(Repost) Planning as an act of hope

(Repost) Planning as an act of hope

The last week has been hard, and by all indications it will be harder in days to come before things get any easier. For me, the hardest thing of all isn't managing an academic department in times of unbelievably rapid change or making sure that all the faculty and students are taken care of: the hardest thing is fighting against a persistent temptation to lose hope. If I give in to that temptation, everything is for naught. So I fight against it, with two weapons: my Rosary in one hand and my GTD notebook in the other. The combination of the two has kept me centered so far in what I'll look back on as the wildest month (or two? or more?) of my life.

It reminded me of another wild and unpredictable time: 18 months ago, when I was coming to grips with a rapidly deteriorating health situation that required major surgery. I wrote the following post here at the time, and I wanted to signal-boost it today, for whomever needs to hear. If that's you: Let's keep up the good fight.

I had been looking forward to Friday, December 14 for a long time, like you might look forward to a vacation. This was the date I had planned for my last Trimesterly Review of 2018: A day-long retreat that I schedule three times a year at the ending of a semester, when grades are turned in and the kids are still in school, so I can go to an undisclosed location away from the distractions of home and office and do a deep dive into my personal and professional vision, review my long term (5+ year) and medium-term (1-4 year) goals, and set goals for the next 120 days. After a Trimesterly Review,my entire GTD system is fully tuned, an actual system where all the tasks, projects, goals, and vision statements work together. Trimesterly Reviews are the glue that hold my GTD system together and usually leave me energized, thinking clearly, and full of purpose.

This time was different, though. This time, a looked ahead to my Trimesterly Review and was at a loss as to how to do it, or even whether there was any purpose to it, or to planning anything at all.

Rewind to September.

I went into my doctor's office for my annual physical. I was especially attentive this year to my physical, because I lost my Dad in July to a massive stroke, then lost my Mom four weeks later after she had suffered strokes for the last 2-3 years of her life. Suddenly, the infrequent but significant dizzy spells I had been experiencing over the last couple of years weren't something I could ignore any longer. I mentioned these to my doctor, and upon checking me out, he found a heart murmur and scheduled me for an echocardiogram in October.

At the echocardiogram, the doctors diagnosed me with aortic valve stenosis, an inflammation of the aortic valve. According to the test, whereas a normal aortic valve opens up to 3 square centimeters in area when blood is pumping, mine was only opening up to 0.8 square centimeters. On December 3, I went back in for a consultation with a cardiologist, who diagnosed me as having a "severe" condition. For someone my age, the only way foward is open-heart surgery to replace the valve. This I will have in early January.

Now go forward to December 10.

It's been a week since the bombshell about needing open-heart surgery; it's four days till the Trimesterly Review. My plans for 2019 are toast. The January surgery plus 6-8 weeks of recovery time mean that I will have to take FMLA leave for the entire semester, just as I had finally gotten back into the swing of teaching following my year-long sabbatical. I've had to hand over my teaching and service duties to colleagues. I've had to cancel four speaking engagements during February and March that I was really looking forward to doing, because it's too risky to travel during that time. In fact, I haven't yet been told when the surgery actually is, so when I get emails asking if I'm available for something during January, I just have to shrug and say I have no idea.

Furthermore, my cardiologist has ordered me off of any semi-strenuous physical activity, including all the activities I normally enjoyed, like running and cycling. In fact, I don't know if it's psychosomatic, but whereas I used to park on the other side of campus and do a brisk walk to the office to get a little extra exercise in during the day, when I try this now, my heart feels like it's beating out of my chest, and by the time I climb the single flight of stairs to my office, I have to stop and rest. A few days before, we went to cut down our Christmas tree, and I had to let my daughter do it because trying to saw through the 5-inch diameter trunk was giving me chest pains.

I've had one week to deal with the shock of the diagnosis, the inability to do things I enjoy like travel or being physically active, the inabilty to schedule anything between January and April --- even the inability to say with 100% certainty that I'll even be around to see the end of next semester. I'm in the thick of having to deal with final exams and grades. And that Trimesterly Review is sitting there on the calendar, asking me what I intend to do.

Suddenly all of my focus on planning, scheduling, productivity, GTD, and whatnot seemed absurd. How do you do a Trimesterly Review, to calibrate your goals and life mission, when you have no idea what the next 120 days are going to be like, or even if you have 120 days left on this planet? What's the point?

I don't mean to exaggerate. According to one study, the in-hospital mortality rate for open-heart surgery in the US is 3.4%, and the population for that study has a median age of 66 years. For a person like me --- 48 years old, relatively healthy otherwise --- the mortality rate is probably an order of magnitude lower, making it perhaps more likely that I would die in a car accident on the way to the hospital than I would from the surgery or complications arising from it. So my surgery prognosis is nothing like a death sentence, and there are many  people out there who really are dealing with life-and-death situations whose conditions don't even compare to mine and which I do not mean to diminish.

Still, it's no exaggeration to say that when you get a diagnosis like this, it makes you think --- hard --- about your own mortality: the fact that all of us are going to die at some point, the bodies we have will eventually give out, and that our time here is terribly short.

