An Experiment with Attention Management

It is hard to believe the first month of 2020 is nearly over!

As many folks do, I had intended to use the turn of the calendar year to intentionally reflect on 2019. Truth be told, however, the fall of 2019 was a swamp of reflection, and I’m a little reflected-out. But, I’m still committed to shifting my working practices towards healthier, more sustainable habits.

So, rather than reflecting, in January 2020, I audited.

More specifically, I tracked my energy and attention expenditure in relation to research, writing, and prep time.

I was motivated to do so by my interest in the recent swell of thinking that attends to “attention management.” This includes Deep Work by Cal Newport and 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. The politics and motivations of the two authors differ considerably; Newport is interested in “hacking” the attention economy to facilitate the conditions of what he calls “deep work” or uninterrupted, focused, thinking and writing, while Crary’s work aims to understand, unsettle, and question the attention economy in relation to the circuits of capitalism.

But, the two books share an underlying argument: the attention of subjects enmeshed in late capital is incredibly scattered.

On the one hand, we have access to a wealth of information and communication. I just googled the weather in Paris (a balmy 8 degrees Celsius) and sent my mother an email, which presumably arrived in her inbox seconds after I sent it.

On the other hand, the communication and information never shuts off. Your family, friends, colleagues, and students are only ever an email away, but the reverse is also true: you are only ever an email away. So, even if you don’t check your email on weekends, you could be, and it takes a certain amount of energy to set and hold that boundary (this is one of the major takeaways from Crary’s book). As if that wasn’t enough, there are the many pits of distraction modern technology (like the web) offers (see: YouTube videos with cute animals or, in my case, Broadway musical theatre show clips).

Alongside other factors (like 24 hour grocery stores), these conditions make it very difficult to be fully focused on a single task, thought, or moment for a significant length of time.

The stream of thinking that attends to what might be called the “attention crisis” often advocates for attention management. This essentially means becoming aware of how and when our attention is divided and then intentionally limiting distractions in order to be more productive.

So, I decided to log my work blocks for the month of January.

My goal was to jot down when I sat down to work, what I did while I sat down to work, and to note when I finished working. I even bought myself a spiffy calendar notebook and a nice pen for the task.

Kelsey’s spiffy calendar

As I often find is the case with these kinds of things, the most interesting part of the exercise wasn’t the data it produced but the process. Attempting to track my attention effectively drew my attention to how often I toggle between tasks while working and how quickly I can slide from a legitimate writing-related search to mindless Internet surfing.

Most interestingly, it made me notice 1) How often I check my email, and 2) How much checking my email affects me emotionally.

The moment an email arrives in my inbox, it becomes part of my mental space. Even if I don’t focus on it, my knowledge of its existence weighs. And, if that email has content that I care about, I get jolted from one feeling state to another. Both of these experiences pull me away from the researching, writing, or prep I’d set out to do.

These aren’t major revelations, but the tracking really helped emphasize the significance of little habits, and has led me to make series of small changes to how I organize my working time. In no particular order, these include:

  1. Leaving my phone in another room while working.
  2. Selecting a playlist I’m going to listen to in advance, so I don’t  toggle to my music player once every three minutes.
  3. Using two Internet browsers: one for research and/or prep related searches and one for emails and surfing the web.
  4. Setting aside time to check my emails and not checking my email outside of these times. (I support this by closing the email tab on my browser, which is so small, but really helps).
  5. Setting time parameters for writing or prep time (“I’m going to sit and do this one thing from 9am to 11am”), setting an alarm to mark the end of that time, and then actually stopping when the alarm goes off.
  6. Paying attention to my energy midway and toward the end of a work session: if I find myself uncontrollably drawn to surfing the web, it’s time to get up and give myself a break.

To be honest, it’s a work in progress. Even though I’m noticing it more, I’m still amazed at how quickly and easily I start “multitasking.”

That said, the little changes I’ve made have resulted in a subtle but noticeable sense of relief when I sit down to do work.

Because, as it turns out, sustained focus is not only an “attention hack,” it actually feels good in my body.







Tips for “Breaking” Over Winter Break

The slow but steady close of the fall term means two things:

  1. All of the grading;
  2. The winter break is imminent.

In an ideal world, this would mean time to rest, reflect, and reset before the new calendar year. Practically, “winter break” is often laughable. Certainly, it is winter in December in the northern hemisphere but “break” implies a stop. For students, teachers, and administrators, scholastic and professional responsibilities often leak into the holidays, dripping all over personal, familial, and social engagements.

