Scheduling my academic life

I really enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent post on how he schedules his work life ‘to the very minute’ so I thought I’d offer my own reflections. I’m intellectually fascinated by how people organise their everyday lives for both personal and academic reasons. I used to have massive difficulties with procrastination and focus. I still do really but in a different way. It’s hard to convey how much I identified with Raul’s description of his experience: “I learned early in my life that I had a really broad range of interests, and that if I didn’t rein in my own impulses, I would be scattered and disorientated before long”. He seems to have learned this a lot earlier than I did though.

I rely on two pieces of software: Goal Streaks on my iPad and OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone, desktop and laptop. The former keeps track of things that are important to me but not urgent (stuff like going to the gym, blogging, meditating etc) which otherwise get squeezed out by the exigencies and distractions of everyday life. It’s based on the so-called ‘Seinfeld Method’ of instilling habits by marking the daily completion of associated tasks on a calendar by crossing out that day. Thus you measure ‘streaks’ and compete with yourself to surpass your ‘best streak’. The psychological assumption underlying this is that you’re much less likely to avoid the task in question (“I don’t want to go the gym today, I’m tired and it’s raining outside” or “I don’t want to write 1000 words today, I’m travelling for four hours and the seats on London Midland trains are really uncomfortable to type in”) if you have a visual representation of your past completion of the task for X number of days. I have no idea if this is universally true but it certainly works for me. Habits you seek to form are what Charles Taylor would call second-order desires i.e. “I want to want to go to the gym”. Goal Streaks gives added weight to the second-order desire by visually embedding it in a representation of progress over time. In doing so it avoids the familiar (akratic) situation of the first-order and second-order desire being in direct conflict e.g. I don’t want to go to the gym but I want to to want to go to the gym.

OmniFocus has the steepest learning curve of any software I’ve ever used. It took me well over a year to learn to use it properly but I now couldn’t imagine living without it. It’s based around the principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system which in essence amount to: (1) write everything down (2) regularly process what you’re written down (3) either discard what you’ve written down, file it for future reference or turn it into an actionable task. The software allows any idea to be immediately captured wherever you are. I find this is often on my phone and, given my continued inability to type accurately on an iPhone, it’s usually in garbled short hand. The point is to distinguish having the idea from evaluating it and working out how to put it into practice. It’s easy to distinguish these as cognitive tasks but, in practice, they often run together – OmniFocus allows you to file fringe thoughts (as C Wright Mills might say) and stray ideas in a reliable inbox, accessible from anywhere, which can be revisited later to evaluate the ideas and draw out their practical implications. It can sound very sterile when written about in the abstract but my experience of the process is one which can facilitate an intensely creative orientation towards ideas. In an important sense GTD is what I’d call a ‘reflexive technology’ (i.e. an ideational construct which serves to augment our capacity for reflexive deliberation) and OmniFocus is the technical means through which this is accomplished on a practical day-to-day level. I used to do much the same thing with a notebook but it was pretty messy and ineffective compared to using OmniFocus.

My point is not to sing the praises of OmniFocus and GTD (though I do like doing that with both) but rather to try and illustrate how I seem to have an equal but opposite approach to Raul. I’ve tried scheduling everything down to the minute in the way he does and it just doesn’t work for me – I rapidly become preoccupied by whether or not I’m doing the thing I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing at a given moment (usually I’m not) and the constructed order soon starts tumbling down around me. What I love about OF + GTD is the flexibility it affords – it incorporates a similar degree of organisation but it decomposes the rigidity of a intricately planned schedule into concrete tasks. So for each day OF produces a to do list based on the tasks, projects and start/end dates I’ve entered into the software (building from the inbox where the ideas go). Some tasks are recurring (e.g. updating the various websites and twitter feeds I manage), some are one off but many are sequential aspects of an overarching project §. The software lets you plan a project in terms of detailed step-by-step tasks and then only shows you one task at a time. The database might contain thousands of discrete tasks but it only shows you a small number at any given time – I rarely have more than 6 or 7 items on my to do list for a given day. What makes the software so hard to get to grips with is the challenge of making sure the small number of tasks it shows you at a given moment in time are the right tasks. The software simply offers tools for registering, organising and representing what you want and might want to do. It doesn’t answer the attendant questions for you but it does force you to think them through in a way which you are otherwise unlikely do.

How do you schedule your academic life? If you’d like to share your reflections then get in touch: Mark AT MarkCarrigan.Net


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