Ebb and Flow

min read

Pay attention and adapt to the rhythms of time to take advantage of the ups and downs of the calendar.

Group working in office
Credit: Flamingo Images / Shutterstock © 2018

In the Western world, we commonly perceive time as linear, flowing from the future to the past. On the other hand, academic calendars and the seasons to which they are loosely connected are cyclical. We traverse fall, winter, spring, and summer, and then we start the cycle again.

My summer was filled with projects to complete in time for the start of another school year. When time starts to run short to finish that Wi-Fi upgrade or complete a software upgrade, project teams pick up the pace. Pace is often defined as a consistent speed, but with deadlines looming, we increase the pace by working faster. Think about pace in the runner's sense, where pace is a synonym for speed. (I should note that most runners aren't comfortable referring to their running pace as speed, given that it is a sport where anything faster than 12 mph over long distances is considered world-class).

For projects, time is a key variable. We often plan project milestones around specific campus events, such as waiting for students to move out of the residence halls before upgrading the Wi-Fi network.

Considering time as both linear and cyclical imparts two advantages. When time is seen as linear, it becomes a resource that can be spent well or poorly ("Spend your time wisely!" or "I wasted the whole afternoon"). Philosophers and project managers both remind us that time is an important resource that cannot be recouped after it has passed.

On the other hand, when time is viewed as cyclical, we have the opportunity to leverage its cyclicality. For example, implementing new metrics often requires determining a baseline for comparison. Ideally, you would start gathering new data at the beginning of the fiscal or calendar year, and if either of those dates are too far off, aim for the start of the next semester or month, depending on the urgency.

The cyclicality of the academic calendar presents some slow times of the year. This is the natural ebb and flow of work in higher education, and I encourage you to leverage the change in pace and seasons to give yourself and your employees moments of stillness, as Jim Bruce advocates for in his "Be Still" blog. "[Be] still to give your brain some downtime," Bruce said, "You'll see an overall energy increase, more results, and no overall loss in productivity."

This is wise advice that applies to both individuals and teams. Project teams need an occasional moment of stillness, too, and the change of pace feels refreshing. I extend this concept to teams by using naturally slow periods as a break for hard-working projects teams before they press in to the next phase, or to give help desk staff a break before they face the next semester of new customers and problems to solve.

After years of enjoying the ebb and flow of the academic year, I began to wonder if there are more ways to use timing and pace to my advantage. Daniel Pink's When: The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing accomplishes that goal by delving into the research behind time, timing, and performance. In When, Pink emphasizes that our cognitive abilities vary through the day. He presents research that confirms the post-lunch sleepiness that many of us feel, and he explains which tasks to plan for mornings and which to work on in the afternoons. If you have a lot of flexibility to plan your day, When offers a blueprint on how to restructure your work days to better fit your cognitive cycles.

Pink also explains the power of beginnings, how teams progress toward project midpoints and finish lines in very different ways, and the often bittersweet feeling that we feel at the end of a long project. When also offers tips in the form of the Time Hacker's Handbook, a section at the end of each chapter that can help you take the information presented in the chapter and apply it to your career and home life.

If your relationship with time has felt adversarial, take a moment to be still and then consider ways to use time to your advantage.

Patrick Chinn is Associate CIO for Customer Experience at the University of Oregon.

© 2018 Patrick Chinn. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.