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Homemade Schedules 4

“I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order – willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” Annie Dillard in The Writing Life

I had read part of this quote from Annie Dillard many times, and love the blog inspired by it. But I had never read it in context until this summer, and ever since, this quote has stayed with me. (Actually, I’ve thought of blogging about it no less than 10 different times!)

Have you ever lived without a schedule, besides on vacation? Lots of people – parents of young children at home, writers, freelancers, graduate students – make their own schedules. I never imagined how hard it could be until I was working on my thesis research in Barcelona, and had days, weeks, months that were entirely wide open. Then when I got back, I’ve had stretches of time as wide as Montana skies that have no set agenda except “make progress on the thesis”. It surprises me that making and keeping a schedule for myself is one of the hardest things I’ve done, and I think Annie Dillard’s quote captures the reason why.

When schedules are all we know, the idea of being without a schedule sounds great. Yay! Vacation! I can do anything I want with my days! But it turns out the “chaos and whim” a schedule defends against can quickly meld into self-doubt, apathy, depression, or a daily routine of overthinking things. A day with nothing on the agenda becomes long, shapeless as a heap of laundry that needs folding.

This fall I started working on my thesis in the neighborhood library a couple days a week, and going to prenatal yoga twice a week. And a funny thing has happened – with just a couple spots of shape to the week, each day is less amorphous. When I had day upon day at home, I got up in the morning with the burden of planning the day, and before I’d fully woken up already felt the weight of the “shoulds” pressing me down. With a schedule, there are known parts to my days, and it becomes easier to start melding the pieces of wide open time into something less chaotic. Really, it just takes a few things to build a scaffolding for the days, to be able to “stand and labor with both hands at sections of time”, rather than grasp at the days as they slip away.

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Why isn’t it then? Why is creating our own routine so hard?


  1. Larry

    11/11/2011 at 8:49 pm

    I hear you! Vera and I both read Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness a few years back. As I recall, he makes a good argument that we are hard-wired to function on “auto-pilot” 90% of the time; that we’re creatures of habit. So maybe our natural state is to be in rhythm, one foot falling in front of the other, effortlessly. It’s only when we completely stall that things go awry, with no internal conductor cueing the next movement. And I wonder if those are truly rare circumstances in most societies. Even walking over to the next hut to chat with a friend imposes some degree of structure on the day.

    I don’t remember how I built structure into my thesis-writing days. I had longer-term deadlines and goal posts, but the day-to-day is a blur. Bike riding and going to the gym were certainly shorter-term organizers, and I also worked through almost all of the Anatomy Coloring Book in the winter evenings.

    I find stay at home vacations the hardest, for exactly the reasons you write about. If I’m by myself, my friends are at work; I have no social organization to meter my rhythms. Attending to hunger, sleep, bathroom breaks… those are the only external “clocks” that mark the time. I get itchy for structure, not to make me less conscious, but to be a carrier of sorts, again the way a conductor keeps the beat so the orchestra can come together.

    Thank you for bringing the insight into focus: a little structure goes a long way toward organizing our activity.

  2. lizardek

    11/12/2011 at 3:57 am

    Annie Dillard is one of my heroes. She taught me how to begin to see the world around me, and how to begin to consciously phrase the words I use to write about it. I have rarely, if ever, lived without a schedule. I live surrounded by (protected by?) lists, calendars, schedules, mental reminders. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a control freak or because I need the structure in order to stop myself from just sleeping all day. 😉 Thanks for the reminder to loosen up a little!

  3. Megsie

    11/12/2011 at 7:50 am

    Oh, my gosh. This is such a great topic. I have never really thought about it. I totally agree with you that a schedule helps make everything okay. When I had babies and toddlers and preschoolers who were home all day I had a strict schedule. I think all three kids would have been parked on the curb on garbage day if I didn’t. But once they drifted into elementary school, I began to drift too. I am still drifting even though my schedule is not my own. I don’t have the kind of control over my time that is needed to feel productive and fulfilled. I am (and always have been, and probably always will be) deadline driven. It is how I work best, but the laundry doesn’t HAVE a deadline (except when the underwear runs out). I need to get back to the home-time schedule where I can leave my work for a while and get stuff done around the house. I just don’t know how yet. I love Annie Dillard! Thank you for bringing this golden nugget to me today!

  4. Cynthia Newberry Martin

    11/12/2011 at 8:15 pm

    I love coming to your blog. How fun to read your words on the Annie Dillard quote (and fun to click on the link!). I go back and forth, one minute thinking a schedule is over thinking, the next that it’s the bare bones for a life. But one tiny decision last week seems to be making a HUGE difference. 8-11 is now just for writing. No matter what else doesn’t get done. And it was a crazy disorganized few days, but that little bit of schedule is allowing me to labor with both hands at a section of time.


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