When I was a teenager, my favorite part of the school day was music class. That’s when Sister Francis would float to the front of the room, her black veil billowing behind her. Picking up a damp rag, she’d erase the blackboard until it gleamed a shiny jet black. It was a clean, satisfying erase, absent the smudgy gray dust a felt eraser would have left behind.
Next, she’d pick up a tool that resembled a hand-size rake. Each of its five prongs gripped a stubby piece of chalk. With it, she drew slow, steady lines across the board, one row under the other. Her staves were straight as arrows, waiting to be filled with our simple melodies. It may sound absurd, but ever since, I’ve tried to make my life as clean and well ordered as Sister Francis’ blackboard.
To no avail. By the time I reached my 40s, I realized I needed a system to help me organize my priorities and see “the big picture.”
My husband had the answer: “Get yourself a lined pad, like me. Remember when you wrote that article about the space shuttle launch? The commander was rocketing into space at three g’s, and her checklist was right there, on a clipboard strapped to her thigh!”
But lined pads weren’t my thing. With today’s computers, I reasoned, why should I manually rebuild my to-do list every day?
On the advice of a friend, I signed up for a time management course where I learned to organize my tasks on computerized spreadsheets in order of priority. I made lists for what I was doing today, next month and next year. There was even a list for “what I’ll never do.” The latter included close-to-myheart projects like finishing a book of love poems for my husband and learning a software program I purchased three years ago.
But, alas, keeping up with spreadsheets was impossible. They proliferated like bunnies across the floor in my office. One day, when things were especially out of control, my husband walked in and declared that I had FOD.
“Foreign Object Debris. Astronaut lingo for a mess.”
A few years later I discovered the Super List. To-dos and project notes, organized by category, miraculously appeared in sync on every digital device I owned. There was only one problem: my inability to set realistic deadlines. Uncompleted tasks automatically pushed to the next day. If I wasn’t careful, I might have 30 items that demanded my immediate attention. Select CLICK select CLICK … a person could develop carpal tunnel syndrome rescheduling all those to-dos.
Then, at a writers’ retreat, I heard something that stopped me in my tracks. When asked to schedule a meeting, our leader replied, “Sure, let me find my paper calendar. I write my appointments in pencil, so I can erase them if I have to.”
Erase. That was it! Writing tasks down in pencil would force me to be realistic about how much I could achieve in one day—or one year. My normally frantic self would be forced to slow down … and think.
The next day I announced to my husband: “I need to stop into Staples to buy an organizing tool.”
“Impossible! No way do you need another device.”
“Wait here. I’ll only be a minute.”
I made a beeline for the stationery section. There it was: an 8-by-12-inch spiral- bound planner. Each month’s two-page spread, with only five lines to a day, was as clean and well lined as Sister Francis’ chalkboard. I could list my to-dos in pencil and if my priorities changed, I could erase.
“So what device did you get this time?” my husband quizzed on the way back to the car. I flashed back a shy little smile. I just couldn’t bear to hear him chuckle when I explained I had gone analog.
Lauren Price writes from Charleston