Another issue that came up in Office Hours recently was this feeling that things that should take 15 minutes are taking 3 hours, or just a general feeling that you aren’t really accomplishing anything. (Office Hours is a group coaching session I do with members of the Academic Writing Studio. We talk about what’s going on for people and come up with things to try to make things better, whatever better means for each of them.) There are several things that contribute to this. As we talked I was reminded of something I learned from Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam.
Memory affects time perception
The existence of memories turns out to have profound implications for how we feel about time: whether it is scarce or abundant, whether it feels full or like it has slipped through our fingers. Often, we treat memory as more filing cabinet than treasure chest. We assume things are stored automatically, as they exist, even if we know the papers fade as time goes on. (Laura Vanderkam, Off the Clock, Chapter 2, Loc 728 Kindle edition)
Thinking about this principle in relation to the situation academics find themselves in during the pandemic, suggests that the problem isn’t (just) that things are taking longer. It is at least partly that you are working in ways that blur things together in your memory.
One Studio member felt like the previous day hadn’t been very productive. Despite the fact that her kids are with their dad this week, she feels like the day just disappeared. As we talked about various things she came to a realisation.
“Yesterday, when I was doing all of those different things … because I was sitting in one place … Normally, if I was in work, I’d be going to these different meetings and I’d know it was a busy day because I’d be rushing around from one place to the other. I just realised that I didn’t acknowledge to myself that that was an exceptionally busy day because I was sitting in one place the whole time and I was switching immediately from one thing into the next without giving myself any bit of a break in between. And I think, I know now what to do is just give myself that time and walk away, go somewhere else, go outside, and breathe the air and forget about it for a few minutes.”
I share this because it is such a good example of the relationship between memory and time perception. If you are sitting in the same place doing very similar work on your computer your brain registers that as one memory. When you are on campus, you register each meeting separately along with the experience of rushing from one place to another. In normal circumstances, that sort of day feels busy because you have a memory of doing lots of things and of being rushed.
One of the advantages of the current situation is that you don’t need to rush around to get from one physical location to another. You don’t need to recreate that feeling of being rushed. But you do want to do something that makes each chunk of work (whether it’s a meeting or a series of other tasks that might seem similar if combined end to end in that way) register as a separate memory.
Getting up from your desk and physically moving around, even if you end up back in the same location, helps mark the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Going into a different space — the garden, another room in the house — and consciously doing something to take your mind away from your work for a moment will prompt your brain to create a new memory. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Breathing, stretching, noticing what small changes have happened in your garden, noticing the quality of the light and how it affects the colour of the sky, getting a glass of water or attending to other physical needs all count. We also know that sitting in one position for long periods of time is not good for our physical bodies, so this strategy also meets your need to move your body. Hydration is helpful, so get a glass of water while you’re up.
Vanderkam’s point about memory as filing cabinet or treasure chest also suggests ways to create and solidify these memories, and thus change your perception of time after the fact. Looking back over your day to acknowledge what you’ve been doing helps. It is particularly important on days when you feel like you didn’t do much of anything. That sense of things that should take 15 minutes taking 3 hours may be an artefact of having telescoped a bunch of tasks into one memory and then allocating all of the time to only one of the tasks. Just as a day incredibly full of meetings did not get recorded as an “exceptionally busy day”, you might be misremembering other things you did. You might need to refile those activities more precisely.
You may also want to note which ones are actually treasures and find a way to revisit those treasures on days when it feels like this whole thing has been awful. Yes, things are difficult right now. AND you are getting important things done, having enjoyable moments, and coping pretty well with the difficult situation. It’s worth noticing how well you are doing.
Time tracking can be surprisingly helpful
I know, I know. I resisted this, too. It feels completely contrary to the freedom and autonomy that you value so much. You might also fear, as one Studio member did, that it will reveal how lazy you are. (You are not lazy, btw.) After reading Vanderkam’s book, I decided to try it. As an experiment. She uses a spreadsheet with days down the side and half hour increments across the top (or maybe the other way around) to record how she spends her time. I already use Google calendar so I just set up a new calendar for time tracking, and recorded what I did in whatever increment seemed sensible. Sometimes I had to reconstruct several hours at a time. I did it for about 2 weeks.
Approach time tracking as a data collection activity. It is a practice of noticing. Assume you are spending your time wisely and treat this exercise as a way of filing memories. Breaking your day down into 30-minute chunks helps you notice more of the sub-tasks that go into your work day. I found myself sometimes using smaller increments because some things really did only take me 15 minutes and it felt important to notice that.
You can also use time tracking to help you diagnose more specifically what underpins some kind of frustration you have about how you are spending your time. That might be the sense that things are taking longer than they should. Or that you are spending too much of your time on activities that aren’t important and not enough of more important things. Because time perception is not always accurate, it can be helpful to check how you are actually spending your time before making any changes. Time tracking can also be a way of collecting evidence to appease the gremlins who think you are lazy, unproductive, a shitty mom, or whatever it is your gremlins are saying to you right now.
Keep it simple to start with. Just record what you did in 30-minute increments. Don’t try to be too fancy. If you like this practice you can add colour codes for specific things you want to pay more attention to. Keep any additional tweaks as simple as possible. What is the simplest thing you could do to make your practice meet a specific need. This practice is meant to serve you not rule you.
The work you wish you didn’t have to do addresses a different issue around feeling unproductive
Lockdown is distorting our memories by Julia Shaw in The Guardian (She’s a psychologist who works on memory. Useful details and links regarding the relationship between memory and time perception.)
Audio version added 9 April 2020.