Controlling Chaos

Learning to love my calendar
FEB 2020
Vincent
M.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

“Hey, you ready for the call in five?”

The what? With who? Did I have to prep for this? When did we decide to schedule a call? What are we even talking about?

Maybe I’ve just been getting old, but I never had a problem remembering all my commitments before graduate school. Or maybe I never had to deal with so many scattered tasks – emails to answer, project updates to send out, experiments to finish. Initially, I continuously felt flustered and anxious, always unsure if I had forgotten something. About six months ago, it hit me real hard: I’d stroll into my office in the morning, Area 4 pastry in hand, just for someone to remind me of a conference call or meeting that I had forgotten or an experiment I had promised to complete. Things were spiraling out of control, and I knew I had to change the way I organized my life to maintain my sanity.

I’m not going to lie – it was incredibly difficult at first. I’ve always prioritized flexibility. Writing down what I needed to do and where I needed to be felt, for lack of a better way of putting it, wrong. I mean, bottom of your stomach, instinctually, wrong. I always felt like once something was in my calendar or in my to-do list (I love the iOS app “Things” for this), that I was held captive to it. But I pushed through, and now on the other side and maybe a little wiser, it was worth every bit of my initial discomfort. So, to anyone out there like me who hates unnecessary structure in their lives, let me tell you, give it a try. Here’s what worked for me:

Write it down, immediately. Everything in my life goes on the calendar as soon as I know about it – meetings, experiments, social hours, gym time, you name it. I even have a calendar color for potential events to cut down on the chances that I schedule two things at once. It works! The first app I check on my phone in the morning is always my calendar, and with the whole day laid out in front of me, I feel significantly more grounded in knowing that unplanned surprises are kept to a minimum.

Plan, plan, and plan some more. I’m not a natural planner. In the past, if I had to write a paper, I’d never write an outline; I’d jump right in. If I was going on a trip, I’d figure out the plan for the day on the morning of. But, while it was difficult at first, forcing myself to slow down and write out my thoughts and ideas has dramatically improved my efficiency. When I buckle down for an afternoon-long experiment, I never forget to check if all my reagents are stocked. When I chat with my PI, we go through the list of things we need to talk about, and I never walk out of his office wondering what I had forgotten to tell him about. When I’m preparing for a party, I never walk around Target aimlessly, only to forget pong balls for the hundredth time (sorry friends!).

Save those emails for when the T breaks down. If you’re anything like me, you spend way too much time writing and re-writing emails – making sure they’re absolutely perfect even if the recipient might give it a five second glance. These days, I leave most non-urgent emails to follow up on when I’m commuting between lab spaces (I migrate between my MIT and Ragon Institute offices to catch some fresh air at least once a day) or between work and home. And unless I have a truly long email to write, I’ll challenge myself to send them all out before I get to where I’m going. While I initially thought that would be difficult, it honestly isn’t, especially if the red line is out of service as often as it is.

Make me time mandatory. We’ve all heard it – take care of yourself. Relax. Meditate. Read. But all too often, life gets in the way – I have urgent deadlines to make or I’m too tired – and these critical de-stressors are pushed to the side. Making a concerted effort to spend 15 minutes doing something, anything, else before going to bed has done wonders for me. I feel more grounded, more in control, more ready to get a good night’s sleep before tackling the next day. Just do it.

Now, I’m the one reminding others of that conference call. How the tables have turned.