On the subjective notion of Time

“Time is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly…time-y wimey…stuff.” ~ Doctor Who

My PhD life has been a supreme juggling act lately. It’s been a period of dangerously high levels of multitasking coupled with dangerously high levels of caffeine consumption (to keep warm and cozy is my excuse). My previously-important “mental warm-up” and “mental shut-down” buffer-times at the start and end of my days have grown very short now, and my mind is racing with reminders and ideas even in my sleep. I find myself thinking or reading or writing for most of the hours of the day. I think I might have even heard my to-do lists sigh.

These insanely busy days have got me thinking about Time in all sorts of different ways.

Most often, I complain that there just aren’t enough hours to get everything done. That’s the real problem. I mean, if I can’t get my to-do lists to be shorter, then there must be a way get the days to be longer! Kristina vs. Time. Those are the days when I am bitter and despaired about the fleeting nature of Time. Those are the days when I behave like a complete basket-case and if I were to watch myself from outside of my body,  I’d vote to have myself locked up for a while. Strategy: Eat something soothing (although this also takes time) and channel frustration and hopelessness into a light-hearted blog post in order to feel better.

On other days, I feel more optimistic and relaxed. Who cares that my to-do list is back-to-front, scribbled in the tiniest of fonts, and stretching across all margins of the page? Who cares that Time flies and, in addition, the most unexpected and annoying set-backs have occurred in the span of one hour. I can handle it! Kristina befriends Time. Those are the days where I am in control of Time, instead of it being in control of me. I am not anxious about how little of it there is, and I organize the day ever so cleverly. (Note: Those are usually sunny days). Strategy: Hold onto this positive outlook and maximize Time intervals, however short they may seem.

My husband has unintentionally helped me develop a strategy to maximize short intervals of Time. He is an ESL teacher in a great high school but has to teach many different grades and, within each grade, many different proficiency groups. His classes are 45 minutes long and often his breaks are (only) 45 minutes long as well. Now, something else I’ve learned is that peoples’ perception of Time also differs greatly. I was of the opinion that “45 minutes is nothing! How can you get a lot done in 45 minutes?” when, in fact, I realized that my husband focuses so intently during each 45 minute interval, that to him it is loads of time. So, I began to shift my perspective a little bit. “Ok, I have 45 minutes until my class. PLENTY of time. In 45 minutes, I have to finish reading these two papers”. (What? They are long and complex and I am a slow reader). And let me tell you, I don’t stare off into the horizon or get distracted by ANY emails until I have finished those two papers. This strategy works especially well if you set reasonable goals and schedule in proper breaks in between each time interval. Otherwise it’s just another impossible to-do list with an anxiety-inducing timetable attached to it, serving as evidence that you that you are too easily distracted or — worse — dreadfully unmotivated, atrociously untalented and downright s.l.o.w.

Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about how subjective peoples’ perception of Time is. For one, Kristina vs. Busdriver, who likes to leave the stop a good 3-5 minutes before the time that is actually displayed on the schedule. On the other hand, there is Kristina vs. Supervisor, who tends to stretch the boundaries of Time and who can be pretty flexible with his definition of “late”.  I read a quote on a greeting card once that made me smile: “Don’t think in terms of “on time” or “late”. Think in terms of flexibility, fluidity and spontaneity”. (Note: these comments are meant in good fun, as I thankfully get along well with my supervisor, and it is a reality that he himself is well aware of!). Strategy: Embrace flexibility. Add 15-45 minutes to the scheduled start-time of meetings (and perhaps also to the estimated end-time of meetings). Additional strategy: Always have a task on hand that you can squeeze in and possibly complete in a 15-45 minute interval. Don’t just kill the time waiting (i.e. staring off into the horizon is out, but returning e-mails is a possibility).

