Do the Math: Part 3

Do the Math: Part 3

Time Management

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.

–William Penn

My students shared their Activity Logs with me last week. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at them. No grading. No judgement. “Be truthful,” I said, “or don’t do it at all.”

One student pointed to a block of time in between her morning and afternoon class. “Usually, I run errands during that time. Go to the library. Take care of stuff. It never occurred to me that I could schedule an hour or two of writing during that block. That’s what I’m going to do from now on.”

Another was amazed to see how much gaming he does. I was glad this came up, actually. I think our students devote many, many hours per week to RPGs and video games, esp. when you read confessions like thisI said look, there’s nothing wrong with gaming or any other pleasure activity. That’s necessary for good health and peace of mind. The problem is when that activity starts eating at the time you have for the stuff you absolutely have to get done.

[Here’s a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education about teaching students time management skills.]

I saw that one student had scheduled in “Unwinding/Writing time” at the end of the day. That got me thinking. “Do you guys see writing time as chilling out time?”

Some said yes. They don’t seem to have any trouble getting their words done each week. Because they find it pleasurable (mostly). One student said that many students in her math lecture keep laptops open and browse social media during class; she, on the other hand, writes her novel. I’m not sure what to say about that. Yay! or Don’t!

Some said no, writing time and chilling out time are not the same thing. These are the folks who do have trouble getting their words done each week. Because it’s not pleasurable, or not always pleasurable. (I am in this group.)

I told them, if you are the latter, then you can’t lump “writing time” into “personal time.” Because you’ll procrastinate. Or you’ll wait to write until the end of the day when you’re time and need a real break–not an activity that’s going to mentally (and maybe even emotionally) tax you.

My students wished that I’d had them fill out an activity log at the beginning of the semester. Next term, I will. There are a few good time management resources on the Dartmouth website (although some are a little dated).

eisenhower-QuadrantNext time, I’m going to talk about the “Eisenhower Method” of time management and draw this figure on the board.

According to this article, you should spend 80% of your time doing the things that are Important, but Not Urgent, and the other 20% of your time divided among the other quadrants (with as little time as possible devoted to the time-wasters of Not Important and Not Urgent).

Wow. When I apply that ratio to my Activity Log from last week, I can see that my ratio was exactly the opposite: the majority of my time was devoted to urgent deadlines.

Most creative writing classes have periodic due dates, like most college classes. A paper or project due every few weeks or so. The task hangs out in Important but Not Urgent quadrant until the day or two before the deadline, when all ones time is devoted to the urgency of the deadline.

With Weekly Words, however, I force them to put their writing time into the Important and Urgent quadrant every single week for ten weeks. And force myself to think of it this way, too.

I told my students that famous quote attributed to Lawrence Kasdan:

“Being a writer is like having homework every day for the rest of your life.” 

That got their attention.

I told my students to think about their parents, about the kind of home they grew up in. Whether we like it or not, we wind up using time very much like our parents and grandparents did. I’m from a working class family, which means I grew up in a culture where my day was structured by the dinner bell, the lunch whistle, the time clock.

It’s been a great challenge in my life to be the boss of my own days.

Reflections and Observations

Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about since my post last week, and thanks to those of you who have commented, too.

  • I can’t just write on the weekends. I’ve got to write a little during the week. I’ve got to keep my head in my novel as often as possible.
  • I’ve got to stop answering emails first thing in the morning. I must use that time to write. I must resist The Borg.


  • So often I’m communicating when I should be writing, plugged into the hive mind when I should be unplugged as much as possible. I believe that we should devote our best time of day to our writing. For me, that’s the morning.
  • I’ve got to stop checking email and social media when I’m engaged in class preparation and novel writing. It causes constant interruptions, the introduction of Not Important but Urgent (or not Urgent) distractions into my day. Also, checking for notifications and new emails makes everything I do take twice as long.
  • I’m glad I counted my writing time as work hours, not personal time. This was not always so. Sixteen hours of writing in one week is actually a lot for me; it happened b/c of the P&T deadline. During the school year, I’d say I write for about five hours a week, usually on the weekends. During the summer, I write (or research) for about five hours a day.
  • The price I pay for long blocks of time to write on the weekend are long weekdays. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesdays, I work from the moment I get up to about an hour before I go to bed. Those days are 13 or 14 hours long.

Email is killing me

I’ve got to get better at email. In the Harford article I linked to last week, he says there are only five things you can do with an email:

  1. delete it
  2. delegate it
  3. reply to it
  4. defer it
  5. take some more substantial action.

It’s all I can do during the week to take care of #1 and #2 type messages, the Important and Urgent ones. I can sometimes take care of #3 type messages if all that’s required is a quick answer. But if you notice my Friday, I spent about 3 hours answering all the #3, #4, and #5 emails that had come in during the week. I’ve learned the hard way not answer important emails after 8 PM, so I leave #3, #4, and #5 type messages until morning. But: if I get up and write, that further delays my answers.

Ben Percy once gave me a great piece of advice about my email problem: he said that I should treat those messages like old fashioned letters. If a colleague sent me a letter asking if I had any ideas about campus speakers, or an old friend sent me a long catch-up letter, or an acquaintance asked for some professional advice, would I drop everything and write a letter back? No, he said. I should get my writing done for the day, and then think about replying.

The problem, of course, is that some of those messages waiting really do need a prompt response. And I’m not just talking about messages from frantic students either. I’m talking about colleagues and friends.

I’m going to start imagining that I am my doctor. I would never expect an answer from her (via her nurse) to a routine medical question outside of business hours or on the weekend. Doctors and lawyers, I’ve noticed, have excellent professional boundaries, and people respect those boundaries.

This Blog and My Time

Realization: If I want to get writing done during the week and not just on the weekends, I either need to

  1. wake up earlier and write for awhile before entering The Borg
  2. take care of The Borg throughout the day or in the evening
  3. leave or limit The Borg

I think about C a lot.

I think about the fact that I’ve spent an hour on this blog post thus far this morning. Yes, I have benefitted from writing this post. This blog in general has forced me to be reflect on things I never would have reflected on otherwise. It’s been good for me personally and professionally. And maybe it’s been good for you, too.

But are these words getting my novel written?


Thanks for reading this blog post, everyone. It felt Important and Urgent to me to get these thoughts out before moving on to other topics here at the Big Thing. Now, I’m going work on my Weekly Words for my novel. It’s Important and Urgent, too.

Higher Ed