To get some advice, I reached out to a group of graduate, emerging, and early career scholars for advice about what they do and/or recommend for relaxing over the winter break.

Here is what they had to say:


“Submit your final grades, wait 24 hours and then put your academic email on auto-reply that states you will not be checking your emails until the start of next term – and then literally don’t check it. If it is critical to reach you admin will call.

Then go for a walk, and another the next day. . . and so on.

Any reading must only be for pleasure.”

– Claire Carolan,

Faculty at UFV School of Creative Arts

“I recommend baking something sweet and yummy – instant gratification of the fruits of your labour!”

– Sandra Chamberlain-Snider,

PhD Candidate, University of Victoria

Image result for christmas baking

“Read something fun and non-academic – anything from a magazine to a fluffy romance novel.

Arrange a day where you get to sleep-in uninterrupted, and if at all possible have someone bring you coffee in bed (but not too early)”

– Julia Henderson,

Postdoctoral Fellow, Concordia University

Try to feel zero judgement for that which helps you unwind. Ignore your emails, read something fluffy, consume what you fancy, be alone when you need to be. Whatever comfort and coziness means to you: embrace it. Tuck in and enjoy

– Jocelyn Pitsch,

PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia

“I used to get fake nails put on so I literally couldn’t use my phone or computer. Helped with completely shutting off. And walks in the snow. And Audiobooks!”

– Jessica Watkin,

PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

“Crafts, cards, and YA novels!”

– Selena Couture,

Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Image result for best ya novels 2019

Finally, here are some thoughts from us in the AC virtual office:

Kelsey: Our lives are filled with many different kinds of labours: teaching, administrative, research, writing, care, emotional, social, familial (and so many more). The winter break may bring an ebb in conventional “work” but it often involves an uptick in other kinds of labour.  And, for many, it is an emotionally thick time. Be honest with yourself about where your energy will need to go and where you want it to go. Set boundaries. Schedule accordingly. And, don’t forget that you’re essentially a really complicated plant: water, food, fresh air, and sunlight are more likely to help than hurt.

Kim: the older I get, the more I need rest, and I’m constantly reminding myself that rest is not “being lazy”; it’s in the service of being a better me, all of me. I take the lesson from my  beloved old dog, Emma: she sleeps like 15 hours a day. So in case Kelsey’s plant metaphor didn’t wind you up, try this: for a few days over the holidays, take the cue from your pet. When she wants to go walkies, make it the best walkies. When he wants to play with the mouse toy, be as playful as a tabby. When they are asleep, curl up beside them. And when they are staring out the window intently (“bird TV”), it’s time for Netflix.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Emma the Dog, helping schlep the Christmas tree, then having a well-earned nap.



Usually I would describe myself as snowed under.

Tuesdays are when I live this metaphor.


I get up at 6am (NOT my chosen waking time, not by a long shot), having prepared my lunch AND supper for the day, arranged my books, and gathered clothes for various activities, all the night before. I walk Emma the dog, make coffee and a light breakfast, dress myself, shove everything into my backpack, and head for the train station a few minutes’ drive from my house.

I clamber onto the train at 7:25am, and work for the next 90 minutes en route to London, Ontario. I then walk the 50 minutes along the river to Western’s campus, and my office, where I get ready for a full day of office hours (10-12pm), meetings, teaching (12:30-4:30pm), and personal training before getting back on the train at 7:45pm. On the ride back home I eat my stashed supper, cold.

When I get home around 9:30pm, I’m absolutely cooked through. Emma the dog will probably get a walk before I fall into bed, but that’s it.

Yesterday was a Tuesday, but it was to be a special one. Instead of teaching 12:30-4:30, as usual, I would be taking my undergraduate students to Toronto, via chartered bus, to see Ravi Jain and Why Not Theatre’s intercultural and intersectional adaptation of Hamlet. My graduate class had been postponed to Friday (which was also to be a field trip). I was excited for this Tuesday, and its unique journey.

And then, an ice storm happened.


This image is from the epic ice storm that hit Quebec in 1998. This week’s was not nearly this bad, but neither was it pretty.

