Five Minutes Peace (and Preferably a Lot More)

Any parent will be familiar with the desire to find a quiet corner where the children can’t find them. Many readers will also know all about the antics of the Large Family, a family of elephants, in Jill Murphy’s tale whose title I have appropriated for the first part of my own title here. We all know that desire for peace, but also – as an academic – that desire for a long enough stretch of time to get the creative juices flowing. At worst all one may manage to achieve is answer one single email. But if it’s that pernicious email that has been preying on one’s mind because it is tricky, requiring a clear brain to produce the right nuance, then getting it out of one’s brain and sent spiralling into the ether will be conducive to a calmer mind enabling more exciting things to be done. It might even lead to peace of mind enough to get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately significantly more extended time is needed for many tasks: to write a talk from scratch due to be presented the next day or to revise the paper Referee 3 has minutely dissected. These taxing scenarios are all well known to academics everywhere.

However, just as with small children, unless one retreats to a genuine ivory tower and throws the key away, it is very hard to retain the peace the calendar may purport to demonstrate. Academics often like to keep an open door policy, especially to their students. The downside of this, of course, is that it may mean the one moment you finally get to sit down at your desk a student comes wandering in. Whether their query is big or small, whether you last saw them yesterday, last week or last term, it would be churlish to tell them now is not convenient if you’ve left the door open, so precious time gets eaten up (again). However, possibly even more demanding is the administrator who wants to query the figures on your grant application or the head of department who is trying to hunt you down in order to twist your arm to do something you probably don’t want to do. They can be more exhausting and/or worse for the blood pressure. Yet they are still unavoidable.

Perhaps even more infuriating is that time when you aren’t expecting a gap in your diary but whoever should be knocking on the door is inexplicably late (students please take heed). Those precious moments are hard to use sensibly because, inevitably, there is the feeling that the missing visitor will turn up as soon as you turn to the Powerpoint presentation or paper to referee. I find it hard to do anything very constructive, beyond deleting some spam email or googling next day’s visitor, in such a hiatus. Yet when the minutes stretch to beyond a quarter of an hour how one regrets not getting going on something substantial. Nevertheless I, for one, still feel it isn’t worth getting started in a situation like this (my personal failing no doubt) and continue to fritter the time away in ways that are less than optimal. I am feeling this particularly this week after a series of visitor meetings that got seriously out of sync. All of them ultimately turned up, but by the time the last one had gone the clear couple of hours I thought I had to get started on some serious thought had vanished into thin air and my talks for Australia in a few weeks’ time are little further on.

I know, and I have written about this before, that having a multitude of different things that need doing, of larger and smaller scope and challenge, can actually lead to a curious sort of productivity. There is always something that might look interesting enough, or of the right degree of complexity, to fit into the nooks and crannies left by an exhausting schedule. However, true though I believe that to be, fragmented moments when visitors fail to materialise, or when a meeting finishes just a few minutes before the next one begins, really don’t lend themselves to productivity beyond making a cup of coffee. It doesn’t stop one feeling exhausted by the end of the day even if there have been ‘idle’ moments.  In part this explains the recent slow-down in my blog productivity: evenings that aren’t full of ‘official’ events and dinners tend to find me pretty weary and without the energy or intellect to write. This week, I am left feeling particularly that time has not been effectively used, a point reinforced by the state of my email, my unwritten talks, the consultation (REF and TEF if I can use such depressing words here) documents untouched for comment in time for some fast-approaching deadline, the unread papers and the train tickets still lurking in the bottom of my handbag unattached to their expenses claim form.

I am sure there are skills for making better use of the brief hiccoughs in my streams of meeting, and a life coach well-versed in time management could teach me a thing or two. But that would require a long enough gap in my diary that I could benefit from them. Like so many other things, there just doesn’t seem time to squeeze that in. Anyhow I suspect I am probably too set in my ways to change bad habits fallen into a long time ago!

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One Response to Five Minutes Peace (and Preferably a Lot More)

  1. NN says:

    Thank you for writing this! Very recognizable, even as a postdoc. Though I realize (by extrapolation) of course it must be much much worse for professors, this is exactly what I struggled with this week. The worst part is that actual research almost seems like an afterthought on all the things I need to do, whereas all the obligations (presentations etc.) assume I have patiently done lots of original research – which only happens when I have time to think, to make mistakes, to redo experiments, to improve setups.

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