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?

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As I draw up my schedule and fill in my diary for the new academic year, I am reminded of this passage from Revolutionary Road

Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.

‘Synchronize watches at oh six hundred,’ says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian-looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control.  Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.

‘I’m afraid I’m booked solid through the end of the month,’ says the executive, voluptuously nestling the phone at his cheek as he thumbs the leaves of his appointment calendar, and his mouth and eyes at that moment betray a sense of deep security.  The crisp, plentiful, day-sized pages before him prove that nothing unforeseen, no calamity of chance or fate can overtake him between now and the end of the month.  Ruin and pestilence have been held at bay, and death itself will have to wait; he is booked solid.

Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road. Little, Brown, 1961.

The experience of time of an academic/parent

Writing is a form of therapy – Graham Greene

Anxiety and guilt are the two dominant emotions in my endless agonisations over how I spend my time.  In my academic life, I suffer anxieties about not using my time effectively or productively enough.  In my life as a parent, scheduling is unavoidable, but one of its side effects is that I am usually anxiously racing or watching the clock, and therefore out of sync with my very much immersed-in-the-present infants, a fact which makes me feel guilty.

At work, my experience of time is often as follows: I’m sitting at my computer.  I have my Outlook account (my work email) open.  Sometimes I try to ‘Work offline’, but I never seem able to manage it for long.  On top of the general compulsion to receive correspondence as soon as possible, often there’ll be something more specific I’m waiting for: a reader’s report, a message finalising an appointment, a reply to a message where I’ve tried to smooth over a delicate matter, and so on.  Often one of my Twitter accounts will be open too, and there’ll be a mini-cycle of refreshing going on there too.  Perhaps I’ll be preparing some powerpoint slides, or drafting an article.  Both of these activities involve the assembling of materials – any or all of the following: books from my shelves, photocopies of articles and chapters from my filing cabinet, online resources, DVD clips, former iterations of material I’ve produced stored on one of several USB sticks, or on my desktop, or the university’s virtual learning environment.  Each of those texts points outwards, either implicitly (‘That reminds me of…’) or explicitly (in the form of quotation or discussion) to any number of other sources, and it wouldn’t take long to use a search engine to check a detail or chase up a source.  These multiple labyrinths and trains of thought are perilous enough even if one isn’t also being led out of them by the window in the corner of the screen heralding the arrival of a new email that you may as well reply to now rather than have it hanging around in the inbox.  Then there is that intimate partner of perfectionism: procrastination.  I’ve gotten better at forcing myself to commit to formulations in my writing, or to concrete plans in my teaching preparation, but it is still done over a small, persistent voice suggesting to me, with me barely formulating it as a conscious thought, that if I postpone that commitment, my future self will be better equipped to nail that passage or slide and slay it first time (never mind that writing is rewriting, or that to begin is to be halfway there, or even that I personally find it much easier to edit a first draft than to produce it).  Perhaps part of me also thinks that it should take me, say, a day, if I’m going to prepare a decent set of sessions for one of the weeks of my module, so if I’m cruising through it in less time, something must be wrong.  I’ve gotten better at recognising and countering all this bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still break off unnecessarily from what I’m doing to perform the check-the-online-communication cycle, or to go to the toilet, or to eat or drink something, more often than I should.  Very quickly, my brain is buzzing with half-finished thoughts and imagined trajectories for multiple tasks.  It’s impossible to keep either of my desktops tidy.  My PC’s desktop windows are closed down easily enough at the end of the day, but the migration of books and paperclipped piles of A4 paper from their homes to the surfaces of my office is harder to prevent, and very soon there are reproachful piles of various things to do all around me.

The productivity imperative even makes it hard to commit with a clear conscience and an uncluttered mind to tasks that one has allotted time for.  I’m working on an article at the minute that requires me to engage with a rather weighty monograph, so this reading is one of the things I’m committing my research time to at the moment.  But 100 pages in to its 500 page length, I’m already feeling the itch: surely I should now be writing something?

I won’t say too much about the time I spend with my wife and children here – that is, after all, my private life – but I will say a few things about domestic chores.  I don’t imagine many people like domestic chores, but, for me, in addition to the relative monotony of the time spent actually doing the chore (which can sometimes be quite pleasurable – and of course, some domestic tasks, such as cooking, are enjoyable, to me at least), I experience a resentment, which sometimes verges on anger, that this task is the thing that stands between me and my evening’s leisure!  The future that is within my grasp exacerbates my displeasure at the present.  (I experience the basic routines of personal hygiene that stand between me and my sleep at the end of the night similarly.)

Finally: books (and, to a lesser extent, DVDs).  Like most academics, and because I love books more than anything non-human, I have, by my estimation, more than a thousand books that I would like to read.  The anticipation of the pleasure of reading them is great, but so too is the despondent knowledge that I may in fact never find the time.

Recognising problems is said to be the first step to overcoming them.  The other piece of conventional wisdom I keep repeating to myself is that habits are hard to break but that one does it one day at a time.  I remain, for the time being at least, hopeful that I can do a better job of not robbing myself of productivity, pleasure and happiness.  I’ll try to start now.