I gradually woke up to the problem roaring up the great lakes around 6pm on Monday, when the “special weather statements” turned to “winter storm warnings” online, and when it occurred to me that schools across the region could well close for the day on Tuesday. I emailed both my dean and a friend who works in the experiential learning office at our university, and learned that if Western closed, I should without question postpone our field trip. By now it was around 10pm Monday.

I went to bed and tried not to worry. After all, Western ALMOST NEVER closes. (It is like a polar bear: bring on the ice and snow! We endure!) And the bus company had confirmed the trip was a go from their end – nothing to fret about.

Tuesday I woke as usual at 6am and walked Emma. The worst had not yet hit and things seemed oddly calm outside. I watched the Western home page every few minutes, with no change. I prepared to leave for the train station.

And then, at 6:45am, there it was: the announcement we were closed for the day.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: it was A SNOW DAY. I was an adult, and I was getting a snow day!

I did not need to get on the train. I did not need to go anywhere, at all, all day.


(For those of you not from/in Canada or the northern half of the US, a “snow day” is a day when schools and some businesses shut because of treacherous winter weather that impedes safe travel. It’s like Christmas Day, basically, but with none of the pressure to cook a turkey and pretend that you like your relatives. If you are a kid, it is like winning the jackpot!)

Almost instantly, the panic I’d been feeling about messed-up field trip plans evaporated. A wave of relief flooded my body. The idea of staying home on a Tuesday came with such a sense of pleasure, of potential rest, of freedom, that I forgot I’d even worried about the knife the snow day had sliced into my carefully-laid class plans.

So, what did I do with this unexpected gift, my snow day?

First, I sat down with my coffee (tipped back out of my Hydroflask and into a carafe on the stove to stay warm) and emailed the bus company, the theatre company, and the students. I inquired about contingencies, and told the students to stay home, be warm, and check back later for updates.

I emailed colleagues I was to be meeting at 10am, and at 1pm, and asked about rescheduling options.

I posted some stuff to Facebook. (Everyone who was awake and ready for school or work was now at home with nothing, momentarily, to do – FACEBOOK!!!!!).

And then I went back to sleep.

Emma and I woke up again at 10:30am, and lay in bed watching the storm for a few minutes. I thought, peacefully, about how the rest of the day would, or rather could, unfold.

A snow day is like a gift from the universe; it’s a day out of time. Everything is on hold; everything that WAS going to happen today is going to have to happen tomorrow, or the next day, or later. Sometime, but not now. Think about it later. Today hangs in suspension. It’s wide open.


I thought about working; what work needed doing? I always have a long list, after all (see above, re “snowed under”). I decided I’d prepare my Thursday class, something I hadn’t finished on Monday. Then, I figured, I’d see what I felt like.

I made some more coffee and texted my neighbour, who was also working from home. I invited her to come over for cocoa in the afternoon; I said, maybe, I’d make some cookies.

I got an email blast from our local donut shop; they were feeling the snow-day, ice-glazed-road hit, and having a buy-6-get-6-free sale to get rid of the morning’s baking. Amanda and I talked about perhaps taking the dogs up the road to get donuts; this plan eventually went south because the sidewalks became too slippery, but it seemed like the perfect snow day idea.

I sat down at my desk and worked on my prep, leisurely. Normally Mondays are my weekly prep days, and there’s enough to do that I typically start to rush and panic at some point. Today, though, no rush and no panic feelings came: free day, day out of time, meant feeling able to take my time, making time for the little extras, and taking care with them, too.

Around 3pm an email came through from a colleague in the UK, with a final edit of a chapter I’d submitted to him at Christmas. I decided I had the time and space to have a look at it right then and there. The changes requested were minor, and it was a pleasure, on this day of quiet semi-work-semi-leisure, to reread my text and adjust as I saw fit.

I fired the chapter back to him around 4pm, and texted Amanda to come for cocoa. Then I got the cookies (peanut butter) in the oven.

We drank our chocolate, ate treats, and gossiped for an hour; then she went home to watch a movie, and I braved the sidewalks with intrepid Emma the dog. Later, I did a workout on my home bicycle trainer, then prepared a frittata for supper. I enjoyed that with a nice glass of wine.

So that’s what I did on my snow day: I gave myself the freedom to feel its liberty, its time-less-ness. To work and not to work; to enjoy the gift of time I so rarely feel in a world of constant movement, piled-up-tasks, panic over deadlines. I let myself feel out of time’s rush, out of the freight of get-it-done, for a moment. It was incredibly restful – even though it was not a day “of rest”, strictly speaking.


