*Note: If you are a well-organized, well-rounded, balanced, and productive writer, no need to read any further. This won’t be for you.
Woman with a Broom–Vincent van Gogh
I grew up in a family where once we started a project, we stuck to it to the bitter end. My dad spent many entire weekends overhauling our cars’ engines. My mom could make a dress in a day, even if it took her past midnight and into the wee hours of the next. My sister and I always had chores to perform and we had to get them done on the day they were assigned. I have always thought that was how a person got things done; you got up, got started, and kept on till you finished. Even our scout’s honor code included: “Remember to finish what you begin.”
I understood why such a caution was important because, as I learned once I grew up and set about starting my own projects, if I didn’t persist to a rapid finish, I would clutter my sewing and art cabinets with unfinished projects, projects that lacked their original luster once I had set them aside for a considerable time. This happened with my writing, too. Many of those at first exciting projects were never finished. I learned through those failures, that I needed to work fast before time grew short and my enthusiasm faltered. That meant staying up way too late reading the library book due the next day, even though I didn’t like it. That meant allowing my daughters to stay up way too late to finish that overly detailed poster for school the next day. That meant being a tired-out family way too much of the time.
Time management for me back when I was raising my daughters was constrained by the hours of school or extracurricular lessons and activities. I had to fit everything that needed doing into the few and small time slots available over the course of a busy family’s week, which was not the way I naturally worked. Most of the time, things didn’t fit smoothly and, yet again, I stumbled to bed in the wee hours only to have to wake up early to get everyone ready and out the door.
Then came the time when my daughters were grown and I was divorced and living alone. I could do anything any time I wanted. I could paint the basement all night long or read all day or write for hours and produce pages and pages of material, exhausting myself with the continual drive to ‘finish’. Or I could sleep late and sit around gazing out my windows at the Vermont mountains for hours. There was no such thing as a set schedule or overall plan. I let my enthusiasms and my exhaustions lead the way. I got quite a bit done, but I also amassed a few unfinished projects, and never felt the kind of balance I longed for and thought I’d find once my schedule was up to me and no one else.
Enter the next phase of life: A new marriage to a retired husband. Jerry, a former librarian, retired early and had been retired for a few years when we met. By then he had established his routines to fit his own daily rhythms. He told me early on that he liked to read in the mornings and listen to music in the late afternoon—those were not negotiable activities. That sounded fine to me, so we began our life together, Jerry with his slow mornings, me with the learned need to get going on whatever project with which I’d become enamored or shamed into doing, whether it was cleaning the bathrooms, painting a piece of furniture, or starting a new book.
While I continued my usual fits and starts kind of progress, I noticed that Jerry was getting lots and lots done in a day. He might read nearly all morning, but afternoon found him doing little chores, just a bit of something here, something there. I noticed this most when a huge load of firewood seemed to get split and stacked with only a half-hour here or an hour there. I would have worked at it all day, day after day, till completion and I’d be a wreck, sore muscles and nicked fingers. I would have hated it, and I would have hated that it took me away from other things I wanted to do. Jerry relished getting outside every day and watching the stack move from a jumble on one side of the wood area to a fine tall stack ready to burn on the other. He might take a long walk or bike ride that same day, do some repairs or paint a section of the house, then come in, listen to music, and enjoy an evening knowing he’d accomplished a lot. Still having things I needed to do, I often felt frustrated with my day.
That’s when I decided to make a clean sweep of it and change my low-down ways. I’d copy his process and make myself move from one task to another throughout the day and not get so narrowly and intensely focused, which too often resulted in tiredness, boredom, feelings of self-pity, futility and frustration. I analyzed what I needed to do to make my life what I wanted it to be, balanced and productive—and satisfying. Then I came up with this anagram: S.W.E.P.T. for all those things I wanted to do in a day, but usually got derailed from by another activity. I wanted to get more physically fit, get more work done, and manage my household tasks and projects. Here’s my new daily regimen:
S=Stretches—I loved yoga and ballet classes when I was younger, especially the stretches, so I have incorporated a short time for waking my body up with stretches into my mornings.
W=Work—This makes up the largest portion of my days. I include reading, writing, and VCFA work in this, with emphasis on my reading and writing time when we aren’t in packet week, and my advisees’ when we are. I tend to do my reading and commenting on student work in the morning and do my own writing in the afternoon. I have finally stopped trying to make myself a morning writer when it obviously isn’t in my circadian rhythm to be one. I’ve also found I get more writing done when I’m not focused on getting a lot of writing done. I’ll never forget hearing Kate DiCamillo in a visit to VCFA say that she limits herself to two pages a day, but keeps up that steady pace as she forges ahead daily on a new manuscript. I can’t make myself stop after two pages, but I don’t attempt to wring the most words I am capable of out of a days’ worth of writing. I like the way that placing some limits on each day’s production, makes me more ready to sit down the next because I know where I’ll start and am eager to get it down on the page.
E=Exercise—Biking, walking, hiking, canoeing, skiing, dancing. Exercise will slip out of my daily schedule unless I’m very disciplined, but the more regular I am with exercise, the more I miss it when I don’t ‘get around to it’. I’ve learned I need to prioritize it in the day or I allow time to slip away.
P=Projects—These are long-range tasks that I’m learning to break into smaller chunks to accomplish. For example, I spent a couple of months last winter organizing old photographs and filling new photo albums, something that I’d delayed doing because I thought I’d have to do it all in one huge energetic burst. I found out that what I really needed was time to enjoy or grieve as I remembered the precious events and people in my past.
T=Tasks—These are short term and usually recurring jobs, like cleaning the bathrooms or grocery shopping, and tend to take over too many of my days. Rather than exhausting myself by cleaning all day until everything is clean all at the same time, I’ve found that breaking down the tasks to only a couple a day makes the whole thing not so daunting.
I’ve reread what I’ve written above and it sounds so ordinary, not life changing at all, but these changes have made a huge difference in what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last year. However, the most important part for me has been the satisfaction that being a more balanced person gives me. I’m a writer, but not only that; I’m a teacher, wife, mother, friend, and many more things. I am not satisfied with being only one thing in my life; I want to explore and grow and not feel I’m robbing one important part of myself to fulfill another.
I don’t always get every one of these things done every single day. There are still times when one area overtakes another and I’ve given myself that flexibility. For example, I still have a hard time getting myself to exercise daily, but sometimes we take half a day for a hike or a canoe trip. I figure it balances out over time, and that’s what I’m looking for—balance.
Have you S.W.E.P.T. today?