Keeping Up

One of the hardest things about grad school (from three weeks in) is that it’s hard to know when I can relax.

(Hah! Trick question! It’s never!)

(Shut up, brain.)

So far I’ve been keeping up with all of the work, both my own coursework and my work as a TA, but there is always more to do. I finish one week’s readings and assignments, and the next set is waiting. I look at a book I could read for fun, but think, “Wellll, I could do that, but if I get a head start on next week’s reading, I won’t be as crunched.”

Then there is the question of starting to think about my own research. I need to be keeping up with the research I want to incorporate, and starting to synthesize my own ideas. Now, some of that is the reading I’m looking at for fun, because I’m really interested in my research ideas, but I have to admit it’s not exactly relaxing.

The sheer volume of stuff I could be doing, of course, triggers decision paralysis (and occasionally a hefty dose of autistic inertia), so I often default to whatever is due next. Which so far is working out, but it again leaves open the question of when I can relax. Because the paradox is that by pushing myself to get ahead on the next week’s work, in the hopes that maybe I’ll have a little more time, is that any “more” time I free up will just get applied to the following week’s work. If the model is “work more now so you can relax later,” well, there’s always more work to do. ¯\_()_/¯

Now that I’m going into my fourth week, I’m starting to convince myself that I’ve got this. I’ve gotten through my first round of grading papers and I could still keep up with my own reading and assignments. I finally got back to reading books for myself (ok, one’s for research, but still) this past weekend. I’ve started picking up my ukulele again every day or two, just to play a few songs. And I decided to write this blog post in part of the hour before my next class instead of spending the whole thing obsessively diving into the next set of readings. Which I’m still going to start once I’m done, but heck, they’re also really interesting.

So, am I relaxing yet? Not really. But I think I’m settling in.

Planning, Anticipation, and Uncertainty

One of my biggest strengths is the way I anticipate and plan; I automatically work out the logistics of getting things done, and I usually find ways to make the doing more efficient as well. This has helped me in both my work life and my personal life. But one of my biggest sources of anxiety is also the way I anticipate and plan, because it means I am always thinking ahead to how things might be, but I can never be absolutely sure that that’s the way they will be.

For example, I have a couple of busy days coming up next week, when I have a series of orientations for new graduate students to go to, and I have already started working out the best plan for how to get where I need to go. I’ve looked up the times and locations I need to know (but I’ll be looking in more detail at the campus map the day before, to make sure I know how to get there), and made inquiries about whether my parking permit will be active or not yet (it won’t; sigh). I’ve added in a couple of to-dos that I should be able to handle in between meetings and other events, and made sure I know where I need to go for those, as well.

And all of this will be immensely helpful—but it’s also a lot of mental energy that I’m expending ahead of time, which may or may not reduce the mental energy I’ll need to actually navigate those two days. After all, I still don’t know how busy the campus will be, or where exactly I’ll be able to park. I don’t know exactly what all of the venues look like, or with whom I’ll be interacting, so those are things I’m going to have to incorporate on the fly. Anticipating does feel like it’s helpful, and I’m always happy that I’ve gotten myself organized ahead of time. But it’s also kind of draining. It’s like my brain is always going, always mapping things out; as soon as any new element enters the picture, I’m adding it to the map, rearranging if I need to.

This is why it can be so very stressful when a) something gets added or changed at the last minute, b) something takes much longer than expected, or c) something does not go at all as I had planned. The way I manage long, busy days is usually by rehearsing them in my head ahead of time; then at least I feel like I’ve practiced and therefore know that I can get through it all. When reality does not go according to that mapped-out rehearsal in my head (which it has an annoying habit of doing on a frustratingly frequent basis), I can implode.

Not all the time, though, and I’m a lot better about adapting than I used to be. And the good thing is that my brain just keeps on mapping, so after the initial breakdown, I am able to bounce back pretty quickly with a re-route. I suppose I just need to work on building more flexibility into the map in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like a total collapse when something doesn’t work out.

Academically Organized

It’s the day after my 47th birthday, and it’s hard to believe we’re this far into August already. But late summer always seems to fly, to me. I’m actually happy about that, because while I’m thoroughly enjoying the fact that I have the month off, I am also very eager to start my first semester in grad school.

One thing I did to get ready for that was create a visual schedule of all of my classes, including the one I will be a teaching assistant for (and my office hours for that position, too). I used a schedule template in Numbers, the spreadsheet application on my Mac, as a starting point. I merged cells to create blocks of time for each class, then entered the details like the name of the class, the professor teaching it, the building and room number, and the exact starting and ending times. I color-coded the blocks, too, so the classes I’m taking are in green, and the one I’m a TA for is in yellow. My office hours are in orange.

This lets me see all of my standing obligations for the week at a glance, and also serves as a single reference point for where I need to be for each of them. I used to have recurring nightmares about not being able to find my classrooms when I was in college before, and I’ve already had a couple of them this summer. And that’s extra silly this time, because all of my classes are in the same pair of connected buildings, and the majority of them even meet in the same room! But such is my brain.

