zen and the art of time management

I’ve been thinking a lot about time management recently, spurred on methinks by the press of meetings and other commitments that fill my days. I have colleagues who will from time to time let me know, in ways subtle and not so subtle, that they feel my diary is already sufficiently full and I shouldn’t add anything new to the mix.

Setting this to the side for the moment, I do feel that one of my great challenges of the present moment is making good use of my time.

Many years ago, not too long after I joined the university, I went on a time management course. I don’t remember much from that course, but there is one thing I do remember, which is the admonition never to pick up the same piece of paper twice.

It’s a quaint memory, from the very early days of the internet, before email and other means of messaging replaced the pieces of paper that we were then constantly circulating to one another. But it’s a quaint memory that contains some significant truth.

It’s not the picking up of the piece of paper that’s the issue. Bringing this old memory into the present day, it’s the effort we spend to bring a task into our focus and consciousness, and then take the task out again without making any actual progress. And having spent some time recently being reflective and watching myself, I do this a lot.

On the one hand, it’s related to something I think I’ve mentioned before, which is the computer science notion of thrashing, where a computer spends all of its effort swapping data and instructions in and out of its memory, without making any progress on the calculations at hand.

But I want to take this in a different direction. Instead of thrashing, I want to think about mindfulness.

At its simple core, mindfulness is living in the moment. I’m not an expert at zen by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done a bit of reading and I have come to see the value in focusing on this particular moment, rather than the moment just past or the moment to come.

In how it relates to time management, mindfulness might then be focusing on the piece of paper I have just picked up. The task at hand. The task that I don’t want to do, at least not now. The task that gathers weight and an inertia of its own as I time and again pick up the task and set it down again.

And this I think might be a lesson to take from this reflective speculation. Pick up the piece of paper and deal with the task on the paper, or in the email, or if the task is a large one, advance it.

This is complicated for me at the moment. I am working again some old habits that have dug themselves in deep. I’ve talked in earlier posts about procrastination and about the power of habits. And so I have some work to do, in terms of retraining some old instincts and creating new means of addressing the tasks at hand.

~ by Jim Anderson on 9 February 2020.

2 Responses to “zen and the art of time management”

  1. ‘Never pick up the same piece of paper twice,’ is a brilliant maxim. I’ll try and reember that. I do it all the time – literally and electronically.

  2. Um. I think it is okay to pick up a task (“piece of paper”) more than once, as there are tasks I realise I can’t complete right now because I don’t have all the needed information, I need to contact person x, etc etc. What is Not Good is to pick up a task and put it down again WITHOUT HAVING DONE ANYTHING TO IT. If I can’t complete right now, I try to make a note to go with the task that says “phone Fred if trees not arrived by Thursday” or “buy cream thread” or even (for a story) “I need to find out what happens next”. If I find I’m not progressing the note-subtask, the usual problem is that it needs to be broken down into even smaller steps… My other bad mental habit is wallowing in the feeling that whatever I am actually doing, I SHOULD be doing some nebulous More Important something else. The important thing for me here is to Do One Thing — it doesn’t matter what.

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