Posts on time management

Getting things done when you can't do anything at all (January 2019)

The world is awash with books and articles by people out who are depressed and yet who have done so much. I wonder if they are so depressed, how can they do so much? Yet they hold down careers, raise children, write books and talk on radio and TV about their experience of depression, and maintain an amazing social media profile.

You might think I get by OK, being a professor of psychology and having written a few books, so I assume most of these people do the same as me: periods of miserable inactivity punctuated by spells of being able to get something done. And of course there is always the possibility that these people are now no longer ill.

When I look back over my life I’m amazed I’ve ever achieved anything. I have always felt a fraud, fearing that I’m soon likely to be caught out. Reading about academic impostor syndrome over Christmas I realised I am not alone: many academics seem to feel that they’ve cheated their way to the top (or at least somewhere near the top). I can never decide if I have overachieved or underachieved: I think on balance I have failed to deliver my schoolboy potential. I was at my best when I was 17, when I was anxious and obsessional but not too depressed. I wonder what things would have been like if I had had a full life, rather than half or even a quarter of a life, the rest stolen by depression. I envy people who can get up every morning knowing they have a clear mind and will be able to work for as long as they like. If you’re one of these fortunate people, cherish it: you don’t know how lucky you are.

It’s been some time since I’ve written, and it hasn’t been because I’ve been very depressed. First writing about psychology and the weather, and then about the science of consciousness, has taken priority, with other book projects have been piling up behind it. Being owned by Beau, a poodle, has taken up a lot of slack in my life. Perhaps more on how being with a dog changes your life later. So perhaps I have answered my own question: most of us scrape by.

Depressed people who get anything done deserved to be lauded. But I think if you’re ill and don’t feel successful, the last thing you should do is feel worried about it. You have enough problems already. Hopefully one day you will feel better enough to find some peace.



I don't have the time to work (February 2018)

There’s a meme going round academics at the moment about the professor (the American sort, where all lecturers are called professor; not the real sort, the rarified breed we find in Britain) who has told his students that surveys show that the average academic works 60 hours a week. The implication is that if students want to be successful, they need to work 60 hours a week too. By coincidence I had just read a description of the massively successful Harvard Business School which said that they expected their students to work 55.1 hours a week (a curiously precise figure). I am reminded that I always told my students who invariably demanded to be told a simple answer to “how hard should I work” that they should consider being a student like having a job, so that they should work 40 hours a week – although now I would revise that down to 35-36 hours. And don’t forget that Elon Musk famously once said that the secret of his success is that he works 100 hours a week.

Students were often surprised, frightened, shocked, and disbelieving when I told them that just 36 hours a week for four courses a term meant that they should be devoting 9 hours every week to each course. Take away 2 hours for a lecture, say, and that leaves 7 hours a course a week when they should be working on that course, reading, thinking, preparing for exams, and writing essays. Seven hours is a scary amount of time. Try it – and that’s just one out of four.

There is though some hope though. A few decades ago we were having the same argument about how hard you should work (this time without the means of the internet), and people were saying everyone should be doing 70 hours a week. So some reason has evidently set in as the expectation has dropped from 70 to only 60 hours a week.

What is a 60 hour work week like? Assuming you take Sundays off, that’s 10 hours a day. Say, from 8.30 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. if you allow yourself half an hour a day for lunch and other stuff.

I am sceptical. Can anyone really work 10 hours a day? I have spent three hours this morning writing, and I am knackered. And still I have had to get up a few times, make a cup of tea, go to the loo, and yet I am almost done for the day in terms of energy. Now I know I am depressed and depression saps energy and concentration, but I am doubtful that I am that lazy and pathetic. I suspect that people who say they work 10 hours a day really don’t work anywhere near that amount. They might be at work, but they’re not always doing work. They might get in, arrange their desk, check their email, glance at The Guardian (after all, it’s Education Tuesday, and that’s work isn’t it?), make a cup of coffee, go to the loo, chat to the person next door, go to the water cooler, go to the loo again, check the news, book their holiday online, check their email again triaging spam, move emails around folders, make more coffee, go to the loo again, chat to a couple of people they meet along the way, and suddenly it’s 7 pm. Of course people do have to and do do some work through the day, but I am very sceptical they really work all that time.

