time management I

In early spring, perfectly timed with the snow that paralyzed the south of England for a few days,  I introduced myself at the music department of the University Southampton – a first move in connection with my post-doc research project which is up and running as of 15 March (see a short abstract under the “research” tab). One of the questions I heard was how I combine playing and research. One could add, “how do I manage to write blog posts about either activity?” A look at the frequency of my postings during the last half year provides the answer, “hardly at all.” The rest is time management, to be attempted again every new day. The following posts are about this topic.

One of the reasons why I’m not drinking ale with my colleagues in Southampton at the moment is that the new project requires an awful lot of reading – and I’ve got more relevant books than I can handle right here at home. I used to be a performance practice person with a bit of knowledge about instrument building; now I am confronted with art worlds, how users matter, the history of technology and Viennese concert life, to name but a few of the things I have to know about before I can even begin worrying about the thickness of strings and hammer heads and the correspondence of various Viennese piano firms. All this material is spread out over several horizontal surfaces all over the house, and whether it is read or not depends solely on my discipline. I need discipline to refrain from cutting the firewood in the garden first, from making another cup of coffee, from thinking that I first need to practice for one of the upcoming concerts, from sliding off into the depths and widths of the world wide web and even from doing the dishes. The problem is not so much that reading books about theory isn’t fun (I will not put a parenthesis after this statement). It is that one needs to create space for truly absorbing what one reads. In the absence of a real plot in most of these books, “stuff” tries to invade one’s brain all the time, and one’s thoughts want to wander. But the paragraph that floats past un-understood is in effect an unread one. There are hundreds of candidates for such paragraphs in scholarly books. One must resort to foolproof and simplistic methods for getting the reading done. Half-engaged scholarly reading is a gigantic waste of time.

One such method involves a kitchen timer and a realistic take on one’s concentration span. Pre-conditioned by the German school system, I am comfortable with 45 minutes per reading session. I make sure that there is nothing that will interrupt me during the next three quarters of an hour, I set the timer, I sit down and I read.

So far, this is not too earth-shattering. Everybody can do this. The true problem is what comes next. The 45-minute chunk of dedicated reading only makes sense if one then does something to relax one’s brains. And that’s when we get lost. Especially the cutting of firewood, or other gardening tasks have the potential to suck me in and only release me when I get thirsty or when it gets too dark to work on. And I’m not even mentioning free-time activities like mounting new couplers on my train models, answering e-mail or web surfing. So I take my timer again: 30 minutes this time. It is quite remarkable how many chores get done in 30 minutes – if one actually does chores. After this I am back at my book for another 45 minutes. Usually it will be time for a meal after this chunk of altogether two hours – I am likely to use my next 30 minutes of free roaming for the preparation of the food. After the meal, one should take it easy for another 30 minutes or so. The next part of the day can be divided in the same fashion. If much reading needs to be done, one goes on until the evening.

Musical study can now be incorporated in the plan. The combination of scholarship and playing is not necessarily difficult because of a lack of time. The real problem is that switching between disciplines is hard: part of one’s mind stays with what one just has done and the effort to work on in the other discipline remains half-hearted. This risk is greatly reduced if one determines how long one will work on a specific assignment: there is no need to worry about everything else that needs to be done, or to think about the things one just has left at one’s desk. It is okay to just practice, for just 45 minutes.

The telephone may be answered twice during each work period (the timer gets stopped while one talks) before the answering machine takes over. The cell phone is turned off, naturally (people forget that there is a button for that function).

I wrote at the beginning that time management is something one needs to attempt again every new day. So what is the problem with my kitchen timer method? Apart from the fact that it is subject to a maddening flaw of human behavior, which is that we tend to apply any tested and approved life-improving method only once, it is exhausting. Several 45-minute long intervals of real concentrated reading or practicing cost an enormous amount of energy. So one of the things I learned about this routine is that some discipline is necessary to keep it intact, and that one must allow for occasional lapses and off-days.

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