Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Today I was teaching the poems of Emily Dickinson--one of my favorite poets--and I was prying answers out of them like pulling teeth leading a discussion about the following poem:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

I explained that the first lines of the poem contain a paradox: a statement that appears impossible or contradictory at first, but contains a deeper truth. I We decided that the paradox here is that behavior that seems crazy can actually have a method to its madness, or come from a person who is ahead of his time. Human beings get very uncomfortable when one of their own deviates from the norm, however. It reminded me of an experience I had in college, so I shared it with the students, who at least were interested enough not to fall asleep (many of them do tend to drowse off when we're reading poetry).

I was taking a sociology class, and the assignment was to identify a social norm, violate it in public, and write up our observations of people's reactions. For example, there is a social norm not to make lengthy eye contact in an elevator, so you could stare at people in elevators and see how they react. (I'm guessing not well.) I wasn't up for that kind of awkwardness, so I decided to go to church barefoot. Completely barefoot--no socks or anything. We weren't allowed to explain what we were doing while the experiment was going on, not even if people asked directly, but afterward we were supposed to debrief them so they wouldn't be driven crazy by curiosity.

It turned out I had two basic kinds of reactions to describe. First, the four- and five-year-olds knew it wasn't normal for a grownup to have bare feet in church. And they didn't mind asking me straight out, "Why are you barefoot?" And, inevitably, the next question was, "Can we be barefoot too?" They didn't much mind that I was breaking the norm if they got to break it too.

As far as grownups, people who didn't know me just gave me weird looks, but you could see the wheels spinning in the brains of acquaintances who were trying to piece together why in the world I had nothing on my feet. "She seemed so normal the last time I saw her," they seemed to be thinking. Yet they didn't want to violate the norm of minding their own business by asking me directly like the kids did. Some people made up their own explanations, like "So did you hurt your foot?" But they knew that wasn't it either, because I didn't have on a brace or even a bandage. I would smile and change the subject, and you could tell it was bugging the daylights out of them.

My dad let me make an announcement after church as my professor had instructed, and oh, the relief that washed over the faces of those who had noticed my weirdness! It was a fun experience even for someone like me who doesn't like to venture into the "weird" end of the spectrum of human behavior. But I learned that I wanted to be more like the little kids, whose attitude was, "That's weird, but it looks fun--can I try it?"


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Finding Time

At the library, I recently picked up a copy of a book titled 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam. In the introduction, Vanderkam writes that you really do have enough time to do the things you think you are too busy to do, like exercise, a write a novel, build a successful career and a happy family, and even...sleep eight hours a night.

Well, that caught my attention. Because there isn't anything more important to me than sleep--and I include my husband and children in that equation. If I don't get my sleep, I am a rotten human being to be around, and it goes without saying, a terrible mother and wife. For a while, under the "Interests" part of my Blogger profile, I had "Getting enough sleep." And I wasn't even remotely joking.

I haven't finished the book yet, so this isn't a complete review. But I like the way the first few chapters have jump-started my thinking. The first chapter is called "The Myth of the Time Crunch." We all know how busy we feel, and how busy everyone claims to be. Yet the best evidence we have says we aren't as busy as we think we are. A third of Americans who work full-time claim to work more than 50 hours per week, and 12 percent say they work more than 60 hours a week. We tell pollsters that we sleep less than 7 hours per night; moms who work full-time and have school-aged kids claim to sleep less than 6 hours per night, saying there's just too much for them to do to spend more time in bed. However, these are self-reported estimates when a researcher calls and asks a person how much time they spend on each activity. People tend to overestimate how much time they spend working and doing chores, and underestimate time spent sleeping and watching TV, for example.

When researchers ask people to keep detailed records of how they spend their time in a day, it turns out that Americans sleep about 8 hours a night, even working moms with little kids. We also work a lot less than we think we do.The average full-time employee works 35-43 hours per week. Sadly, women who work full-time only spend 11 minutes a day on average playing or doing hobbies with their kids--but mothers who go part-time only make it to 21 minutes a day, and stay-at-home moms are about 30 minutes. Ouch! Dads aren't any better, averaging 15-18 minutes a day (I KNOW Justin does more than this; he and the kids wrestle every night!) Americans also watch a lot more TV than we think--18-23 hours per week.  It's hard to think of anyone who would say that's a good use of our time, yet  it's easier to zone out in front of the screen than do some of the activities we say we wish we had time for.

Vanderkam includes many stories of people who are achieving true work-life balance by choosing to fill their 168 hours with the things that really matter to them. They decide on goals they want to achieve, then figure out ways to fit the important activities into their weekly schedule and get those things done no matter what. Usually this involves minimizing time-wasters (maybe I should write more on this in another post, so that this one doesn't get too long). It's inspiring to read about people who are doing great things in their field while leaving the office at 5 pm, attending their kids' soccer games, and taking plenty of time to recharge.

Vanderkam recommends starting with keeping  your own time diary so you can see how you spend your time. It's like keeping a food diary when you go on a diet or writing down everything you spend before you make a budget. The idea is sound--how can you change your time budget if you don't know how you're spending your hours? I've been keeping a record this week, and it's not that hard--every time I get a break, I write down what I've done since the last break. I'm going to do another week, since this week was a little atypical in that it was the first week back after a break, so I was dragging around without much energy, and we didn't have students until Tuesday. Still, I can already see patterns in how I spend my time, and yeah...I take a lot more leisure time than I realized. I am perfectly capable of reading blogs for an hour and a half in the evening while ignoring pretty much everything around me. Although I still want to read blogs, I need to wait until the kids are in bed and not get sucked in to Google Reader every day. Because once I see all the posts waiting for me, I want to read them all! As Vanderkam points out, if I want to make some changes, I am the one who can choose to change how I spend my time.

Justin and I have also figured out how to incorporate regular exercise into our routine without having to give up sleep or family time in the evenings when we're already tired. Miss Pink has to be at school by 7:45 am. Normally Justin takes her to school and I take Mr. Blue to his before going (literally around the corner) to work. We realized that if one of us goes to the gym, the other one can take both kids to school. The gym is also right down the street, so after I worked out, I came home to get cleaned up and still had plenty of time to get to work. We're going to skip Mondays since Miss Pink has to be at school early that day for math club (and I can barely make it by 7:45), alternate the rest of the weekdays, and go together on a weekend day and let the kids go to the child care (which they are anxious to do). We've only used the system on Thursday and Friday of this last week, but so far, so good! Tomorrow night we'll go spend some time working out together (which we've never done before) so we'll be multitasking--keeping our bodies AND our marriage healthy! And that's a concept every time-management expert would get behind.