Ever since I got my first iPhone, I had a device that would measure how many steps I take every day. This is great, since taking a certain amount of steps each day is always an important thing to remain healthy. During the pandemic, I did let this slide, but in general, measuring my steps is always something good. If I walk too less, then so be it: tomorrow is another day. And it is important to take time to move and exercise a little bit, so there is nothing wrong with doing it.
But sometimes, measuring can be detrimental — especially for the mind. For instance, iPhones (and, as of recently, my MacBook) also measure the screen time, that is: the time I spend in front of some form of display. During the pandemic, my screen time skyrocketed just like probably anybody else’s. Is this bad? The initial inclination would be to say “probably”, but then the question remains: why? After all, there’s not much else to do. However, it does leave a bad mouthfeel to see that you spent ten hours of a day in front of some device.
There is a third measurement, however, that I regularly checked: the time I spent doing various tasks. When I started my PhD, I decided to start measuring the time I spent doing so. I found an app that allows to do that very painlessly, and entered a few tasks I thought would come up during my PhD. I did not want to micromanage everything, just get a general idea of what is working and what not. So I set up very generic tasks as well: reading, writing, research in general (no matter if it’s googling some papers or preparing my dataset). I also added a few more tasks that are fairly good to measure: admin (that is, boring bureaucracy), lectures, meetings, and course work.
For about eight months, I meticulously started the timer when I started doing work, and stopped it after I was done for the day. Most of the times I recorded were rather rule-of-thumb measurements, but that’s fine: after all, I didn’t want to monitor myself, I was just curious about the time share for each task. However, the longer I’m working on my PhD, the more exhausting that became. Even though I basically only had to press two buttons to start and stop one time slot, it began to feel weird.
Interestingly, even though I chose fairly broad categories, it became more and more difficult to decide into which category to pack things. This became especially obvious during a course I took with my supervisor. Strictly speaking, whenever I read some of the texts or wrote the assignments, this was course work. But the course itself was designed in such a way that whatever we did we did not primarily for the course, but for our own PhDs. Even though the course was simply a speedrun through contemporary sociological theory, everything we read we would’ve needed to read at some point. The benefit of the course was simply to pack an important bunch of texts into a short time frame and force us to read quickly and bring all of us up to date with sociological theory. So whenever I read something, this could’ve also fit into the category “reading” and whenever I wrote something, this could’ve also fit into the category “writing”. This holds true especially for the last assignment, an essay about a self-chosen research question. My essay is about measurability and, strictly speaking, the theory section for my first paper. So is it course work or actual research?
This brings me to a second point: What I forgot when I started measuring time is that research is always a blend of “work and life”. It’s not so much about some work-life balance. Rather, you think about research problems when you come home, and that is good. (Things look differently if you think about institutional problems at home, or about some awful colleagues. But research questions are good to have, and it’s fun and not at all exhausting to just tinker with some ideas in your head, even though you’re strictly off duty.) Since large parts of a researcher’s life are about thinking, it’s difficult to measure it. Sometimes I catch myself reading through obscure texts and data late at night – not because I have to, but because I’m intrigued and really want to know more about the topic. And it’s hard to start a counter when some thread on Reddit punches me down a rabbit hole for two hours that will end up as an argument in one of my papers. Or when some YouTube video accidentally gives one of my research problems a new spin and brings me closer to a solution.
What happened while I was measuring time was something else: I started to become a husk, waking up every day at 7.30 AM, sitting in front of my computer for eight hours, and then just stopping. I suddenly noticed that my work adapted to the measurement, not vice versa. I had less and less fun doing things.
Two weeks ago, I decided to stop measuring my time. And since then, my motivation and the energy for my work has come back. I read more, I think more, and I have begun to go down rabbit holes on Reddit again. I have much more fun to think about research problems, and I accept that sometimes research will be slowly crawling instead of quickly punching together a few arguments. Having to think about “Oh gosh, how should I measure this and that?” is surprisingly exhausting, and we all know that we can work better if we can focus on our work instead of the circumstances of it. And measuring is one of the best motivational killers, as I had to realise.
So I stopped measuring my time, and you should too.