So I don’t believe that most people who say that they do, do really work 60 hours a week. These peopl don’t define work, and they don’t record what they do, and psychology tells us that most people tend to view their own activities through rose-tinted glasses.

I have often thought of carrying out a survey of academics, or even anyone who says they work hard, and writing a book about it. I have pared my life down to an essential minimum and I really struggle to write, read, and think anywhere near as much as I would like to. I outsource, I shop online, I do the minimum in everything non-academic, and yet … I’m time poor. Don’t other people have to brush their teeth (two minutes three times a day plus flossing), do washing, do some kind of exercise, sleep, have the occasional shower, install new software only to find nothing works any more, eat, stay hydrated, deal with burst pipes and lost keys, and so on?

I end up feeling most sorry for students, because they have these expectations laden upon them by people who don’t know what they themselves do, and often have to fit in a part-time job and take advantage of having a social life at what will later prove to be the best time of their lives. Their friends often do not help; some of them boasting, exaggerating, lying, or just deceiving themselves about how hard they work. Have you noticed that there are only two types of people – those who put a lot of work into the essay that they started three months ago, and those who left it to the last minute and spent hardly any time on it at all.

I am not advocating a culture of laziness. Psychology has taught us that if we want to become successful at something, we have to work very hard. Genius is indeed nearly all perspiration, and above a certain minimum level, how you succeed depends mainly on your attitude and how much effort you put in. There is no shortcut to success, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean you have to put in 60 hours nonstop work a week. And instead of panicking, being insecure, and deceiving ourselves and others about how hard we work, let’s be honest and realistic, because overwork and stress lead to disaster. I know.


Emptying the mind (December 2016)

It’s been a while since my last blog. Who would have thought that being self-employed would mean being so busy? I have been trying to focus on what’s important: my goals in taking early “retirement” from the full-time job have always been to increase my reading, thinking, and writing time.

But we live in a world of distraction. Distraction makes procrastination very easy. I even know of academics who have been encouraged by their “line managers” (what a repellent phrase) to “multi-task” their administration and research. I’m not sure at what level they’re supposed to multi-task – reading a paper while giving a lecture perhaps? – but we know that multi-tasking reduces efficiency: it just doesn’t work. Doing two things at once has a cost (which is why even speaking on the phone while driving increases the chance of an accident, let alone texting and driving). It also increases stress. And we know that doing important, creative work requires focus – you can’t carry out great research while students back their essays. I even have my doubts about one of those great sacrosanct beliefs in academic life that great teaching and research must go together: good teaching requires time, and research requires time, and you can’t be doing two things at once (see above).

I have tried to simplify my life, for peace of mind both for being mentally ill, and in order to be able to think more clearly. I have just been reading Timothy Ferriss’s excellent (if lengthy) Tools for Titans, and it is obvious that I am not alone in pursuing this strategy. Physical clutter is distracting – some of us even find it distressing. Mental clutter is just as bad, perhaps worse.

And how much mental clutter we all must have! How can you live in the moment when you are worrying about what you did wrong this morning and what you have to do this evening? How can you write well when your mind is on the telephone bill?

So here are some of the things that I’ve done to reduce mental clutter.

     1     Write down as much as possible. First I carried out a brain dump of everything I had to do, everything I was worried about, and everything on my mind. This task took a while, and I kept adding to the dump over a few days.

     2     Make structured lists. Over the years I have experimented with several types of list and time management systems. Now someone with an obsessional personality has to be careful of lists – they can easily take over and become an obsession and a distraction in themselves. I recently tried a complex system of email folders with tasks for doing today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this week, waiting for, and so on … (I am familiar with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system and implement a simplified version of it. I have tried dedicated software but am aiming for a simple solution.)

     3     To do. Currently I am using Apple’s Reminders, with several types of list organised by location and time. I am trying to keep it simple. I have tried complicated systems and apps and remain to be convinced that a to do list can be bettered. The important thing is that nothing gets lost, and that I know everything will be dealt with by the deadline. I don’t want to have to think about peripheral things.

