MANAGING OUR TIME optimally is a daily challenge that requires both self-awareness and self- discipline. Our workload never seems to spread itself out evenly and in a logical sequence. Our rhythm tends to oscillate between moments of intense pressure, when just keeping up with urgent tasks and requests is daunting in itself, and periods of relative calm, where the absence of emergencies and immediate constraints may leave us bewildered as to how best to organize our wide open time.
As we make progress in our professional careers, the latter phases are fewer and further apart, while the former become the norm. We are also witnessing a trend toward segregation of the two: employees appear to be perpetually in a headlong rush, in ever-starker contrast with the unemployed. Displaying extreme busyness has become a marker of social status. Virtually everyone, no matter their occupation, now starts a conversation with how active they are or have been, often alluding to being overwhelmed, exhausted and stressed. In this context, coming across as available, relaxed and on top of things almost carries a stigma. However, there is no cause to believe that all this busyness translates into more and better work being done. The opposite appears to be the case, judging by how difficult it has become to move issues forward or even obtain answers to straightforward and relevant requests.
The point is that the dysfunctional time management of others should serve as a constant reminder of why we must do better ourselves, and resist any temptation to be busy as an end in itself.
Filling the void
The relatively quiet, uncluttered phases mentioned above are a luxury that should be recognized, cherished, put to good use, and actually fought for. These are the moments when we have a chance to get our best work done. Anything else is “clearing the desktop”, i.e. getting all sorts of chores out of the way so that we finally have the stretch of time, the liberty of choice and the free mind to do what motivated us to take up this or that job in the first place.
The thing not to do in a lull, obviously, is to procrastinate. Spending time on the Internet, in particular, is possibly the worst use of such precious time. Shutting it down and taking off on vacation is far preferable to pretending to be busy.
But apparent lulls are mostly a unique opportunity to go deeper. If the rhythm slows because of hurdles to fieldwork, that is your cue for being more creative in how you go about it: think harder about fresh ways to approach the same people; take a completely different angle; seek ways of socializing casually with your target constituency, while leaving aside research proper; and revisit all the avenues for help you overlooked.
It is also the moment to find inspiration in your backlog of reading. But reading can easily become a time-filler beset with its own problems: distracting you from what you must be producing yourself, presenting endless new material of interest, and ultimately adding to your confusion rather than offering clarity. Reading therefore must be strategic, and based on a finite, carefully identified list of titles. It should consume, even in the idlest of times, a limited number of hours every day, to make space for other essential activities (interviews, typing notes, organizing them, etc.) in a balanced routine.
Seemingly “empty” days are generally those that call for the most deliberate structure. (Indeed, in rushed periods our to-do list and schedule is usually self-evident, imposed and imperative.) One effective method is to combine day-to-day planning with a clear layout of goals and deadlines in the “project cycle” we find ourselves in. On a daily basis, it helps enormously to end each day by reviewing what we have done against the to-do list prepared the day before, and listing tasks for the day after. The idea is to wake up with the day already cut out for you, rather than waste time wondering how to fill the void, which is the most dispiriting and ineffective way to start.
To incentivize and organize this routine, it is necessary to think through the overall objectives we are pursuing (a published report, say, as part of a broader effort to demonstrate impact on a particular issue), break them down into concrete, achievable components, and back-cast these items into a timeframe of deadlines. This is what will help you determine what needs to move forward on any given day.
In parallel, it is critically important to capitalize on “slow-working” to broaden your horizon, while being productive. When pressure relents, you have no excuse not to expand your general knowledge. Acquiring a culture is an enormous undertaking, which will only be realized in those moments of idle luxury that enable you to read a book or two per week, to visit an exhibit, and to devote yourself to discovering some obscure part of your own society. In the long run, this may well be the most “productive” investment of your time.
In the never-ending rush of work under pressure, the difficulty consists in “making space” for more than “clearing the desktop”. First we must make space for genuine work, which always entails several hours of uninterrupted focus. Nothing serious ever gets done in quarter- or half-hour bouts. The numerous activities we indulge in that require little time and little concentration may be necessary, but they never add up to a completed project. Progress and completion will always rest on extended periods of consistent work with no distractions.
Especially as one takes on more responsibilities, those moments rarely present themselves. They must be decreed, stolen even. All other pressing chores and obligations must be cast aside to make way. One option is to work in bursts, dedicating oneself entirely to a particularly demanding task for several days in a row. Another possibility is to segment one’s daily routine – insulating morning hours, for instance, from any interruptions. This only functions on condition of being totally uncompromising about rejecting meetings, calls and the lure of emails and other social media solicitations for the duration of one’s retreat. Of course, there are phases when this is unthinkable. But there are also moments when we are mostly looking for excuses not to settle down.
Second, we must make space for ourselves. Operating effectively under pressure can only last for so long. Very quickly our productivity, which may be extraordinarily high in the early stages, will decline steeply if we fail to find time to disconnect. Overly busy people either burn out or empty more than they replenish themselves; they deliver on the face-of-it while losing in value, depth, and creativity. Truly creative time happens to be idle; breakthroughs come virtually anywhere but at the desk – in a meeting with colleagues, certainly, but also when reading a book, under the shower, during a walk or while practicing sport, listening to someone, or casually discussing unrelated issues.
Finally, we must make space for others. Busyness all too often is little more than a narcissistic posture, a form of self-absorption. We are busy to be important, to have reason to dismiss or ignore others (who are assumed to be less important and whose time is less precious, consequently), and to shun responsibility for our shortcomings vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Busyness is a filter that protects us and sets us apart. That is exactly what impoverishes our work, which will gain from interaction with those whom we have least in common with, and whom we are sure to miss the busier we are.
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Illustration credit: Apollo 8 crew leaves manned spacecraft operations building during countdown by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.