Staying on Top of Things

I got terrible grades when I first started college. I didn’t know how to study well. I often didn’t even make time to study. In fact, there were a lot of things that I didn’t find time for: doing laundry week-to-week, burning off the freshman 15 at the gym, picking up a part-time job, exploring the campus, and more. There’s a lot to do and stay on top of as a college student: the fun stuff and the necessary stuff. For most of my first year, I felt like I was spinning plates. And a lot of the plates were crashing to the ground.

Struggling so hard at managing my time and making sure things got done has forced me over the past several years to get much better at all of it. College, alone, turned into college plus a part-time job. Then, after graduation, a full-time job. Then it was full-time job plus grad school. And after that, a different, more demanding full-time job. Each step presented new challenges for staying on top of things. I never was perfect at it then nor am I now, but I feel like I’ve at least found some things that help me do much better overall.

What works for me may not work for you. But if you find yourself having a hard time remembering to get stuff done or figuring out how to organize your time, perhaps give some of these things a try.

Use your phone’s calendar and reminders. There are plenty of things to dislike about what smartphones and smartphone culture are doing to people. But for me, the Calendar and Reminder apps on my iPhone have become invaluable. There are too many things happening in a week–let alone a month or over the next year–to try to remember it all in my mind. I need the pensieve-like effect of transferring things from my brain into my phone.

Calendar is good for things that you know will occur at a specific time. When you open the app, you can see when you have available time to make additional plans, and when you’re booked up with events you already entered. Calendar allows you to set up alerts in a range from at the time of the event up to one week before. More than once, I’ve been busy doing something and then I get the notification that I need to be doing something else in 15 minutes. I set up alerts with enough time so that even if I completely space out about what’s coming up, I’ll still have enough time to get ready for it: changing clothes, commuting, etc.

Reminders is good for things that you need to do soon but aren’t sure exactly when you’re going to do them. It’s a digital replacement for handwritten to-do lists. Send the birthday card. Pick up flour. Deposit the checks. Call the fam. If you figure out a task should happen at a certain time, or when you’re near a particular place, you can add that too and you’ll get a notification later. I like Reminders because when you’ve done something on your list, you tap to make it disappear. There’s a satisfying feeling of accomplishment as you get things done and shorten the list.

Prioritize the essentials. Fill out your Calendar first with things like work shifts, meals, workouts, class times, projects and assignments to submit, time with significant others and friends, and the like. If you want to keep your job, you better know when you’re working and have alerts or alarms to make sure you’re there doing the work you need to be. If you want to stay healthy, you can’t just work out one random afternoon per month. Block out a few times per week in your Calendar, and hop to it when you get the notification. You may be tempted to swipe to clear it and go back to Netflix. If you want to get solid grades, you have to actually show up to most lectures and have some hours blocked out for studying. Library: 7-11pm, into the Calendar, as many days as you can fit it. Making time for your relationships goes without saying. But if your week is somewhat busy, you may have to plan ahead when you’re going to hang out with the people you care about.

Is it weird to make an event like Lunch: 12:30-1? Perhaps. But when people’s choices for eating are increasingly a quick smoothie or fast-casual takeout at whatever time of the day it can be squeezed in, having the regularity of sitting down to eat something decent around the same time, day-to-day, is important. Similar things are true of sleep.

Do chores and errands on regular days as much as you can. Groceries on Sunday. Laundry on Tuesday. Dishes every other night after dinner. Bills on the 2nd of every month. And the rest. Whatever days make the most sense for you.

Put them in your Calendar so you don’t forget and don’t put them off. You can set events to repeat for upcoming weeks if you’re going to be able to do those things on the same day again in the future. The more you do the essentials in the same week-to-week pattern, the easier it becomes to remember what’s coming up and get it done without stressing out.

Don’t beat yourself up if you get a little off schedule. If you’re going to be a little late to something, give them a heads-up and politely apologize. If you didn’t do something when you planned to and you can reschedule it–then reschedule it. The world will keep spinning if you do laundry on Thursday instead of Wednesday (though you might find yourself out of clean socks).

 

Set aside unstructured time. No one wants every minute of every day planned out. That’s a good way to go crazy. Things become too robotic.

Unstructured time is the cheat meal of staying on top of things. So pick an afternoon or a day where nothing that happens in it will be predetermined. Maybe you’ll grab coffee at a new spot. See if a friend is free. Read a book straight through. Drive off on a day trip. Who knows. Relax and let time unfold without obligation, deadlines, and expectations. Live for a little while as if all your work is done–even if it isn’t. You’ll come back to things fresh.

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 12

Hello, friend. I hope you’re doing well. Things are crazy out there. It can be an achievement just to keep your head on straight and make it through the day. If you’re suffering–your health, a layoff, family trauma–you’re not alone. America is failing the bad-break test. It’s a mess. But I’m confident we can find the way forward. I hope you think so too.

All kinds of interesting things you might have missed this week…

Vehicle collisions aren’t really a laughing matter, but this video of minor fender-benders from Montreal’s first snowfall of the year is pretty amusing. The music is the icing on the cake.