     4     Removing distractions. Social media distracts us and increases mental clutter. I can’t go as far as some and remove myself completely from Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t want to delete all my email accounts (and I don’t think it would be a good idea for future employment possibilities). But I don’t need to check my email every hour. Emails generate emails. I have reached the fabled “Inbox zero”, partly by moving things I can’t do now to an appropriate folder. (Actually as I write it is Inbox 1.) There are some emails I can’t do anything about just now, either because they refer to future events or because I need to do something to be able to answer them – they are moved to a “Waiting” folder. I do feel bad about several emails in my “Weather” folder that I plan to get round to when I have time. These are questions about or suggestions for or things to add to my British weather pages (http://www.trevorharley.com/trevorharley/weather_web_pages/britweather.htm). I do feel a bit bad that people have gone to the trouble of writing to me, and I always thank them, but it’s not my day job, and my time is very limited, so I can’t process them all at once. Recognising that we have limited time is a big part of the fight. WE CAN’T DO EVERYTHING. And that means MAKING CHOICES. (Apologies for shouting these statements.)

     5     Meditation. Everyone says meditation is good for clearing the mind and improving mental focus and clarity. I though with my monkey mind find the process very difficult, and probably as a result find the benefits – so far – limited. I will persevere though. I am using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace site; I like the structure it provides and the implicit coercion. My jury is still out on meditation.

     6     Mindfulness. At all other times I am trying to be mindful of what I am doing now. If a distracting thought arises I try to push it away or if it is something I need to pay attention to add it to my list. It is easy though for obsessive people to get obsessed with clearing our minds, so we are for ever writing down minor thoughts. We all also occasionally at least need to plan what we’re going to do: living in the present doesn’t imply drifting.

Interestingly, as I was half way through writing this blog, the following landed in my inbox and caught my eye (I know, I know):

http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Finally, we should think about whether it’s even a good idea to strive for an empty mind. Life isn’t that simple. Things are always cropping up, and surprises are always happening. Rather than avoiding shit we must learn to respond to shit in the right way. The more I think about it, the more important I think this point is: we will never achieve a perfectly empty mind. It’s our responses we need to change.

Have a good Christmas and New Year everyone. It’s a difficult time of year for people with mental health problems – if nothing else it’s so dark in the northern northern hemisphere. So just hang on in there.



Just do it (September 2017)

“There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. … It’s a bad business, this writing.” (Mary Gordon, American writer)

I am suffering (again) from what is usually called “writer’s block”. I have things I have to write and I just can’t settle to doing them.

Writer’s block is notorious; it’s a favourite subject for novelists, in a rather incestuous way. It’s a specific example of procrastination – putting off until later what you should be doing now. There are whole shop-loads of books on writer’s block specifically (which I find rather paradoxical) and procrastination generally. I have read them all very carefully and learned nothing whatsoever useful from them. Examples of the advice can be found here, here, and here. Enjoy.

Essentially they all come down to the advice “stop messing around and just do it; just make a start, no matter how small”. Well, if I could do that I wouldn’t be procrastinating. They are also keen on eliminating distractions, but when you’re severely proscratinating, after you have eliminated all the obvious ones, you will create new ones.

Now at this point I know what some of you are thinking. The kinder among you will say we know about procrastination; the only solution is indeed to make a start and just get on with it. He’s said he knows that, so why can’t he do it? Surely he could bring himself to write a word, even a little rubbish one? The less kind will say what is he talking about – he can write this blog, so why can’t he write his book? Shut up moaning. You will have no sympathy with me, you say, while you get on with writing your thirty-six volume autobiography.

On the other hand I have discovered in writing this blog that there are many people out there who are a little like me, but are too frightened to say so. Some of you, sadly for you, are even a lot like me, and are terrified to say so. Procrastination is very common. After many years teaching I know countless students who have left things to the last minute – they only start that essay or report the night before the deadline; sometimes well into the night. They know their behaviour is bad, just as I do, so I really do share their pain. They know that at best it will be a bit rushed and that they won’t have time to put it aside and think about it and check it, that they will make mistakes and miss sources, thereby most likely losing precious marks, and at worst they’ll miss the deadline altogether and get zero. So why do they do it? It’s not helpful to say that it’s because of bad planning and laziness when it happens so often; it’s not helpful to say we should just have done it.

