Getting On

So how is it that, although we are now agreed about the nature of virtue, we still try to demonstrate progress in areas that are unrelated? What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly? So who is making progress – the person who has read many of Chrysippus’ books? Is virtue no more than this – to become more literate in Chrysippus? Because, if that’s what it is, then progress cannot amount to anything more than learning as much Chrysippus as we can.

– Epictetus Discourses and Selected Writings

I’m always on about some scheme to organize myself and impose order on my time. This school year, I’ve started using my Time Block Planner, which I was excited to get for Christmas, and then didn’t touch all year. The idea behind this planner is to reflect upon, and capture in writing, the week’s big goals and tasks, and then plan blocks of uninterrupted time during which to attend to them. Throughout that week, with the appropriate adaptations that arise in real time, you can benefit from the forethought you have expended upon the stuff of your days. For a person like me, this is what passes for difficult wisdom. To keep those blocks truly uninterrupted I use a little blue clock that I wind for a set amount of time. The clock face is obscured by a deep blue chunk of a circle (I think the geometry word is section. Is that right?). As time passes, the shaded area shrinks until it reaches zero, at which point either an alarm sounds or the clock makes a low click. I’ve taken to bringing my little clock to school and using it for keeping track of discrete parts of my lessons. I don’t know if anyone likes this as much as I do.

Why do I use this system? Well, being able to keep track of time without a networked device is a big plus. I am as distractible as anyone. And it turns out I am much more likely to respect a plastic block of color than something less tactile. This, I can do, and consistently so. If I finish something early, I start on my contingency plan. As for the planner, I think that there, too, there is an appeal to the physicality of pen and paper. Add to this the comfort of knowing that if something matters, this tool contains it. Lastly, having the planner nearby while I work lets me jot something down for later without abandoning what I’m focused on. It’s early on, but I have never started a schoolyear with more calm or control.

Related Reading:

Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Cal is a computer science professor at Georgetown, life hack writer, blogger, and author of books to do with structuring one’s life so as to make room for valuable, concentrated effort.

Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Levitin is a psychologist, and this book is definitely structured like so much popular science. At this point, I sort of think I’ve read enough of that kind of book for one life, but this one stands out. Levitin is a particularly clear writer, and the big question in plain prose is how to make decisions about our physical environment that will be helpful to us given the kinds of minds we have.

Here’s me and my little clock.

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