The Tyranny of the To-Do List


If I were a rose-colored glasses type, I would breeze through a list of everything I accomplished in 2012. Since I’m more the ochre-colored glasses type – in other words, I see the world in approximate shades of cat vomit – I have given a lot more thought to what has not been accomplished. A more puce-colored personality would hurry the leftovers into a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2013 and blog about them in case someone reading perchance gives a rip.

Being in an ochre mindset, though, I have realized that I will probably be much more successful if I strive for imperfection. In terms of learning experiences, I’m an overachiever; in terms of achievement, my record is mixed. My ambitions are a glass house from whose windows I can never quite remove all the spots. Better to chuck mudballs at the thing, I say.

Ochre Jill has hypothesized that the contents of the yearly to-do list, and not the dearth of checkmarks, might be the actual problem, and she has decided to drag Puce Jill vaguely in the direction of reality. Puce Jill, of course, wants to keep scrubbing the windows of the glass house in hopes that they will somehow be perfectly clean. Ochre Jill prefers to scream obscenities.

I’ve learned a lot this year. I have learned that I’m not a good multitasker and that I’m not especially efficient; that my skin is still on the thin side; that I can tell what someone really wants by what they actually do, even when I don’t want to see it; that I don’t know why I love my dog or why he loves me; that most of the time, if I don’t force myself to follow a recipe, I can make something decent with what’s on hand and skip the shopping trip; that the perpetual problem of balancing teaching and writing has continued to be perpetual, but that my relationship with procrastination has cooled…a lot.

Basically, I have decided to reevaluate my relationship with time and space. This year, I will fail again – but this time, I will fail deliberately. If my to-do list is a hoarder’s paradise, I have nobody to blame but its author. And really, there is no audience but me who cares about the ending, which I dearly hope is not “Here lies Jill: She crossed everything off her list.”

Because what is a to-do list, really, but a series of decisions about how to spend my time on earth? And do I want to judge my life by what I have crossed off, or by deliberate choices about what I have chosen to include?

The Million Meeting March

On the first day of class, I always try to avoid reading through the syllabus. One reason is that students, anticipating a day of tedium, sometimes skip the first day and miss hearing the course requirements. The main reason, though, is that I don’t want to start the semester with a day of tedium.

For some reason, however, for faculty the academic year generally starts with several days of tedium, most of which have no relevance to the things that excite us about teaching. At the start of the year, what I find most invigorating are discussions of pedagogy, innovative assignments, and shared insights from a summer of reflection; but where we spend most of our time is sitting in large halls listening to announcement after announcement and wishing we were back in the classroom.

In my opinion, the just-kill-me-now endless rounds of meetings are a wasted opportunity. When we teach a course, we have course outcomes and activities that support these outcomes. The more interactive and active the classroom activities are, the more likely participants will meet the outcomes. When we go to conferences, we have specific disciplinary or pedagogical issues and problems that the presentations address. In most of the everyone-must-go meetings, the intended outcomes are not clear, the activities are not tied to student success and don’t actively involve participants, and the speakers generally repeat information that has already been delivered via email, at other meetings, and even within the same meeting.

I have heard staff complain that the meeting content is too academic, and faculty routinely complain that the meetings rob us of valuable start-of-semester prep time. Administrators, as far as I can tell, are not free to give their opinions. I will be honest: I am writing this blog entry from an auditorium in a meeting that has already gone on nearly two hours and shows no sign of ending. The highlights were the delightful acceptance speeches for the staff and faculty excellence awards – but they didn’t come up in the agenda until well after the meeting was scheduled to end.

While we’re sitting in here, our college wrestles with a reorganization, an upcoming accreditation review, budget crises, public pressure to demonstrate that our students are learning, and sometimes-flailing efforts to bolster student retention, persistence, and completion. As of this writing, midway through the week, I have already attended more than 12 hours of meetings, with at least six more hours to come before the end of the week. The clock is ticking, and my fingernails and toenails are turning blue.

As I have said more than once, I am blessed to work at a college where everyone – faculty, staff, and administration – are talented, intelligent, innovative, collegial, and dedicated to improving the lives of our students. So why are we wasting our own time?

Caution: The Moving Walkway Is Ending

Early one morning a little over a week ago, the DC Metro deposited me at Reagan National Airport, where I would depart for an intensive fiction workshop in San Francisco. Only a few months had passed since my last flight from Reagan, but I had already forgotten the familiar robo-female voice that met me at the airport entrance before I reached the moving sidewalk, repeated its message ad infinitum, and followed me around for days afterwards: “Caution! The moving walkway is ending!”

If a message repeats itself that many times, it functions something like an advertising jingle or a mantra. It snakes into ordinary thoughts and insinuates itself into travel destinations. Eventually, new, unintended meanings stick to it like burrs on a tube sock.

In my case, the prickly tube sock has morphed into a metaphorical statement about the second week of May, the last of this academic year. The moving walkway – something like a tunnel, on which I’d stepped last August, accelerated in a predetermined direction, and then landed in the precise spot the engineers intended – was ending. For months, I’d sped through most days, hopscotched through classes, workshops, conferences, committee meetings, planning, mentoring, and grading, constantly sprinting toward the next point on the calendar.

After all the uproar about workload at Montgomery College, I am not going to mount a defense of summer, which for me will include teaching an online class, serving on a couple of time-intensive committees, co-facilitating a workshop, helping in academic advising, writing an article or two, and, it now seems, helping to compile a handbook for faculty teaching transfer composition. In other words, I will be working this summer. But what I won’t have, at least most of the days, is the moving walkway of obligation to appear in person, dressed presentably, at a specific time and place.

Yes, three months of modified entropy is a luxury. And yes, I will be getting paid for most of the work. However, I learned more about fiction in my four days in San Francisco than I probably have in all my years of writing, and more than anything else I am grateful for the opportunity to be a writer for a couple of months. Among the things I love about teaching is the chance to counterbalance the self-absorption required for writing with work that has a direct and immediate benefit to others. In other words, one of the advantages of a moving walkway is that I have a destination, a clearly marked path, and an arrival time: everything my writing is (usually) not.

It’s time I embraced potential uselessness, fruitlessness, pointlessness, and aimlessness, at least for a little while. It’s true I may get lost, but it’s also true I may end up somewhere the moving walkway can never take me no matter how fast I run.