Yesterday was a total meltdown. A carefully-laid plan was in place: leave work by seven, get home, watch Bobby, get a much-needed early night. Instead I wound up in an epic staring-at-the-PC session till 2am. That’s right, 2am.
All the classic mistakes were made. I worked up till about 6pm, whereupon my phone rang, and it was mum, who has taken to phoning me at work. That ate 25 minutes (not that time spent talking to your mother is ever wasted, kids). After that, I’m not sure what happened. I did a tiny, miniscule amount more work. Replied to a couple of emails. Sent one. And the next thing I knew, it was 8.30. And I still hadn’t been for the run I was meant to go for at lunchtime.
A run later, I eventually got home at a little after ten. Bobby was impossible, and I was furious, but at least I still had a chance to get to bed early. I just wanted to change the music on my mp3 player. Simple, right? Oh, I’d better just write that blog post I’ve been meaning to write. And I have to download those choreography videos for the concert in December. OK, got those. Let’s try to watch one – woah! Computer freeze!
I spent twenty minutes staring at my PC, waiting for a folder to open. (It turns out, if anyone’s interested, that Quicktime was having trouble generating thumbnails of the videos). The much-vaunted speed benefits I was supposed to get from having a 2/3rds empty hard drive failed to materialise. I wound up having to restart, which when you have as much crap in your startup folder as I do, takes about 10 minutes.
Then I tried to set up my new Bluetooth dongle, and get some messages off my phone. I’ve done it before, and didn’t anticipate any problems. But it took three tries, and over half an hour, before the bloody things would talk to each other.
All in all, popping on the PC for twenty minutes turned into a three-hour epic, and my early night became a red-eye. All the classic signs of pointless, exhausted late-night geekery were there: for example, the music I was listening to finished and I couldn’t be bothered to put more on.
So. This is a setback, but obviously not insurmountable. When I eventually get my early night, it’s going to help – after all, these things always seem to happen when I’m already knackered. It’s one of life’s little pissers. Nevertheless, lessons clearly need to be learned.
There are two problems: attitudinal and technological. The tech issue is that the reminders and limits I set up to control my internet use are simply not proving effective, largely because they’re too easy to ignore. I used to have kids’ software de-activate my internet connection at midnight, but I deactivated it because it was horrible, messy and popped up all sorts of random alerts at weird times. The last straw was when it locked me out of my main account and forced me to set a password! But I might have to reactivate it. The hourly pop-up, where I’m supposed to say whether I’ve spent the last hour saving Africa or pissing about, is to easy to just close. And the <geek>greasemonkey script</geek> I installed to limit my firefox use has, predictably, been constantly de-activated. So I’m going to have to review my solutions there.
But the key problem is really one of attitude. I’m still taking a totally task-oriented approach, not just to my actual work, but to the host of other little things that eat up my time. So I don’t think “I’ll spend ten minutes checking my email,” I think, “I’ll check my email” (or rather, I just do it, knee-jerk), and keep going through till I’ve dealt with it all – which usually takes far longer than ten minutes. Similarly with last night. There was no reason why I had to do any of those tasks that night. Any of them could have waited. But I went into it seeing them as tasks to be completed, and kept going till I’d ticked them off, even when it had become completely obvious it was too late and the computer didn’t want to behave.
This task-based approach is based on a myth – that when it comes to consuming media, or geeking – the two activities that, more than any others, eat my time – there is a finite amount to be done. I’ll just finish this pile of magazines. I’ll just finish sorting that new widget out. Etc.
But actually, these things never end. You read all your reading material, you just find more. You spend two hours tracking down all three versions of New Order’s “Temptation” (I kid you not – this was me two Wednesdays ago) and a day later, it’s forgotten and another vague quest takes over. The internet isn’t technically infinite, but it’s so vast it might as well be. And, similarly, the onward march of technology means there will always be another piece of software, or dongle, to stick into your PC and spend two hours making work. It’s never finished.
So it’s a trap to look at it in a task-based way: it’s a recipe for having your life taken over. Instead, what I have to do is think about it in a time-based way. I’ll do this for ten minutes. I can have an hour, as it’s Saturday. And whatever I get done in that time, is what I’ve got done. This isn’t obviously, true for actual tasks, for example at work. There, you often need to do something till it’s done. But the trick is knowing when that mentality applies, and when it doesn’t.
There are, in fact, very few tasks that this approach doesn’t work for – especially the kind of things I waste time on. Obviously there’s no point leaving a car half-washed, but fortunately that’s not my kind of time-wasting. Given that my computer has a “hibernate” function, there’s no reason I can’t turn it off and walk away literally in the middle of a task with no problems.
So this is the challenge – to make a clear distinction between tasks that have to be done till they’re done – like Africa and actual work stuff – and others where the level of stuff to be done is, essentially, infinite. There, I need to think in terms of time, not tasks. To keep a task list, and tick things off as I do them, but to accept that, on balance, the list will probably get bigger as I add things quicker than I tick them off. But that’s not really a problem. Because the other thing that all my time-eating activities have in common is that none of them actually matter.
I’ve a confession to make. I’m a waster. Not in the slacker sense- I don’t spend my days sitting around in my pants, watching Knight Rider reruns (at least not as much as I’d like to). And not in the sense of being extravagant: I don’t splash money on luxuries, although I hardly spend it well. No, I am a chronic waster of time. My own, that is, and of course that of my employers. You are reading the words of a confessed procrastination addict.
Ah, time: how do I waste thee? Let me count the ways:
1. TV. I’m not, by any means a telly addict, and I’ve been accused of snobbishness for saying I’d prefer to live in a house without one. But it’s not like I don’t like the damn stuff. It’s just that once I slump down in front of the bloody thing, it’s too hard to move. Programmes which I would never actually sit down with the intention of watching – the fucking Golden Girls, for Christ’s sake- suddenly seem glisteringly attractive when you’re on a sofa in front of them. As a result, A few weekends left clear for writing have been ruined in recent months by the damn tube.
2. Household chores. When it was essay or revision time, it’s amazing how much enthusiasm I could suddenly muster to sort my papers, wash the dishes, or take out the recycling. All of which are, of course, in the generalest sense, Good Things To Do. Unless, of course, they prevent you doing what you should be doing for the benefit of your career, growth as a person, etc.
3. The Internet. Yes, it’s the most modern of time-sponges, and probably the most effective. Podcasts. News. Endless opinions on politics and culture. New music. Old music. Videos of teenage boys singing along to camp anthems. An entire universe of new media is out there, immediately accessible, almost all free. What could be better? Just one problem – almost none of it could be seriously considered necessary. It’s like having an 1000-page newspaper you feel obliged to read every day.
4. Music. I think I spend more time ripping friend’s CDs, raiding their hard drives, downloading music, buying CDs and nerdily editing the track information on my PC than I spend actually listening to music. Sometimes I combine the two, but often I’m too busy nerding to notice when an album has finished.
5. Geekery. Covering a multitude of sins: installing nifty new programs; removing them again after they fuck up my computer; reformatting my hard drive because I haven’t managed to clear it all up. A computer is an enabling device, but it can bog you down as it opens doors, waste your time as it saves you time, etc.
What to do? I’m launching on a war on wasted time. Not on leisure time, mind. I don’t consider time spent watching films, out with friends, on the phone, or even cooking wasted. If I’m genuinely enjoying myself – instead of just passing time – that’s fine. If I’m being productive – at work or at home – that’s fine too. Nor am I going to stop doing all the things listed above. No, this is about control. It’s about setting limits for such activities, and sticking to them.
Wish me luck.