If you’re eating nuts on a regular basis, you’re doing some good things for your health. Hopefully the chocolate-covered almonds I’ve been snacking on count.

Amazon has a crazy new concept for a grocery store. Would you shop there?

Did you watch Season 1 of Westworld? What’d you think? Here’s what many would like to see in Season 2.

Manmade climate change is heating up the planet, and many species can’t migrate fast enough to survive.

Our pollinator friends, bees, are one of the species we really can’t allow to go extinct. And just look at the great things honey can be used for.

It’s pretty obvious we need to do a lot more to minimize how much warmer the Earth gets. The good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not ruin the economy. We can fix the financial and social precarity millions of people are in and heal the planet at the same time.

Did you see this feather-covered dinosaur tail in amber? We still have so much to learn about the past.

Have a fantastic week!

How to Adult: Cooking

When I did How to Adult: Eating, I promised one later about cooking. The future is now.

These two sides of food–eating and cooking–come with significantly different skill sets. With eating, we found that you can eat enjoyably and healthfully by following three basic principles: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. When it comes to cooking, five minutes watching an expert chef can send you retreating into thinking I’ll just go ahead and buy every meal for the rest of my life. How am I supposed to do that?

There’s an intimidation factor to overcome with cooking. I’ve been (attempting to) cook all kinds of stuff at home for years now, and I still worry I’m going to screw it up half the time. It’s going to happen. And that’s the point. The most important thing when it comes to cooking is that you try to cook.

Start with boxed macaroni and cheese and feel like a boss because you boiled and drained noodles, then added butter, milk, and powdered cheese to get a zesty (radioactive?) sauce. No shame. That’s about the only thing I knew how to cook when I first started making my own meals.

Or dive into a complex cookbook recipe with 31 ingredients that takes 6 hours to prepare.

Try, try, try.

You will definitely blow it once in awhile. Cooking is one of the last great opportunities for trial and error in a thoroughly routinized world. Sometimes you’ll add too much salt. Maybe the first time you give salmon a try you overcook it a bit. Seafood is especially daunting. But you learn when you mess up. Oh, this is how I should do it next time.

The sooner you start cooking at home, the better. It’s such a valuable pursuit. You know every ingredient that’s going into what you’re eating. You feel a sense of accomplishment for doing it yourself. It saves money because it’s cheaper than eating out. So many good things happen when you cook your own meals.

So how do you do it?

A little bit of equipment is required–the basic utensils, pots, pans, and the like. This list is a decent place to start, though I certainly don’t have everything that’s there. It takes time to acquire the kitchen gear you want or need, so start with inexpensive equipment that’s the most essential, and then add and replace as you go.

It’s hard to make anything if you don’t have steps to prepare it. That’s where recipes come in. The goal with recipes is to understand basic techniques and principles for putting ingredients together. How to Cook Everything, by former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, is really good for this. For hundreds of the most common dishes, he gives you the standard recipe to get the basic concept down, and then variations so that you learn how to improvise. In time, you’ll be able to look at what you have hanging around in your kitchen and turn it into meals.

My wife and I have also enjoyed using The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook, because you end up with portions that are–surprise, surprise–just right for two people (or a meal for now and leftovers for later if you’re cooking for one). There are countless cookbooks, with dozens more published every week. If you want to expand the things you can make to dishes from a particular region of the United States, or strictly vegetarian, or specifically desserts, you can find any number of choices.

There are also tons of food blogs to mix in new recipes if you want to break from the books you’re using. Smitten Kitchen is a delight. Food 52 is endless. 101 Cookbooks is easy and healthful. Search and you will find.

When it comes time to plan and prepare meals, it helps me immensely to pick some of the things we’re going to cook during the week ahead of time, and get those groceries in one trip. Because of busyness, laziness, intimidation, and everything else, it’s probably not an achievable goal to cook each and every meal you eat in the next 7 days–at least when you’re starting out. Aspire to make something like 3 or 5 legit, cooked meals. The rest can be easy-to-put-together things like sandwiches, salads, and low-cost fast-casual stuff if you’re short on time. Making simple lunches with my wife to take to work is one of my zen moments during the week.

As you cook, you’ll find recipes you love and recipes you hate. There will be dishes that get a little better each time you prepare them, because you figured out you like to add more garlic than the recipe calls for, that your oven takes five minutes less than what the page says, or that there’s an ingredient that’s not in the recipe but makes it taste so much better.

You’ll get a repertoire of things that become a breeze to prepare because you’ve made them and modified them so many times. You can move up to making 8 or 10 (or more) meals at home each week, and try new, and even harder-to-cook, dishes. Way to go, Alton Brown.

There’s also a variety of techniques to learn–especially knife skills. There are more good videos online for cooking technique than you could ever watch.

Cooking, like so many things, is a lifelong process of developing understanding and ability. Don’t let the mastery of the celebrated chefs of the world intimidate you out of cooking yourself. If you want to get to their level, I’m certain you can. We need more people who care that much about real food. I’m in awe of what they do.

Or, just get really good at making simple and delicious pasta every Tuesday night.

Either way, it’s just a matter of trying. You got this, chef.