Know thyself. Question thyself.

Know thyself – the game-show

Admittedly, “Know thyself” is not the most innovative advice. What it lacks in innovation, however, it makes up for in usefulness, apparent simplicity, and real difficulty. I have made up this game show where contestants answer questions about someone’s character, preferences, abilities – like those wedding shows where spouses’ knowledge of each other is tested – only the twist is they have to answer questions about themselves. How many pages of a novel can you read in an hour? When’s your most productive time? What’s the best way for you to organize your work? If you had asked me these questions during the first year of my undergrad, I would have answered: 60 pages; late at night; and “I can’t organize my work. I am naturally unorganized. This is who I am.” Then – provided you had asked me these questions during my amazing game-show – there would have been a loud buzzing sound and big pink signs flashing the words “wrong. wrong. wrong.”.

The reason I would have failed at my game-show is that self-knowledge pretends to be innate but isn’t. While you need to talk to other people and observe them in order to know them, you’d think you’d know yourself simply by being yourself. Well obviously that logic is flawed. I know my SO’s favourite food because I asked him (it’s bread with butter and jam, in case you were wondering) but I should know my own because, well, it’s my favourite food. But actually, I think, if I do know what my favourite food is at all, it is because someone has asked me. And then I thought about it (although the more I eat, the more difficult it is to answer the question). The biggest problem with the imagined questions in my also imaginary game-show is that people don’t usually do you the courtesy of asking them. If you want to know how many pages you can read in an hour, you will probably have to ask yourself. Worse, you can’t trust your instinct at all. You will actually have to sit down, time yourself, and count pages! Worse still, you will have to do it again, and again, and again. Not only will your first results be hopelessly unrepresentative (yes, you can read 50 pages an hour – if you never take a sip of tea, never go to the loo and never do any kind of procrastination) but your results will also change. Knowing yourself begins with the realization that you do not know yourself. Self-knowledge is an ongoing process that requires constant questioning and observation. (What’s your favourite food again?)

Getting to know your organized self

Other people don’t usually ask you how many pages you read in an hour because it isn’t a very interesting question. So I read 30 pages an hour rather than 60 (I have a tiny bladder and big thirst), great, that’s interesting… Well, no, not inherently, what’s interesting is what I can do with this information. If you recall, old me answered the third question claiming to be inherently disorganized, which is true for old me (old me was a bit of a slob).  Actually, most people I know claim to be inherently disorganized. Disorganization becomes a defining criteria of their personality. It’s who they are. Most of the time the “I am disorganized”-statement continues with “trust me, I have tried organizing but it does not work”. I once suggested to my friend Nadja that she might simply not know how to organize herself, which she refuted claiming that she was great at making plans for organizing her work, she just couldn’t follow them. If you can’t follow your plans, you are not great at making them!

Any idiot can make a plan.  The plan for the first essay I wrote in Cambridge went something like this:  read Victorian novel in the morning, write essay in the afternoon, be done by dinner. Let’s say the average Victorian novel has about 500 pages (they’re a wordy bunch). If I’d ever considered the amount of reading I can really get done in an hour, I would not have had to read till 3am, realize I am only half-way done, panic, work through the night only to hand in a bad essay with a bad conscience.  The reason my plan had failed was because I had based it on who I wanted to be – someone who can read 600 pages in 6 hours and never needs a break – rather than who I am and thereby I had become who I really did not want to be at all – someone who hands in a half-finished, confused essay hours after the deadline.

That I fell into this kind of planning trap was absolutely normal and fine. Show me an English undergrad and I will show you someone who has written an essay about the exposition of Middlemarch (aka “I am sure my supervisor can’t tell that I didn’t actually finish this massive mother of a novel” (fyi, your supervisor knows)). Unfortunately, what many of us – myself very much included – take away from early planning experiences is that planning does not work rather than drawing the more obvious conclusion that we’re shit at planning and have to learn it like we learn most other things. When we think we are naturally disorganized, we are actually right. We are also naturally illiterate that does not mean we can’t learn reading and writing. There is no reason to assume that organization skills are something one either has or doesn’t; there are many reasons to think they might be a useful thing to have and a great thing to learn.