I do want to stop here and acknowledge that snow days, for parents, are a very different thing: kids are home and probably stir-crazy and there’s more, not less, juggling to be done as a result. I can only imagine my snow day with kids at the heel while I tried to prep, manage Emma, and contact field trip stakeholders; I suspect I would have felt a lot less free and a good deal more winded. There may not have been cookies.

What I’m describing in this post, then, is a kind of ideal snow day, not the one that happens for everyone or even captures a common reality.

My gift of a snow day, though, does provide an apt reminder, for all days. It’s a reminder to remember that we are all in this together, as when the ice traps us in our neighbourhoods and invites our shared commiseration and digging out. It’s a reminder that work does not need to be a constant rush, and does not need to be divorced from leisure. It’s a reminder that time does not need to hold us hostage the way it often seems to do. Likely, we can all make even just a bit more time, all the time, simply by shifting our attitudes toward the way time holds us, and our narratives about work and chores and family, in its grasp.

As it turned out, I managed to move our field trip to Thursday with almost no fuss. All that worry on Monday night had been for nothing; on the far side of the snow day, I was able to see that. Which is also, at this tough time of term, a gift.

Stay warm!


What happened when I sat down to plan my winter semester

This time last year I was a-giddy and a-gog with the achievement of my sabbatical just passed: 40,000 words toward the monograph for students, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space, that I completed in spring 2018. (It’s published next month, from the Bloomsbury imprint Methuen; pre-order a copy here!)

Theory for TS Space cover proof

That stellar word count was the result of me establishing, for the first time really in my academic life, a regular, sustainable writing practice: two hours or 1000 words per day, four days per week, throughout my leave. I was thrilled at how well it had worked for me, and I was sure I could sustain even a bit of that momentum going into the spring, summer, and fall terms of 2019.


Sure I could have – I am sure indeed I could have – except I didn’t exactly plan to, not properly. I created an “un-schedule” for myself for spring term, and another for summer, but didn’t stick to it; it sat on my desktop, glaring at me, but I never checked in with it. (Eventually, I became afraid to. Then I just sort of started ignoring it.)

Summer you’d think would be a great time to manage a writing practice in an easy-breezy way; after all, it’s when most academics do the majority of their writing. But how do we write, in summer? We write in a panic because deadlines are approaching. We write towards deadlines further down the line as they come into view, but probably we don’t get “enough” writing on those projects done for our liking, and then we start to panic come August and September. If you’re like me (and I assume you’re a bit like me, since I’m not that special, though I realize YMMV), and between big projects, you may just sort of unconsciously decide to eff the writing off a bit and concentrate on other things, like summer conference travel (WHAT A TIME SINK, YES?), “catching up” on admin, spending too much time on email, sort-of-but-not-really planning winter teaching, etc.

That was me over the summer: away for something like 5 weeks, including two full conference weeks, plus goodness knows where the rest of the time went. I know I did some copyediting and proofing and web-resource-gathering for the book (all valuable tasks, and ALL WRITING TASKS, I’ll add in case any of us doubt this). I know I thought about teaching at least some of the time. I know I answered a lot of email, much of it pertaining to the academic journal I edit (and which is valuable work, and sort of writing work, but also an incredibly time consuming service slog, and to be honest I’m not going to miss it when it’s over).

Then fall hit, and my dad got sick. Train. Off. Rails.

Now, dad is recovering and I had a good long winter sleep over Christmas and I feel better and brighter. And like writing again.

(Thank heavens for the winter break. TIME TO HIBERNATE.)

So I asked myself: how exactly am I going to do that writing again? If I could, for sure, hold down a regular writing practice, how could I also ensure that I really did it?

Enter Jo Van Every.

My dear friend and colleague Jenn had recommended Jo to me before; Jo runs the Academic Writing Studio online, and supports scholars just like us in pickles just like mine. In October, Jenn alerted me to a workshop Jo was running in Ottawa in December; I eagerly signed up and started recruiting friends to come along so that Jo would have the critical mass she needed in order to make the thing a go. I was really excited to spend a day just thinking about what it was I wanted to be thinking and writing about at this stage in my career – one of the promises of the event. But then my dad’s surgery was scheduled at the exact same time as the workshop, in a city 600km away. So I had to pull out.

