Saturday, May 14, 2016

Productivity post: Time is on your side (yes, it is)

Two recent articles are making me think about how we conceptualize time as academics.

The first is Laura Vanderkam's "The Busy Person's Lies" in the New York Times. I knew her name from discussions over at nicoleandmaggie's place. Although I'm not a True Believer (because what she & Sheryl Sandberg seem to attribute to savvy management I see as having money enough to throw at problems), the information Vanderkam provides about where her time actually went is interesting.

Vanderkam's point is that we exaggerate the misery or the things we hate to do and that there's a lot of time wasted that we don't count. We don't work as long and as hard as we think we do, she says. Her estimates seem pretty reasonable except that she says she spends only 3 minutes a day logging her time every half hour, which seems very low.

According to Vanderkam, logging one's time leads to a feeling of abundance and gratitude as women realize that they aren't as busy as they think they are, #blessed.  Her honesty in this article, or what appears to be honesty, goes a long way toward supporting this point and toward giving me more respect for her ideas than I have had previously.

Still, not all hours of the day can be productive, or maybe "productive" in the way that can be quantified.  A recent article on time-logging mentioned that, for example, waiting by the side of a road when your car breaks down gets logged as "leisure," but it's not exactly a day at the beach.

Another example: Full-time care of young children is rewarding but also exhausting in ways that no productivity charts can measure, something Vanderkam may not realize because she has a nanny. If you go to a computer after a day with a 2 1/2 year old, you might just stare at it, too tired to move, let alone think.

And although I log some kinds of time (the writing spreadsheet and a to-do list system that's similar to some of the ones at Profhacker), I suspect that logging time every half hour would lead to a feeling more like #killmenow than #blessed.

The second is an article at IHE about The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. It's clear that they're women after my own heart or entirely right (same thing). A few snippets (quoted from the article but broken up because who doesn't love a listicle?):

  1. [T]he discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”
  2. Slow Professor proposes getting off-line as much as possible and doing less by thinking of scheduling as eliminating commitment’s from one’s day, not taking them on. 
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it proposes leaving room in one’s schedule for regular “timeless time,” starting with some kind of relaxing, transitional ritual. Incorporate playfulness and shun those negative self-thoughts. And don’t forget leaving time to do nothing at all, the book says.
Maybe writing books based on some kinds of popular data (time management) only requires the 5-minute snippets that Vanderkam doesn't want us to waste. It's a convection oven for when regular heat just isn't fast enough, and it makes a palatable product.

The kind of books and articles that most academics write, though, can only be done with reflection and time not only for the "flow" experience but for knitting connections together in the brain. It's slowcoach writing  or maybe slow cooker writing, since the ideas have to simmer to break down the tough membranes of resistance between the ideas to bring out the flavor of the new and strange. 


gwinne said...


I'm also not a True Believer of Vanderkam's work for precisely the reasons you mention. There's also a very heternormative pattern that makes me crabby.

But. I also liked that article more than anything I've read of hers. Perhaps it was the realization that she didn't need to work those 50+ hours she kept talking about before baby #4?

I'm also eager to read that Slow Professor book, because I think even in academic environments there's so much conversation about efficiency that we lose track of the quiet, the calm, everything that makes our work possible. It's not just about cranking out words...

xykademiqz said...

I just read the article. I often come out irritated when I read something written by Laura Vanderkam, even though she seems like a lovely person and I really don't want to get irritated with her. But these life-hack and time-tracking posts seem detached from the reality of most people.

I have 3 kids and they go to school/daycare. When daycare/school is out, there is no one but DH and me. Today (Saturday) I have been chauffeuring all three of them to various activities, all freakin' day. I guess that counts as leisure? Yeah, right. And the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry -- that's all DH and me. Is that leisure?

And the work. I have a big group of students, large classes, and the research I do is mathematically complicated material; I cannot do that in 15-min bits. Work that is intellectually challenging cannot be partitioned into these nuggets, you need time to concentrate and be able to spend enough time concentrated to actually do it. Even technical writing takes deep focus and thus blocks of time. And if you do it right, it's ridiculously exhausting.