As I have said before, we should also be wary of pathologising everything. Am I being slow because I’m ill, or is it something less sinister? Am I just very, very lazy, or is something more complicated going on? A very few people really just don’t care about what they’re doing, but most of us do, so I think when something happens repeatedly it is at least worthwhile considering possible deeper causes. Looking deep into myself I see:

Fear of a deadline. After twelve years of being head of the psychology department at Dundee and then dean, I am exhausted. I still have nightmares about writing reviews and reports and plans and strategies and completing financial spreadsheets, and being sent emails at 5.01 p.m. Friday asking for something FIRST THING Monday, before the 8.30 meeting. Burnout need not be restricted to middle-aged executives: the average undergraduate will now have undergone years of assessment, even before the GCSEs and GCES (or Higher equivalents in Scotland). It’s assessment after assessment – one damned thing after another, for years. Until you can’t take it more.

Milder versions of exhaustion abound. Many studies show that many of us are on the edge of exhaustion, or simply don’t get enough sleep. A period of prolonged rest might be best but not many can take it easy for more than a weekend. So I don’t know what the best way is to cope with deadline fear, and welcome suggestions. However I have resolved to try to deal with the exhaustion and the following might help. I hope that with more energy the fear will recede.

Sleep – I have vowed to sleep whenever possible. I have long thought too much sleep to be a waste of time (we know that some sleep is essential), but what is “too much”? What is the point of forcing yourself to get up 30 minutes earlier if you then only function at 75% efficiency?

Multi-tasking – doing two or more things at once is not effective. I found myself making tea this morning while trying to pack a bag. Not good. I need more mindfulness in my life.

Saying no – partly I commit to annoying little jobs that then have to be done, and which I like to get out of the way before the big jobs. I find it quite difficult to say no when I see the hurt on a person’s face, but I must learn to get over it.

Stop rushing around – leave plenty of time for things. The possibility of saving three minutes by leaving just a bit later for the gym is outweighed by the damage perpetrated by the additional stress of the journey.

Relaxation – I can distinguish between physical and mental exhaustion, although I find they are correlated. The brain uses a lot of energy, and many argue that glucose levels in the brain can be rapidly depleted – so that we have limited willpower, although controversy rages about this subject (see here and here, for example).

Doing if for myself – My fear of a deadline goes hand in hand with being evaluated afterwards. If you don’t hand something in, you can’t get a poor mark, or unpleasant feedback, can you? It’s bizarre reasoning I know but I am falling foul of it. I find that I become lost in things that I enjoy and that aren’t going to be evaluated, so one strategy is to try to turn evaluated things into things we’re really doing for ourselves. We’re doing it to learn, or to write our great life’s work (in my case), and the deadlines and feedback are things on the side – things that might even help us, by ensuring progress and making it a better work. We call this type of approach recasting our thinking. I don’t find it easy: to make it work we have to make ourselves believe it, deep down.

What else is there?

The job is too difficult. I missed this out of the “first edition” of the post, but I don’t know why: the more I think about it, the more important it is. It’s easy to get going on small jobs where you know what you have to do, but much of good writing isn’t like that. Writing a whole book on the science of consciousness, in my case, isn’t easy; the material is complex, difficult to understand in places, and even more difficult to synthesise and evaluate for a reader who hasn’t spent more than thirty years in the area. Sometimes I start work, look at my screen, and I don’t know what to say. Students might start writing a lab report and realise they don’t have a clue about the statistic used or the design of the experiment. No wonder we put our laptops aside and make a nice cup of tea.

Somehow we have to make difficult tasks easier. It’s difficult to do the research and thinking while looking at the screen trying to write the final document, I find, so that means it has to be done before. That means reading multiple sources about a topic, and perhaps making notes, drawing diagrans, even mind maps if that’s your thing; and thinking and organising. All that takes time. I can write a thousand words in an hour, easily, if I know exactly what I’m talking about, am enjoying myself, and have a modicum of focus. If I don’t know (as is usually the case), or have to remind myself, that rate plummets. If you leave your writing to the last minute, so you’re up against the deadline, there often just isn’t enough time. No wonder we procrastinate when facing the impossible!

If you’re doing something difficult and you’re up against a real deadline, you’re a bit screwed. You just have to learn the lesson and resolve to leave research time for the next deadline – plenty of it. Fortunately (although it might be a curse) many writing deadlines are in fact a bit flexible, so if you’re a little late it’s not the end of the world. It’s not good form though so again lessons have to be learned.