After my diagnosis, confronting these facts just made me want to burn everything to the ground. All my GTD, all my so-called plans and productivity schemes, all my near- and mid- and long-term goals and whatnot. Because, again, what was the point? Isn't all this talk about productivity just a coping mechanism to distract us from how fragile life is, a way of building the illusion that we have all the time in the world and the next 120 days are guaranteed to us? Why plan at all? Instead, why not just live life in the moment, reacting in the moment to whatever the moment brings us, until there are no more moments?

Go forward to December 14, 8:30am.

I'm sitting in my undisclosed location, ready to start my Trimesterly Review but having no idea what to do, how to do it, or even whether I should be doing it. Maybe I should just go back home. That sense of the shortness of time was bearing down on me. I started to think: I'm not going to do this today. I am setting no goals, making no plans, because I have no basis for it. Life is too short for my plans.

But then something clicked in my brain. Life is indeed very short, very fragile. And that's the point.

It clicked with me that I can't just live out my life, however long I have left, simply reacting  moment by moment, because:

How would I know how to react? If I don't think about my overall purpose, the kind of person I want to be and the kind of legacy I want to leave, then every reaction will be shooting from the hip, contradicting most or many of the previous reactions because I will be reacting mindlessly. Those reactions won't amount to anything. It will waste time. We talk about "time-wasting" sometimes in the sense of entertainment; but when you think about how scarce time really is, truly wasting it takes on the dimensions of an atrocity.

What if the moment I'm reacting to is just empty? Most moments, like most of space, are empty unless we put something there. (Hospitals are a great example of this. Ever gone for an emergency room visit and had to wait to be seen?) If I take the path of no planning, no vision- or goal-setting, then yes, I can react to the moment, but if the moment contains nothing, so will my reactions. I will just be leading a life, if you can call it that, waiting for something to happen so I can react to it, time ticking by, nothing happening and nothing growing and nothing being learned or passed on to others.

So, sure, doing a Trimesterly Review makes a lot of assumptions about life, and all of those are questionable, especially in the face of a serious medical diagnosis. But the thing is, everything we do contains these same assumptions and all of us make them on a daily basis. This isn't wrong or even presumptuous; it's just a fact of living in time. The real question isn't whether we have unlimited time or not; it's What are we going to do with the time we have? There are two choices: to spend my life purposefully, or to give up on the concept of purpose. To do the former makes assumptions. To do the latter is to give up hope.

My life, your life is finite one way or the other, so the question isn't about how to prolong that life but how to use it, whether that's a month or 50 more years, so that's bigger than just the sum of our moments.

And the way we do this, is to have the audacity to make the assumption that we'll have a life to lead in the future, and then guide how that life unfolds. That's what planning is. That's what GTD and productivity, otherwise just silly corporate buzzwords, is all about. Being intentional about your time, tasks, projects, calendar, and all the rest is stepping out on faith, a radical act of hope that says Whatever time I have left here, matters.

Go forward to now.

It's three days before Christmas. I did the Trimesterly Review. I made plans and set goals. Whereas usually my 120-day goals revolve around work, about half of my goals this time revolve around personal growth and family. Get the kids' passports taken care of. Go to Confession at least once a month. Finish that DataCamp course. Have dinner guests over a couple of times. What work-related items are there, are either to be done soon or else done with the assumption that they'll happen after Spring Break when my surgery recovery period should be over. Get the ALC literature review submitted for publication. Do the data analysis on the flipped calculus study. Those are goals that fit my upcoming situation.

I also calibrated my mid- and long-term goals to reflect some changes in direction both personally and professionally once I'm back from surgery. Ease back into physical activity. Buy a kayak. In 3 years, do a half marathon. Write a second book. Learn what I need to know to teach our upper-level Linear Algebra course. And so on.

I did not make any changes to my personal vision, which is simply stated:

My purpose and mission as a human being on this planet is to use my gifts and skills to serve others with mercy and generosity, through a deeply human-centered approach to family life, friendship, and work. My ultimate goal is to live generously, serve with charity, lead by example through service, and to experience life -- and enable experiences of life in others -- with a sense of adventure, curiosity, humor, and faith.

I didn't change this because it still works for me, whether I have 50 years left on this planet or 50 days.

I did do one thing differently. Normally I spend the afternoon of a Trimesterly Review on focused deep work on a stuck project. I still have stuck projects, but instead, I met up at the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids with a person I found on Craig's List who had something I wanted to buy: A beautiful Ernie Ball Music Man Sterling bass guitar in excellent condition. I've been playing bass for over 20 years and used to play music all the time in bands and so on, but my guitar (a Warwick Thumb 5-string) and amp have been put away for the last few years, at first because of having infants and toddlers in the house but then the instruments just became forgotten relics. I've decided life's too short for that, and that --- assuming life goes on --- I'd start playing again, with a new-to-me instrument that reflects a simpler approach to playing. I met up with the seller, bought the bass, grabbed lunch at the market, and went home and played guitar all afternoon.

Life's too short; assume that life goes on. That might be my new motto.

If we really believe that time is a scarce resource, then the single most important thing we can do is to shepherd it carefully and spend it wisely and intentionally. Doing so doesn't ignore the fact that all our plans, tasks lists, and so on could come undone with the next phone call or the next doctor's visit. It takes that scarcity, that terrible shortness fully into account, and pushes on anyway, intent on making the most of it all. In the end, this is what I mean by "productivity": Not getting more done, but getting the most out of the life that I've been given.

The next Trimesterly Review is scheduled for April 11, 2019. See you then?

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.