Even the best of us fall into time traps of our own design. One science professor I know used to waste hours slamming creationists on discussion boards. He regaled us with funny, forgettable stories.
But he struggled with deadlines.
He battled the clock and calendar so much that he almost totaled a grant project and nearly lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding. His graduate students worked overtime to bail him out, and they didn’t appreciate the extra work.
This science professor wasn’t a fool. He’d managed most of his life well — doctorate degree, articles, a book.
He hadn’t always been such a mess. So what happened?
Finally, someone asked him how much time he usually spent fighting with strangers on the Internet. He massaged his chin.
Not a good sign.
“Most of my Saturday afternoon,” he finally admitted. Then he looked embarrassed. “My wife took the kids to the park. I guess it would’ve been a good idea to go with them.”
Still, his original plan made sense. He’d decided to stay home and grade student projects. Admirable.
Except he didn’t follow through, and wound up wasting the day instead. Didn’t finish his grading. In fact, he canceled plans on Sunday to do what he’d originally planned to do on Saturday.
His wife wasn’t thrilled.
His wife should’ve installed parental controls on his computer.
When you don’t take charge of your time, then you become Father Time’s bitch.
This isn’t a story about procrastination, though. Not in the typical sense. My friend didn’t absolutely have to spend Saturday grading projects. But he could’ve done something more fun and meaningful.
Almost anything would’ve been a better use of his time. So why did he give into an activity that, even by his own standards, was so fruitless?
He was tired. Overworked. And unorganized. It led to a cycle. When you don’t take charge of your time, then you become Father Time’s bitch.
You start wasting entire afternoons, almost on purpose. It’s like the anorexic who doesn’t eat, because her weight has become the only thing in her life she feels like she can control.
They’re not so different. Someone might subconsciously sacrifice their time, simply in order to rebel against all their deadlines.
We are strange, self-destructive creatures sometimes.
We all keep making these same mistakes. I’ve done it, but less and less this year. When I first discovered Twitter, I too became consumed with responding to trolls and MAGA varmints.
Some part of me thought I could get through to them. So I tweeted back and forth. I also wasted time on my blog, responding to critics and sharing links to articles and stats that I knew they would never read.
Like an eating disorder, someone might subconsciously sacrifice their time, simply in order to rebel against all their deadlines and expectations.
Even before the days of Twitter, I wasted time refreshing my email over and over — waiting for this or that acceptance letter.
I wasted time by scheduling “open office hours,” so people could drop in any time of day and ask me about anything.
People took advantage of my time, and dropped in for increasingly ridiculous reasons. They used up my hours simply because I offered them.
Coworkers and students alike flopped into a chair for chit chat, mixed with mentoring, and affirmation.
This year, I’ve quashed drop-in appointments. People need to set up meetings with me if they want help or advice. Or they can email me their questions, or send them along via text.
It felt selfish at first — the idea of making myself less available. A few people have complained, but screw ‘em.
I’m taking charge of my time.
Taking charge of your time doesn’t come in any specific form. You can buy a day planner, a desk calendar, software. You can use whatever apps you want. It’s not about a product or a system.
Taking charge of your time is about mindset.
No matter what system you create, your time can fall through unexpected cracks and gaps. Some friends and I also ran some private Facebook groups where we bitched and gossiped to each other. It started out well enough. But after a year, a disturbing habit formed.
We wound up spending upwards of two or three hours reading and replying to each other’s bitch sessions.
At some point, we all woke up to what was going on. We weren’t just wasting time. We were wasting our minds and moods, too.
So we stopped. We killed the private group. Now, if we have a problem, we wait and schedule a phone call or video chat. It’s a helluva lot more productive and efficient.
Taking charge of your time doesn’t come in a specific package. No single app or calendar system can save you. It’s all about your mindset.
We’ve lost perspective on productivity. Not everything we do has to result in a tangible product. It just has to matter.
It’s one thing to spend a couple of hours playing a game, or watching music videos.
That’s fun. And relaxing. You’re fulfilling a purpose.
It’s something else to spend an afternoon getting worked up over someone’s comment on your status update.
So many of us wander astray. We fritter away minutes and hours on pursuits that don’t really fulfill us in any way.
A few years ago, I became obsessed with this game on my tablet. For no reason. It wasn’t even a game I enjoyed. Just something I downloaded to kill time during a layover at the airport. Some part of my brain couldn’t let go, even after my trip. It wanted to keep reaching the next level.
One afternoon, I had a few minutes to kill. So I opened my tablet and wound up playing that stupid game for almost an hour. It threw off the rest of my schedule for the day.
Finally, after three weeks I put a stop to the madness. Deleted the app. Instant relief. My only regret was the time I’d never recuperate.
Kill time. What a weird phrase. We should never let ourselves kill time. That’s exactly how I got hooked on a pointless game in the first place.
Instead, I should’ve closed my eyes and listened to some music during my layover. At least that would’ve relaxed me.
Sometimes, doing nothing at all is better than the other ways we distract ourselves. I’ve never managed to meditate. But I’ve gotten better at catching those moments where I’m vulnerable.
Those moments when I feel tired, unfocused, unmotivated.
That’s when I need to sit back for a few minutes and chill. Not Netflix. Not Twitter. Not email.
Just nothing. Maybe some music.
Or a walk.
Or even a nap.
Because if I don’t take a step back, that’s when I’ll fall down a black hole of distractions. I’ve trained myself to delay my social media, Netflix, and games for when I actually have the energy to have fun.
Other people might take a cue from this practice.
Let’s rethinking productivity. Not everything we do has to result in a tangible product, for someone else. It just has to matter, especially to us.
Right now, I’m watching my inbox clutter up with angry emails on my faculty list-serv about a new policy that half of our staff hates. A dozen people are hurling veiled insults at each other over something we already know we have no control over. They’re tired.
So far, I’ve deleted about 20 emails on the topic, and it’s barely lunch time. Do I have an opinion on this policy? Yeah, I think it’s stupid as hell. But I won’t waste my time writing and replying to coworkers.
They need to take a nap. Go for a walk. Update their Christmas list. Watch some porn on their phone. Anything except continue to snipe at each other over something so trivial.
Protect your time. From others. And yourself. You don’t always have to be working. There’s nothing wrong with procrastinating, but do it with a little purpose. Spend your time on things you truly value, and you’ll never feel like you’ve wasted another minute.