Time management experiment

Time management has  always come naturally to me. I’ve always juggled the various components of my life with relative ease, intuitively knowing how to get everything done in the time I have without stressing (much). This fall, however, something changed. Actually, almost every aspect of my life changed. But the “something” of note was that for the first time, seamlessly and effortlessly managing my time has not been coming naturally. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I reflect back on what I accomplished (or more likely, didn’t) and feel downright bummed. I’ve been “working” most of my waking hours, but it’s distracted work that leaves me feeling like all I’m doing is spinning my wheels. The weekdays are really chopped up with classes and meetings, and I haven’t been maximizing the time that isn’t spent doing an obligation. “Tempus fugit,” I think the ancient Romans would say.

Sprinting without a change in distance gets old really fast. Image: http://lizbrazier.com/hamsterwheel/
Sprinting without a change in distance gets old really fast.
Image: http://lizbrazier.com/hamsterwheel/

My discontent with my time management has led to a borderline obsession with contemplating improvements. Simultaneously, I’m realizing that my habit of constantly “working” is so fatiguing that my work time is watered down. Progress is slow and I find myself checking my Gmail constantly, which I diagnose as an attempt to escape the cognitive overload I’m trying to impose on myself. Bottom line: it’s not working.

A friend recently suggested I check out Cal Newport’s blog, “Study Hacks.” My friend told me the author got his PhD from MIT, did a postdoc there, and now has a job at Georgetown. Concurrently, he wrote a few books about productivity and maintained an incredibly successful blog. Impressive, undoubtedly, but all of these accomplishments become exponentially more impressive with the inclusion of the last detail of Newport’s success: All of this was done between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Newport is a proponent of fixing his work schedule and limiting his work time to that schedule. He has being a scientist down to a science. Instead of allowing surface tasks to weigh him down, Newport focuses on getting in deep work – truly cognitively taxing tasks – everyday. When you can work deeply and avoid getting weighed down by the minutiae that are part of life in academia (and probably most careers), he claims, you don’t need so many hours to work. My friend reports that he pretty much follows this as well. It’s pretty inspiring – for a whole five minutes, I thought maybe I could do this too.

Then I wondered what I’d do the night before a paper is due, if my work cutoff approaches and I haven’t finished the paper. I envisioned myself waiting at a bus stop, about to jump out of my skin because my schedule is rigidly fixed and I can’t bear to wait. The point of Newport’s fixed schedule is to eliminate stress and overwork, but I know that for me, at this point in life, it will only bring more about.

But I don’t think his advice is all-or-nothing, so I decided to adapt it, and I’ve completed Day 1 of a 7 day experiment (n=1, in case you’re wondering about the scientific rigor of this study… there is none). My study question: can I be more productive AND take some time for myself without extending the number of hours in the day (tacking on time to each day was my first idea, but it turns out the Earth’s rotation is non-negotiable)? Components of my experiment

  • Setting limits on checking email. These limits will vary depending on what’s appropriate for the day, time of day, whether I’m expecting a reply, etc.
  • Instead of fixing my schedule, I’ll fix my free time. Big Bang Theory now has a spot on my Google calendar, and once it’s on the calendar, there’s no backing out.
  • Planning the next day’s tasks and when I’ll do them. If I have a plan in place for how to spend those awkward little gaps between meetings, I’ll do it. If I don’t have a plan, I’ll probably find a way to fill up that time by brewing tea and checking Twitter, only realizing what I could have spent it doing after the fact.
  • Setting limits on tasks. When I’m about to start something, I’ll assess how long it should take me, set a timer for that amount of time, and stop when it’s up. This is a flexible rule because I’m not going to hand in a paper that I stopped mid-sentence, but other tasks, sticking to a timer will help me avoid the perfectionistic persistence that results from the feeling that I can still do a little better. I’m hoping that having a ticking clock next to me will help me reach deep work more often, since if I’m not productive in my allotted time, the work won’t get done.

So here are my results from Day 1: I stuck to my timers, produced focused and good work, and found much-needed down time. On that note, I’ll close with an appropriate poem from a new book I found, The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler:

From The Book of Qualities. Image: http://www.ruthgendler.com/
From The Book of Qualities.
Image: http://www.ruthgendler.com/
Pleasure is wild and sweet. She likes purple flowers. She loves the sun and the wind and the night sky. She carries a silver bowl full of liquid moonlight. She has a cat named Midnight with stars on his paws.
Many people mistrust Pleasure and even more misunderstand her. For a long time I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. I went to sleep early to avoid her. I thought she was a gossip and a flirt and she drank too much. In school we learned that she was dangerous, and I was sure that she would distract me from my work. I didn’t realize she could nurture me.
As I have changed, Pleasure has changed. I have learned to value her friendship.