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So, why plan? Life…it’s what happens when you’re planning something else, right??
Much of my adult life has been spent learning to balance the idealism of planning with the realism of life. If I give up on time management, I lose things that need time in order to build up – like community, tradition, books, gardens. If I can’t roll with the punches of lived life, I’ll end up reacting against reality, instead of responding creatively to it.
Fr. Giussani (yes, those who know me well should have this memorized!) says that freedom is “correspondence to reality in the totality of its factors. My projects, hopes, ideas, desires and energy level are factors, and so are the needs of others, the weather, the response-ability of other people, and all the other externalities that interfere with my idealistic scheduling.
I’ve found that good planning practices provide a structural framework that allows me to maintain interior freedom. That freedom brings capacity to absorb life’s punches and ride life’s waves better. My practices currently look like this:
Right after Thanksgiving I print out my list of Standing Dates, and 12 blank monthly calendars for the next year. Transferring the birthdays, tax deadline, Holy Days, annual and monthly chores and other ‘every year’ dates to the months provides the basic ‘landscape’ for the year. Here are indicated our In School days, and my At Work days, without any details about specific tasks.
Next, I take out the bulging file marked ‘Next Year’ and ‘map’ any commitments to specific dates. Finally, since that file contains everything I’ve hope to fit in ‘next year,’ I sort all the little slips of paper, articles and other to-do reminders into quarterly files – a rough idea of the season when it makes sense to consider scheduling them into real dates. I put “check Q file” on the last Saturday before each new quarter, and then forget about all this. A system won’t work if my mind stays preoccupied with what’s in files for later!
During this relaxed weekend (all leftovers!) I lay out my work priorities for the coming year from a separate ‘Work Basket.’ This sequence keeps home and family obligations ahead of my part-time ‘job’ of writing, speaking, etc…. Doing the ‘next year’ planning now gives me a much more relaxed Advent and Christmas. During December, I can let go of the new year completely, knowing it will come in its time, instead of having that mountain of to-dos looming threateningly on the horizon.
On the last Saturday before each new quarter, I take out the Q file and list each item on the Notes area of one of the next three months. The actual scheduling will not occur until I plan those months. I toss all the slips of paper, keeping only backup material that is needed for an item, such as a coupon, or how-to article, in the Q file – noted by an asterisk on the list of tasks. A few things get pushed into the next Quarter’s file (I use 3-hole-punched plastic envelopes in a binder).
The last Saturday of each month is Plan Next Month day (on the list of Standing Dates, and so now already marked on each month’s ‘map’). I transfer the month to a Weekly layout. Behind the tab ‘Weekly’ is a blank week to copy, and a weekly chores list. (I’ve also used a purchased calendar with both Monthly and Weekly spreads. The key is that the weeks stay pristine and blank until I consciously plan them.) Taped to the back, or behind each month’s tab in the binder, are any slips of paper kept as reminders of tasks to fit into the more finely detailed weekly plans. Anything new that comes in after the weeks are laid out must either be scheduled directly on a particular day, or put off until the next month. You may want to re-read that last sentence!
If it cannot be scheduled within the details I’ve anticipated for these next 4-5 weeks, it is a Next Month task. Either I note it directly on the future month’s map as a scheduled item, or tape a note there to be considered during that monthly planning session. I have to trust my system to keep hold of all this future stuff so that I can walk away from it without worrying about it! I don’t want to get bogged down in the future, or to allow my current weeks to get overburdened. Those near-to-now days and the buffer allowed in them for the intrusion of unavoidable realities must be protected.
On Saturday, I transfer my Next Week to a daily list. This provides one more chance for a reality check, some shuffling and the addition of a dinner menu for each day. Over the years, I’ve sometimes created monthly meal plans, and could pull this week’s menu from that plan and make adjustments as necessary. Today, I’ll also look through The Basket, where all week I’ve been tossing tasks that come in after my week began. The Basket protects my whole week from unnecessary interference, and I trust it to hold all the slips of paper that represent new tasks that arise during the week.
Sunday is Sabbath (you did read Souls at Rest, right??) – no computer on, no email, no schedule for tasks (perhaps a tiny reminder: ‘Dance at 3 today,’ ‘thaw chickens for dinner,’ ‘serve at soup kitchen 1-3,’ ‘HB for dinner.’) Your Sunday may be different – be acted upon more than you act upon the world, please!
The better I get at just doing whatever is on my day’s list, the smoother everything runs. I get into trouble when I rebel against the system at this lowest level, where the heights of idealistic planning meet the smallness of actuality. On my day, the structural elements are in in (such as ‘School Time: 8-12,’ ‘Dr. Appt. 10:00,’ or ‘Blocked for Writing Project’) and flexible-time tasks are in pencil. (I love to erase them when done, thus making my visual ‘day’ more and more open and spacious as I do what needs to be done.)
Information about, or for, other family members appears on my day only if it is my responsibility to manage/remind/supervise them – off to the side of ‘my day,’ if possible, and in a different color ink. Sometimes I take time to play with markers, decorating the six next days and placing them in strangely shaped ‘boxes,’ and at other times I want my days in plain, symmetrical boxes, or on separate index cards instead of on one page. I have found that a little playfulness with the physical ‘day’ can help me approach a ‘next week’ with a greater sense of freedom and enjoyment.
What about all the new to-dos that crop up when I check mail and email, take phone calls, remember something urgent, or get a new idea? Those, if not right now scheduled for a specific date, get tossed into The Basket. They wait until my planning for the next week, when I either fit them into specific days, or send them into the next month, quarter, or year. Most of what comes in during a day is not of an emergency nature, and will only derail me if I let it. Much more is just information to file away after weekly planning – not a matter for scheduling at all.
Physical vs Electronic
I have experimented with electronic calendars and it was a miserable failure for me. I felt lost without the actual handling of the ‘materials’ of my life and the physical maps of time. I felt utterly disconnected from the reality I was trying to order. It didn’t surprise me that the plans I carefully entered into the computer failed to prepare me, as my physical handling does, for realizing those plans in Real Life. There is something about moving tasks around, knowing they are physically stored, touching my own past thoughts and future time, and letting a calendar or list make a space of time a vessel to be filled creatively that requires real paper, scissors, tape, files, markers, pens, and ink!
Well, that’s the basic framework. The details have changed drastically over the years (‘Daily’ chores may now be ‘monthly,’ many new birthdates have been added to the Annual list, my work days are now ‘official,’ I do ‘Bills and Budget’ once a month now instead of weekly), but the basics have continued to serve me well even as I’ve adjusted and improved them. I recommend you gradually begin while the kids are little, but expect very little until the average age of your children is about 10! The test of any organizational system is whether it supports the realities of our human lives effectively. I am able to ‘find time’ for quite a lot of ‘unplanned’ reality within my own near-future-picture, because I keep it spacious and realistic. I invite God to surprise me, and welcome the adventure of each new day.
Whatever planning you do, I wish you freedom in and through it!
I created this talk for Benedictine College’s Symposium on the New Evangelization. It’s about the role art can play in helping us realize our ideals of virtue and holiness. I linked G.K. Chesterton, his character Innocent Smith (from Manalive) and St. Francis of Assisi to show how Chesterton wove the things he loved most about St. Francis into his character, and thus drew all that joy and abandonment to God a bit closer to himself and his readers.
Quoting Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis, his own biography and autobiography, Manalive, and Orthodoxy, I moved back and forth between the character and the saint, the ideal and the imaginative realization, to suggest that we need such imaginative bridges to move toward full appropriation of supernatural joy, toward holiness. That art may serve to help us realize ourselves more wholly, more fully without any violation of the art, the ideal, or of our own being suggests that Catholics would do well to enter in to the work of creating stories, poems, paintings, and other works with the goal of becoming saints in the process.
A lab-coated investigator places a box on a table before each participant, in turn. “What is in the box? Say whatever you think,” he says, to each one, alone. One person answers “Apples,” because the box says “APPLES” in red block letters. Another notices a word scribbled in marker on a label at one end and says, “Wine Glasses”. A third peeks into the box through a small hole in its side and says “Nothing in there.” Subject #4 lifts, shakes and smells the box, looks into all the torn places and holes, and says, “Clove-studded oranges.” Mr. 5 says, “I have no idea,” and when pressed to say whatever he thinks, laughs and says “I give up. A bomb?”
Finally, #6 answers. “Could be a hamster – there’s an air hole. Might be books, walnuts, tools – anything! How ‘bout a whole series of smaller boxes? Let’s see…there’s air in there, and dirt, probably. If it’s photographs you could say the box is full of memories. Depending on the books in there, that box might ‘contain’ India, or another planet, or a fairy world. What if it’s some high-tech gizmo…then it contains the work of dozens of scientists, years of research, rare earth. Wow! Should I go on??”
#1 used language decoding skill – relying on the accuracy of the label.
#2 did also, but took in a bit more information, held both labels in mind, and made a judgment.
#3 got his senses more fully involved, but didn’t realize the limitation he unconsciously accepted.
#4 used more sensory information, and gave the one correct answer.
#5 used his freedom to resist constraints instead of to play the game.
#6 answered as a child, or a poet might, because the question itself stimulated his imagination. He, following instructions to report “whatever he thought,” tried to report all the mental events triggered by the suggestion, “What might be in a box?”
I offer this scenario by way of explaining why I find it difficult to give short answers to interesting questions.
Case in point: our archbishop recently convened a ‘listening meeting’ to gather input for his ten—year planning process. I would never have presumed to offer any opinions about his management of the archdiocese, or his vision for it, but….he asked. And I began to consider the questions he asked. (What is the archdiocese doing well? What should be our main priorities? What should the archdiocese look like ten years from now?)
The first thing I noticed was that there were huge foundational gaps in my knowledge about the archdiocese. If I were going to picture it ten years along, I’d have to understand its current state better. A list of questions I’d like to ask developed from those gaps. Then, in my imaginary leap to “What would you say if the Archbishop was interested in your thoughts?” I discovered a wealth of material that didn’t quite fit into the three-question, one-paragraph format I’d been offered. Hence, a list of questions I wish he had asked.
Finally, set loose to create my own vision of our archdiocese, ten years older and wiser, I came up with lots of ideas. I had no idea what to do with all this outside-the-box response, and considered just keeping it to myself to save trouble for Self and the Bish’. But, it was all there, and such things, in my experience, do not go away. They beg to be at least typed and file away so as to free mental space for other work. And when I considered tucking those lists away and going on with my life, I really wished I could do it! (After all, when one knows one’s response is likely to be of little use to the recipient, to be a pain in his neck, or to be considered ridiculous and childish, one prefers to crawl under a rock with it!) But then, there’s that nagging sense that you are what you are, and God made you that way, and if nobody else answers in this way, it might be even more important that you do, and if everybody takes his response and files it the Archbishop will get nothing in the way of feedback at all.
So, a quick cover letter of explanation (“I’m a good girl, I am! This is not a challenge, or a rebellion, or a demand, or a joke, but a real offering.”), enclose the three lists, and I’m done. I won’t write out my answers to the questions I wish he had asked unless he expresses some desire to see them. Sigh…. By now, though, the Q’s had provoked A’s – one thing leads to another, and so now I’m actually interested in what my answers are, whether he is or not.
Enter: Blog. Here’s the entire series:
This is where I make room for my own thoughts, where I ‘essay,’ or try out my ideas. So, this is where I’ll post my responses, in case anyone is interested. Here’s a pdf of the Q’s and anyone is welcome to give your own A’s – to your pals, to me, to the Archbishop. If I were really leading an archdiocese, I’d want everyone’s responses. I might have to get help reading and sifting out main streams of thought, but I’d want the input. If he doesn’t (and I can’t imagine he’d have time for all this!), it’s all the same to me. This has been a good thinking exercise for me, so I’m happy. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Watch this space for my Q’s and A’s in the weeks to come. Consider writing up your own responses, and do suggest Q’s you wish the Archbishop had asked us.
I’m placing a contact form here, in case you, or the Archbishop, would like to get in touch about this Research Project of mine.
“Think Globally, Act Locally” for Catholics might be: “Think Universally, Act Creatively”.
I wish more Catholics were as clear as those with modern, greenie bumper stickers that small, local, personal decisions and actions matter very much – not just morally, which we do get, but in terms of making huge sea waves of change in the world around us.
Fr. Luigi Giussani (founder of Communion & Liberation), uses the term ‘gesture’ for a response to reality that embodies the judgment of the actor about that reality he encounters. The judgment must ‘have heart in it,’ according to Fr. Giussani. When the encounter with reality is provoking – when it questions our faith, our understanding, our experience, our preconceived notions – then we have an opportunity.
It will take some time to answer that ‘call’ (see the –vok in provoke that is the same ‘call’ as in ‘vocation’?) and form a clear judgment. The process cannot be rushed along. We must consider what we’ve run up against in light of our heart’s response, and our reason’s information. Then, taking both into consideration, we must formulate a response that, again, is a mere gesture – an attempt to convey in actuality a judgment formed in response to reality.
This gesture then has the potential to be transformative – for us, and for the people around us. As a free act, it expands immediately our own sphere of freedom. As a new fact, it in turn provokes those who encounter it – invites them to answer the call of reality, form their own judgment, and create a response. That’s one model for thinking about the ripples of provocation and freedom, goodwill and humanity that can spread from each particular person. I imagine there are other ways to think about it, but this one has completely captivated my attention because it corresponds so beautifully to my lived experience.
Can you think of one small thing you could do right now to respond to this call of mine?
* Spend the Time * Clean the Mess * Cook the Meal * Sing the Song
*Learn the Skill *Take the Step *Write the Letter * Make the Call
*Give the Gift * Right the Wrong * Speak the Word
*Stop the Violence * Move the Money *Ask the Question
*Offer the Help *Bake the Bread *Finish the Job
*Pray the Prayer *Make the Commitment *Change the Pattern
*Toss the Junk *Kiss the Wound *Embrace the Friend
* Craft the Poem * Keep the Sabbath