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Running out of time or running out of energy, re-visited

One of my resolutions for 2021 was to pay more attention to how I use my time. Since the start of the year, I’ve tried to allocate a certain part of each day to one of the kinds of work that I do and I’ve been recording the number of hours that I spend at my salaried job. I’ve had only middling success in following the schedule but recording my hours has made me reflect me on where my time goes.

According to my records, even the busiest weeks in my academic position don’t consume anything like the number of hours in a standard working week. Yet I often feel as busy and tired as if I had done a full week of work. Sometimes I wonder how on Earth I managed to get a full week of work done in my previous positions, yet still have evenings and weekends largely free for other things. What am I doing with my time that a part-time job leaves me with no more time than a full-time one?

One answer, of course, is that I don’t just do my salaried work: I do voluntary work and I carry out personal projects, both of which can be just as demanding as paid work. Another is that I’m not really feeling tired all of the time, just when I’ve gotten to the end of a particularly long day or a particularly intense period of work. By and large, weekends and evenings feel just as free and relaxed as they always have.

I suspect that work also seems more intense when I am there. On busy days, e-mail seems to appear as quickly as I can answer it, and on other days I’m always able to think up more topics for writing and research or more improvements that I could make to the server. I wonder if working at home also has me taking fewer or less effective breaks than I did while working full-time: where I used to go for a walk around the campus I’m now reading a book chapter or two, or not taking a break at all because I get lost in e-mail, neither of which gives the same opportunity for my mind to wander.

Sometimes leisure activities themselves seem like a kind of work: I’ve got books and news to read; films to watch; places to visit and to walk to; and bakeries, caf├ęs and bars to eat and drink at. As a consequence, I’m becoming more and more convinced of what I read at the BBC a year and a half ago: the reason we complain of having so little time these days is that there’s no real limit to the number of things that we can think to do with it.

The whole point of my new year’s resolution was to impose some discipline on my use of time, which I felt to be lacking in the latter part of 2020. I haven’t quite followed the plan I made in January because some activities (like e-mail) bulge out a bit more than they were supposed to; others (like writing and research) have suffered from a lack of time spent thinking about them. I probably feel most tired exactly when something takes longer than it was supposed to, or I come to research or writing with nothing in mind.

All that said, feeling tired some of the time isn’t really an issue. I’m reminded of some wisdom I recently read about transport systems: a road or rail network that isn’t congested at least a little bit of the time means its builders spent on capacity that is never used. Ditto feeling tired: if I were never tired, it’s probably because I’m not exercising my full capacity.

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