Also, maybe Vanderkam is an extrovert, unlike the majority of academics. If I only have a day full of face time, so technically not productive, it's exhausting: 2 hours to get everyone ready and out of the house, drive+park for 30 min, 75 min class, 1 hour office hours, 1 hour of email, 3 hours on meeting with group members or colleagues, then another 2 hours of discussion, drive back for 30 min; I am completely drained at the end. And I get home, it's cooking and kids and bedtimes for 4 hours or so. By the time I can work again at 10 pm I am dead, dead, dead. If I have a day with 8-10 hours straight of focused technical work, like proposal writing before a deadline, it's worse than if I had been digging ditches.
I don't want to be irritated by Vanderkam writing, but I can't help it. I don't begrudge her for being able to hire things out to nannies and has family to help. But I think I do begrudge her for writing about time management from a position of cluelessness about what working parenthood is for most people and how exhausting other people's jobs can be. I am not saying that anyone should feel sorry for me over someone who works for pittance at Walmart. But I am not dumb and I do not lack self-awareness; intellectual work and much of child care are legitimately time-consuming and exhausting. And if you feel you don't have enough time for self or kids, then that's the truth. If vegging out in front of computer is all you can do and you don't feel it's fulfilling, then I don't care that it's technically leisure. Just because a candy bar is technically food doesn't make it nutritious.
I think that perhaps what upsets me is that articles like these sound simply condescending. I think she really believes she is being helpful, but it really doesn't come across like that, because she insists that our lived reality is actually not our reality because time logging says differently. Yet, time logging is a really blunt instrument to address the problems of lacking life satisfaction.

gwinne said...

I have tracked my work hours before (to see how much time I spent on different sorts of projects). Maybe worth doing real time tracking for a week during fall, spring, and summer semesters.... I'm sure it would be enlightening, but it certainly wouldn't tell me I'm working less than I think I am or watching TV more than I admit.

xykademiqz said...

And logging time every half hour would lead to a feeling more like #killmenow than #blessed. made me laugh out loudly.

#blessed is an abomination, btw.

Nicoleandmaggie said...

The the denial of lived reality also annoys me.

Those small chunks of "not productive" time are necessary for mental and emotional recovery when you're working close to your limits.

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undine said...

gwinne--I'm interested in reading The Slow Professor, too, but am not sure when, which perfectly describes the problem.

xykademiqz--agree with everything you've said, times ten. Serious intellectual work can't be parceled out like that, and exhaustion is a real thing, especially for introverts when just being around people is tiring. I think you hit on what bothers me: the condescension and sense that if we just understood the program & got with it, all things would even out. All things will not even out, not when there's so much time taken up between Life Stuff (soccer, etc.) and Thinking Stuff. and thanks for compliment on #killmenow. If we could eliminate #blessed, there'd be a lot less irritation in the world.

nicoleandmaggie--"emotional recovery" is right. When do LV and others have time to think about things and process events?

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I just wrote a post about the experience of getting (re)immersed in a writing project. It's a lovely feeling when there is time to follow the thoughts, to look up references and think about the way they all connect and then write some more. And while I could note the references and come back to them later--and sometimes do that because I have to--it is so much easier, and so much more fun, to keep the chase going while I feel like running. So to speak. And we could consider that metaphor: it is certainly possible to get somewhere by walking a block, and sitting down to do something, and walking another block, and so on. But if the point is to run even a 5K, let alone a marathon, you're going to have to stop walking a block at a time and actually run the distance. And if your time is measured out in coffee spoons because of other people's requirements (meetings, e-mail, classes, etc) you can't run either a real or a metaphorical race.

nicoleandmaggie said...

@undine-- during planned breaks that you get by not wasting 5 min at a time.
Except it doesn't always work that way.

The thing is, LV's stuff on productivity makes sense when I'm doing things that are easy for me. Not when I'm stretching myself to my mental limits, which is the life I'm preferring to live. Her stuff on planning free-time makes sense to my husband now that he works from home, but doesn't to me and didn't to him back when he interacted with people at work. A lot of her outsourcing stuff is more reasonable now that we're in the 33% tax bracket than when we were at the bottom of the 25% (and would make even more sense if we were in the 38%).

If I were a journalist (who was content not being Atul Gawande) who worked from home and had a nanny and a husband who made a high-powered lawyer salary, I'm fairly sure I would agree with what she suggests (I'm also fairly sure I would already be doing it because I tend to try to optimize myself). But I'm an overly ambitious academic who doesn't work from home and has fairly specific times that I have to be there for the kids and isn't quite at the point where I'm able to offer a salary that makes it easy to find someone to just take care of things.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--the "planned break" idea is good in theory, except as you say, it doesn't work that way. It's like the old "don't think about the elephant in the room." Unless you're dealing with fairly shallow, non-contemplative and non-emotional stuff, you can't switch off your brain like that. As you say, it only works with easy things.

Dame Eleanor, I like your analogy of a race. I'm kind of immersed in Thing 2 (the renegade writing project) right now but have to get back to the conference presentations for the next couple of weeks.