monthly goals

Hello, blog readers! It’s been over a month since I’ve posted, and I miss you. I’ve had a couple of students tell me they’ve started following my blog, so I thought I should get on the ball with some new content. Before I do, though, I want to remind you about my podcast, It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess. While this blog focuses on teaching and learning, the podcast is about literature in a broad sense, including film and other forms of storytelling. I have some exciting conversations with guests coming up later this month, including discussions of The Godfather, superheroes, and mistakes writers should avoid. For now, check out my first two episodes:

Episode 1: What Is a Story? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-1-what-is-a-story/

Episode 2: What Is a Novel? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-2-what-is-a-novel/

And now that the commercial is over, today’s post.

I was reading last week about someone who shares her goals each month with her blog readers as an accountability method. I thought I would try doing this, with hopes that it will be useful not only for me but also for you–perhaps as an inspiration for a framework for your own goals. (The goals themselves, of course, will be highly individual.)

All year, I’ve been using a formula for my goals that involves the concept of loving others well. I started with three and have added one each quarter, so I’m up to five. Here they are:

  1. Love and serve God well.
  2. Love and serve Jordan well. (Jordan is my husband.)
  3. Love and serve my students well.
  4. Love and maintain my body.
  5. Love and maintain our home.

The first thing some of you might notice about these goals is that they are not the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals that many of us have been taught to make in organizational settings. (Teachers, you know these would not fare well as lesson objectives, as in “After this lesson, the student will be able to…”) This shortcoming is addressed partly by the fact that these goals deal with relationships in which I’m attuned enough to the other person or entity that I can usually tell intuitively whether things are going well or poorly. But also, as facilitated by my Cultivate What Matters Powersheets Goal Planner, I’ve broken down each of these large-scale goals into quarterly mini-goals, which are further broken down into action steps. My mini-goals for this summer range from the near-universal “Clean more regularly” to ones that are specific to my situation right now, like the one about helping Jordan transition back to the office three days a week after having worked almost entirely from home since March 2020. My action steps are even more varied, from setting my alarm earlier on Sunday morning to training for a race (I just signed up for a local zombie-themed 5K trail race) to making strategic use of apps like Forest and Love Nudge.

Once again, this post is meant to be inspirational, not prescriptive. And I realize that for some of you, the idea of making quarterly mini-goals and action steps sounds cheesy or restrictive. But for those of you who enjoy this kind of stuff–or are open to trying it–I hope this post gets you excited. Please feel free to keep me accountable–and to share your goals with me. Let’s help each other out!

Here’s everything I know about time management.

Okay, not everything. Some of the most important things I know about time management are highly personal, abstract, and difficult to put into words. Maybe I’ll attempt a post about those sometime. But today, I want to share some of the practical “tips and tricks” about time management that I’ve accumulated over several years of reading magazines and productivity books and teaching courses that I didn’t write and that have a time management element.

This is on my mind because next week is likely going to be my busiest grading week since I wrapped up teaching on-campus classes back in the spring. I’ve made a rough outline of which class I’ll need to tackle on each day, but I haven’t come up with a specific plan yet, and in the back of my mind, I’m starting to panic a little bit. But in the other side of the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself of all these tools that I can use, modify, or drop as I see fit, and I know I’ll be okay. So I hope this pep talk to myself will be useful to you as well.

The Pomodoro Method. You can Google this well-known method to find out about the Italian guy who invented it and named it after his tomato-shaped timer. I’m sure you can also find hundreds of variations on it. I like this method–which simply involves working for a set time and then taking a break for a set time, then repeating–because it allows me to divide my tasks into discrete units of a definite length. When I’m grading big final papers as I will be next week, I spend one pomodoro (i.e. work period) on each paper. (I’m not going to tell you how long my pomodoros are because it opens up the perennial English-teacher can of worms of how much feedback is the right amount, which may be a topic for a later blog post.) It ensures that I’m giving the same amount of attention to each student (with exceptions allowed, of course), and it gives me a clear view of how much I have left to do. I use the Forest app (see my review) as a timer and incentive.

