Earlier this year, I made an important improvement to my infamous 9 to 5 student work day. Instead of treating these hours as one undifferentiated mass, I added the following simple structure:
- MIT #1
- MIT #2
The accompanying rules were simple. The first thing I do when I arrive at my office is write. I wrote my first two books predominantly between the hours of 9 and 10:30 am, and I’ve finished 2/3 of my new book during this same interval.
Next, during the MIT #1 block, I tackle graduate student work. This description is purposefully vague because this work varies. These days, this block is often dedicated to thesis writing. But it also frequently includes reviews, thinking about new problems, and working on other research papers.
The midday block is chaotic. This is when I first check my e-mail. It’s also when I surf the web and browse my RSS feeds. I eat lunch during this time and often also go for a run. Finally, it’s when I take care of the annoying small tasks that tend to pile up.
Once the blessedly distracting midday block is complete I continue with MIT #2, which is the same as MIT #1.
Finally, if it’s not too late, I end the day with my shoulder block which is when I write blog posts. On a good week, I have time for this block 3 days out of 5.
Focusing on Focus
Why did I add this extra structure to my day? I was worried that I was increasingly losing my ability to focus on hard thinking for extended periods of time. Too much of my day would be interrupted by small tasks and inexplicably frantic inbox checking.
I know, of course, that’s it’s fashionable to describe our current fixation on taking in huge amounts of simultaneous information as some sort of evolution of the human mind. Maybe this is true. But for the two fields I’ve devoted my young life to — academic research and writing — the ability to focus is everything. It’s also, I’ve discovered, incredibly rewarding.
So I built a schedule that confines all of my unfocused mental wandering to one, well-defined, midday block. I admit, that junkie-like urge to check e-mail still persists. And I probably violate my structure 2 days out of 5. But it used to be more like 4 days out of 5, and that desperation for immediate novelty is starting to diminish as I reacquaint my mind with the minor aches of mental exertion.
I’m not recommending that you adopt my exact structure. It evolved, over time, to fit the particular demands of my particular situation. But you might want to consider the broader point and reflect on the role focus plays in your life. Ask yourself what efforts you’re making to keep this ability from whithering into vestigial disuse.
- Have We Lost Our Tolerance for a Little Boredom
- E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-mail
- The Steve Martin Method
- Would Lincoln Have Become President if he had E-mail?
(Photo by aldrin_muya)