on the list is traveling to fabulous places. These are Hungarian forints. And I’m actually related to the man on the 20,000 forint bill.)
What list, you ask. The list. The one I keep on my cork board, where I can see it every day. As I’m writing this, it’s up and to the left of me. If I look up and turn my head a little, I can see it. It’s a list of the things I want to accomplish in life, and there are eight items on it. I starting making the list about two years ago, when I realized that I was working a lot . . . but toward what? What did I really want to accomplish? I found that I was trying to do everything, and prioritizing by what other people wanted from me and when it was due, rather than what I actually thought was important. So I started making the list.
I’m not going to tell you everything on it, because some of it’s private. But here are some of the items listed. (Fair warning: these are ambitious. Remember that they are the things I want to accomplish in life. Not next week. When you make your list, be ambitious. You don’t have to tell anyone else how ambitious you’re being. The list is for you.
1. Become a great and popular writer.
2. Create a fulfilling career teaching writing.
3. Have wonderful friendships with fascinating people.
4. Have a wonderful relationship with my daughter.
5. Create a welcoming and beautiful home.
That’s enough to talk about, right? By “great” writer I mean that I want to be as good as I can possibly be, in terms of the actual craft — I want to write as well as I can. By “popular” I mean that I want people to read what I write. I told you it was ambitious! And notice that these aren’t all career goals. I want to have good friendships. I want to have a lovely home. And of course I want to be close to my daughter. The list contains my priorities. I made it by asking myself, if I got to the end of my life, would would I feel as though I had missed out on, if I had not done it?
(Priority: going to see the lilacs at the Arboretum with my daughter, on Mother’s Day.)
The reason it’s on my corkboard is that, if it wasn’t, I might forget what my priorities are. Having it where I can see it every day means not only that I don’t forget, but also that every evening, I can look at the list and ask myself, what on the list did I work on today? If I graded papers, or went out for a cupcake with my daughter, or made the bed and did the dishes, I mentally pat myself on the back for having worked on an item on the list. I recently had to add something to the list, which brought me from seven to eight items:
8. Be healthy and beautiful, inside and out.
By beautiful, I don’t mean a culturally constructed idea of beauty. I mean my own idea of beauty, which means being healthy and comfortable in my own skin, looking like the self I want to be. I added this to the list because I realized that I was neglecting exercise and sleep. I was prioritizing other items on the list, staying up too late, which inevitably led to cookies in the middle of the night and being too tired to exercise the next day. Putting it on the list meant I had to think about it, work on it, make it part of my life. If I exercise in the morning, and eat my vegetables, and take a nap in the afternoon to make up for the late night (because yeah, I’m still not so good at going to bed early), I congratulate myself for working on item #8.
I try to work on most items on the list, most days.
So there you have it. I mess up, I miss deadlines, my email inbox is a triage unit. But I have a list of priorities, and I try as hard as I can to make sure that the rest of my life is focused on fulfilling them.
(Priority: feeling healthy and beautiful, and at ease with myself.)