A little while back, patter and thesis whisperer, inger mewburn, co-wrote a post on writing which we wanted to ‘simulcast’ on each of our blogs. Writing this first post was surprisingly easy given all the technology at our disposal. We chatted on Twitter, then switched to email for longer conversations, all the time writing into a shared Google doc. For two people who had only ever met in ‘text’ this process was remarkably smooth.
What wasn’t so easy was managing time.
Inger lives in Australia and Pat lives in the UK. One of us was generally asleep while the other was awake. Our messages travelled instantaneously, but the text lay dormant for slabs of time while we waited for the other person to wake up and answer an email. Trying to publish on our blogs at the same time was particularly challenging. We missed one window and then caught another while Pat was travelling to a different time zone. In some ways our technologically mediated world time and space have effectively collapsed, while in other ways the tyranny of distance is as present as ever. Here’s the meditation on time and writing we produced as a result.
Academic work is temporally greedy. It eats up days and weeks of thinking and reading time and that’s without even taking into account the analysing and writing time that comes after. Various demands compete with one another for priority – which one deserves and needs more time. Taking time is intimately related to feeling in control. If you feel you are able to take the time that something needs, then you also feel in control. This feeling can be in short supply when writing a thesis but it’s a mistake to think that things change a lot when you finish. There is Never Enough Time to do every project you are interested in.
The best advice Pat got as PhD student was that having good information systems was ultimately a really big timesaver. Yes, working out the filing systems and entering all the data on bibliographic software is a pain at the start, but it pays off in spades at the end. There is nothing quite like seeing the reference list for a 100,000 word text get done in a few seconds. Or being able to find something you read years ago really quickly, just by doing a word search on Endnote.
The best time saving advice Inger got was to write your own notes like they are for someone else. Don’t expect to remember everything you were thinking at the time you read the reference. You should be writing your thesis as you take notes. One trick which Inger thinks she learned from Pat was to use active verbs in your notes. Academic writers ‘claim, ‘argue’, ‘outline’ – they don’t just write. If you choose the right verbs while you take notes you can often cut and paste those notes straight into your manuscript.
The best time is the time you don’t realise you’re spending. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe what happens when you re completely immersed in something. You start working and then look up a bit later and hours have passed. Flow happens when the challenge is a bit beyond your skills and knowledge and the task is also engaging and meaningful. That’s the best kind of academic work – it’s a bit beyond you and you want to work on getting it sorted. If it’s easy to do it’s probably not intellectually where you need to be working… but if it’s hard, yet the time still flies then it’s likely to be a good, as well as fulfilling, piece of work.
But, just as people who go out on drunken benders wake up the next morning and find they cannot remember whole chunks of the night before, it’s easy for time to go missing as you immerse yourself in the Flow. While much day to day life can be ‘fast forwarded’ without too much pain, some of this important missing time is precious and can never be restored. For example, Inger doesn’t remember much of her son’s first couple of years at school as they were lost in the blur of PhD. It’s fair to say she has some regrets about this and has tried to be more ‘present’ in the years since.
Just in time
Pat finds that blogging has joined the other long list of things that are done just in time – doing reviews, writing conference papers, getting the marking done. She is usually a lone blogger so getting the blog written is a weekly task – it usually happens before the shopping on Saturdays. She blogs and then publishes. However she’s noticed that more people read the blog during the week so she is now is thinking that the just in time writing needs to change. She needs to write to suit reading time, not vice versa.
Inger hates doing ‘just in time’ – it makes her nervous. Instead she makes sure to under promise and over deliver in relation to deadlines. Luckily she is helped by many blog collaborators, but makes sure she always has a few blog posts half written which can be tidied up Just in time to publish.
Well we are Out of time for more. But we are wondering about your thoughts on time – do you suffer from Missing Time or Just in Time?