Friday, December 30, 2011

Time Management Aspirations and the Technology to (Hopefully) Achieve Them

Resolving to manage research, reading and writing time better is like the academic's version of normal people resolving to stop smoking, lose weight or go to the gym seven days a week: perennially made and perennially broken.

I'm really motivated this year, though. (I know, I know. It's what the would-be-ex-smokers and -couch potatoes say, too.) One of the biggest and most unexpected transitions from frantically-dissertating graduate student to tenure-track assistant professor has been shaking the feeling that I have to be at my desk every waking second of every hour of every day. That's not to say that I don't anticipate being really busy and overworked for the foreseeable future. I do. (I make a schedule for myself each semester, and invariably it allows for 65-70 hours of work a week.) But I do want to be able to go to the occasional social outing, movie, concert, or other random weird wonderful thing that happens just because this is New York. Such things are probably not only good for me the human being, but also for me the scholar. When I was dissertating,  I was putting in so much butt-in-chair time that it was becoming counterproductive because I was badly burned out and just spinning my wheels for a lot of that time. I couldn't allow myself to do it, but in retrospect taking a day or an afternoon off once in a while would probably have let me get the same amount of work done, if not more. So my goal for this year is to work more efficiently so I don't feel so guilty during those few fleeting hours a week that I allot to myself for photography or reading for pleasure that I end up at my desk not so much working but working myself up into a lather.

As low-tech as my semesterly schedule is (it involves a calendar printout and colored markers) I'm enlisting a few technological aides in my quest for better time management and, somewhat ironically, for wasting less time overall on the internet. Let's see how they work out over the course of this coming spring:

1) Declaration of Facebook Bankruptcy

Inspired by people who declare email bankruptcy in which they delete everything from their inboxes, read or not, and simply start over, I declared Facebook bankruptcy last week. The final straw was actually the most recent changes to their format that makes everything its users have ever posted much more readily available. Yes, their claim that it gives the user much more control over her data is true, but what they don't mention is that achieving such control may require reviewing every single thing, post by post, that's been posted since, say, 2004 to verify the privacy settings. And as much as I have always abided by a firm policy of not putting anything on the internet that I wouldn't be comfortable with my mom seeing, I'm also a very different person than I was in my junior year of college and don't necessarily want the twain to meet. So, I obliterated my FB account and started over.

What does this all have to do with time management, though?

While security concerns were indeed the final straw, I had been looking for a way to break out of the way I had been using and overusing Facebook. The details aren't all that interesting, but the bottom line is that I want to be on Facebook for a lot less time than I have been in the recent past. Every time I tried to change my patterns, though, was unsuccessful, so I thought that a really clean break might help in that posting a lot and checking a lot and commenting a lot would no longer be part of an established part of my FB identity. I'm not sure if that's exactly what's happened — I think part of it is definitely down to the fact that in starting over, I'm necessarily ending up with fewer FB friends than I had before and so there is less mental and visual clutter for me on the site — but the result is as desired.

2) Pomodoro Technique

I've seen lots of other academic bloggers rave about using a tomato-shaped timer while they work. It seemed a little silly. (Heck, it still seems a little silly.) But I reached a point where, within reason, I was willing to try anything.

I downloaded the iPhone app version of the pomodoro timer, and started using it as indicated: Writing or reading for 25 minutes with the timer ticking down, taking a five-minute break, and repeating three more times before earning a longer break. The twenty five-five combination is referred to as "a pomodoro."

I've been pretty pleased with it so far. I close all extraneous windows of my web browser because while the timer is ticking, I know I'm just supposed to be working. I'm not good at delayed gratification (in other words, just telling myself that if I work for twenty-five minutes then I can web surf for five doesn't work) but somehow the idea of tomato-imposed obligation is working well for me. I'm also finding that it's cutting down on my overall internet time-wastage because if I've been working at my desk really intensely for the twenty-five minute block, I'm less inclined to spend my five minutes web surfing because I really want to get up and stretch my legs and make another cup of tea.

One thing that I've noticed so far is that the pomodoro helps me keep from sitting at my desk and attempting to work when I'm too tired or in the completely wrong frame of mind to be productive. The logic is a little circular, but it works: If the pomodoro is ticking, I'd better be working, and if I'm not working, there's no point in setting the next pomodoro, and the pomodoro needs to be running while I'm at my desk, so I get up and refresh myself.

I wish it had a few more functions than it does: For example, while it records your completed pomodoros for the day and over the life of the app, I think that recording the number of abortive pomodoros would make it even more useful. There's something about the video-gamish aspect of it that would keep me from wanting my number of failed pomodoros to be too high that would really make me think hard about whether in setting the timer again I could really be productive or if I needed to get up and do something else. (As I'm typing this, I realize that it does run a bit contrary to the pomodoro theory of just blazing through, but I'm not totally sure that this was designed for people reading Arabic philosophy in the original, which sometimes requires a little more flexibility. Of course, my emendation would only work if you're the sort of person, as I am, who can trick herself into doing an extra ten minutes of Wii pilates in an attempt to break her all-time high score. And  I modify the plan in other ways, too. When I'm reading I stick to the 25-5 pattern, but when I'm writing, I work through the first break and write for 55 minutes and then take a short break.)

3) Mel Gibson in Blue Facepaint

Er, Freedom: Software that keeps you from going on the internet for a given period of time. It asks you: How much freedom do you want? (I love the idea that freedom comes in quantifiable units and has a scale of measurement.) The software then disables your internet connection for the time period you've specified. If you want to go onto the internet, you have to do a hard reboot of your machine, which is enough of a disincentive that it works. There is also a variation of the software called Anti-Social, which disables access to social networking sites but allows access to things like JSTOR.

I've used Freedom in the past, and in truth it makes me a little edgy. I tend to chafe when I'm told I can't do something, and I think this software presses that button just a little bit with me, so I don't use it. But that said, I'm prepared to go back to it this semester if I find the above two techniques don't have the sustained effect I'm looking for.

4) A few other tricks

I'm planning on setting aside some concrete internet time when I can read papers and blogs, since I shan't be doing that during the working blocks of my schedule. I'm also planning on setting aside one specific time to answer email during the day so that I don't get distracted by having to respond to one email here and one email there and then have to completely regain focus after each email. There's nothing so pressing in my life that waiting for a response for potentially 24 hours will mean the difference between life and death, even metaphorically, for anyone.


I guess the sum total of these techniques also addresses the problem of distraction and fractured attention as much as time management, not that the two are unrelated. It's not just a question of productivity but of the quality of thought and work. I'm optimistic that with more concentrated and focused time, both will improve in the new year.

No comments:

Post a Comment