I was reading about efficiency, about getting things done, when I came across the concept of a “displacement” activity, which was defined as something we do from some internal need for variation or incubation. I liked the term, “displacement”; it carries no hint of accusation or guilt induction. I think that many like me are sometimes drawn to activities that are not clearly “on task” and feel like we are being self-indulgent.
(I am distressed that I did not make a note of the source of the term; I’ve made a point of putting everything I want to recall from the Web into Evernote, because it’s so easy to do. Another demonstration of human imperfection….)
Some of my displacement activities are related to work–reading book-writing related blogs and technology blogs, for example. Others are less clear–downloading pictures from my camera and organizing them. Some are an obvious expression of my need for a break–reading books, for one.
When I feel that my use of time is out of control, I start to track my time, noting exactly what I’m doing all day. The simple recording of times–when I do stuff, when I switch to other stuff–helps me be more aware. Here’s a piece of a fascinating NYT article on the subject:
Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day? These weaknesses put us at a disadvantage. We make decisions with partial information. We are forced to steer by guesswork. We go with our gut.That is, some of us do. Others use data. A timer running on Robin Barooah’s computer tells him that he has been living in the United States for 8 years, 2 months and 10 days. At various times in his life, Barooah — a 38-year-old self-employed software designer from England who now lives in Oakland, Calif. — has also made careful records of his work, his sleep and his diet.A few months ago, Barooah began to wean himself from coffee. His method was precise. He made a large cup of coffee and removed 20 milliliters weekly. This went on for more than four months, until barely a sip remained in the cup. He drank it and called himself cured. Unlike his previous attempts to quit, this time there were no headaches, no extreme cravings. Still, he was tempted, and on Oct. 12 last year, while distracted at his desk, he told himself that he could probably concentrate better if he had a cup. Coffee may have been bad for his health, he thought, but perhaps it was good for his concentration.Barooah wasn’t about to try to answer a question like this with guesswork. He had a good data set that showed how many minutes he spent each day in focused work. With this, he could do an objective analysis. Barooah made a chart with dates on the bottom and his work time along the side. Running down the middle was a big black line labeled “Stopped drinking coffee.” On the left side of the line, low spikes and narrow columns. On the right side, high spikes and thick columns. The data had delivered their verdict, and coffee lost.He was sad but also thrilled. Instead of a stimulating cup of coffee, he got a bracing dose of truth. “People have such very poor sense of time,” Barooah says, and without good time calibration, it is much harder to see the consequences of your actions. If you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them.