(Side note, because I’m pretty sure my dad is reading this. I don’t regret that choice! In fact, it had very positive consequences. Read on.)

Jo understood my difficulty completely, and very kindly gifted me, in lieu of my attendance, a basic membership to her online writing studio. I then received a number of resources from her via email, including a link to a recorded class called “Planning Your Winter Semester.” On New Year’s day, I sat down at my desk with my calendar to hand and all other distractions shut away, to listen to the class and make notes as needed.

Here’s what happened when I did that.

Plan, Wooden peg  and colorful words

Jo began by asking us what we had focused on in the fall semester; she suggested we make a quick list. Then, she asked us what went well in the fall, what we had read (if anything) new, and what the highlights of our personal life had been.

I really appreciated these early prompts; they allowed to me to make early realizations that were generative for the rest of the session. My notes for these prompts include a mix of things, but a few trends stand out.

I discovered not only that my focus in fall term had been on a lot of personal things – my dad’s treatment, and my boyfriend, whose schedule conflicts with mine so making time for one another is an active thing we both have to do – but also that I highlighted those as things I would focus on again in a minute.

I also highlighted some teaching things that were important to me, including my ongoing personal challenge to decolonize my class content and teaching practice. I noted, in fact, that one of the wins of the semester was learning that such decolonization isn’t always, or doesn’t always primarily need to be, about content; it can also, very importantly, be about the way a classroom is organized, and the ways in which students are encouraged to think about their labour as learners in a shared environment of discovery. (For more on this, see Anna Griffith’s brilliant December guest post.)

I also noted, in bold-faced all-caps type, that the highlight of my personal life in fall 2018 was taking a very short, entirely personal, and much-needed break to visit friends and family in England, between my dad’s surgery and an immovable exam commitment just before the Christmas break. The fact that I needed that break, and took it, even though the timing was awkward and the lead-up terribly stressful, was absolutely the best thing I did for myself last term.

(During my long weekend in London I visited the Christmas Slugs at Tate Britain. Hands down the best holiday deco EVER.)

We then moved on to reflect on what balls we had dropped in the fall term, acknowledging from the start that we all drop balls and that’s really ok. I noted a few, including the fact that I did not write AT ALL (caps in original!) last semester. Now, strictly speaking, this is a lie; I actually drafted and sent off a chapter on space, theatre, and gender, which was overdue but for which I negotiated a new deadline (and then met that deadline). A large part of that drafting happened during a one-day writing retreat I committed to in October, thanks to two of my brilliant colleagues in Arts and Humanities at Western.

(So: make a commitment to spend time with your writing (as in: put it in the calendar), meet the commitment (maybe because others are expecting you to? Maybe it’s just you doing the expecting? Maybe the calendar has a sharp stink eye?), and voila. Some words that will sometime not long from now be published. How’s that for a party trick?)

As we worked through our dropped balls, Jo encouraged us to think about how we would like to feel in winter semester – how it would feel to pick one of those balls up and start juggling it successfully again. (Jo works with the juggling metaphor a lot – I find it effective. She tells me juggling just one ball is A Thing, and I feel immense relief at that thought!)

This is what I wrote:

If I was a smooth juggler, how would that feel?

  • It would feel like a slower heart rate
  • It would feel like a good night’s sleep and a restful morning
  • It would feel like sunshine and walkies
  • It would feel like a fast ride on my bike

…during the winter semester I choose to feel slowed down, rested, like a smooth rider with sun on her face and warm wind in her hair.

Sure, that reads a bit corny. But I assure you in the moment it was revelatory. (I wrote in the margins, “I feel a bit teary right now!”)

I realized, during this exercise, that I COULD write in-term, and that I want to – that it would feel good to write again!

I ALSO realized that I desperately want and need to rest more, and better, and to focus on the pleasure I feel when I’m not working.

You’ll notice the phrasing in the quote above: I write that I “choose” to feel, not that I want or need to feel. This phrasing is also the result of Jo’s prompting, and I found it really helpful. Framing my wants and needs as choice – as me choosing to feel slowed down and rested, and making that commitment to myself on paper – moved me emotionally in a way that the slightly-panicked “WANT” and “NEED” phrasing did not. The latter phrasing feels reactionary, a burden; it feels affectively gluey. The choice phrasing feels more controlled, obviously, but also lighter: like the burden is not inevitable; the achievement of my goals need not be arduous.

