Opportunities: Stealing Time

"I am very occupied with the courses, so that my real free time is less than in Bern."
--A. Einstein, in a letter to M. Besso, 1909

In his latest book, Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness, scientist and historian John Rigden analyzes Albert Einstein's landmark year, in which he published 5 seminal papers that changed physics forever. As you probably know, Einstein wasn't in a university or laboratory at this time: He was a junior patent clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern. When he wrote that letter to Besso, he was a professor at the University of Zurich. It seems odd to most of us now, but the isolation and free time that Einstein enjoyed while goldbricking in the patent office may have contributed to his extraordinary intellectual productivity. Einstein's "alternative career" may have contributed to some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of science.

As you know, science and engineering are creative activities. We rely on inspiration and serendipity to generate the insights and make the connections that are the kernel of new inventions and discoveries. Creativity requires many things: a prepared mind, obstacles to overcome, and time. What Einstein had in 1905--and what he had less of by 1909 when he wrote to Besso--was time: time to think, time to tinker, time to explore.

As you are probably all too aware, time is often in very short supply for the practicing scientist. As a young or youngish scientist, you probably are inundated by myriad demands for your time: lab work, coursework, teaching, publishing, writing grant proposals, advising students ... the list goes on and on. One harried junior professor friend of mine lamented, "I am my own boss, ... and I am the worst boss in the world!

"Regrettably, the time deficit seems only to grow as your career progresses. Nearly all the items on the list above remain, but new ones join the party. Many young faculty members encounter an overwhelming new set of demands on their time--and universities and grant-making agencies seem to find additional (often unfunded) tasks to pile on. In such an environment, it is not uncommon for faculty to long for the relatively simple days of grad school and postdoc: Back then, they had TIME!

The obvious result of this "mission creep" is more work packed into the same number of hours. Days are often more fragmented. Sometimes you can find yourself with so many interruptions and emergencies in succession that the e-mail you began to compose at 8 a.m. is still unfinished by the time you head to lunch! My Dad refers to this as being kicked to death by grasshoppers.

This isn't just frustrating and stressful; it can be corrosive to your creativity, smothering the spark at the core of your intellectual engine. Can you imagine what it would be like if painters, playwrights, and composers had to produce their product in 5- to 10-minute bites between committee meetings and proposal reviews?

Your creative fire needs to be kindled--and time is the critical fuel.

Stealing time

In an earlier column -- for Tooling Up -- I discussed the critical need to carve out a portion of your workweek for career development. One senior professional I met had a rule that she lived by: the 80:10:10 rule. She spent 80% of her workweek doing the best work she could possibly do, 10% of her workweek focused on her personal and intellectual development, and the remaining 10% telling as many people as possible what a good job she was doing during the 80% of the time she was actually doing her job!

But your need to carve out time goes way beyond career development. Creating time to think, explore, and tinker is critical to your effectiveness as a creative individual--as a scientist. Without time to explore, your chances of making a breakthrough are vastly diminished. And no matter where you end up professionally, your effectiveness--and your happiness--will depend on how well you manage your time.

Killing the time vampires

Time vampires are those small, seemingly helpful or innocuous things that nibble away at your day without really adding value to it. Here are a few examples, and what you can do about them:

  • Keep e-mail in its place. Open Outlook (or whatever e-mail program you use) only twice a day. If you must keep it open, change the interval for checking e-mail to an hour or more. (Most people have it set at 5 minutes.)
  • Manage your interactions with the people around you. It's easy to get caught up in enjoyable, unplanned conversations with friends and colleagues. Informal chats can be great sources of stimulation. But know your limits--and theirs! If certain people seem to be occupying time without stimulating your creativity, try scheduling something with them ("coffee on Thursday?") so you put some boundaries on the interaction. This may require a certain amount of tact and patience: You don't want to alienate others in your thirst for privacy.
  • Create meeting-free Fridays. When I started work at a large national laboratory, lots of meetings were inserted into my workweek. Given the time I spent preparing, attending, assimilating, and following up those meetings, it was little wonder that I struggled to spend 20% of my time on productive research! At one point, I proposed to the management that one day a week be declared OFF LIMITS for meetings of any kind, across the whole institution. I envisioned a day of peaceful, focused productivity. Needless to say, my management didn't take me up on this idea, so I worked half days on Sundays, in peace and quiet, to get caught up on my real work.

Creating mind oases

As you work on beating back the time vampires, you also need to work at creating or preserving time oases, places and periods where you can explore, imagine, and play. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend at least one 3-hour chunk of time each week outside your office. The library will work (assuming you aren't bumping into students and colleagues all the time), as will the coffee house (ditto), or any other place where you can isolate yourself and read, review, and cogitate. There has been quite a bit of research showing that walking stimulates thoughts and connections differently than sitting idle does. So get out and take a walk.
  • Think about big problems. In research, it's easy to get down to tiny details very quickly and spend the bulk of your time there. Making a habit of mentally stretching yourself from time to time can be intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. This can be even more fruitful when done in conversation with the right people.
  • Keep a journal of ideas. Ideas and connections come at random times, often with no immediate link to what we're doing at the moment. For years, I kept a small notebook to jot each one down--I now have a PDA--and I occasionally page back through these jots and discover an important connection to what I am doing now.

One (very successful) individual told me that the definition of a "real job" was having more things to do than you have time for. The trick to maintaining your professional (and personal) sanity is knowing what tasks you can afford NOT to do--not trying to pack ever more tasks into the same day. If you become a staff scientist or a junior faculty member (for example), you will need to do LESS lab work. This sometimes comes as a big disappointment to those who enjoy it. But changes such as this represent qualitative leaps in productivity--and they are critical to you for maintaining your capacity to create something new.

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