Learning to plan begins with getting to know yourself. Like any engineer needs to know his materials before he makes a design, you need to know the parameters with which to make a plan and to do that you have to ask yourself lots of questions and document your actual behaviour rather than guessing the answers. Some questions I found useful are:

1) Into what parts can I separate my work? (In my case that could roughly be: reading primary literature, reading secondary literature, making an outline, writing a draft, redrafting, making a bibliography, proofreading, printing)

2) In what units can these parts be measured?(e.g.: reading and proofreading can be measured in pages, writing in words or pages, bibliography in entries; I haven’t found a measure for outlining yet, which is why I find it hardest to plan)

3. How many units can I reliably do in a set amount of time?(in my case: 30 pages of primary and 15-20 of secondary reading per hour, 500 words of writing a day)

4. How much work can I do? How many hours of productive work can I do in a day (subtract lunch, Facebook, and general procrastination)? How many days a week can I work while being happy? (In my case it’s a rather odd 4.5 hours 7 days. I love my work, so I  want to do some work every single day or I miss it. But I also love my freedom, so I enjoy being able to call it quits in the afternoon and work out, go to the dentist, do bureaucratic grown-up things  or watch telly while eating insane amounts of pancakes. Half the time, I actually decide to spend my me-time continuing my work and end up having a 14 hour day but I never have to and I know I can stop whenever I feel like it. It also means that if I can’t work for a couple of days for any reason, I am still fine, I can simply work longer – but still managable – days until I catch up with the plan).

Once you know the answers to these kinds of questions, once you know yourself and your work, you can begin making a first plan. This plan will be much easier to follow because it is built on your actual behaviour. Nevertheless it won’t be perfect because your self-knowledge isn’t. So you continue asking questions and documenting behaviour (a blog’s a great way to do that). Make sure that you don’t only write down your plan but also write down what you actually did as accurately as possible. Some good questions once you have a plan are:

1) In what sections did I follow the plan? (I usually stick to the 500 words of writing but find the research bit harder to organize right)

2) Where did I fall short of the plan? Where did I exceed it? (I usually write more and work longer hours but often leave one item off completely. At the moment a usual planned day goes: read 30 pages of poetry, read a critical paper, write a section of outline, write a blog post, work out, do laundry; I will probably get the first three things done, begin the fourth and completely neglect the last; one way to react to this is to sort my day by priority, another way I could deal with this is by limiting the amount of chunks I do in a day and do 3 large things rather than 6 smaller ones)

3) What factors tend to endanger your plan? (In my case: too much lunch, hunger if I didn’t have lunch, social media and academic but unrelated reading, playing an affternoon game of Settlers of Katan)

4) What factors tend to help my plan along? (For me, this was the most surprising category because it made me realize that I was actually often productive when I though I wasn’t and vice versa. Documenting my work made me realize that I tend to be more plan-following and productive when I am in the library rather than at home and that contrary to my belief that I am most productive at night, I am actually most reliably productive when I get up earlier. This realization has changed my work patterns drastically. I now work from 9-1 (with a coffe break) and then again from 2-6 (optional) rather than beginning at 6pm and working through the night).

Once you have answered questions like these, you can build an even better plan and then question that plan and make a better plan and question that and oh, you’ll just get better and better – ain’t planning the shit? Seriously though, this is what planning’s about: Getting to know yourself and your work and making your work fit who you are rather than trying (and failing) to become your work. Work should be fun. Plans should make work be fun for you. They should never shame you. They should help you get to know your most awesome self.

What I’ve learned about myself while writing this blog entry:

  • If I don’t write an outline first, my blog entry will become too long (I thought I’d end up with 500 words. I’ve got three times that amount, which I think is too much)
  • Writing an entry takes up significantly more time than I expected (this took me 5 hours, if I include mindless googling)
  • I enjoy writing about planning (I suspected as much but you never know)

About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
This entry was posted in getting things done and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s