Saturday, May 27, 2006

My Ten Principles of Time Management

An econ grad student writes to ask about time management:

One of the most interesting topics discussed in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography was his schedule. It was helpful to see how he organized his day, which I imagine a proper allocation of time was necessary for his diverse and fecund life. In an earlier post, you answered why economists, including you, take the time to educate the public. My question is a combination of both: how do you spend your time?....I am curious how you schedule your time and, like Benjamin Franklin, if you have a fixed schedule or if what you do is guided by what you feel like doing.
Time management is a topic I have occassionally struggled with, as I like being involved with a diverse range of activities, and figuring out the right balance is not always easy. Here are ten things I have learned about myself. (Note: I don't pretend these observations apply to others; they are functions of my own tastes, quirks, and personality.)

1. When I am involved in a big writing project, such as one of my textbooks, I try to keep to a very regular schedule. I aim to start every day, seven days a week, writing about 600 words. It is the first thing I do (after getting my kids off to school). After that, I feel I have "earned" my freedom for the rest of the day. If you do this for a few years, you have a good-sized book on your hands.

2. I like to attend seminars and take classes. It feels like goofing off at the time, but it often ends up productive. Interesting ideas pop up in unexpected places. During the academic year, the seminar and class schedule is the skeleton of my day.

3. Travel is usually an inefficient use of time. I hate sitting on planes and waiting in airports. As a result, I turn down over 90 percent of invitations I get to attend conferences, give talks, etc. Being in Cambridge, at Harvard and near the NBER, makes this choice a luxury that is feasible at low cost. It is harder to replicate in other places. There are so many seminars and conferences here that I don't feel the need to travel.

4. I don't allocate any of my time to consulting. I did some consulting once, very briefly for Microsoft during the antitrust case. I was interested in the policy issues, and Microsoft approached me after I had written a column critical of the government's case. But I learned that consulting was not to my taste. I prefer the freedom of more academic work.

5. I avoid university committees. They are vast wastes of time. I won't bother saying anything more about them, because that would be a waste of time, too. (If some Harvard dean is reading this, thinking "Yes, we need a new committee to investigate how to make university committees more efficient," please don't ask me to be on it.)

6. I have never accepted offers to edit academic journals. Bob Solow made the same decision during his career. He once explained that decision to me as follows: "For every ten papers you handle, you create nine enemies and one ingrate."

7. Time allocated to talking with students is always well spent. Whenever my ec 10 students invite me to dinner, I accept the invitation if I possibly can. If I keep doing this, I am confident that Saint Peter will smile down upon me when my time comes.

8. I usually spend my research time working on whatever moves me. One of the great features of an academic career is the freedom to think and write about those topics that most interest you. As a young academic, one has to consider, to some degree, what will impress colleagues on promotion and hiring committees. (But even youngsters shouldn't overdo it: I recommend that students focus more on their own passions than on those of others.) But certainly, after publishing dozens of academic articles and collecting a few thousand citations in the Social Science Citation Index, I now think less about impressing others and spend more of my time doing what I want. It is one of the upsides of getting older, perhaps God's way to compensate for the graying hair and expanding waistline.

9. Lately, I have been spending some of my time writing this blog, which started as a by-product of teaching ec 10, the principles class at Harvard. I am still trying to figure out if this is a good use of my time or not. On the one hand, this feels like providing a public good. (Perhaps at a low cost: some of the time I spend on it has come from watching reruns of Law and Order.) On the other hand, at times writing this blog feels like being hooked on crack.

10. My wife would tell you that my life works only because I am a workaholic. But I don't think of myself as a workaholic, and I don't feel like I am working hard. I just really enjoy what I do.