onsdag 12 oktober 2011

On work habits and on getting things done

I don't feel I have a problem with the topic of my previous blog post - procrastination. At least not at the moment (this autumn - although I have to say I had a very hard time to get going after the summer vacation). Sure, there are several things I'm running late on doing, but that is not because I'm procrastinating, but because I choose to do other, more important things first (some tasks unfortunately gets continually pushed down in the queue).

This procrastination thing grows on you though, so I thought I would write down some reflections about my own work habits, as I do have problems to finish some things and have often felt that short, specific tasks that has to be completed immediately tends to crowd out long tasks with indefinite deadlines (like writing an article for a conference or a journal, or writing a research application (can always wait until next year when I'll know more about the topic and can write a better application)).

I have thus noticed and during the last year worked towards compartmentalizing my work a lot more. I use certain times of the day, or certain situations, for doing certain things and have thus found some "perfect matches".

One thing that easily tends to not get done is reading academic books from cover to cover. So I have a daily quota for reading them and the books "magically" get read over time. The pace isn't great, but I'm still probably above average even for academics when I clock in around two read books per month. I've written about this specific topic before.

As to writing, I have so many ideas, sketches and half-done articles, but I never seem to have the time to actually write them or the discipline to finish them instead of thinking about something new. It is difficult to sit in my office surrounded by so many small, short "urgent" tasks and take the time off to close the door, preferably unhook the telephone and sit for one, two or three hours just thinking and writing concentratedly. So this semester I have done something slightly radical when I block off one day per week and head of for the Royal Library [Kungliga biblioteket, KB]. It's within walking distance from KTH, but it's even better to not pass by KTH by at all during one of these gloriously blocked-off days. There are few distractions at KB and you are surrounded by other people doing much the same thing as you. The environment is conducive to writing and to concentrating on you writing. You are alone with your thoughts (and your computer screen and the texts you've brought with you) - and it's a wonderful place to be for a person like me.

I love it and I have fond memories as KB was the place where I went when I needed to finish my ph.d. thesis ten years ago. I sat at KB more or less from when they opened until they closed (eight at night) five or six days a week. Even outside of the opening hours I for a period of several months had a hard time not thinking about my research, the material I had collected, my interpretations of it and the text that I had written or would write the following day. I had a hard time talking to people unless it in some way related to my thesis - a topic which I constantly brought into the conversation. I was on an maniacal intellectual "high" for months and my drug was ideas. I detested when my then-girlfriend-now-wife chided me for be totally nerdy and tried to make me talk about mundane everyday stuff - things that emphatically did not relate to my thesis and the world of ideas that was my constant companion during this period of my life. I still think the thesis holds up pretty good for anyone interested in hacker culture, virtual communities and online meeting places.

Back to the present I don't have the luxury of that kind of zoomed-in total focus with a wife and two kids clamoring for my attention at home and university courses and literally dozens if not hundreds of students clamoring for my instructions, directions and attention at work. The best I can manage is these one-day per week excursions into the wonderful world of thinking and writing and saying hello to my own brain (my best company at the library).

Yet a third match is the one or two or maybe even three hours I can spend late at night some weekdays at home, doing a task that is in need of a concentrated effort but that can (preferably) be finished in the allotted time that very weekday. Taking the time to develop and write up a master's thesis proposal based on some hastily jotted-down ideas would be one such task (although I haven't done that specific task lately). Writing down a page or two of medium-complicated instructions for a course would be another example (I did that just last week). Reading a thesis draft from a master's student in preparation for a meeting is a task that is perfect for late nights after the kids have gone to bed.

Other tasks I pointedly abstain from doing at home. Printing something, checking and changing it some and printing it again several times is a task best left to do at work. If I need to check things out with other people, I don't even bother to think about them at home. I have also come to prefer to at the most screen my email at home and perhaps answering and sending off a few select emails to remind someone (could be myself) of something. Serious email reading (and performing all the small tasks that follow from reading 10 or 20 e-mails in a chunk) I have come to do first thing in the morning when I get to work and then (some) throughout the workday. I try my best to not even look too much at my mail when I'm at KB.

I anyway (right now) feel that this compartmentalization is good for my work habits and for getting things done - the right task at the right time and the right place. I'm a little concerned on my student's behalf when it seems some of them just can't turn Facebook off at all. I look forward to find out more about our media technology students' procrastination habits a few weeks from now and during the coming academic year. It is most certainly a topic I will write more about here on the blog!

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