The ongoing quest to spend my time wisely

Why is it that so many of my days end with the disappointing feeling that I didn’t spend as much time as I ought to have doing the things I wanted to, and instead wasted too much of it on fruitless busyness?

Every once in a while, hope once again triumphs over experience, and I put together a timetable that plans meticulously how I will spend each hour of my working week, and some hours of my leisure time. But inevitably, reality eats my timetable for breakfast, and by noon on the first day (the second if I’m lucky), I realise the bad habits have reasserted themselves, and the inbox I said I wouldn’t touch until noon has drawn me into its spiral of reactiveness and anxiety.

But I must keep on trying! I haven’t yet found the perfect system. There seem to be essential, inevitable work tasks that I always seem to forget in the planning. And I always try, never quite succeeding, to be sensitive to the times of day at which it would be best to tackle which activities, and to factor in ‘downtime’ after particularly demanding tasks.

I’m come to think that just as important as scheduling is the idea of ringfencing. With some tasks, like writing, that’s a matter of protecting the time and attention that’s allotted to them. With others, the imperative is to keep those tasks out of the other times of the day. Needless to say, I’m thinking primarily about email here.

Here are the things that I need to try to do every working day in the interests of fulfilment and wellbeing. (There are other things that are just as important to my work duties and to my emotional wellbeing, but they have a habit of taking care of themselves. Inboxes and loved ones demand attention, so they don’t need to be scheduled in.)

1 Writing
My most recent strategy is to write for two hours a day, most likely in the morning, as soon as I arrive at work. I’m on study leave at the moment, so this is easier than it will be when I return to teaching, but even when that happens, this is the one habit I’m going to fight hardest to keep.

It’s crucial to write before opening the inbox, because the inbox mindset is not the writing mindset, and once you’ve entered the inbox mindset, it’s very hard to get out of it.

Two hours a day of writing works better for me than pegging all my hopes on a single day of research/writing during the working week. The single day model raises the stakes. Two hours concentrates the mind. It’s do-able to just keep going for that whole two hours without stopping.  Easier too to hold potential distractions at bay for that long.

Ideally, it will be two hours of pure writing. Not two hours where you get your head in your research, read an article, and make some notes. Ideally, that kind of work will happen later in the day, and lay the groundwork for the next day of writing. In the pure writing zone, you shouldn’t even stop to look up a quote if you can remember it tolerably well from memory. Just put in a placeholder and go back to it later.

The daily habit of writing is the thing. Sometimes, your writing pump will spew out useless gunk at first. But keep pumping, and the good stuff will start to flow. Commit to the formulations, pursue the tangents. They can always be re-shaped later. Better that than the tyranny of the blank page.

2 Yoga/Meditation
I have an office yoga mat now, but I still need some loose-fitting clothes that I can change into. My plan is to take just ten or fifteen minutes each day to stretch off my hunched back, release my clenched jaw, and pull myself out of the mind-racing state that work often provokes. A good time of day to do this would probably be early afternoon, perhaps as a transition out of inbox mindset and back into more concentrated work.

3 Foreign language learning
Like writing, mastering a foreign language surely involves daily efforts. I no longer worry about mastering another language, and my motives in pursuing this kind of learning are as much about brain-training and an amateurish delight in comparing and contrasting French, German and English vocabularies, grammars, felicities and blind spots as they are about communication. As John Durham Peters said, learning a foreign language is infantilising, and it’s especially good for someone who spends a lot of his time trying to guide others along intellectual paths he’s already walked to be reminded that such journeys are often disorientating, painful, and slow. Besides, I don’t want to spend my whole life as an entirely monoglot Anglophone.

The strategy: do Duolingo or Memrise each day, preferably both. Make the news I read or video clips I watch over lunch at my desk foreign language. I’ve gone back and forth between French and German, but I think it’s a good idea to commit to one or the other. Because I’m further along with it, it’s more relevant to my current academic interests, and my wife speaks it, I choose French!

4 Expanding my artistic horizons
For me, this means learning more about fine art and music (predominantly orchestral music, but also jazz). I don’t watch as many films and television shows or read as many novels as I like, but they get watched and they get read without my having to schedule in learning about them. (Theatre is a bit of a blind spot for me, partly because of the resources of time, travel and disposable income it demands of its viewers.)

The strategy: dip into my beginner’s guides to art (eg. Gombrich’s The Story of Art) and music (eg. Joseph Kerman’s Listen) – either one, for just fifteen minutes each day. And use the amazing Spotify and its resources.

I also have a guitar in my office, and here my expectations of myself are even lower than in the case of language learning. I love music, but have minimal natural talent for it, and when it comes to fluency and creative production, I cast my lot with language long ago, and have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue even musical proficiency. Still, falteringly picking out a tune and strumming chords gives me pleasure, and, back in brain-training mode again, I can’t but think that it does me some good to spend time in that experiential space.

In a way this takes us back to yoga, meditation, and mindspaces. Art demands to be approached in the right frame of mind if it is to be experienced fully. Fifteen minutes isn’t much, and it isn’t fully enough, but at least it lets you keep your eye in.

— — —

That commits me to three hours, at most, out of the 24 in the day, and the 8-10 in the optimal working day (don’t set yourself up for disappointment by setting unrealistic goals is another key piece of time management advice). I need to put on my Aristotelian, virtue-is-habit hat, and do these things every day, without guilt, until it feels unusual not to do them.

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