Finding My Line

Over the last two months I’ve been working intensely on my dissertation.  If you’re wondering whether this relates to my adviser’s imminent return from sabbatical, you’d be right!  But I’ve been really surprised by how much this intense focus helps both my productivity and my mood.  I wake up every morning raring to dissertate (yes, I did just say “raring to dissertate”), and I still have several hours to devote to other projects after I hit my daily targets.

Today, I came across Merlin Mann’s article on Making Time to Make and realized what I’ve been doing.  I’ve been drawing a clear and firm line around my time.  While I hardly have the problems of a Neal Stephenson, I do have lots of people who want my time: academic colleagues, former students, potential consulting clients, friends I haven’t seen recently, and more.  All these relationships enrich my life, but there’s more of them than I can manage!  Worse, making daily decisions about how much attention I could spare was killing my productivity even when I wasn’t actually available.

I’ve made a few exceptions, but my so-far-successful ruleset looks like this:

– No meetings that end after 10am, unless data collection requires it.
– No leaving the office for any reason until I’ve hit my dissertation goal for the day.
– No new freelance projects or academic commitments.*
– No organizing social events of any kind; let other people be in charge!
– No long emails.  (And a private IM account that only my boy’s got access to.)
– No apologizing for putting my dissertation first.

What’s especially interesting to me is just how much of this was made possible by the dissertation-completion fellowship program I’m in.  The office they gave me is hidden away**, meaning I don’t get interrupted unexpectedly.  The workspace is ergonomic enough that I can work until I’ve hit my daily goal without killing my wrists.  The meeting room is heavily booked during the late morning and afternoon, so I’m not tempted to schedule midday meetings.  It’s amazing how these structural changes help me enforce my own rules!

That’s not to say that line-drawing has no drawbacks.  There are people I really like who aren’t getting the attention I want to give them, and I’m feeling pretty darn broke without any new projects in the pipeline.  Just yesterday I had to tell a former student I couldn’t meet with him, which I hate to do!  And there are less obvious drawbacks, too: I’m not really good at letting other people organize my free time, so instead of hanging out with friends I’m doing more one-on-one activities with the boy.***

I think that some of the specifics of my strategy will have to change during the upcoming year. For example, I’d like to have one “open afternoon” a week, where I go work somewhere I’m casually available for conversation and brainstorming.  I also don’t think I can go a whole year without organizing any social events!  But having rules, even if they’re less strict, seems to work really well for me.  The less time I spend making decisions about how to spend my time, the more time I actually have to spend.****

* Okay, I’m really bad at this one.  Why must so many things be so interesting?

** In a basement, as usual.  Do you think I can write “Must have workspace with window” into a job contract?

*** Though this isn’t all bad, since it’s resulted in dance lessons!

**** Which is why I may have to do a piece about rules as cognitive technology.  But not now!  My rules say I can’t!

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