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Monday, February 22, 2010

Finitude, Part 1: Time

When I ask our master's students how much time they have to write their theses they often say seven months. When I ask researchers how much time they have to write a paper, they tell me their deadline (a conference submission deadline, a special issue deadline, etc.). My first challenge is to get them to think about how many weeks, how many days, and how many hours they have to work on the text in question.

Suppose you do have seven months to finish whatever you're working on. How many weeks is that? If you don't know the answer, you haven't thought seriously about how much time you have. Stupid trick: count the amount of weeks between now and your deadline. In this case, the answer is 30. Okay. How many of those weeks are you actually going to be working on this text? Stupid trick: cross out your vacation (in a seven month period there is usually some vacation time), and cross out any other week-long commitments like conferences or workshops.

Another stupid planning trick is to divide the period into three roughly equal blocks. In this case 10 weeks in the beginning, middle, and end. You will be doing different things in those periods and your attention will be focused in different ways. You will feel differently about the project and you may as well have those difference in mood in mind when planning.

Next question: how many days are there in a week? Stupid trick: cross out, in light pencil, the weekends. There are only five working days in a week. You should be planning to take your weekends off. Whenever you can't do this, it should be in the spirit of offering a half-day at a time to deal with some pressing emergency. Never believe that your job requires you never to take a day off. Plan to rest. The quality of your work will improve.

We can now move on to the hours in a day. The standard piece of advice is to keep yourself to half-days on any given kind of task. Never write for more than four hours, for example; in fact, try to keep it to three. With that in mind, divide your working day into two halves—roughly, 9-noon and 1-4. That's only six hours (with three for writing and three for other research-related tasks). Do you really have more time to actually work in a concentrated way on your seven-month project. Don't you have many other things to do, privately and professionally? You will have to eat and sleep and dress the kids for school. And teach. And write grant applications. And go to meetings and seminars. All this takes time—and energy. So don't plan to spend more than six hours a day on that long-term writing project.

In most cases, once your other obligations have been plotted into your calendar, you'll have only three hours to work on that project on a given day. In any given week, you may have only one hour on some days and six on others. Some weeks you won't work on the project at all (because you're at a conference, or teaching, or something else). The point is that those 30 weeks we started with will each give you between zero and 30 hours to actually devote to the text.

This sort of exercise is intended to give you a sense of the finitude of your project. It should also make your planning problems more concrete. You will approach your deadline one week at a time. But during each week you are devoting only a finite amount of hours, and intellectual energy, to the project. As each week begins, you know when those hours are.

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