Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by "linked," you mean "hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I'm bound." I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I'm willing to work (if by willing you mean "what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down"), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak's piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I'm currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let's say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you've mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let's say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you'll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I ... freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I'm working on--assessing grad admissions files, say--and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I'll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: "Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it's been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don't have three hours because I have to do that grading and I'll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can't write now because I'm worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I'M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I'm a terrible person because now it's been another five minutes and I'm no farther ahead on this and I think I'll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research ..."

It's exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don't work, because I'm panicking about work, about how I'll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn't get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I'm reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander ("If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I'm going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?") I remind myself that I've scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It's a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what's happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I'll never finish another book ever) is a fool's game. And if we play it too often, we don't do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That's untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I'm worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I'm going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

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