Obviously choosing is one thing, and executing is another, especially when so much of our choices are delimited by work and family constraints. So, the rest of our session focused on turning these hopeful choices into some kind of plan for an achievable reality.

First, we listed all the things that we might need to do in the term – work, writing, teaching, family, you name it. The resulting list was long and scary, and Jo acknowledged that. She then reminded us that it was not fixed: we could add to it whenever we saw fit and we could reprioritize it whenever we saw fit.

She also said, to my mind really valuably: you also do not need to LOOK at this list all the time.

As we moved into the calendar-focused portion of the class, Jo asked us to put that list away, and make instead a new list, of things we might want to devote time and energy to in the term ahead. She asked us to highlight one thing that we’d want to prioritize above all else.

I chose two things: resting more and better, and writing regularly.

We went on to work through separate sections on writing, teaching, and service, starting with writing; we’d list what we had on our plates at the moment, where we’d want our priorities to be this term, and then we’d fill in our calendars accordingly. Jo encouraged us to block off our teaching time – office hours, prep time, AND class time – in our calendars so that we could actually see that time represented visually in our schedules. (I’m really bad at this – I never put class time or prep time into my iCal because it’s a “given”. Ditto office hours. Post-class, my calendar looks CRAZY FULL. Huh.)

She also encouraged us to think about what a reasonable commitment to our writing might be this term, and we spent time here.


I decided I could block off one hour on a Wednesday morning (right now, in fact!), and one hour on a Friday morning, for writing and writing-related tasks.

Then I put it in the calendar, until Reading Week; during that week I blocked off a time to check in with my writing practice, make adjustments, and schedule writing time for the rest of the term.

Importantly, here, Jo reminded us that “writing” isn’t just sitting down to write a chunk of a chapter that will shortly be published. It’s about everything from planning to reading to abstract-writing to writing-for-teaching.

That built-in flexibility means not only does the blocked-off time in my calendar seem more adaptable to my weekly or monthly needs, but it seems less intimidating. I need to write for my Friday morning hour; this week, though, I’m feeling a bit brain-drained, so I’ll focus on reading the thing I’ve been putting off, for the project I’m in the beginning stages of planning. THAT COUNTS as a “meeting with my writing” (again, Jo’s helpful phrase).

Before the class ended, Jo devoted much-needed time to a section on self-care. She asked us all to think about what we already did, and what we needed to do, to feel as good as possible, even at the rough times of the semester. She asked us to reflect on sleep: how much are we getting? How much do we need? And she asked us to make some self-care goals.

Mine? To wake up every weekday morning feeling properly rested. And to take an actual break before, and after, each class I teach, so that I can “gear up” and “come down” in ways that respect the sheer exertion of teaching labour.

Finally, Jo asked a question that really resonated with me: How can I make the term easy on myself?

As I thought about this question I realized properly, for the first time, that I’m teaching two repeat preps this winter. Sure, as part of my project to decolonize my teaching, I’m adjusting one of them a fair bit. But the other – my graduate class – went very well the last time around; why should I change it? My instinct is always to over-tinker with teaching and re-write preps extensively. But honestly, why? The students are new and the stuff is new to them. They will learn! And, truly, they’ll learn better from me if I’m teaching from a place of ease and rest, rather than panic and exhaustion.

So I resolved, then and there, not to shake up the grad class beyond switching out a couple of readings, and adjusting the schedule according to the new term’s dates. I also resolved that the work of “decolonizing” my undergraduate theory class would have to happen in stages (really, that’s probably better anyway, right?), and that we would begin by introducing a handful of new readings at strategic points in the term, alongside readings I’ve taught before. I’m also returning to a past model of this class, where students help to select a number of the readings in week one, and we build a trajectory through the theory together. (More on this in my next post.)

These “resolutions” made, I felt lighter. I felt more in control of my schedule. I felt free to get up from my desk and harness Emma the Dog up for some long New Year’s walkies. And as we walked, I started to think about all the things I might do in those new slots in my calendar, marked “WRITING.”


(Emma and I on a warm and no-white New Year’s walk along Lake Ontario.)

Best for the beginning of the term!


Productivity probs? Try this?