Doing research with plenty of time left seems less intimidating to me; all I have to do is convince myself that the pleasant reading in the conservatory really is work. You do though need to be clear about you’re researching and why, which means planning what you have to do and finding out what you don’t know first. You need to read for a purpose, trying to answer a question, and to do that you need to be clear about what the question is first.

The job is unpleasant. Then one has to ask why are you doing it? Let’s think about what “unpleasant” really means. You might be doing a psychology agree, and enjoy it all apart from statistics. In that case if you think the overall aim is worthwhile you have to contextualise the problem – relate the subtask to the whole. You can’t understand behaviour without understanding how we should study behaviour. I think mostly though we confound the unpleasantess of jobs with their difficulty – I don’t really think that writing a book on consciousness is an unpleasant task, I’m just finding passages of it difficult at the moment. Students would enjoy statistics if they found it relatively easy. In which case see above.

Perfectionism. I can’t bear the thought of seeing something with my name on it that isn’t perfect. But the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact unless you are peculiarly gifted the first draft will be far from perfect. You are more likely to produce something imperfect by leaving it late and little time for checking and revision. And the first draft might be rubbish, but it’s easier to turn a thousand words of rubbish into something better than start with no words at all.

Too big a task. This is an important factor in my fear, and of course is easily solved by splitting it up into smaller tasks – as small as it takes to stop being daunting. Splitting large jobs up and listing the components takes time, and there’s always a concern that you’re wasting useful time carrying out useless tasks – that you’re just engaging in just another distraction activity. But spending time working out how you’re going to do a big unpleasant job and then doing these small chunks is much better than doing nothing at all related to your most important job.

Something immediately at hand is more immediately satisfying. Note I’ve said immediately twice: it has to be instant and easy gratification relative to the big job. If you’ve split a big job into lots of little jobs then you can have the instant gratification of ticking them off your list as you complete them. Some people suggest turning off your internet connection, using special software and apps to cut off temporary access to distraction, or smashing your router on the floor, but I will still manage to find something else to do. That washing is piling up, or perhaps needs sorting. Better to deal with the root cause than use gimmicks. (Believe me, I’ve tried them all.)

I will try my own medicine and report back. Meanwhile I hope this help someone else. Please feel free to comment or contact me. 

I will try my own medicine and report back. Meanwhile I hope this help someone else. Please feel free to comment or contact me.


Commitment and commitments (October 2016)

Such a perfect day – how often can we say that, even on those rare days when we are fit, well, and happy? I usually finish the day with a profound sense of disappointment, feeling that I could and should have done more that day, which means that I should have done things differently.

I have just finished reading Mark Forster’s Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done. I enjoyed it a great deal, and there were several thought-provoking points that stuck with me. I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title; I was hoping for an analysis of how really productive people actually spend their time (see below). Nevertheless Forster’s books are ones I would recommend to anyone interested in time management, productivity, writing, creativity, or generally living a better life.

I was particularly struck by this quote:

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I must admit I thought I hadn’t heard of H. Jackson Brown Jr. before (it turns out that he is author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, which was a bestseller in the early 90s), but I am now sure that I have seen some of his homilies on calendars and tea towels (“Drink champagne for no reason at all” strikes a particular chord with me). Of course the meaning of the quote is obvious and indisputable, but it really brings home how some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us. I accept a few people appear to need less sleep than others, but most of us need around seven to eight. Currently I seem to need seven; any less and I notice I really don’t function at all well. Saving on sleep is a false economy (sadly).

So that means I have 17 hours left after subtracting my sleep hours left every day, and let’s assume that a very successful person has about the same. But even the hardest working person must eat, exercise, shower (occasionally), dress, travel, perhaps shop occasionally, keep the house maintained, clean, pay bills, maintain social and family contacts, and so on. I outsource as many of these as possible, and try and cut back on non-essential activities, but there are limits on what you can do. You might be able to prepare two meals at once, but try going out without dressing. Please, yes try it. And maybe you can multitask a bit (although being mindful means to me that when you shower you focus on the shower and enjoying the water, not thinking about something else). So you end up with considerably fewer than 17 hours a day. I also find hard work, including writing and reading tiring, and there’s a limit on what I can that pushes the limit even lower.

