Time Isn’t On Anyone’s Side

“Time… is on my side.” – Norman Meade

Today marks the beginning of another orbit around the Sun for me, so what better day to reflect on the passage of time? I think a lot about time management, as I’m sure many others do right around now– this being the time of year when everyone’s New Year’s resolutions are still have that champagne-bubble-sheen of possibility to them. A January’s worth of new goals quickly gives way to the terrible reality: given a finite number of hours in the day (and that pesky “sleep” thing I seem to require), there is actually no way to do all of the things I’d like to do in a lifetime, let alone a day.

Over at Mahalo.ne.Trash, John Johnson offers some thoughts and practical suggestions about work-life balance, and how to be happy under an ever-increasing deluge of things to do. For me, I find the challenge is not just that my responsibilities have increased with time, it’s also that I’m interested in a wide variety of things– so even in the absence of external pressures, I generate enough in the way of additional projects to fill a couple lifetimes. Since the biotech singularity isn’t here yet (and will probably not be covered by typical academic insurance plans anyway), it falls to each of us to decide how we want to spend our precious minutes. With so many wonderful and worthwhile things to do in a lifetime, how is anyone supposed to decide? What are the factors at play when we decide what our priorities are, and of those factors, how many are we even consciously aware of when we make decisions?

As a scientist, I love systematic, practical approaches. This past year, I enlisted the help of my coach* to identify a systematic way of making decisions about my priorities and what new things I want to take on. I ended up constructing the following list of questions, which serve as a kind of zeroth-order filter for new opportunities. Their main utility is in getting me to consciously articulate some of the major factors at play when I decide to take on a new responsibility. They may not be exactly what you’d choose for yourself, but I offer them here as a starting point– and I would love to hear what you’d put on your list in the comments!

1. What is the purpose of taking on this project?

Simple, yet deceptively so. Think about this question not in terms of the details of the work that is involved, but in terms of your motivation for doing that work. What are you hoping to gain/achieve/learn? If you completed this project with absolute success, what would that mean?

2. Do I already do something like this?

If you have limited time, you want whatever you do to have impact, and part of that is not spreading yourself too thin. Answering “yes” to this question isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker as far as taking on whatever the new project is, but you should be aware of whether taking on that project represents exponential or incremental gains.

3. What rewards does this project offer?

Once you’ve figured out the purpose of taking on a project, you should be able to identify what benefits that project has to offer. These can be tangible (e.g. taking on a paying graphic design project, or publishing an exciting new paper), or intangible (e.g. making new connections, or learning a new skill). The nature of the reward depends a lot on the nature of the project, but there should be a net gain from anything you take on.

4. How does this project contribute to who I want to be, or what I want to be known for?

Self-definition is a big part of your early career– you are not only crafting expertise by gaining knowledge, you are taking ownership over how people think of you and what you do. What I like about this question is that it conceals a larger question of your own personal metrics for a successful life. Sure, you want to be the person (or one of a few) that other people think of when they think of your field. However, that’s only one way of measuring success, and it only addresses your career. Do you also want to be known for your teaching? Your writing? Volunteering in your community? Being a great parent? Thinking about things in these terms can help you reflect on what’s important to you, and help direct your energy and time towards those things.

5. Do I have time, or am I willing to cut something else to do this? If I have to cut something, what am I willing to sacrifice? 

Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly making this decision. If you take on too many responsibilities, even if you love them all and they all fit your other criterion for being worthwhile, you are making an unconscious decision to sacrifice bits and pieces of other projects (not to mention other aspects of your life).   It’s a little like the truth about multitasking, which is that there is no such thing as multitasking. Although everybody loves the idea of multitasking, and many people think they are great at it, all the data support that the brain is actually serial tasking with an increasingly short duty cycle. So rather than unconsciously doing a worse job at many things, choose wisely by articulating the sacrifices you will have to make to do a good job on the things you’ve chosen to do.

6. How long is this going to take? Multiply that by 2… or even 3.

If you’ve ever written a grant proposal, you’ve probably had to state outright the percentage of time you plan to commit to a project. Usually, these percentages are some alchemical mixture of how many hours you will actually spend and what “looks reasonable” in the context of your expected contribution to that grant. So, while you’re considering question 5 (above), put a meaningful number on the commitment you’re making. It can also help to consider the duty cycle of the effort– are you going to need to work a little every day on this project, or will it require a few weeks of straight of intensive work? Will the effort ramp up or down with time, be sporadic, or consistent? The multiplicative factor is for you to decide– unless you are very good at planning for contingencies, almost all projects take longer than you intend. To figure out how good (or not!) you are at estimating your time input, try keeping track of your activities for a week. Pick a task, guess how long it will take you to accomplish it, and then see how long it actually takes you.

Final thoughts

I often think of a particularly funny turn of phrase I once came across in a student’s homework answers. It was an essay response that read roughly “On the one hand, [X]; but on the other hand, [Y]. On the third hand…”

You have only two hands. There are only 24 hours in a day. You need to sleep some of those hours. Plan accordingly.

*One of the best things about the TED Fellows program is that they provide executive coaching for Fellows. They put me in touch with a really amazing coach, Jen Sellers, and I’ve been working with her for about a year now. I had no idea what executive coaching was when I started, but as a friend succinctly put it: “It’s like a shrink for your career.” Basically, every few weeks I bring Jen some challenge I’m grappling with, and we talk it over until we’ve arrived at some way of approaching it. She is amazingly good at asking me questions that reframe the problem, and helping me find some kind of practical approach.
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5 Responses to Time Isn’t On Anyone’s Side

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  3. Whitney says:

    I think about this same issue all the time only not in such an organized way! This was great to read. Like you, I have a lot of interests and it’s hard to not want to do all of them. I want to work on my career, but also like to sing, roller skate and decorate dinosaurs with glitter — none of which are going to meet any profound goals. So I do all of these things, and others, in little bits and pieces but sometimes think I should set them aside for when I’m 70 and my goal is simply to have fun. It’s an ongoing battle to find the balance! Thanks for the advice in helping me sort it all out.

    • lmwalkowicz says:

      I guess that depends on what you think of as “profound goals”– doing things you enjoy betters your state of mind, even if it doesn’t involve curing cancer (after all, astrophysics *also* does not involve curing cancer). It’s not like I go through this list every time I do anything (or there’s no way I would have sunk so many hours into watching “The Wire”), but I do use it when I consider taking on a new project that requires some serious time commitment. There is of course some continuum between the two– you enjoy roller skating, but you might not commit to performing with someone if it requires learning a complicated routine that you don’t have the proper time to learn. Whatever you do, don’t put off doing things until you’re 70– especially having fun!

  4. I love this list. In this day and age we are stretched in so many different directions that balancing time, or lack thereof, is seemingly impossible. Though never written down I’ve contemplated a few of the items on this list. I’ve had to, with regret, turn down some individuals because there was no way I could possible reconcile the time and effort it would take into any single project. There are no easy projects. They all take time, and multiplying them by x2, x3, or x4 might even be conservative. Each action, no matter how well planned, can have unexpected results that sets the entire project back. Acknowledging this up front is paramount before forging ahead. If any project is worth its weight it’s not going to be easy. Do you have the time to dedicate to that? Great post!

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