The Kanban System. This method, which you can also Google, was developed in Toyota factories back in the 1940s, and according to a student of mine who grew up in Japan, it’s still widely used in Japanese workplaces and schools. One of my online universities teaches it to students in their first course and reinforces it in the writing course I teach, so I learned about it alongside my students. Like the Pomodoro Method, it’s stunningly simple yet rewarding. You make three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. Then you put each of your tasks on the appropriate list. There are apps for this, and I’ve seen people do it in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, but the best way, in my opinion, is the lowest-tech way: with sticky notes on a wall or piece of posterboard. Many of my students have attested to the sheer joy of physically picking up one of those notes and moving it to the “Done” column. They say crossing items off a list gives you an actual chemical rush (endorphins or dopamine or whatever; I’m just an English teacher, but I can testify to the feeling!), and physically moving your sticky notes amps up that rush just a little. I don’t regularly use the Kanban System because I have a fantastic planner that makes it a bit redundant, but occasionally when I’m starting to freak out about the amount of work I’m facing, I’ll slap a sticky-note Kanban board on my wall to get a visual of what I have to do. I know of its effectiveness mainly through my students, many of whom find it revolutionary as they attempt to fit online education into their already busy lives.

I’m going to stop there and let you give those a try! Here are a couple of quick bonus suggestions:

Highlighters: I over-plan my week, so each morning, I highlight the tasks I actually want to focus on each day.

Email breaks: I read about this one in the latest issue of Real Simple, though I’ve seen variations of this suggestion elsewhere: Instead of keeping your email open throughout your workday, schedule a bit of time at the end of a focused work session to check it. That way, you keep up with it, but it’s not distracting you while you’re working. (Yes, this is a variation on the Pomodoro Method.)

I hope you find these helpful. Let me know whether you’ve tried them, whether you’re going to try them, and what time management methods work for you!

Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

app recommendation: Forest

I’m writing to you today at the end of a productive and surprisingly relaxing day of grading Week 7 assignments (the big, culminating projects on which I try to give students their money’s worth in grading comments) for my online classes. I graded six assignments today (on track with the schedule I made yesterday), plus I did this week’s laundry, had lunch and watched a Friends episode with my husband, and even took a yoga break. I attribute my success and Zen-like calm partly to the fact that my classes are fairly small this term, but also to one of my favorite apps, Forest, which I’d like to recommend to you.

Several years ago, I learned about the Pomodoro method, a popular productivity technique that simply involves working for a period of time (usually 25 minutes) and then taking a short break (usually five minutes). There are plenty of apps for this, let alone the fact that you could easily replicate it with any timer or clock, but my favorite one is Forest, which I’ve been using for about a year. I believe it was my good friend Allison who introduced it to me, and I think I happened to be in England when she texted me about it. I actually did a fair bit of grading during my vacation in the village of Knutsford last summer—I was there visiting my dad, who was on a work project, and during the weekdays, he went to work, and I sat in the flat and graded, punctuating my work sessions with little breaks in the charmingly walkable streets of the village. I remember choosing my first Forest tree style while I was waiting for my takeaway sandwich at a delightful cheese shop/cafe.

So, about those trees: Forest is simple—if you succeed in focusing on your task for your selected span of time (I usually do 25 minutes but have also done 30 with equal success), a little virtual tree (or mushroom, grass tuft, bush…you get to pick) grows in your little virtual forest. If you use the app in Deep Focus mode, which I always do, your tree will die if you do anything else on your phone for more than about five seconds, and that’s a devastating enough consequence to keep me on task. There are gamified aspects to Forest—you can earn coins to unlock fancier tree styles, and you can even choose to have a real tree planted in your honor if you earn a large enough number of coins. But for me, the basic functionality is enough (though I have leveled up my trees a few times). It’s simple and charming (like Knutsford!), and it’s been making grading less dreadful for me since June 2019. Find it in the app store and let me know what you think!