Ah, but some will say, the people named in the quote were geniuses: they need less time to get big things done. Maybe. But what makes a genius? Thomas Edison observed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and the latest psychological research shows that he wasn’t far wrong. Success in anything takes real commitment. We now know that although native talent has a role to play in success, above a certain level of intelligence and ability, sheer hard work and the number of hours put in matters much more than most people think. Where do these hours come from?

Are you happy with what you get done? If not, then the key point that struck me after reading Forster’s book is if you want to do more of something else, you have to do less of something you’re doing now. What are you not going to do that you’re doing? I know it seems obvious, but on reflection it struck me as profound point: if I want to do more reading, writing, and thinking, I need to stop doing something else. What?

I probably do less “inessential” stuff than many people. I don’t watch much television; I don’t go shopping; I don’t play computer games; I am fortunate enough not to have to mow my own lawn; and I count writing this blog as work. I’m not addicted (I think) to email and social media, and although I enjoy food and cooking, I don’t spend too long on it, particularly since I’ve gone on my new “diet”, and I don’t spend as much time napping as I used after making substantial lifestyle changes to fight depression. What else can I give up? Perhaps it’s time for a time audit, but they’re quite a lot of effort and I doubt it will show I waste much time. My vices are reading the opinion columns of two newspaper, but that doesn’t take long, and keeps me informed, and occasional shopping on Amazon and iTunes.

In spite of all those I still feel I have too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I am not alone: most of us feel overloaded all the time. You might be one of lucky few who think they haven’t got enough activities to fill their days, but if so you’re probably not reading this article. We should be trying to drop things from our lives, but often we take on new stuff. We say yes to things that interest us, or yes to our managers (perhaps we have no choice), or we want to write another book or take up a new hobby. These are new commitments. But we start off already over-committed! So every time we take on a new commitment, we have to ask which of our current commitments are we going to drop (or reduce) to make room for the new one? I want to get back to playing the piano. So what should I drop that I’m currently doing, when I already feel under tremendous time pressure?

So if you want to take on something new, or find more time, you first have to choose something to drop something you’re currently doing. Obvious perhaps, and easy to say, but much less easy to do.

Over-loading creates other pressures. Most people I know say they’re drowning in a sea of email. Many have hundreds (at least one chap I know is almost proud to say that he has thousands) of emails in their inbox. That’s obviously inefficient – I bet if you’re one of these people you’re wading through the same emails day after day, and often miss important, job-critical commitments. It involves handling the same piece of virtual paper more than once, often many times. And exactly when are you going to deal with the backlog? Most people say “one day”, but one day rarely if ever comes. (My favourite email tip is one I learned about some time ago – perhaps from a previous book of Forster: never answer an email the same day that you get it, unless the consequences will be really terrible – or, I suppose, unless you’re conducting a romance by email.)

Every successful person I have read about swears by their routine. I’ve talked about creativity and routine before. It’s a little tedious, perhaps, doing the same thing at the day after day, year after year, but successful people make time for their perspiration by sweating it out at the same time, every day.

Managing time is even more difficult for people with mental illness. Illness steals time. The unfairness of it all burns, but I think it has just to be accepted. We will never get as much done as “normal” people.

Finally, I am still very interested in my original idea of how some people to get so much done in a day. I would really love to interview an assortment of politicians, Nobel prize winners, Silicon Valley success stories, and business magnates, to find out what they do differently from me. Publishers and agents: if you want to commission such a book, please contact me! If you think you are particularly successful in life and have tips to share, please post a comment below or email me at trevor.harley@mac.com.


Input-output (February 2016)

Would a life spent just reading be one worth living? What about a life spent just listening to music? Or even one reading while listening to music? I find there’s a limit to the amount of time I can read. Being depressed, my concentration is poor, and I often find myself distracted while reading. I talked about the importance of focus on meaningful work such as reading as deep work last week. Reading properly takes time and effort, and there’s a limit to how much anyone can do in a day. I’d be interested to hear how long people typically spend reading each day, but I seem unable to manage more than a few hours in total. Even a “light novel” where the reviews say “I finished this in a morning” will take me a week.

