Students accept imperfect planning

A stack of planning paraphernalia reflects the effort and thought that some planners put into choosing their time management methodologies. A cute rendition of the iconic WWII-era “We can do it!” poster decorates the front cover of the topmost bullet journal. Courtesy of Am Chunnananda

As the midterm season rolls in, alongside the turning leaves that gather on the ground, there’s just one thing I wish I had more of: time. I wish I had more time to write that paper, more time to lay on the grass and savor the sun, more time to attend that film screening for that really cool org. I wish, I wish, I wish.

Time can be a strange and difficult concept to grasp a hold on. Even after discussing its different modalities in my cultural anthropology class, rewatching Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and practicing “being present” during a mindfulness workshop in Metcalf, I still don’t quite know how to wrap my head around what it really means, and, more importantly, what I am to do with it. Do I let time naturally unfold and allow the moments I experience to guide me, or do I meticulously plan what to do with my life by the minute? I find myself, in many ways, more compelled to resort to the latter; indeed, as students, we’re often told that planning is crucial to succeeding, academically or otherwise.

Given that planning is a means through which I, a feeble, lone human being, can only grapple with the grand concept of time, and that it is supposedly pretty important to achieve and accomplish things, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to do it. I’ve color-coded categories of events on my Google Calendar, burned through at least seven A5 dot-grid journals from MUJI (an Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journaling obsession that was sparked by discovering Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method in 2015), archived a bajillion Google Keep notes and posted more post-its than should be humanly permissible. And yet, I’ve found no stability; my planning system just keeps on changing.

As of right now, I’m relying mostly on a quaint 64-page yellow notebook my mom bought me as a small gift. Some of its pages are filled with lists numbered nine through 24, corresponding to the times of activities scribbled in adjacent blocks. This makeshift daily schedule, which I (try to) write up for the upcoming day every night, is nested in a vomit of tasks, reminders, notes and other chicken scratches from conversations or meetings throughout the day. These pages are sandwiched between spontaneous spreads of ideas or lists. Messy as it is, it currently works for me, even if that might not be the case in a couple weeks’ time.

In one of his videos, YouTuber and procrastination-conqueror Thomas Frank quoted David Allen, creator of the famous “Getting Things Done’ time-management method. Frank said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Thus, it’s important to create and use systems that catch your floating thoughts, so that more room is left for having those thoughts rather than attempting to retain them. And while a large part of me wishes my disorganized written thoughts were neatly housed in pre-planned spreads embellished with themed doodles and an established color scheme, the past five years of attempted, self-modified bullet journaling has taught me that that’s just not how I think. My messy pages allow my ideas to be held, and that’s good enough.

Courtesy of Am Chunnananda

My planning journey has taught me a good deal about self-acceptance. Samantha Steeves ’21, a daily bullet-journaler, and I both reached this conclusion through a discussion on our planning practices. As I revealed to her my dissatisfaction with my own incohesive planning system, Sam,
folding open her bullet journal containing pages of not overly-elaborate, yet systematically-arranged, boxed layouts representing each week, noted the discrepancy people often have between what we want our productivity to be or look like versus what it actually comes to be.

It’s easy for us to envy how other people plan, especially when planning is at the nexus of so many different aspects of our lives: It is where our academics and extracurricular commitments bump heads; where we channel our inner artistry (or perhaps lack thereof); where we create weekly intentions or monthly goals (as Sam does) or divulge our shallowest and deepest thoughts all in the same place (as I do on my pages). But we shouldn’t forget that planning is also deeply idiosyncratic. Sam, like me, loves looking at the way other people plan. She noted, “It’s so cool to see how other people choose to interpret [bullet journaling or other planning methods]—some people make it more about self-improvement, which totally reflects their personality. Some people don’t like bullet journaling altogether, and prefer just writing stuff on their hand, and that works too.”

Perhaps we can also take note of how planning, rather than being a restrictive force or source of stress, is also incredibly productive for discovering better ways to care for ourselves. When our discussion transitioned into the topic of time budgeting, Sam noted how her bullet journal, and, more generally, planning, has been helpful in ensuring she gets eight hours of sleep—something she deems incredibly important. “I also make sure I have time to do what I like, such as taking walks,” Sam added. “[These practices are] also an important part of productivity, because you can get burnt out,” she pointed out. “It’s hard because I know people get so passionate about what they do on campus,” she recognized; there’s too often to much we all want to fit into one day. But striking a balance between work and relaxation, and being realistic about your limits, takes time.

As my conversation with Sam came to a close, I was reminded of a powerful moment in the mindfulness workshop in Metcalf. The therapist leading the workshop, guiding a mindful drinking exercise with a warm cup of green tea, reminded me and other participants to recognize that we can choose to practice mindfulness and be present with “something as simple as a warm cup of tea.” Embracing simplicity over our complex time management and planning systems may feel invalidating. But I instead choose to lean into Sam’s reminder: “We’re always thinking about ‘what I’m gonna do tomorrow,’ and ‘living in the now’ never ends up happening. To bring it back to bullet journaling, when you have a schedule, it brings you back to the now: I know what I’m going to worry about tomorrow, but today I’m just going to worry about today.”

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