One thing at a time

I want to write about how well this year’s plan to do less is going but I hesitate for two reasons. One is that at the moment I feel really rubbish, with a sore throat and blocked ears and sinuses, so I’m not feeling as overwhelmingly awesome as I have been feeling. The other is that if I tell you just how great it is, you will all get insanely jealous and make time in your busy schedules to come over to my place and bash me up!

One of the things I am learning this year in a positive way (and that I have been learning in previous years in the negative) is that it is so good to focus on one thing at once. I remember when I was working in Sydney one time I had a special set of experiments to perform in the chemical engineering building. My office, computer and internet access were in the chemistry building. The buildings were about 7 minutes walk apart (depending on how caffeinated I was). The experiments worked like this: I would set up the catalyst in the furnace and wait ten minutes for the temperature to equilibrate, then I would set the instrument running that would take a reading every five minutes for an hour. After waiting for an hour I would remove the catalyst and put in another one, wait ten minutes, and set the instrument running again.

There was a lot of time waiting for the whole experiment to run and I didn’t want to waste it, I wanted to get other work done during that time. So my day would consist of heading to chemical engineering and setting the experiment going, then waiting five minutes to make sure that the first reading worked well and there were no leaks in the line. After that I would head back over to chemistry and try to get some work done. I only had about 40 minutes to spend in the chemistry building because of the walk there and back and the five minute wait at the beginning, so I would try hard to do 40 minutes good work and then my alarm would go off and I’d head back over to chemical engineering.

Now any time management person will tell you that I was not real wise doing things that way. I remember after a whole day of working in this fractured pattern I went back to the little room where I was staying and I felt completely discombobulated. My brain felt like it was split into hundreds of pieces. I was exhausted and I couldn’t think straight. I realised that night that switching places so many times during the day had thrown out my brain. I think it takes 20 minutes to get back into proper work mode after an interruption, and I was only allowing myself twice that at a go to get any work done.

Once I realised what was going on, I set up a hotspot on my phone so that I could have internet access at chemical engineering. I found a reasonably quiet student lounge that I could gate crash, and I worked on site. I felt much more reasonable at the end of the day and I got more work done too.

Last year, in the same way, my time was split between research, university teaching, tutoring, and writing. I would try to cover each thing every day. To be able to do that I had to constantly watch the clock and drag myself away from one thing because it was time for the next. I felt like every day I was running late for an appointment, several times a day. I felt fractured, pulled in many different directions, discombobulated.

This year things are set up differently. My tutoring is limited to one day a week, and I have set aside three days for university research and teaching. I have a whole day blocked out to work on my writing projects. The other three days a week I do jobs around the house and any church related stuff and visiting (coffee with friends – one of the MAJOR priorities in my life). It has been so fantastic to live life this way.

I have been able to focus fully on my research in the three days I am at uni. I am finding that my state of flow often kicks in at about 430pm and it’s so brilliant to not have to pull myself away even to make tea on those nights (DH and DS do the cooking those nights, they are awesome!) I can finish my train of thought and then come home a bit late. I’m usually completely stuffed at the end of the day but I also feel satisfied with the day’s work.

On Thursdays I have a slightly fractured day – it’s the day I do all the visiting, the paperwork, the house stuff and the tutoring. But again, it’s good to have a day set aside to do these things, and as I get the house under control again Thursdays will settle down. And on Fridays, oh the Glory! I get to focus all day on my writing goals, and I spend the day alone. Total refreshment, right there. Then I hit the weekend ready to spend time with the family, to have meals with friends, to go out and have adventures.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to arrange my life like that. I am trying to live more in the moment – to be fully present in what I am doing when I am doing it, and not to be worrying about tomorrow or yesterday. I hope to become more practised at that through the year. I am not perfect, at the moment I’m hoping to get quite a bit of uni work done tomorrow because there just wasn’t enough time in the three days to do it all this week (or last week either) but again, I will keep trying.

It’s amazing how it is culturally acceptable to always be saying ‘I’m so busy!’ and ‘there’s so much to do’ but I feel very strange to be telling you all, ‘I’m so refreshed, and I feel like I have almost got life under control!’ but there you go. I’m loving life this year. I hope I keep my days clear for the important things and somehow let the urgent get itself done as it can. And I hope that you also can arrange your life so that you can be focused, present, and unhurried. And maybe one day we will change the culture so that we aren’t all too busy. You never know!

If you want to read more on this subject I have read a couple of really good books lately. One is Margin by Richard A Swenson, and the other is Single Tasking by Devora Zack. It’s actually very pleasant to read them when you’ve already put some of their ideas into practice! And they have very good ideas!

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