I’ve always found reading to be very enjoyable. I remember when I was about ten my mother would tell me to go out and play, but really I wanted to stay in and read. I consumed a great deal of children’s fiction, and reading was what I most wanted to do. Some people my age might remembet the Puffin Club – in retrospect a clever marketing device to get us to consume more books, but I found it a revelation when I was young. Here was something that revered reading.

I learn a lot from reading. I am always entranced by the prospect of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, and am continually discovering new authors and new books. I can tell I’m seriously depressed when even reading loses its enjoyment and allure. I can imagine a life with every spare moment spent reading – maybe doubling up, and reading while cooking, eating, and even exercising – would be enjoyable and satisfying. And yet … something would be missing.

Yin and yang, good and evil, black and white, Cheech and Chong – we like dualities. What’s the opposite of reading? Writing. What’s the opposite of listening to music? Making music. While reading is largely a passive activity where you consume someone else’s creation, when writing you create words that someone else will read (hopefully). But then a life spent writing would be impossible, for me at least, because I need to read to have something to write about – or at least to know what I am writing about. Sadly you can’t write academic books while just speculating on your inner turmoil. So there is a balance to be found with some writing and some reading. A morning spent writing from the early hours, then exercise, a walk, an appreciation of nature, a little nap, and then the rest of the day reading while listening to music – that would be a pretty satisfying day. A meaningful day. To consume isn’t enough – for me at least. I need to create as well. But people differ and perhaps you disagree; if so let me know below.


Deep time (February 2016)

I have just finished reading Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, by the writer and study guru Cal Newport. The idea is a very interesting one, and although after you’ve read it you think “that’s obvious, I was trying to do that anyway”, the book is very clearly written and the case well argued. I recommend it.

Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. One could quibble in saying it’s not always obvious what’s meaningful, but I know deep down which goals are worth while pursuing and which are superficial. As far as work is concerned it’s writing, and that’s probably true of most academics (and most writers). Not all writing is deep: books, papers, and lectures (to some extent) are, but a report on what I’ve been doing recently isn’t – it’s just something I have to do. Deep goals need deep work, which is demanding and involves concentration, effort, and time. It involves, using the psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s term, getting into a state of flow. You don’t make much progress on writing a book unless you put aside some quality time, which means time free from distraction, and get on with getting those words out.

The problem is that distraction is all around us, even when we try to do deep work. The other day I noticed that my Kindle said “15 minutes left in book” (the book was Deep work in fact). So I sat down and tried to finish reading it, measuring how long it actually took. It took over 45 minutes! I kept on getting distracted, looking around me, my mind wandering, checking a few facts, standing up to stretch and wander around.

And writing is so much more difficult than reading. At our desk or laptop we are usually always connected to the internet, and what a distraction that can be. Checking email, looking at Twitter maybe, checking our messages, looking at Facebook, checking the news to see if anything interesting has happened in the last five minutes, checking a fact on what we’re writing and then getting distracted by another link – none of these distractions were around when Proust was writing. It is easy to start writing with the best intentions and then discover an hour later we’ve only managed a sentence. We do know that Arsenal haven’t bought a new striker and that Emily’s cat slept on the duvet last night looking cute.

So clearly some discipline is necessary when we’re trying to do deep work. Newport argues that we can learn to work deeply, just as we can acquire any other skill. We might be able to work deeply simply by resolution and determination. Some of us might need to log out of Twitter and Facebook to make it that much more difficult to check them. Some of us might need more drastic medicine and to switch off our internet connection or router. Some might even need to burn the router. Newport is against even checking facts as we write, putting them aside to dedicated time later.

Even when we can do it, deep work is tiring. When I was writing my book Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science, I think I was pretty disciplined. I would sit at my desk in the morning,, starting at 8, and from the hour not stop until I had written 500 words. On average these 500 words would take me 35-40 minutes. Then I would stretch, stand up, go to the loo, make coffee perhaps – and very quickly the top of the hour and come round and off I’d go on the next 500. I found this regime absolutely exhausting.

Newport argues that it’s not easy to do much more than four hours real deep work a day, and that’s my experience when writing Talking the talk. I doubt if I could do four contiguous hours; I would need a coffee break at least – time to catch up with the news and checking those facts. And often our jobs involve work that is necessary but not necessarily deep, so we need to reserve some time for shallow work.

It all sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s fiendishly difficult to do, for me at least. Now it’s time to check my email again.