The Value of Time

The New York Times ran two articles this weekend, both written by professional researchers, about the relationship between productivity and how we perceive our time. One made the case for boredom as a tool for creative fulfillment, the other critiqued the contemporary obsession with quantifying every facet of life--including and especially how we spend our time. Both argue that it's counterproductive to meta-analyze how we spend our time, or should spend our time. In light of my recent attempts to maximize my writing productivity and make headway on my dissertation, I found elements of these arguments compelling.

In "The Other Side of Boredom," freelance researcher Mary Mann related how the boredom of her job as an under-employed kayaking guide inspired her to pursue a new career in research. For her, boredom helped her realize that she most enjoyed spending her time pursuing the "delayed gratification" of discovery. Her stints of boredom in the kayak-guiding job showed that she was not averse to tedium--which admittedly describes most of the research process--if it ultimately yielded "idea-shaping information." Mann offered the following advice for others hoping to usefully harness their boredom:

So what turns doing nothing into creative fuel? While there are no conclusive studies on this, therapists and psychoanalysts I’ve interviewed tend to agree that the best way to really use boredom is to allow our bored minds to wander freely and to pay close attention to where they go, like watching a Ouija board supply answers under our own fingertips.

I'm charmed by this notion of boredom as a tool for revelation, which in turn makes me doubly wary that this is an ultra-powerful justification for procrastination--a "get out of jail free" card for days spent knitting on the couch instead of working on the dissertation. Mann never really addresses whether, past a certain point, periods of boredom begin to yield diminishing returns. 

Over in the business section, Natasha Singer profiled Professor Natasha Dow Schull for the Technophoria column. Prof. Schull is a cultural anthropologist who will soon release a book about consumer electronics that monitor and quantify the behaviors of its users. In the interview, Schull critiques technologies that attempt to change a user's behavior with a prompt or cue instead of by providing users with their data so they gain insight into their behavior patterns. She accuses these technologies of turning the "quantified self" into the "infantilized self," and warns that while users feel like they're investing in their wellness they're often just redirecting anxiety from one neurosis to another. 

I am guilty of this charge. While I have avoided wristbands the prompt me to exercise, I have tried multiple apps that quantify the time that I work and prompt me to adhere to a work schedule. Recently I wrote about how I'm using the Pomodoro technique. When I start my Pomodoro  app, it tells me when to start working, when to take my breaks, and when I've met my goal. Although the app does not monitoring my compliance, its reminders are changing my behavior. The regular interval of beeps and chimes are training me to work consistently for shorter periods of time, and  the amount of time I work each day increases by incorporating five minute rejuvenating breaks between sessions. That's all well and good, but Prof. Schull's argument does raise two questions. Can I maintain these work/rest patterns and the enhanced level of productivity without the use of the app? And is my obsessive monitoring of my time merely distracting me from my real anxiety, the writing of deep historical thoughts?

Both Prof. Schull and Ms. Mann ask if we over-value productive time and create anxiety where there should be creativity. I was reminded of some advice that my mother passed along to me from her friend: "we are not machines." Perhaps, by programming my time, I'm making my task harder than it has to be. And as useful as my mom's second-hand advice was, it's compelling to hear this case made by fellow researchers. I know their time is spent doing much of the same work that I do, and I give more credence to their advice than to most of the people who admonish me to "just chill."