Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Minutes in Between

15. The Minutes in Between

The difference between success and failure can be something as simple and basic as time management. As an undergraduate, especially the first few years, I was horrible at this. My grades and my stress levels suffered needlessly.
For example, I remember saying, “You’re not really behind until you’re two weeks behind.” Also, “No point in studying now, there’re only forty-five minutes left until dinner.” By the time I left graduate school, I could make productive use of a spare five minutes.
I don’t mean to imply by this that I had my nose to the grindstone every minute of the day. Far from it. A rough sketch of my graduate school routine starts with taking kids to daycare and wife to her job by eight in the morning. Park the car and walk to the ceramics studio. Classes and studio time until it was time to get the car (4:50), the wife (5:00), and the kids (5:15). Some evenings I would return to campus, particularly if a kiln needed my attention or I had work to do in the foundry. Weekends, too, could be busy, but I wasn’t in the studio all the time. I just used my studio time to good effect. Much of that is as simple as knowing how long it takes to do the various things you do as a graduate student (and later as a self-employed potter). If I may suggest:
First, don’t give yourself unreasonable workloads. I completed an undergraduate double major in four years by never taking more than two writing courses or two studio courses in the same semester. When you diversify, your one set of chores will serve as a break from the other. You flex different physical and intellectual muscles, and that makes your work more interesting and you less likely to burnout.
Second, use a calendar. I have a three month planner on the wall and a two year planner in my coat pocket. Watch out for congestion (too many things due or happening at the same time) and prerequisites (things which must be finished before other things can be started).
Third, not all time is equal, especially with clay. The two hours spent trimming pots when they are perfectly ready to be trimmed are far more valuable than any four hours when the pots are either too wet or too dry to be trimmed. Certain jobs require timing not just time.
Fourth, know how long it really takes to do things. I’m still pretty bad at predicting how long it will take to do some things. A “half hour” of errand running may keep me away from the studio for three or four times that long. This sort of miscalculation can really tear up a tightly planned schedule and test the patience and humor of one’s spouse. Pay attention. How long does it take to do all the things you do, the big and the small, the way that you want to do them?
Fifth, everything counts. Taking a few minutes to pay the phone bill is as much a part of your total workload as hours spent throwing coffee mugs. In the ten minutes available before your next time commitment (whether that’s a lecture or a lunch), fit in a small chore that you then won’t have to do later.
Sixth, do it now and then it’s done. Planning to do things, updating calendars and writing out “to do” lists take time. It’s time well spent, but you can minimize that expenditure by finishing things which, personal satisfaction aside, then don’t have to be planned for.
Seventh, give yourself open ended work periods. It’s all well and good to budget one hour and fifteen minutes for pulling handles or two hours for throwing bowls, but you also need unconstrained time. So you go into the studio at eight p.m. and absent-mindedly end up working until three a.m. Good for you. You may need a nap the next day and an alarm clock in the morning, but creative energy is precious and not to be walled in or summoned at will.
And finally, don’t dither. Sitting around trying to decide what to do or not wanting to do what’s on the schedule wastes both time and spirit. Sometimes, as a mature person, you will simply have to force yourself to do the unpleasant chore or several unpleasant chores, but not all the time and not everyday. Do something. Understand the wide variety of things you need to get done, the large and the small, and make good use of the minutes in between.

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