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." 


Listen to Ben Franklin

My goal for this week was to transition towards a workflow that more equitably balances research and writing. More specifically, I had hoped to draft at least a page or two of my first dissertation chapter, which will be on the 1946-47 Jewish Welfare Board survey conducted by Prof. Oscar I. Janowsky. Yet somehow it is now Friday, and I have yet to write a single sentence. The past few days were spent getting organized, and I find myself with at least another few hours worth of prep work to do before I can feasibly begin writing.

I did not expect that this process would require so much preparation. As I have written about before, I'm pretty meticulous with my database, my notes, and how I organize sources. When I sat down to draft the chapter outline, however, I became overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of sources that I have on the JWB Survey. Over the past few months of research, I tagged all of the documents in my database that are related to this topic with "JWB Survey," and so I can quickly and easily call them forward and view them in isolation. Furthermore, I can organize all of the documents tagged "JWB Survey" by the year they were authored, because "19XX" was the other consistent tag I applied. That still leaves me, however, with hundreds of documents from 1946 alone! I now realize that I need to review all of these documents (briefly, quickly, expeditiously, stat!) and add more specific tags such as "Survey Committee Minutes," or "Field Visits to Centers," or "Progress Reports." My chapter will progress chronologically, and so by adding these tags I will be able to quickly isolate only those documents that were written at the moment I'm writing about--for example, in the lead-up to the survey, or later while conducting the survey, or  from after the survey was completed, etc.

I'm trying not to get frustrated or anxious, and to instead focus on the adage from the ever pithy Ben Franklin: 

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

I'm telling myself that this is not productive procrastination, but rather a foundational step that will yield exponential benefits when I actually begin writing. Hopefully next week.

No Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

My enthusiasm for the the Mac operating system has been tempered since I last wrote on Tuesday. I actually had great blog posts planned for the past two days, but on Wednesday I realized that iPhoto wasn't loading the pictures from my iPhone that I planned to post. Trying to figure out why my iDevices weren't iConnecting turned into an "If you give a Mouse a Cookie"-type headache that lasted 24 hours. 

To make a long story short, I realized that I needed to upgrade my operating system to OS X Yosemite* if I wanted my photos to continue syncing to my MacBook Pro. In order to install the upgrade, however, I had to do a lot of maintenance and backup on my laptop. I do try to stay on top of these things, but I try to be extra cautious right before sending my hard drive under the knife. As a result I got no work done yesterday. My laptop was in a constant state of loading, downloading, or spinning the rainbow pinwheel of death.

One good thing did come out of the process. I now have a great app to recommend: Memory Clean. It's an unobtrusive little icon that sits at the top of your screen and monitors how much free memory you have. When it runs low, you can ask it to clean out file caches and app memory stuff (I don't really get what that is, to be honest) so your computer can process faster. For a free (!) app, it's stupid easy to use and I've been pleased with what its done for my tired old laptop. 

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I'm choosing, resignedly, to think of yesterday's upgrades as an investment in the health and future well-being of my laptop. What's one day of work if it means that I have a more efficient system for the next few months? It's just been a strange week and an unproductive few days, between grant deadlines, events, and the computer situation.

For example, on Wednesday I co-coordinated a Tu B'svhat event for graduate students. We fed everyone a free falafel lunch and provided terra cotta pots and succulents so that grads could honor the holiday by planting a little aloe for their office. Most of grad students don't really have the space to plant a tree, which is the traditional observance, so we decided to be figurative and have some fun with it. Over 15 students came during their lunch hour and it was lovely to spend time with Carnegie Mellon's Jewish Masters and Doctoral candidates. 

On Sunday I'm heading back to New York for a longer research trip, and I'm looking forward to the quiet studiousness of the archive. 

*My current assessment of Yosemite: My first impression is that the only major difference between Yosemite and Maverick--besides the cartoonish design--is that Safari and iPhoto are now more connected to my iPad and iPhone and it's easier to continue browsing the web/photos from one device to another. I'm not experiencing WiFi connectivity issues (which are widely reported in the App store reviews). When I upgraded to Maverick I saw a dramatic decline in the speed at which my apps loaded, but so far Yosemite hasn't seemed to make it any worse. 

New Discovery

I'm having an interesting week with my computer. Knock wood, so far it's only the good kind of interesting. This weekend I was working on a Word document and I needed to refer to something in a window behind it. I clicked the window I was working in and moved it to the side. All of a sudden, I was in this new desktop! It was just me and my active Word document, and nothing else. No browser with 100 tabs open. No Mail. No iCal. 

After I freaked out for a second, I realized that I could just drag the window back towards the edge and return to my original desktop. Upon my "return," the desktop seemed so busy compared to the serenity I had just experienced. I still had no idea what had really happened, so I went to Google and typed in the most ridiculous search term: "second screen feature mac?" Most of the results were actually about using a second monitor with your Apple computer, but this article clarified that what I had stumbled onto was the "multiple desktop" feature within the "Mission Control," which is what Apple calls the window rearrangement function of their operating system. Mission Control is also what enables "corners," which is a feature that allows you to see all the windows open in an application (or on the desktop) just by navigating the mouse arrow to the corner of the screen. Corners is one of the most useful tools in my workflow, because I often move between documents like chronologies or indexes or notes and the document in which I am actively writing. 

There are two ways to access Mission Control. The easiest way is to press F3, but I hate taking my hand off the trackpad so I prefer to swipe three fingers upward. All of your open windows are displayed, and you can move them to the desktop you would like to view them in. For example, over the past few days I dedicated a new desktop to grant materials, but all other Word documents opened in desktop 1 (except for my chronology document, which opened in desktop 3 along with my database). When I was finished with writing and editing, I moved the Word documents back to desktop 1 to turn them into PDFs and email them off. 

Here are some clear benefits to the "multiple desktop" feature that I've seen so far:

1) Escape the web browser. I often have multiple tabs open in my browser when I'm doing research, and they can distract me from writing. I have now set Safari to only open in my "original" desktop (desktop 1) so that when I'm writing in desktop 2 or reading documents in desktop 3, I do not en up checking my email every time I catch a glimpse at my Gmail account. If I do need to look something up on the web, I can easily swipe three fingers left or right to move between the desktops quickly and easily.

2) Isolate projects or tasks. If I need to focus on one thing, It's nice to have it all together in one place without additional clutter.

3) Novelty. Starting new desktops is fun and keeps life feeling fresh. 

There are some drawbacks, of course. When you use corners with multiple desktops you are still shown ALL of the open windows in that application, regardless of which desktop it will open in. If you accidentally click on a window that's active in a different desktop, you get dragged over immediately. So it's not completely isolating or zen. Plus, the icons at the bottom do not disappear when you're not using an app in desktop 2 (or 3, or 4, etc.)--so you are still tempted to click on the Safari compass icon and end up back in the original desktop. 

Also, I really think the best thing I could do to minimize distraction would be to shut down all but the bare minimum of windows and focus on what's necessary to get any particular job done. I usually lack the self control to implement that advice, so this multiple desktop feature gets me a few extra minutes of focus without feeling like I'm denying myself the pleasures of the internet and apps. 

Has anyone else used this feature? Are there other ways to use it to improve a research workflow? I'd love to know!