In Search of Lost Time*

Personal and institutional explanations.

November 20, 2014

I resisted taking notes, making lists and keeping an agenda as an academic for a long time. I thought it was beneficial to rely on my own brain’s capacity to remember things and that it would also keep my mind fresh. That was at the beginning of my academic career; before I had any administrative duties, before I had large international networks, before I engaged in publishing and conference organizations. The more I found myself active in different areas of the academia, the harder it became to rely on my mind only.

So I also started to keep lists, take notes in an agenda, to decorate my desk with post-its. I found out that to a certain extent this has helped. However when I also realized even these new re-organization efforts had marginal benefits, I asked myself what has led to the loss of time I endured.

Although there may be many reasons, I found out that my main reason is that I do academic work when I absolutely enjoy it and refuse to work - or become lazy and distracted - when I am working on things I do not particularly enjoy. I realized that I am generally very enthusiastic and studious when I first start to do something and that my appetite slowly fades when I do more of what I set myself out to do. Apparently I suffer from some kind of what I will call “an enjoyable challenge syndrome”, where the enjoyability of the challenge comes from a sense of curiosity towards the unknown and a sense of confidence in myself for overcoming the challenge. I get distracted when I have to multitask because multitasking does not allow me to enjoy things I do and puts me under time pressure. Moreover, when it comes to research, if there are other things in my mind, then my academic work suffers and I know I’d better clear the other issues up before I can seriously commit myself to research.

Yet when I opened this topic up to discussion among friends from academia from several different institutions and countries, other issues also came up as possible reasons for a loss of time. The list below addresses both personal and institutional reasons and includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Although the times to teach classes may set a schedule for an academic, most of academics’ time is unstructured and therefore depends a lot on the habits and the preferences of the academic in question.

  • Perfectionism in everything one does may create a loss of time since it makes one spend an unnecessary amount of time on things that should matter less. An inability to prioritize generally happens aside perfectionism which may create a false sense of importance for things that really are not.

  • Students are the unpredictable factor. Their special needs, the challenges that they face can be very time consuming.

  • Time management for an academic is also dependent on the level of institutionalization in the university / institute one works at. In institutionalized settings, the academics can focus on their actual jobs and tasks.  In uninstitutionalized settings, the academic is at the mercy of the way the University administration handles things.

  • Therefore a cooperative atmosphere among faculty members of the University as well as one who respects the need to work alone for those academics who prefer that, the effectiveness of the administrative staff and the standard operating procedures they use, the stability of the administrative and academic staff all define the working culture at the institution and are strong antidotes for loss of time.

  • The personality and working habits of the people around an academic as well as their egos are also a factor. Even if you may be a rather fast decision maker and an effective team member, when others in your team, commission, department etc. are not, or when you see yourself as a team member and others see you as a subordinate, you suffer from loss of time due to their slowness in decision making, or ineffectiveness, or even from their enthusiasm to dictate things you should do.

What other distractors or factors can you think of that make an academic lose time?

*[Editor’s note: The author would like to thank Mr. Proust for the inspiration]



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