Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why time management is an essential life skill

Books about how to avoid what has been called ‘the busy trap’ are somewhat of a trend these days. From Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness to Ariana Huffington’s Thrive to Tony Crabbe’s Busy, it seems as if every major publisher wants to get into the stillness game and publish it’s own best-seller about how to slow down and de-stress. The most well known of these books is probably Crabbe’s Busy. Here in the Netherlands, where I teach at University level, it was hard to avoid for a while. Ads for the book were everywhere: in the papers, in magazines. Crabbe was on Dutch television twice and gave a Ted talk at TedxAmsterdam. Some of his Dutch fans even tried to get him to come to Amsterdam for a public-speaking event by crowd-funding it. 
In and of itself, the success which Busy has enjoyed isn’t all that surprising. There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s got jokes and references to movies like Life of Brian and The Matrix, it’s written in a humble and friendly tone of voice, and it’s got tons of references to interesting research to back up most of its claims. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable and inspiring read. I’m not all that convinced, however, whether the book will really succeed in the mission which Crabbe has set for it: to make people less busy and stressed-out. The reason I believe this is because Crabbe claims throughout the book that time management is a useless activity that should be abandoned. In fact, he even states that the use of time management techniques is one of the root problems of the current busyness epidemic. Since one of the topics I lecture on occasionally is time management, and thus have first-hand evidence of how useful it can be to students, this is an opinion that I have a serious problem with.
So why does Crabbe have a problem with time management techniques? In Busy, he explains it like this:

We feel harried and overwhelmed for much of our waking moments. So what strategy do we employ to address this? For most of us, it is time management. We believe that if we could manage our time more effectively, we’d be more in control of our life and more effective. However, in a world of infinite demand, the more we manage our time, the more we can cram into our days.

What Crabbe is describing here is a classic beginner’s mistake, that anyone who’s ever got serious about learning time management techniques will recognise: once you get good at organising yourself it’s quite tempting to want to get to ‘inbox zero’. You want to finish the day with an empty email inbox, and preferably an empty to-do list too. End result: you work even harder than you used to, in pursuit of a goal which is forever out of reach. As Crabbe correctly points out, working like this is not healthy behaviour. What Crabbe is wrong about, however, is the conclusion he draws from this observation: that we should give up on time management altogether. Crabbe wants us to go straight to what he calls ‘mastery’: the ability to make tough decisions about what to focus on. He writes repeatedly that he wants us to manage our attention, not our time. The problem with this position is that you cannot separate managing your time and managing your attention. In order to manage your attention you have to manage your time. Yes, you can manage your time badly, but you can also manage it wisely. Truth of the matter is, though, that you’ll have to manage it in some shape or form if you want to be more creative and less stressed.
In this regard, Crabbe is like a ski instructor who wants to a take his inexperienced pupil off-piste during the first lesson. Forgetting about your to-do list occasionally (as Crabbe advises in chapter 1 of Busy) is great advice - but not for someone who doesn’t know how to handle a to-do list properly to begin with. Such skills - which, for want of a better word, we might call time management - are highly relevant in the complex and ever-changing world we inhabit. In fact, I consider them essential life skills, which should be taught in high schools and Universities. Martin Lewis - the brains behind the hugely popular Money Saving Expert website - has been arguing the same thing about finance skills for years. Time management skills, according to me, are in the same category. If we don’t teach young people that they exist and how they should be used properly, we’re sending them off into the wilderness without a map and a compass. This is one of the reasons why I recently wrote a time management book for students, and why I will keep on devoting some of my research and service hours at University College Roosevelt (where I am a lecturer in the Humanities department) to teaching and writing about time management. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Crabbe’s book, and will certainly be recommending it to my students. But for I get them started on reading Busy I’m going to make sure they’ve learned the basics first. Going off-piste on your first day of skiing is bound to lead to broken legs. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

My top tips for Insomnia

As a tutor, I'm the first port of call for students at University College Roosevelt who struggle with personal problems and health issues. Over the years, the number of my students who report struggling with insomnia has grown exponentially. Here are the top tips I share with students who struggle with sleeping - all of these learned after struggling with sleep myself for some time:

No coffee after 14.00. Really!

No looking at computer screens, smartphones, tablets, after 19.00. This makes a big difference. If you really have to work in the evening, install f.lux on your computer: https://justgetflux.com. This filters out the blue light, which blocks melatonine release. You don’t want blue light in the evenings! If you have an iphone and/or ipad, make sure you update it to iOS 9.3: this comes with a function called 'night shift' which does the same as f.lux. Turn it on, also on your phone!

Take magnesium supplements. I take 200mg before going to bed. This is a wellknown sleeping aid. 

Read fiction for an hour before going to bed. No non-fiction, fiction. Works for me!

Have very regular sleep and wake times. Try to go to bed roughly at the same time each day and get up at the same time. This is difficult as a student, I know. Alcohol and parties really mess up your sleep rhythm. So limit that, if not abstain from it, until things go better. 

Organize yourself well so your mind is not so restless. My own system for this is online at www.listsnotfists.com. This really, really helps me to have a more quiet mind.

Meditation works for some people. I recommend the free ‘headspace’ app for this, if you have no experience with it. The first ten days are free, after that a subscription is necessary. I know a lot of people who found it motivating to have the app as a kind of ‘guide’. Even if it’s just ten minutes in the evening, it can have a beneficial effect. Taking a course on mindfulness could also be an idea, if you are interested in this sort of thing.


If none of that works, you can also experiment with sleep restriction:

If none of this helps, do go and see your student councilor. Sleeping poorly is detrimental to your health and means you will not perform to the best of your ability. Take it serious!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Inspiration for creating lists in Wunderlist

So you've read Make Lists Not Fists. You've set up Wunderlist and you've created the core lists of the Lists Not Fists method. Then what? Which extra lists do you create to get the most out of the system? To give you some inspiration, here is an overview of the lists that two of my students have set up in their Wunderlist.

Camilla van Kooten (class of 2017).

The lists I have are:

·      Active lists
- Today homework
- Today other
- Week to do
- Semester to do (for all the deadlines)
- Waiting for (for example if someone owes me money)
-Put in diary (if there is anything I have to write down in my diary, for example appointments)

·      Passive lists
- Groceries
- Fun stuff
- Buy stuff
- Long term to do
- Movies to watch
- Masters programs

Debby-EsmeĆ© de Vlugt (class of 2016, now Masters student at Oxford)

The lists I have are:

·      Active lists
Today – UCR
-Today – Other
-RSC (=my internship at the Roosevelt Study Center)
-Week to do
-Month (=same as week, but then for the month)
-Semester (=deadlines)
-Waiting for (=mostly money that I still have to receive or pay)

·      Passive lists
-Future Courses (= possible ideas for papers etc.)
-Masters programs I’m interested in
-Veggies&Vanilla (=my website)
-Tabula RASA (UCR’s student paper, which I write for. I mostly put article ideas here)
-Plans Winter Break
-Plans Summer Break
-Books to Read