I also entered all of this info into the calendar on my phone, which will also have other meetings and appointments that aren’t recurring each week. But I find it harder to visualize my week when looking at my phone calendar, so creating this visual aid for keeping track of my schedule—which is different every day—was really helpful. Once the semester starts, I’ll also add recurring reminders for each class into Todoist, because that is the main way I keep track of things I need to do. I find putting appointments in there as well as my calendar makes it really easy to remember them, since I check Todoist multiple times per day.

So those are my main tools for staying organized in terms of knowing where I need to be, and when. I’ve also set up a Trello board for keeping track of assignments for each class. I had been using a white board in my home office for that, but that was when I was only taking two classes, and it’s not big enough now. 😂 I have one list on that Trello board that is reserved for my own research ideas, and I’ve been busy populating that over the last couple of months. Then I have lists for each class, one for my work as a TA, and one for administrative tasks (although usually I just use Todoist for those, since they’re usually simple one-off tasks). It’s another good visualization tool, since I’ll be able to see all of the things I need to get done, with due dates and such. That may not end up being something I particularly want to see, of course—but it’s better than forgetting something!

Cooking Up New Habits

I’ve been working on building better food and fitness habits before I start grad school in the fall; I figure that it’s easier to build habits like that when I have free time, then I can adjust when time gets tighter. One of these involves learning more about nutrition and starting to cook more so I can eat more whole, unprocessed foods.

Cooking isn’t something I have typically enjoyed doing. For a while I experimented with a meal-kit delivery service, and got fairly comfortable in the kitchen, but I ended up getting tired of their recipes. I find a lot of things about cooking challenging. When I know what I am making, I’m pretty good at planning out efficient ways of getting everything done at roughly the same time, but planning what to make takes some effort. I also find things with many steps (like clean this, chop that, brown this, bake that) very tiring, and they look really daunting ahead of time, which makes me not want to even start. There are some sensory issues as well, especially around handling food; I don’t like wet or oily fingers, for example. And then there’s all the cleanup afterward.

My husband does like to cook, but there are several evenings of the week when he is not home because of his work schedule. We sometimes manage to make enough food so I have leftovers when he’s out, but that doesn’t always work. As I’ve been starting to cook more, our strategy has been to get me set up with the meat for my meal already made—either he cooks an extra serving the previous night, or picks up something pre-made at our local food coop, where I know they use good ingredients. Then I cook the sides to go with it. That way I have less work to do in the kitchen, and I can experiment with different vegetables and ways of cooking them.

In the course of this, I have discovered that I really enjoy roasted asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and carrots. The combination of roasted brussel sprouts and carrots is particularly good; I just make them very simply with a little bit of olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Soon I’m going to try roasted zucchini as well. (Roast all the things!) It’s been gratifying to find some new things I like that are easy to make, so I am looking forward to branching out into more recipes, including ones where I make everything myself. It’s also fun to cook together when my husband is home; that takes away some of the “so many things to do” anxiety about all the steps.

I have a book with a four-week meal plan that I’m thinking of trying out. That, too, would reduce some anxiety around deciding what to make for each meal. It’s just a matter of making sure we have all of the ingredients I need when I need them; sometimes it’s tricky given our shopping patterns, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out. And the recipes look great, so I think it will be worth it!

Of Gears and Brain Goo

I had a few hours of hyper-focus heaven today while I worked on my research paper, and now my brain is pleasantly fried. I do, however, want to get a blog post written today as well, and that means a) getting my brain to spin back up again, and b) getting it to switch focus to something new. Hah! That meant ten minutes of staring at a blank text editor window while every idea I’ve ever had for a blog post mysteriously went missing.

That switching gears thing is tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, I can actually get through a flurry of simple tasks in rapid succession—but spend some time on something that requires more focus, and it’s like my thoughts get physically stuck to it. It takes effort to pull them away, and some still get left behind, lingering on the previous project like sticky gray goo. That leaves me with less to apply to the new project, and a nagging sense that I’ve left something incomplete, even if I haven’t.

So that’s where I am right now. I figured I could at least write about this difficulty from the midst of it, but my brain’s still pretty stuck. I do have a couple more things I want to get done today, including more writing on yet another project, but at least that one has some momentum behind it. I think I can at least jump on and see where it takes me. Bye for now!

Irons in the Fire

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now. I’m technically on summer vacation from school, but work has been busy, and I am trying to use the summer to get ready to take the GRE and finish up the research project that will be part of my application to grad school. Plus, I am trying to expand the offerings in my Etsy shop (just added new things last week!) and my husband and I are exploring a new business venture that he’s been thinking about for a while. I also want to get back into a regular schedule of posting on this blog, possibly even increasing the frequency of posts. It’s kind of a lot to manage.

