Two on Time

Friday, March 05, 2010

Coming off four very long days at work, and lacking both time and brain power at the moment, time strikes me as a capital theme today. So I'll briefly note two time-related recent posts over at Lifehacker that have piqued my interest for different reasons.

The first concerns "National Procrastination Week," the only holiday for which one can truly say something like "Every week is National Procrastination Week." Obligatory levity aside, I found several interesting takes on procrastination, ranging from how to avoid it to how to take advantage of the urge. Particularly interesting to me was Item Four of Gina Trapani's Top 10 Smart and Lazy Ways to Save Your Workday.

4. Book a meeting with yourself. If your head is spinning with all the stuff you've got to get done and the interruptions keep coming, you need some alone time. If the hours of your day keep getting stolen by meeting requests and drive-by interruptions, box out an hour or so every few days specifically to regroup and get organized. Literally enter the meeting with yourself on your calendar, and if you need to get away from your desk, book a conference room as well. Take your project list, to-do list, and calendar with you to the room and spend that time deciding what, when, and how you're going to tackle all the stuff in your work life, as if you're a boss meeting with your assistant. (GTD'ers know this technique as the weekly review.)
I used to do precisely this all the time, except that I never formalized it as a meeting. That's an ingenious touch of workplace etiquette that transforms "hiding from your coworkers" into "something anyone will recognize as productive work."

John Perry's essay on "Structured Procrastination," also linked there, looks intriguing too, but in a convenient marriage of necessity and the spirit of the season, I'll take a look at it later.

The second Lifehacker post I have in mind both reminds me of an earlier post of my own about achieving spontaneity -- something I have neglected since starting my new position -- and suggests a tactic that can help one do exactly that, a "possibilities calendar."
If you've ever been in that frustrating situation where you find yourself with some unexpected down time but don't know how to fill it at a moment's notice, lifestyle blog Life Scoop suggests putting together a possibilities calendar.

Blogger Asha Dornfest says she often runs across events or activities she'd like to attend, but aren't necessarily important enough to carve out special time for. She created a "possibilities" calendar in Google Calendar and now, instead of relying on her memory to remind her of an art showing or movie she wants to check out, she simply parks the details on her calendar and pulls it up when she finds herself with some unplanned free time.
Since I was already in the process of fine-tuning my methods of tracking to-do lists, I think I'll make such an adjustment to my calendar system. A non-time-dependent "possibilities list" (distinct from a "someday/maybe" list might be a good companion to such a calendar.

And, speaking of time, Friday may well be my slack day, but I still have to run...

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Interruptions and more interruptions pulling you this way and that make it difficult to focus on anyone thing and get it accomplished. One of my basic problems is that I tend to try to take on too many things. There are so many interesting things going on but realistically you have to limit yourself or risk accomplishing nothing.

In the past I often arranged meetings with my lab bench in order to get experiments done. That worked until people started intruding into my schedule and started booking meetings into that time anyway.

As a scientist my ideal way to spend time would be to just take an afternoon, sit back and read the literature and contemplate the possibilities. I haven't been able to do this for several years.

The trouble is that most of the experiments I would like to accomplish will take a minimum of half a day. Less time than that and there is not way anything real can be accomplished. So even a small number of meetings dispersed throughout the day prevents that.

"if you need to get away from your desk, book a conference room as well."

It's a good idea but it's crucial to leave behind any means for others to communicate with you - otherwise expect constant interruptions.

There is something just not quite right with this type of culture - being busy is a good thing but taken to the extreme it most likely limits productivity.

Gus Van Horn said...

You might find Paul Graham's remarks about "maker's schedules" vs. "manager's schedules" very thought-provoking, then, because it sounds like your work -- be it at the bench or the mental side of it, really needs a maker's schedule.

I think that much of what's wrong in the culture results from a failure to see the difference.

Steve D said...

Thanks for bringing Paul Graham’s remarks to my attention. That article has a nice perspective on the problem. I think the makers schedule/managers schedule issue applies at least as much and perhaps even more so to scientists as programmers, especially biochemists like myself.

There are a couple of points I would like to add. A single monthly meeting is not usually a problem. Thirty monthly meetings mean you have at least one on average per day. No one particular meeting is responsible. Personally, I am involved with a lot of groups at different level because as an expert my advice is sought by a lot of groups, not just my own team. So ideas like a meeting free day have a lot of merit but there are a lot of people who have be onside. So someone will inevitably comment that it is only one meeting so why can anyone object to that? They don’t understand you have 20 other ‘just one meetings’

Another related issue is the value of a meeting. If I object to a meeting, the organizer will inevitably make the point that the meeting is valuable. Of course it is, the real question is the value compared to what else I could be doing with the time. I could come up with dozens of possible ‘valuable’ meetings and then end up with no time to do anything else.

I’m biochemist, I study proteins. They are often unstable when they are purified and experiments need to be done right away. Stop at the wrong point and you could lose everything you did up to that point. You can’t have a safety meeting or a town hall meeting pop into your schedule. When I was working on my doctorate I once worked for 27 hours straight to get my preparation to a point where it was pure and stable enough I could freeze it. There is no possible way I could do that now no matter how necessary it might be. Those were the days of virtually no meetings!

Gus Van Horn said...


You're welcome.

I don't work with proteins, but I have slaved away in the lab for over 24 hours straight and I appreciate how hours of hard work can be wiped out by an inopportune interruption.

It sounds almost like your company ants to have its consultant and use him in the lab, too. If you could wall off a day or to for strictly meetings or strictly benchwork, I bet you'd be infinitely better off.