Trudie on time management

by on August 3, 2006 at 2:51 am in Education | Permalink

A loyal MR reader asks the following:

I'm a law student and am working in a litigation firm this summer. I have been quite disappointed how little energy I have for "high" culture when I get home from work.  It's just so easy to watch Friends!  I'm also a writer and was planning on working on several things this summer, but haven't really gotten started on anything yet.  My real interest here is your schedule and will to avoid passive forms of entertainment.  I would love to see a post (I'll take a reply) about how you manage to write your blog, work, visit restaurants, consume academic writing, literature, non-fiction and movies at what seems to me an amazing rate.  I believe my time is better spent reading an academic article than playing snood, but don't you ever look down at the Journal of Law and Econ, and decide to watch the Paris Hilton True Hollywood Story instead?  If I were completely rational I would read a couple books a day and a couple of newspapers, go to work, work out, and then watch a Nigerian film [sic] and hit the hay.  I have the requisite curiosity, but I seem to not have the energy/time/will for it.  What kind of planning goes into your day?  Do you have no passive will to overcome?  How can I work, write fiction and consume culture in a workable way?  Is the problem the ten hour work day?  I'm interested to hear about your schedule and your thoughts on overcoming a (hated) tendency towards passivity.

Tyler is out of the country, but Trudie's answer is simple...

First, check out Tyler’s earlier tips on time management.  Read this one too.  That’s right, you.  The one who doesn’t usually click on the links.  Read them.  Don’t tell me you don’t have enough time.

The bigger question is whether time management is something you need to improve.  The "Friends" part of your brain sounds quite fundamental, why tamper with it?  Don’t think all that Bruckner stuff, or for that matter the Journal of Law and Economics, beats a good TV show.  (Even Nigerian movies can be worse than Law and Order, believe it or not!)  Cost-benefit analysis suggests that acceptance will come easier than change.

It sounds as if you are already an expert consumer, and indeed consumption is the ultimate goal of economic activity.

Being "completely rational" would be a high form of hell.  Tyler tells me that his high levels of cultural consumption are his form of irrationality, not the contrary.  And most of his activities are quite passive; he has never been in a kayak, refuses to go "natural diving," and surely blogging does not compare with building a software company or hunting a boar.  Don’t confuse a restless nature with seizing life by the throat and living it to the fullest (although, of course, some people do both, including Tyler).  In any case the key is to enjoy and indeed cultivate the irrationalities you have (indeed that is all you have), at least provided they do not become destructive vis-a-vis other people.

Trudie again thanks Tim Harford for pioneering the concept of economic advice; Tyler has added Tim’s website to the Interesting People roll on the left hand side of this blog.

1 Will August 3, 2006 at 9:49 am

I’d like to testify to the value of Tyler’s time management tips. I am a PhD student in economics, with the unfortunate characteristic that I occasionally like to do things other than economics. I play a couple of musical instruments and enjoy early music and romanticism. I like to read and translate poetry, I fancy myself an amateur wine critic, and I’m into sports.

For most of my first year, I was rather bitter, because I couldn’t figure out how to be a graduate student and do any of the other things I enjoyed. I seemed to have about three weeks a year available for non-academic diversions, and like your advice-seeking law student, I was forever frustrated at Tyler’s apparent ability to get so many things done, compared to my own.

Here are the tips that helped me:

1. When you schedule your non-academic activities, be very modest. Schedule way less than you’d like to do. Way less. It sounds crazy, and my slow progress reading books and practicing pieces was frustrating to me at first. But it gets better when you realize that you’re making constant progress. Setting a really modest goal makes it easy to accomplish–even if you’re really busy–and it leaves you wanting more so that marshalling enough self-discipline is not a problem. Instead of reading a book and watching a Nigerian film every day, read 20 or 30 pages and watch a half hour of a nigerian film. You might get done less on a daily basis, but your ability to commit to doing that much every day lets you make more progress over the long run.

2. As a corollary. to #1, it really is true that it is the days when you accomplish nothing that kill you–not the days when you don’t accomplish enough. This is especially true of areas–like working out or playing an instrument–where you regress if you stop practicing regularly.