(I’ve always liked that expression, by the way: irons in the fire. It feels solid and businesslike, in a hands-on, creative kind of way. It’s a lot more appealing than saying I have a lot of balls in the air, because while I do kind of like the juggling metaphor, I’ve never been very good at juggling, so it makes me feel like all of those balls could come crashing down around me at any minute. No, better to frame them as irons in the fire, as if I were a blacksmith forging pieces of my life.)

Long-term projects are particularly hard to keep up with at times. I start out with the intention to work on something a little bit each day (with wiggle room for off days) but when there are multiple such projects, it gets to be unwieldy. Not only is there often not enough time available once outside commitments are met, but some projects require more sustained attention than “just doing a little each day” will allow. So one thing I started trying this past week was designating a different project for each day of the week; my responsibilities on that day are then to take care of any paid work I am scheduled to do (and any other appointments and such), and then spend at least a couple of hours on that project. It’s like an additional work schedule, but one that I am fulfilling for my own work.

So far I like it. I made a lot of progress on three different projects this week, and being able to really get into a hyper-focused groove with them was highly satisfying. I left one day (Sunday) as a “miscellaneous” day, where I could work on anything that called out to me, catch up on things that hadn’t gotten done due to unforeseen schedule changes, or just take a day off and relax. I ended up doing all of the above today, which left the day feeling very productive but also nicely paced; I didn’t feel rushed to get particular things done, I just did them.

It helps that I really enjoy working on these projects, so spending most of the weekend being productive in this way doesn’t leave me feeling like I never get a break. Researching, writing, crafting, and reading are all things I look forward to doing, so having a whole weekend to pursue them does feel like a break. But I suppose I’ll have to see how it goes in the long run.

On the practical side, I drew up a weekly schedule on my home office whiteboard, and added recurring reminders to my to-do list for which project to focus on for each of the days. That way the schedule is constantly visible to me when I am in my office, and I get a reminder each morning when I look at my list of tasks. Both of these things are really helpful as executive function supports, as well as general memory aids; I’ve been using Todoist to manage my project to-do lists, and I’ve really come to appreciate the benefit of having some things be more visible by using a whiteboard. My husband and I have a household whiteboard on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, where we see it all the time. This has really helped keep both of us on track with things that need to be done, especially one-off or time-sensitive tasks that could easily fall through the cracks.

My main concern with this plan is that there are some days when I am just not in the right frame of mind to work on a particular project; if I didn’t sleep well, for example, writing can become hugely difficult. So designating a set day of the week for each project may not always pan out. But if I can remember to be flexible and just swap days with something I can work on, I still think it will be manageable. That already happened this weekend, actually, and I just made use of my “miscellaneous” Sunday to catch up.

So I’ll see how it goes! Just have to keep forging, one iron at a time.

An Active April

I’m sure I’ll write more about April as Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Appreciation Month at some point in the next thirty days, but…not today. Today I am planning and prioritizing all of the various things I need to do during April, many of which have to do with everybody’s focus moving onto autism for the month.

The first priority is my upcoming webinar for young autistic adults interested in starting their own business; that’s coming up this Wednesday. To to fair, its timing wasn’t specifically related to April, as it’s part of a webinar series that has been going on since (at least?) February. But I ended up with a date in April, so it happens to be right at the beginning of the all-autism-all-the-time frenzy of the month.

Then two weeks later, I will be participating in a panel discussion at my local community college on the topic of being a student on the autism spectrum. I’ve been in communication with the coordinator to help streamline some of the questions and make sure the focus isn’t entirely on areas of difficulty. I’m really looking forward to this event, actually, and I’ll be curious to hear what other students have to say about their experiences.

At the end of the month I’ll be attending the Annual Autism Conference put on by Autism Connections in western Massachusetts. One of the keynote speakers will be Steve Silberman, whose book Neurotribes is still one of my favorites on the subject of autism (and definitely my favorite by a non-autistic author). I’m not sure what else to expect from this one, but I’m curious to see what the overall tone of the gathering is, and how inclusive the organization is of autistic perspectives.

During all of this, I also have to get through the last full month of my spring semester, do all of my software-testing work, and keep up with my responsibilities to my coaching clients. Oh, and try to expand the contents of my Etsy shop, get some writing done, and have some kind of family life with my husband and dogs.

It’s a lot, but it’s manageable. It’s all about prioritization and tracking. Calendars, checklists, and to-do apps are my friends—actually, they’re way closer than friends. Todoist is pretty much my constant companion these days, and I highly recommend it, especially for recurring tasks that need to be done every day, week, or month. And I recommend including self-care and “recharging” activities on to-do lists, because they’re important, too. There’s something particularly satisfying about getting that feeling of accomplishment from checking something off your list when that something was itself relaxing and rejuvenating. “I got so much done today, including taking a break!”

Speaking of which, it’s looking rather nice outside. I think I’ll go enjoy it.