For two months I have conducted an experiment in obsessive timekeeping: tracking time spent on work (anything relating to grad school) down to 3 minute increments (because 3 minutes = .05 hours, a nice round number). This experiment was probably more successful than any of the research I've done to date, and certainly has a more noticeable impact on my life - or anything, really. I have achieved two things: one, I've trained myself to uni-task; two, I now know exaclty how much of my life I'm spending on graduate school. Today, we look at uni-tasking.
Uni-tasking as a goal was partially instigated by my advisor, who relayed a general faculty observation about graduate students multi-tasking through colloquia, and heavily inspired by "Zen Habits", which has a rather unique perspective on multitasking.. This perspective seems entirely correct: what's the point of sitting through a seminar if you're only listening to half of what the speaker says? The answer is usually "because I'm required to and don't want my advisor/the faculty at large to note my absence", but this seems to miss the point. There are a large number of seminars that turn out to feel not worth the time spent sitting in an uncomfortable chair, but assuming that the time would be better spent on other projects means not paying enough attention to the current seminar to have any idea whether it would be interesting.
Keeping track of time emphasizes the point of uni-tasking, or rather the lack of point to multi-tasking: in the end, each minute gets counted as only one thing. Two hours spent in a colloquium gets listed as two hours regardless of how much of that time I spend listening to the speaker and how much is spent on other tasks on the laptop. If I just listen, on the other hand, and do the other chores later, more hours get counted and the magic number of "that's enough work for today!" happens much sooner. And, I both have a better chance of understanding the speaker and of making an errorless data analysis that won't need to be redone later.
Keeping such anal track of time also trained sticking to a single task in the face of more pleasurable distractions. This is more than just not trying to do two tasks at the same time, but to not quit working and do something else (check other blogs, for example). The three-minute increments often turned into "alright, I need two more minutes to make the .05", which often turned into 10 minutes or more. The impulse to do something fun is acknowledged and then put off until the current task is actually finished.
The whole exercise sounds like something out of a self-improvement manual, although I came up with it on my own, and certainly took it to an obsessive level only possible in the name of semi-scientific inquiry. One week would have been enough for a "hmm, that's interesting"; two months gave me enough to develop an actual dislike of multi-tasking or stopping a task before it's done (unless I've already spent hours doing it, of course, in which case I'm ready to chuck the laptop against a wall).
Perhaps the biggest effect of uni-tasking is that I don't feel as if I'm spending my entire life on research. I was always in the habit of putting movies or music on in the background while I worked, which made work slightly more bearable but also stretched things out to cover the entire day. I also know exactly how much of my time I'm spending on this work, which helps put the entire experience in perspective. More on this next time.