Doing Time (at Home or at Work)
Do we always get everything done that we hope to? Does it matter if not?
Posted Oct 11, 2020
When we have a choice in the matter, how do we spend our time? Are we resolutely focused on our Great Plans or is keeping up with day-to-day matters more of a priority? Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle. And do we ever get distracted and find ourselves unable to do anything much? These are important questions about the human condition and how it impacts everyday life.
Put simply, there are three broad types of activity we might engage in. We can focus on the important, which might also be urgent, respond to the urgent, which could too be important, or abandon both the urgent and important for Something Entirely Different.
By important activities, I am thinking of projects and commitments of various kinds, whether it is writing that promised article, preparing the agenda for next week’s meeting, sorting out the junk in the garage, or cataloging all those old photos. These are things we have told ourselves and others that we would do and on which our careers and self-esteem may depend.
The urgent activities I have in mind are all the things that regularly crop up in everyday life. The things, you could say, that get in the way. Phoning the dentist, getting the heating system going again, checking on a failed delivery, or dealing with a stack of emails, are but a small percentage of the things that arise almost daily. Life is messy and inconvenient if these tasks are left undone, and family, friends, and colleagues are likely to notice.
The dilemma. And for my part, the consequent sinking feeling I can wake up with in the morning when I realize that my Great Plans for the day are going to be thwarted yet again. Today, for example, I have already had an unexpected visitor, had to run an unplanned errand, and just discovered that the lavatory seat has irrevocably broken and needs to be sorted. Should I disregard all these housekeeping tasks, that are both urgent and important, to get on with my writing project, or would it be better to make sure that life runs as smoothly as possible and catch up with the Great Plans later?
Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, and his dogs come to mind. One experiment conducted in his laboratory got them to respond in one way to a circle and in another to an oval. Once they had mastered this task, the shapes were gradually modified until they were barely distinguishable. What would the dogs do? Develop experimental neurosis was the answer. They became agitated and distressed and lost their focus.
I have been wondering if that’s what we might sometimes do when faced with too many tasks and priorities. When our motivation and energy levels are high, we will choose something and get on with it, on the basis that it’s better to get anything done than nothing. But on other occasions, we may find ourselves unable to commit to useful activity. This is where doing Something Entirely Different comes into its own.
The notion of displacement activity portrays this well. Initially used to describe the behaviour of animals unsure what to do in the face of conflicting motivations, such as to run from attack or to fight back, the concept has been extended to humans. In moments of indecision, scratching our head or going in search of something to eat, are said to be typical responses. Unfortunately, though, it is often much worse than this. Displacement activity can become an occupation in itself.
Putting off doing things is indeed what most of us do at least some of the time. Sometimes we explain away our periods of inactivity as just taking a break, and very often this is easily justified. My Fitbit, for instance, urges me to get up and complete my steps for the hour if I have not already done so. Who am I to argue? Similarly, having a break for a cigarette or a cup of tea may be regarded as essential for keeping stress levels down.
The problem, however, is when these breaks become unreasonably extended. There is no other explanation, we are procrastinating. We are avoiding doing what we know we should, even if we are aware of the repercussions. "Never do today what you can do tomorrow," or "Mañana" we might joke. But in all likelihood, we don’t really think it is funny.
How much does it matter how we prioritize our time? After all, we are humans and not robots. That all depends. If we are not unduly anxious and stressed, probably not too much. As John Lennon said, "Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted." But if our use of time is causing concern either to ourselves or others, then maybe we need to take ourselves in hand. But how?
A cursory look through some of the commonly given advice suggests there is no easy fix. And what suits one person won’t work for another. Much is about motivation, but that is another big question.
While I hesitate to offer myself as any kind of role model, I will make my own suggestions which, sometimes, work for me. First, keeping lists of things to be done, and keeping an eye on them so that nothing really important slips through the net, can provide helpful reminders of priorities.
Second, trying not to spend longer than necessary on specific tasks means they can be quickly ticked off the list. There is nothing more frustrating and demoralising than having to address the same issue time and time again. Third, and unless you are up against a real deadline, one of my own tricks is to attempt to make myself do the least urgent of two tasks first as I know I will afterward feel compelled to also do the one that is really urgent.
Fourth, tackle something difficult at your best time of the day. Don’t waste your time on simple tasks when you are at your most alert. And fifth, don’t let the stuff of everyday life defeat you. If it gets too much, put it to one side and get back to your Great Plans. Or just chill out.
Last, do your best and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always achieve what you hoped to. Remember, there is always tomorrow.