Time, where did you go? (Making sure you’re spending your time right & the weirdest New Year’s Resolution ever)

[What follows is an account of what I’ve been up to since I last graced the interwebs with my presence. If you are only interested in what I’ve learned about being happy with the way one spends one’s time (and my amazing New Year’s Resolution) go here ]

Well, time passed, as it does, in that odd way, where it feels both incredibly slow and incredibly fast and there is no accounting. Or there is some kind of accounting but it doesn’t really encompass the dizzying speed with which it happened, or the fact that it seemed to be creeping by at the time. So what happened? I attempted to get a remark for my dissertation and failed, which I’ll certainly have to write about one of these days, if only to warn others of the pitfalls of Oxford grading.

In October of 2013 I began the DPhil. Then nothing happened. Or at least that’s what it felt like at first. Tons of work and no tangible results. But by now I have tangible results. I have written my first 5000 words and can see the completion of my first chapter on the the horizon. It twinkles and sparkles and is overall very attractive.

the shishi odoshi is at the right front corner of the image… if you still don’t know what I’m talking about, there is really only one thing to do: Watch Kill Bill (again).

I’ve realized that writing a thesisis a bit like a shishi-odoshi (the fountain that goes doink in the Japanese garden at the end of Kill Bill, when Black Mamba kills O-Ren). The water flows into the bamboo cup, yet nothing happens, until, suddenly, the centre of gravity shifts and the bamboo cup flips over, spilling its contents in one generous stream. Then the bamboo flips back and you start filling it again, with no apparent result, until, doink, it flips over again. So apparent unproductivity can be acceptable (as long as the water flows), since it might just be a necessary stage so the thing goes doink again. Clearly not my best analogy, and cleary one that would be much improved if written as a haiku (Please leave your haiku in the comments below). But it best describes my experience of the process so far.

What else happened? The paper I mentioned got published in the Dickens Quarterly, which felt pretty awesome. And I was asked to write a review about this book, which I did and which will be published later this year (also felt awesome). At some point I will write about how to write a review. They are all very samey but I couldn’t find good instruction on the interwebs, so I spent a couple of days making my own cheat sheet. Oh, and I landed a teaching job in Würzburg, Bavaria. So I’ll be teaching Victorian Literature and Culture for one very intense week in Juli, which I am incredibly excited about. Oh, also my application for a scholarship was succesful and I now receive a maintenance stipend from ELES (which is positively the nicest scholarship that I’ve ever been funded by… a bunch of sweet and lovely and wonderful people).

So, as you can see lots of nice shiny achievements and many a reason to be happy, happy, happy, only that come New Year’s Eve (when one generally takes the time to reflect on all the things that one sucks at), I realized that though I was happy, I wasn’t quite satisfied with what I was doing, or rather not doing. I had, and still have, this persistent feeling that I am always fighting to get things done and that there are some things I really want to do, which I don’t ever manage to do. A persistent bad conscience. It’s a feeling that was particularly evident during the first weeks of DPhil work. I would be reading a really important text, while thinking that I should be reading something else, and once I started reading said something else, I would feel that I should return to the first thing, and read about ten other things RIGHT NOW. A similar feeling has crept into my daily behaviour. I get up and check my email, while thinking I should be exercising, or exercise while thinking I really need to check my email. There is always this persistent leprechaun tap-dancing in the back of my mind with his nail-studded boots, morsing out the ever same message “You’re not doing enough. You should be doing something else”.

My intuitive solution is pretty simple: put on the blinders and pretend that there is only me and academia. That’s why I love deadlines. Deadlines are an excuse to stop messing with this awful business called life. But the monofocus comes with the massive disadvantage that unless you want to be an academic and absolutely nothing else, you end up being very dissatisfied with what you become. I am not even talking about massive achievements here, little things like learning a language, eating well, and, you know, taking a shower every once in a while. There is a certain pleasure in considering yourself a physical manifestation of your work. You don’t have to worry about personal relationships, how you feel about your body and whether you should be doing your laundry. At the same time, any professional setback can be incredibly soul crushing. If academia is who you are as a person that means if someone criticizes your work (say, by grading it badly) they question your value as a person because your work is all that you are.

So instead of giving in to my natural tendency to mind-meld with academia and become forever one with my work, I have been trying to find a way to be fully satisfied with my academic life while also pursuing other interests – to find a way to do many things, without constantly feeling I should be doing something else. This is an ongoing progress but here are some of the things that I have found helpful so far:

1. Find out how you actually spend your time. I did that most recently using an app called atimelogger. The App works well at tracking your activities. You can input your own categories and sub categories and it gives you all kinds of logs and statistics without being unnecessary cluttered or complex. The App is free but there is a newer version, which costs very little about £$€ 2-3, into which you can also input aims. For example, you could make a goal of doing 5 hours of exercise a week. Or you could make a negative aim of spending less than 5 hours on Facebook. I will try this version beginning next week and tell you if I think it’s worth the expense. No matter how you do it, tracking how you actually spend your time is essential if you want to make sure you are spending it right. I found many of the results totally shocking but also enlightening. Often, I would feel that I hadn’t really achieved anything all week, while I had actually logged 90 hours of work and work-like stuff. I also realized where the majority of my time went: into being social secretary of my college. While I thought being social secretary – an oxfordy executive role, in which I organize the social life of my college grad student population  – was one of the little things I do, I discovered that on average I spent 21 hours a week attending things, planning things, sending around emails and communicating with my fellow social secs. I actually spent more time on social seccing than on reading for my DPhil!