Tyler’s time management tips saved my hobbies. I get home from school or work. Spend 30 minutes to an hour reading criticism or practicing music, Do a quick workout, hop in the shower, and I’m done with everything that requires self discipline by 7:30 and free to eat pizza and watch Law and Order. I find that I have to leave myself a a lot of unscheduled down time every day, or I go crazy, and that formula provides enough.

Tyler still gets way more done than me. But I think he must require less down time, less sleep, or he must work a lot faster.

So those are suggestions from a guy with a similar problem. Schedule a very modest amount of activity (and be sure record what you do in writing), force yourself to do it every day, and then have some down time to let your discipline recover.

2 Hans Loedolff August 3, 2006 at 11:34 am

We all suffer from ADD. It’s a by-product of the evolution of our minds (I gleaned this the sci-fi novel “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter). When you get tired of reading the “Journal of Law and Econ” and your mind starts to drift and you are looking for a distraction – know that it’s the result of evolution! If our minds were able to be content with doing repetitive (boring) tasks we’d have been too content and that would keep us from learning different things and making new discoveries. But by constantly letting our attention drift to something else, we are entertained and it also exposes us new bits of useful information.

One problem is of course that TV producers have hooked into this part of our minds and are providing useless entertaining information instead of the useful information we had been receiving over the last couple of millennia.

Another problem is that useful information no longer comes in convenient small 20 or 30 minutes packages. It sometimes takes days (or years!) to get enough information before the new body of knowledge becomes useful! For this reason, I try to fight my ADD by cultivating “AAD” – Attention Aggregate Disorder. I’m trying to go against evolution, but because the volume of information available we do need to learn to focus for longer before getting distracted. Although, eventual distraction will still be a good thing.

3 Patinator August 3, 2006 at 1:14 pm

What helps me with time management is actually being busy. It forces me to prioritize and maximize. When I have a lot of free time, I get a lot less done.

4 Tom August 3, 2006 at 1:50 pm

How do you do other things while you are in law school? Did you go straight to law school after college?

When first entering the working world I found that I actually had more free time than when I was in college. However, after working for awhile, I discovered what I need to do to get things done.

1) Go to work early (or stay late) and do your productive tasks there. Let’s say that you want to read an economics journal for 30 minutes per day. Show up to work 30 minutes early and do it there.

2) Do not budget time for “relaxing”. Do not think that you need to go home after work and relax for an hour. You will get stuck at home and not want to leave. Instead, go straight to meet dinner or friends. If you have to stay late in order to accomodate this, you can do something from step 1) above. I find that once I go home, it is hard to do anything else.

3) Sleep less. Some weeks I can get by on 6 hours a night if I am super busy. Openning up another 2-3 hours per day creates a lot of time.

As a side note, I will be starting law school in a few weeks, though I will be working full time and going to school “part time”. I wish I could do more of 3)…

5 Jeff Brown August 3, 2006 at 3:22 pm

“Sleep less” isn’t necessarily good advice. It does seem to make one more productive in total, but average productivity may decrease, as may life expectancy. You could just be getting more done because you’re living faster.

Second, those tasks where you think you’ll regress if you take a break from them: that can be a myth. Jeff Beck “practiced” about 5 minutes a day. Personally, I’ve found that after a break from the gym I can get back to where I was quite quickly, and after a break from math I’m frequently better at it.

I think “speed reading” is possible, if one uses it to mean “keeping narrow goals and skipping whatever doesn’t further them”.

It might be that sometimes the whole project of changing one’s time manageoment habits is a bad idea. When your body “forces” you to spend your time in a certain way, your body could be right (cf. the skipping-sleep idea).

6 Giovanni August 3, 2006 at 5:08 pm

Wow, both the post and the comments are very interesting and insightful! Thanks everyone

7 jordan August 4, 2006 at 2:48 am

Stop reading bloggs!

8 The Other Jacob August 5, 2006 at 4:38 pm

Scott, I find you on every blog I read. Surely you’re having some impact on the world.

And yes, Scott, I know that’s you. Has to be. 8 billion people read the internet, but I will eat my shoe if I’m guessing wrong.

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