What I learnt about “how to work” from 4 years, 10 months, and 25 days of teaching

This is my first week as a PhD student at NTU ADM. The week before, I was furiously toiling on my work pc until the very eleventh hour. By which I mean I was supposed to return my laptop at 10AM but at 9.30AM on the cab into the office I was still trying to upload some documents. Now, all that is behind me. I am a student again! I get to spend luxurious amounts of time digesting readings like an undergrad again! I get to write in the FIRST PERSON as an artist again!

Learnings on “how to work” from my last job

What I have appreciated from 4 years, 10 months and 25 days of working at my last teaching job is that I feel as if I have gained many functional skills with regards to personal time management. By which I mean, it taught me that it was possible to compress many shallow work tasks into less than 5 minutes, and importantly, to be able to finish those tasks with an outwardly appearance of calmness and composure.

The supposed aura of calmness is important. Firstly, if you’re the lecturer in a classroom, the students look to you to see that you are knowledgeable and able to confidently lead them through the material, so they don’t want to see you panicking. If you behave calmly and confidently, you start to feel a little more confident of yourself. And the more of these small tasks you accomplish, you will feel more able to tackle even bigger tasks. Its like velocity or momentum.

Very often at work, I would find out that i needed to send some VERY VERY IMPORTANT EMAIL immediately or deal with a VERY URGENT SITUATION immediately BUT I also had to start teaching a class or go to a meeting in 5 minutes. So in such a scenario, I had no choice – I would just have to try to do the task instantly.

No waiting for the right conditions, no fanfare, no pomodoro planning, just… get it done. And No screaming. No pangs of self-doubt. No panic attack. No writing of essay-length email. Just be calm, pick up the phone or type a short professional email and Done. You’ve got this.

You’ll be surprised how much can be accomplished in the 5 minutes before a class starts!

I don’t know why it was the case, but when I look back on the years, I feel like even the 2015 Debbie had a procrastination or mild anxiety problem when writing a simple email or completing certain mundane tasks. Some complex goals or tasks would sit on my list for months until I believed I was ready to complete them, or had found the right words to express myself. It was as if I had to listen to the right song or entire albums of music to drown out my self-consciousness in my head before I started on the task; that the conditions had to be perfectly right before I worked on them.

These are all myths – there is no need for the magical thinking that some stars must align before you can tackle a task – you just have to get it done – which I know can be easier said than done.

But after working in a fast paced environment for some years, I have a good idea of how long certain tasks take. I know now that I have no problem writing 3 admin emails within 5 minutes. And with that knowledge of how fast I can do certain pieces of work, I have been habituated to complete the tasks immediately. If it takes less than 2 minutes, I will try to do it immediately.

For example, for years I used to dread washing and changing new bedsheets because I was sure it would take forever or maybe needed a whole pomodoro (~25min). But now I know for a fact that it actually only takes me 3 minutes to put the sheets back on. Now I quite happily wash the bedsheets weekly (or since Beano is toilet training at the moment, probably every few days). I also constantly just tackle small household tasks all day long when I notice them, instead of scheduling one big “tidying” session.

I suppose you could say the job gave me momentum in many aspects of life. Or maybe it was just that I just got more disciplined and experienced as I got older?

Time tracking exercise

I thought it would be interesting to see the transition of my time from working full-time to studying full-time. So in my last week of work I started doing detailed time tracking on a sheet that I made up myself.

I am a bit shy to post this as this chart is a bit revealling, like a snapshot of my last week of working life at this job but this is… “For SCIENCE!“. I had a pretty “full” school week and BIG DISCLAIMER: this is by no means a precise timesheet of my working hours either – some of the labels between School and Shallow work are likely mixed up as I was trying to figure out my categorisation system, but I think the gist of the data collected is still useful for personal analysis:

Observations from time tracking

  • Sleep: On average I sleep about 6 hours each day and that seems quite ideal for myself as I wake up easily or even automatically most days. But as evident from my unusual sleeping patterns, what I found to be the key to juggling being a full-time working mother – with another career as an artist – is to basically sleep early and wake early and do the Debbiework before i go in to Work.
  • Exercise: I put in an exercise category but quickly realised I do not explicitly set aside time to exercise at all. OOPS! Who am I kidding, I have become a totally sedentary desk monkey who only just occassionally makes time to just walk around or to take extra detours (“going on a stupid walk for my stupid mental health!”). That said, I am so always grateful to be living right by the civic district where there are plentiful things to see and explore.
  • Play/Family Time: When put into context, some of the daily/weekly time spent on some categories might look very low (eg: Play/Socialising and Family Time – but tasks like social meetups and meals and family time are usually mixed up together or multi-category. So this is more a problem of categorisation.
  • Shallow Work vs Deep Work: I think most of my time is quite optimised except that I seem to do a lot more “Shallow Work” than i do “Deep Work”. It seems ridiculous now to observe that I spend so much more time on Shallow stuff not the core creative making. But I guess I was working full-time in the past. During my PhD time, I want to increase the amount of time I spend on creative/deep work.

Shallow work refers to non-cognitively intensive tasks which are low-value and easy to replicate, like replying emails, sending out broadcasts on Slack or the LMS, or googling for information that I need in order to get something done. The admin work that I need to do as an artist and educator and human being trying to survive in this society.

Deep work refers to intensive tasks that require unbroken concentration and creative thinking such as producing visual work, designing, writing, coding, 3d modelling, video editing, etc. For me, it refers to the core part of my work as an artist and educator.

So, how much Deep work do you really do in your life?

How much time do we really spend on the so-called “core” tasks of what we do as artists, designers, and writers?

And BONUS! here’s a picture from a cognitive psych class I attended this week.

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