2. Find out how you want to spend your time. Hour by hour. I did that during the Christmas vacations and it was a very depressing experience at first, before it became incredibly liberating. I realized over and over again that for what I considered an ideal week, I would have to firmly plan away at least 80 hours, about twice as much as I feel one should. That doesn’t mean I am not willing to do stuff for 11.5 hours a day but only that planning for that is excruciating: what if your laptop breaks, you get sick, or (gasp!) you want to be spontaneous or just lazy. But if planning to achieve the ideal is impossible, then you have to change the ideal.

3. Make the ideal become the real. I started with the hours I want to plan away, which is no more than forty. Forty seems like a good amount, since it is approximately the amount of unfree time that people who work in a non-academic environment have to relinquish control over. So having forty hours that are fixed and out of my immediate control makes what I do seem closer to what other people do, even though the actual execution of these hours is vastly different. Once you decide on your hours, write a list of all the activities that need to be packed into those hours. My final list included: work on DPhil, work on other academic projects, admin (email and such), learn Italian, exercise, social sec, IT classes, write my blog, write a novel. I had other ideas in between (sew clothes, learn an instrument…) but very soon realized that I had to prioritize if I wanted to actually do all the things on the list without stressing 24/7. Once I had convinced myself that I only had these 40 hours to spend, budgeting became quite easy, pleasant even (like going grocery shopping with a tenner can be more calming than having a credit card and being uncertain about how much you can comfortably spend). I needed to do a little twiddling and a lot of thinking until I realized what I actually want to spend my time on. At first I would run out of hours after just a few activities (yes, I want to work 20 hours on my thesis, exercise 7 hours, social sec 13 hours… oops where is all my time gone?). But I twiddled and twiddled until I came up with a forty hour list and an outrageous new years resolution: No more exercise.

I did the maths over and over again and there was just no way I could rekindle my old one hour a day exercise habit. What’s worse, looking at my timelogs, I noticed that during the whole last term (8 weeks) I had actually exercised only 4 hours! But I had thought about, planned for, and meant to exercise every single day. Exercise had become something that only made me feel bad about myself without actually making my body any better or healthier (since I did not, in the end, find the time to do it.). So I decided to scrap exercise for at least one term, despite the fact that I paid for the in-house gym. I also realized that exercising was the activity that was least central to who I want to be. If you asked me if I wanted to be an academic, a novelist or someone who exercises daily, I’d know the hierarchy in a heartbeat (academic, novelist, many other things and then, perhaps, someone who exercises), yet I was constantly making myself believe that my value is dependent on my ability to row 2000m in under 10 minutes, which is just silly. (of course, I do not actually recommend giving up exercise. My time log told me that on average I walk 45 minutes a day, and after every hour I spend on my computer I take a short break and do push-ups or crunches or roll-ups)

Since “No Exercise!” was my new years resolution, I obviously exercised once term started (there is something in the fabric of the universe that makes it absolutely impossible not to break new years resolution). A wonderful friend of mine told me she had started doing yoga and loved it and her teacher. So I tried it and immediately realized that I need yoga in my life (though I was obviously super sceptical and derisive before). Now it might seem nothing has changed but actually my whole attitude to exercise has changed. I have given up the whole negativity and competitiveness that was attached to exercise for me. Instead of beating myself up about exercising every day, I will do yoga once or twice a week and forget about exercise the rest of the week.

Instead I have admitted that, actually, I really, truly want to write a bloody novel. Not because I want to be a novelist but because I want to write a bloody novel. It makes me happy. It balances academia. Writing creatively is something I always wanted to do and (before I started studying literature) did all the time.

So my final timetable is a compromise between the ideal and the real but it pleases me to an extent that the ideal never could because I know it is distinctly doable. At the same time it might change. For this term, I will spend a lot of time doing IT courses (excel, Photoshop, indesign…) because it is something I am currently interested in but next term I might be spending these hours differently. For now, this is it:

work on Dphil thesis 15
other academic work (reviews, journal papers, conferences…) 3
learn Italian (2 hours class + 2 hours homework) 4
exercise (only one hour and no hard feelings!) 1
IT ourses 4
social seccing (6 hours during the week plus however much I want on weekends) 6
blog 2
write novel 3
admin (emails and organizing stuff) 2
total 40

And isn’t it a beauty?

And if you were wondering, this is a very young pre-House Hugh Laurie inspiring this post:


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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