Last Monday was the Thanksgiving holiday here in Canada. (Americans: don’t freak out! It’s timed to coincide with the harvest.) My fella, D, came down on Sunday night to drink gin and eat leftovers; then, on Monday, we cooked turkey and stuffing and all the bits and pieces. We walked the dog and went to walk the escarpment stairs and ate the heck out of that birdie.


(Not my actual thanksgiving turkey. But you get the idea!)

Then, on Tuesday, D wanted to rest.

But I – ah, I.

I. Had. To. Work.

It’s a funny thing, this HAD TO WORK. After all: it was reading week. (No classes.) I had an overdue chapter to complete, but (as my therapist has helpfully reminded me) there is no such thing as an academic emergency. All deadlines wait, once you’ve graduated. (Nope: they really do.) Marking? Sure, but: see reading week.

Stuff. Could. Actually. Wait.

I just didn’t want it to. The truth is, I struggle hugely to relax on a weekday, regardless of the weekday. Weekdays are work days!!! This baffles D a bit. He works a shift schedule, and he’s also a naturally grounded and less anxious human being than I am. He asks, quite reasonably, why I need – REALLY need – to work on any given weekday.


(Google “work less, do more.” Yup.)

On Tuesday, then, I required a compromise. After all, I had suggested D spend Tuesday with me rather than heading home. Hilariously, he had misunderstood and thought I was teaching, so hadn’t brought a laptop to work on. It would have been total pants of me to work the day away while he sat on the couch trying to watch Netflix on my iPad.

So, I pulled out the countdown timer.


You’ll remember last autumn, when I decided to start a writing diet of 2 hours, or 1000 words, a day in the service of my nearly-due book manuscript. Sometimes I went by the clock in the upper right hand corner of my screen; sometimes I used a countdown timer. Two hours on the clock, and away we go. When the bell rings, that’s time – stop and pack it in until tomorrow.

I cannot properly describe how good it felt to work to that kind of hard and fast deadline! I realize that we are all different, and some of you are reading this right now and literally cringing at the idea of hearing the bell, finishing the thought, and that’s it. But for me, who has always been HUGELY deadline-driven, the gong was the most satisfying sound of the day. Whether I’d made enormous progress or torn out half my hair, I knew I’d had a good run of it, and could regroup tomorrow. And that felt amazing.

On Tuesday last, knowing I had to do some stuff (for me) but didn’t have to kill it (because reading week!!), and that D really did need me NOT to spend my whole day, or even half my day, tapping along on my computer, I said this:

How about I set the timer for an hour, and after that we take the dog for a trail hike, and then we have lunch, and then I set the timer for another hour, and after that we play some tennis and make dinner?

Turns out the timer works just as well for mundane admin and marking stuff as it does for the writing. In the first hour I answered a bunch of emails and dealt with a couple of outstanding peer review responses to authors I’m currently editing, sent a reminder message to one of my classes and some marching orders to a group of seminar participants. It all fit tidily into 57 minutes – probably because I was so motivated by the clock that I didn’t over-think the emails, and didn’t over-proof the responses or marching orders.

And then we went to the waterfall with Emma the Dog.


(The actual waterfall, Tews Falls in Dundas, ON. Not my actual photo. I was hiking!)

Anglo-American cultures have a problem with productivity: we are all apparently working 5-day, 35-to-50 hour weeks in order to seem respectfully “busy”. But recent evidence from New Zealand (and elsewhere) reveals that folks working 4-day weeks are at least as productive if not more productive than we are – and way happier.* Lots of us are wasting shedloads of time on snacking and making coffee and taking out the garbage and looking at social media rather than getting shit done in the time we have at the desk. That waste of time is why many of us seem to be working a lot but not getting any further ahead.

Now, look. I seriously get that some of us have way more work to do than there are hours in the day (hi, British academic friends!!). I often feel that way too. But D reminded me on Tuesday that it’s actually not as dire as I tell myself it is in my overcrowded brain. And the countdown timer reminded me that if I set a very clear limit on my work (maybe several clear limits several times a day, depending on the day), things are likely to go a lot better than if I wake up, make coffee, look at the Guardian, and go: fuck! I have SO MUCH WORK I need to get done!!!

So if you’re in the poop right now, give the countdown timer thing a try. It may surprise you the way it surprised me.

Cheers to more time!


*Click here to listen to all the dirt on episode 55 of Reasons to be Cheerful with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd.