We’d just made our way through security and were headed toward our gate when it hit me. “O no,” I said, whispering to make it less true. “Noooooooooooooo, no, no, no, no.” My husband looked up at me, wondering what I’d forgotten, and how badly it was going to screw up our trip.
“The charger,” I said. “I forgot the charger.”
He smiled and brought his rollybag to a why-do-you-worry-so-much stop in front of the airport electronics store. “Look!” he said. “No big deal.”
Except it wasn’t the phone charger I’d forgotten. It was the laptop charger, which of course they don’t sell at the airport. I was tagging along on his work trip to Juneau, a quietly beautiful, remote little town in Alaska. No Best Buy. Certainly no Apple store. By the time I walked into Juneau Electronics the next day, I was on the verge of panic.
Please have it, I begged the universe as I walked through the doors. I’ll do anything to get back on my laptop. Anything, I realized at the counter, but pay $89.99 for a charger I’d only need for 18 more hours.
The owner just laughed when he heard me gasp, his eyes crinkling up as he took the box gently from my hand. “You have a little time?” he asked me. “If so, I can just charge it for you.”
I sat in the chair he pulled out from behind the counter, and watched him as he helped his customers. I saw him calm the hysterical, educate the curious, and indulge the vain. All the while making their technical problems disappear. When there were no more customers around, I thought about him losing a sale to help me out, even though he’d never see me again. I thought a lot about him asking me, "you have a little time?"
When he handed me my laptop, I got a little dreamy thinking of all the stuff I could do. My eyes lost focus as I imagined zeroing out my inbox and getting five—no, ten!—things ticked off my to-do list. I was babbling out incoherent thanks, so thrilled to be doing again, that I almost didn’t hear him when he said, “That should hold you for about 8 hours!”
Those next eight hours gave me a nerve-racking, but much needed reminder about a writer’s most precious resource. I couldn’t waste time grabbing a snack while supposedly composing a line in my head. Nor could I let the time allotted for one task bleed past its limits—every extra minute I spent on one thing irrevocably took time from another. It seemed, at first, that the lesson was about the finite and inelastic nature of time.
But watching the battery icon over the course of the day helped me hone in on the more fundamental, yet hidden issue behind our anxiety over time: and that is the finite amount of energy we have to work with. As I got tired, my laptop got tired. The less juice I had, the less juice it had. The question wasn’t how many hours there were to work with. The question was how long we could keep going without being refueled.
The same is true, every day, for your body and your mind.
This is the reason that the very first thing I teach, whether in Composed or in private coaching, is how to create space in your writing life for rest. The technique—what I call a Foundation Calendar—is fairly simple. You start with a blank calendar of the week. You first allot time for the activities that fuel you (think: Sleep). You next make time for your most important commitments (think: Writing). Then the remaining time goes to the less important obligations (think: Receptions. Or Guest Lectures).
What you have when you’re done isn’t your plan for the next week. What you have is a template for how you want to spend your precious, finite energy—this week and every week coming up. You use that template constantly: when making your writing goals for the semester; when responding to any request for your time; when figuring out how to manage an unexpected family visit during midterms. That’s what makes it a Foundation Calendar: it is the structure upon which all your choices are built, the basis for every decision you make. Always.
But while the technique is fairly straightforward, its execution can be quite challenging. That’s because a Foundation Calendar is like a laptop battery icon. It insists, in a way that we do not want to see, that there are only a certain number of hours in the day; that we have only so much energy with which to spend that time.
Making a Foundation Calendar also reveals our underlying feelings about the value of certain activities—like rest. I cannot think of a single time when I’ve taught this, that scholars have rejoiced at being asked to first allot time for rest. Instead, they feel threatened. Panicked. Sometimes a little irritated. Cutting back on sleep and charging nonstop through the day is how many of us earned our place in academia. Why on earth would I insist on anything else?
Let me give you two good reasons: the first is that, in refusing to incorporate rest into our days, we fall prey to the false assumption that treating ourselves like machines will help us get more work done. But as psychologist Josh Davis points out in his book, Two Awesome Hours,
staying on task without a break and working longer hours are wonderful solutions for a computer or a machine. Computers and machines don’t get tired, so the quality of work is identical every time they are used. Using them more frequently will only lead to greater productivity and efficiency. But...if my aim were to do ten thousand push-ups, I’d have a really tough time doing them without a break. But I would have no problem if I did a small number at a time between other exercises and spread them out over multiple workout sessions. The brain is very much like a muscle in this respect. Set up the wrong conditions through constant work and we can accomplish little.
In other words, the brain and the body with which we work will function better when we’ve had a full night of sleep; when we do a little writing, then take a little rest; when we take lunch instead of eating while we email. It may boost our egos and soothe our panic to race through our days with no break. But in the end, we actually make it less likely that we’ll produce the quality and quantity of writing that we want to. We’ll be less of the scholar we want to be.
The second reason I teach scholars to rest is that, in treating ourselves like machines we capitulate to the forces that want to reduce our intellectual work to a product. There is nothing--hear me on this nothing--nothing wrong with attending to those forces. All of us have to negotiate with them so that we can build the life of the mind we want. But we cannot surrender to them. We cannot obsess so much about productivity that we run ourselves down, and burn ourselves out.
The only alternative to that path is to do an extremely uncomfortable thing—to rest as deliberately and with as much dedication as we write. Doing that requires more than a time management technique. It requires a fundamental belief that, as the saying goes, you’re worth more than your productivity. It requires that you trust yourself and your writing process to take your work where it needs to be in the time you have to get it there.
That’s the reason we all lost our minds for Maxine Waters in 2017. It wasn’t her insistence on reclaiming her time that made us shout. It was her unremitting confidence that she had the right to do so.
Every day you wake up, you’re a laptop with no charger. And you’re also so much more, my love. Depending on how you slept, and what else is going on in your life, you might be at 100%, or you might be the little red slash at the bottom of the battery and the warning sign that, without recharging, you’re going to go to sleep. If you’re an older model, like me, you might find that, even fully recharged, you only ever reach 93%. Regardless of the state you’re in, you’ll have limited energy for the things that come your way. Your task is to figure out how to use that energy in ways that sustain and satisfy.
Want the monthly InkWell blog delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Inkling, a bite-sized, monthly newsletter filled with ideas, inspiration, and information for academic writers.