by J J Cohen
This morning I watched my son as he frantically attempted to master the complicated jazz piece he is playing at tomorrow's recital. Despite the admonitions of his piano teacher, he doesn't yet have it memorized. The performance Sunday at 4 PM is an absolute deadline. I've often talked to him about how he can send a gift to his future self by mastering early what he needs to know by a certain deadline -- whether a musical piece or the formation of the subjunctive for French verbs. He's 14, so he seldom listens. (His sister, on the other hand, is ready to go with her simplified "Für Elise" and a song she composed herself, "The Music Box." She is just as eager to bow theatrically at the recital as she is to play the songs.)
I try to live the philosophy of gifting your future self as much as you can. Something you may have noticed about yesterday's post (beside the fact that misidentified an indifferent heron for a lucky crane): none of the essays I completed in draft are actually due immediately. For me, the best way to be productive is to resist being deadline-driven. If I organize my work schedule around when essays or talks are absolutely due, then I am likely to fill in the intervening time with "working" on the project. Those "scare quotes" are meant to indicate that the amount of labor will expand and thin. If I know I have an essay due in a month, I am likely to spend that month on the essay. Work will spread itself to fill all available time.
When this expansion happens I end up not practicing what I preach to my students: revising my writing with the benefit of some distance. Over the years I've learned to set and abide by self-imposed deadlines so that I'll have time to put the project away for a while, and return to it fresh. I manage what is due via a work schedule I keep on Google Calendar and Tasks (a system I developed over the past few years as the number of my commitments proliferated beyond my ability to remember them). Don't get me wrong: this system doesn't always work. I do break promises to myself, and I am capable of inflicting the worst predicaments upon future Jeffrey. Deadlines before deadlines are an ideal rather than a consistently practicable reality.
But sometimes the system works. The Race essay is not due until the end of this month, the queer inorganic piece in August, and the giants entry on Sept. 1. Of course, that doesn't mean that next week is nothing but late rising and poolside mojitos: I have a special issue of postmedieval that needs a great deal of attention, and two talks to write, especially because I'll be traveling from the end of July right through August (Australia and Maine).
Which is not to say that at some point today I won't go to the neighborhood pool, and afterwards enjoy ... well, maybe not a mojito, but a summer drink of bourbon, ginger ale and fresh mint. Meanwhile, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for my son. Tomorrow is going to be quite a day for him.