Last night I had a version of the actor’s nightmare.
You’ve probably heard of it and anyone who attempted a career as an actor knows it well. You’re backstage and you know you’re in this play and have a lead role but you don’t know what play it is and you can’t remember any of your lines. All you do know is someone just said your entrance cue on stage but you’re not even in costume. Suddenly you’re thrust out on stage in your street clothes with nothing to say and a sold out audience staring at you.
It’s a stressful dream; a manifestation of everything that could go wrong for you going wrong. I have these kinds of dreams every once in a while and they usually result in a terrible nights sleep and stress I can’t help but carry with me all day. But, not this time.
There are two other recurring dreams of this type that I have every once in a while. One is probably familiar to anyone who ever worked in a restaurant. I’m suddenly back at my old job and my section has just been quadruple-sat. Every single table needs something. I take orders but can’t remember them when I leave the table and get to the computer. All my food is up in the kitchen and the chef is screaming. Meanwhile none of my tables have drinks yet and the bartender is nowhere to be found. I find in this version of the dream especially I can’t move fast enough. It feels like I’m swimming through jelly. I can’t breathe. I can’t think.
The third version of this nightmare is the one I had last night. I am back in school. Sometimes its high school, sometimes it is college. Either way I’m late to class but have no idea what class I have next or what room/building it is in. I have a paper due — which I haven’t written — based on textbook readings I haven’t done. In fact, I haven’t read any of the material, for any of my classes. Every assignment is due today and a few midterms are looming and I’m still running around campus trying to remember what building this history class is in (it’s always a history class for me).
This is where the dream usually ends. Me panicking about being lost and completely unable to handle to workload which I’ve clearly neglected. However, last night was different.
I recently took the time to set up an organizational system for myself. I used calendars and to do lists in the past (I was the kid in 4th grade with a Palm Pilot after all) but until recently I’ve never been able to make to do lists work and my calendars never represented the totality of my appointments. My notes and ideas were a jumble across different notebooks and apps. I didn’t have a system.
Over the past year I have changed all that. I now have several calendars, shared with different people, which are filled with every appointment I have. I researched to do apps and found the one that would work best for me — OmniFocus. I sat down and set up projects, tags and perspectives and, through trial end error and reading a lot of blog posts, found the best combination for me. I dumped every single action item I could think of into OmniFocus — from assignments at work to chores at home to bills I need to pay to when it’s time for a haircut.
Essentially, I created a second brain — a place I could put everything I needed to do, everything I needed to know about, all my appointments, all my tasks, every side project I want to work on — and not worry about forgetting it. Instead I made them easily accessible. If my brain is my system RAM, my iPhone had become my Hard Drive.
Back to my dream: I was starting to feel really stressed, same as always. I was drowning under all the things I had to do, everything that was over due, all the things I couldn’t even remember I had to do. And then something clicked. Dream-me pulled out my phone, pulled out OmniFocus, and started flagging tasks to get done. Now, I knew what I would work on after class. Dream-me checked the calendar and there was the appointment for my class, complete with a building and room number. Suddenly, I could breathe. I knew I was behind but I also knew I could tackle everything. I had a plan.
And that’s when I woke up; not with the stress and sweat that these nightmares usually bring, but with confidence and relief. I realized that my system was so much a part of my workflow that even my dreams are more organized. It was a good feeling. It felt like this past year has had a real positive impact on my stress levels. It is still a work in progress, as any good system is. But it works for me. Over the past year I have taken on a lot of new responsibilities — I’ve been working on some side projects, I’ve been planning a wedding, and the amount of projects I’ve been assigned at work has increased a lot. However, when I open my phone in the morning and it gives me every appointment, every task I need to complete that day, every bill that needs paying, everything… I know that I can handle it.