If only I had more time…

It seems like a lot of people I know say that — myself especially. If only I could find more time, then I could get “caught up.” More time would mean less stress, or higher quality work, or both.

So why is it that I’m constantly running to keep up? Easy. I don’t need to work harder. I need to work smarter.

(Yes, that’s cliche. Forgive me).

First, it’s recognizing that human perception of time is pretty skewed. We’re remarkably bad at estimating how long something takes in real time. An organization called “This vs. That” asked 53 people to sit quietly in chairs with their eyes closed for two minutes and 50 seconds. After that, they were asked to estimate how long they had been sitting. Only 17% were close to correct (ranged between 2:45 and 3 minutes). Estimates ranged from as low as 1 minute to as high as 6.

TAKEAWAY: If you underestimate how long it will actually take you to complete work, it’s easy to take on too much.

SOLUTION: Start timing things — not to restrict how long I spend working on things, but to get an accurate idea of how long it takes me to grade, to prepare class sessions, to engage in research, and more. Instead of holding myself to other people’s assertions of how long something should take, I’m going to figure out how long it takes me to do things the way that I feel meets my expectations.

Second, it’s restructuring time. I stumbled across an intriguing article about a study of violinists in Berlin. Three researchers looked at the practice habits of a group of so-called “elite” violinists (those identified as highly talented) and “average” players (music education students who specialized in violin). Their exploration of the time spent by both groups found that both spent roughly the same number of hours per week in rehearsal, but the “elite” players consolidated their practice time into well-defined chunks, while the “average” players tried spreading their practice throughout the day. In fact:

“For the best of the best — the subset of the elites who the professors thought would go on to play in one of Germany’s two best professional orchestras — there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two-sessions a day schedule.”

Those elite players also reported feeling less stressed and actually got a full hour more of sleep every night than the “average” players.

TAKEAWAY: Devote time to what needs to be done and guard it jealously. But when you aren’t in those time blocks, don’t dwell on them. Do something else. Strike balance.

SOLUTION: Tough one. But it’s pretty obvious — work when you’re working, don’t when you’re not.

I’m embracing this new challenge not only on my behalf, but to share with the students I see starting this same time crunch habit. Journalism is already a high-stress profession, and those of us who teach it should place the same emphasis on techniques to manage those time challenges as we do a great lead, a compelling narrative or a solid tweet.

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