daily fieldnotes

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?