Thursday, September 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/15: Questions About Time

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

 I am at a certain point in my career—and life—where I find myself attending more funerals than weddings (or anniversaries or class reunions). At such occasions I find myself thinking about time, a dimension that seems to pass by with increasing speed. How do we manage our time? It is a question I have wrestled with my entire career. The pace associated with each new technology (and remember, I started in the teletype, punched cards, and acoustic coupler age) creates additional pressures and expectations. I now live and work in an age when the general expectation is such that if I do not answer a question or attend to a task immediately—regardless of where that question or task originates—dissatisfaction from the questioning or tasking party grows with each passing minute. I find myself fighting—rightly, I think—against such expectations of immediate gratification. In my less professional moments when faced with a request—especially from those outside my place of employment—I am tempted to utter a response I might later regret. So how do we manage not only time but expectations? Where do we find the time for more contemplative (and critical) analysis and thinking? Does the age of smart phones and tablets—equipped with more computing power than Apollo missions to the moon—imply that we are continually forced to think on our feet? Where is the time, to borrow from another profession, when the old will dream dreams and the young see visions?

Early in my career my supervisor sent me to a time management seminar. Smart person that she was—and is—she probably saw that I was struggling to manage my time and get projects done “in a timely manner.” That seminar—along with the typing class I took in high school—was probably the most useful and productive learning experience I ever had. Last time I checked (which was this week) I type upwards of eighty words a minute with few or no errors. My calendar is now the prime weapon in the organization of my time, tasks, and assignments. Work is prioritized, schedules created, and expectations—for the most part—met. But I still have a problem with my “external clients” who do not understand why they should be put in a queue and have to wait. An almost daily test comes with interlibrary loan requests. Our local agency has an expectation of a twenty-four turn-around time. Most, but not all of the time, we meet that expectation. But when faced with half a dozen ILL requests it means that something else has to wait; another e-mail or phone call goes unanswered while we’re in the stacks hunting down items to copy. It is the unexpected request, the walk-in researcher, the question from right field that can throw the day’s plan out the window.

In which case you pick yourself up, regroup, and get ready, i.e. plan for the next day. You can’t spend time fretting. A swift kick in the pants (figuratively speaking as such self-admonition is anatomically impossible) and a chant of the Nike slogan “just do it” usually gets me back on the rails. But then there are those times when you feel—and really are—underwater. That’s when you call for help. I have this Scandinavian predisposition (some might call it “Minnesota Nice”) towards “an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.” Sometimes that genetic makeup gets in my way. When the need for help arises it is time to almost literally crawl out of my skin, confound my ethnicity, and ask for a helping hand. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help. Sandburg, a Swedish-American, had it almost right. Sometimes someone else—a trusted friend or colleague—will help you spend time wisely and pull you above water.

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