Another piece of evidence that Time is a seriously subjective concept is this frequently-uttered sentence in PhD life, “It shouldn’t take you too long”. Possible variations include, “It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 minutes”, or “Maybe you could do this before our next meeting”. This seems to be a common experience among many of my PhD-mates, so I will generally call this scenario PhD students vs. Supervisor. Strategy: Double the amount of time he/she says something will take you. On particularly tricky tasks and on particularly cloudy/rainy days or low-caffeine days, quadruple it. Additional strategy: Write down the different tasks/steps related to your projects and the amount of time things actually took you. This honestly helps you see what on earth you’ve been doing during the week, and it helps improve communication with your supervisor if there is a discrepancy between your views on how long things actually take to accomplish. A few of my friends have started doing this, and have said that it is a tremendous help.

Of course, it’s not only supervisors that may have skewed perceptions of Time. I must admit that I, too, have a strange way of calculating Time, as was first pointed out to me by one of my dear friends in my Master’s program. I have a funny way of chunking days together, which makes it seem like I have much less time at my disposal than I actually do. I love Mondays, because the whole week is stretched in front of me. Tuesdays are not half bad, either. But by Wednesday, things start to get urgent and panicky, because Wednesday marks the beginning of the end of the week. To me, Thursday and Friday are 1 long day — a “last chance” day before the weekend — which is also 1 long day. So, if it’s Thursday, and I have something due on the Monday, I’d exclaim something like, “I have 2 days left!” (Thursday+Friday, Saturday+Sunday). Oh, please tell me I am not alone in my madness? Thankfully, I am much better about this now than I used to be. Strategy: If you do have this sort of “counting problem”, be aware of it, and try not to stress classmates out by wrongly exclaiming that the exam is in just two days.

Lastly, I’ve learned how very arbitrary Time is. It’s so arbitrary, in fact, that it should be laughed at, rather than getting stressed out by it. Today, as I adjusted the clocks one hour ahead for Daylight Savings Time, I thought of just how random it all is. In fact, for the last two weeks, my computer has constantly been changing the date and time on its own. Whereas I have no problems with my computer thinking I am back in Europe, I do get confused when e-mails I receive seem to be from the future, or it says that it’s Monday when I’m still very much in Sunday mode. I don’t know what is driving this, but at one point I stopped adjusting it back, and stopped looking at the time as I worked. I think this is an amusing way to relax about time constraints. During my entire Master’s and at some points during my PhD, when I knew I’d have to pull all-nighters to finish a paper, I’d cover the clock on my computer with a post-it, or change it back six hours, as if to fool myself. Strategy: If all else fails, Time is arbitrary anyway, so just pretend it’s daytime and you don’t need any sleep, and keep working until it’s done. (This is for trained, professional PhD students only. Kids, do not try this at home!)

4 thoughts on “On the subjective notion of Time

  1. This was a really excellent post, Kristina! I could see so much of myself in it (those nights where you just keep on working in your dreams, then wake up to immediate start working again, only to fall asleep that night and … sigh). Also, I chunk days too. You’re not alone! I never really thought of it before. But “weekend” = 1 Period of Productivity (day) and lately I have been chunking Wednesday-Thursday-Friday into ANOTHER Period of Productivity (because I was doing so much teaching that I felt like I only had about a day’s worth of time to do “other” things between the teaching). Mondays and Tuesdays are lovely full, individual days.


  2. What a magnificent post! It is realistic, humourous, serious, and helpful. In the battle of Kristina Versus Time — nay, there is no battle! You and Time seem to be on peaceful terms, and kudos to you for it.

    Thank you for sharing these useful tips, Kristina. I am applying for my PhD next year (2013), and I am going to send myself an e-mail with this blog post in the body, and I will title it, “Kristina says, DON’T FREAK OUT (please read before starting your first PhD assignment).” 🙂 I’m completely serious.

    This gave me a great many chuckles, especially your habit of covering the time on your computer with a Post-It. It’s a good trick! When not working on my computer, I’ll keep my cell phone far away from me or flipped upside down so that the time — or annoying flashy lights that act as demonic Muses for distraction — doesn’t make me panic.

    I wish you a friendly relationship with Time that keeps YOU chuckling (in the most sane way possible) for the rest of the semester! Good luck! 🙂


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