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  • Writer's pictureYen

Time Management: A week in the life

I’ve always found myself to be pretty good at time management simply as a mechanism to deal with my own (bad) habit of getting involved in multiple (too many?) things. Over the years, I’ve gotten better, not only at managing but also at choosing those things, saying yes only to things I enjoy and find feasible. Lately, since I’ve moved into a new position, in a new place*, I’ve found myself 1) not remembering how I spend my time and 2) feeling like there is so much to do regardless of how busy I am. Prompted by the episode “Taking Control of Your Time” on Hidden Brain (current favorite podcast), I wanted to reflect not only on how I spend my time, but also my enjoyment of that time spent. I thought I’d track my time spent in a week and reflect on whether I’m spending more time than I need to on certain things and my happiness level doing certain activities.

I discovered Toggl about 2 years ago and use it when I want to feel productive, or when I want to make sure I’ve gotten enough writing time in. It gives me the same satisfaction as crossing something off a checklist. Highly recommend. You might not need to do it all the time, but for getting into a rhythm and holding myself accountable, I’ve found it especially useful. Each activity falls into a category or project, which has been color-coded.

We often complain we don’t have enough hours in a day, and yet when we spend days without work or certain activity, like being on vacation, we’re not happy either. It’s common actually that people are equally dissatisfied with having too much to do and not having enough to do. Is that just a byproduct of our obsession with productivity?

According to psychologist Cassie Holmes, this idea of time scarcity is an illusion that makes us anxious about how we spend time. She suggests perhaps instead of thinking we’ll be happier if we had more time (like if we had more money) we should think about how we might spend more time doing things we enjoy (like spending money on certain things, and not more things). This is because sometimes when we subscribe to this idea of time scarcity, we don’t make room for things that actually matter, things that actually bring us satisfaction. We lose out on the opportunity to make ourselves feel better, more grounded, and less anxious about time slipping through our fingers. If stopping to smell the roses brings you the happiness level of a 10, then maybe a couple minutes of it will not be time wasted.

If I’m honest, there are not too many activities on the calendar that I didn’t enjoy. This might have to do with the fact that I’ve just started my position and the novelty has been driving my work. Perhaps sitting in a training meeting on hiring best practices with the HR department was not as fun as creating a “Choose your own adventure” quiz for my students the following day. But even if I was prepping late into the night, knowing this would help distill to students what Roland Barthes meant by text vs. work and the active engagement of meaning-making gave me a lot of satisfaction.

A couple of observations:

1. The times when I don’t enjoy working are when my basic needs are not met, i.e. when I’m sleepy after lunch but force myself to work on a conference paper. I’m not productive and I feel like work is a chore.

2. There's a lot of teaching-related time spent. This has to do with a number of factors, including being a new faculty member and wanting to leave a good impression, and starting to get to know my students and their learning styles. I am wary of the fine line between being a good instructor and perfectionism, however.

3. Perhaps because I knew I was tracking my time this week, I tried to make room for more “fun” or “leisure” activities like reading for pleasure. I hope this is something I’ll continue to keep up.

Friends sometimes ask me how I do it “all,” this “all” being full time parenting, writing enough, teaching, side projects, etc. If I’m honest, it’s questions like this that make me feel even more pressure to keep a balance of things. This is partially because the perfectionist in me does want to uphold that impression, and also because I tell myself, something must be working. But as impressive as it might appear, I also get very overwhelmed and rely on organizing features like Toggl to make sure I’ve “got it together.” If there’s something I’ll keep telling people about my work ethic is simply that I know myself and pay attention to the cues my brain and body tell me. I know I write best in the morning, and that sometimes it takes 15-20 minutes for the ideas to start flowing. I know that I work best when I don’t have distractions so I will bring headphones to work. I know that if I’ve been lesson-planning for 90 minutes, I need to wrap it up because there are other things needing my attention. I know that if I start snapping at my partner, it’s because I’m overwhelmed by something, and maybe I need to figure out where the stress is coming from. Also important: I’ve outsourced the cleaning and don’t cook as often.

However way I spend my time cannot be a measure for how you spend yours because only you know yourself best. It’s important we listen to how we’re feeling, to what satisfaction we get from which activities and to organize them in such a way that’ll respond to our needs throughout the day. For me, my favorite way to unwind has been reading (yes, in the dark) next to my toddler as he falls asleep. What’s your “stop to smell the roses’ equivalent?

*This Fall, I’ve started a new position as a faculty member of Literature at Fulbright University Vietnam, the first liberal arts college in Vietnam.

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