Between work and leisure – Escaping The Grey Zone

A friend sent me an interesting text message the other day. He asked: “What’s your biggest time-waster?” I replied with only three mysterious words: “The Grey Zone”. In case you’re wondering, he said his biggest time-waster is figuring out what my cryptic texts mean.

What is The Grey Zone?

The Grey Zone is limbo. You’re somewhere in between relaxing fully, and actually being productive. You are sat in your work place, sort of doing little jobs that aren’t really important in between checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever. Or you’re watching a TV program but you bring a book to read as you watch it. This is The Grey Zone. You’re not making efficient or useful progress, and you’re not switching off completely and getting the benefits of leisure time either. After a while in the grey zone, you will feel guilty for not getting anything done but also tired as you have not been fully relaxing.

It’s very easy to fall into the grey zone with tasks that have no clearly defined start and finish points. Studying is one big example, so is working on a blog or website. Yes, you know when your exam or essay deadline is, but you don’t have a schedule to do x at y time on z day. Without a start and finish point, it’s easy to spend hours or even days in the grey zone. You’ll eventually feel too overloaded with work to justify taking any time off (at least not without feeling guilty), so you feel compelled to sit at your desk “working”, but at the same time you don’t have the motivation to tackle any mentally demanding tasks. So you settle on some task that is necessary, and is helpful in some small degree, but isn’t what you would choose to do if your motivation was higher.

The problem with the grey zone is that it’s easy to rationalise that you have spent this time working. You probably believe quite strongly that the more time you put into a task, the more you get done: the ‘results by volume’ approach. If I’ve spent 6 hours ‘working’, I must have done lots of work. The flaw in the logic is that not every hour’s work is made equal. Here’s an illustration, using an arbitrary points system. Say an hour of focused work is 10 points of productivity, an hour in the grey zone is 3 points of productivity, and an hour of leisure is 0 points of productivity.

4 hours productive work = 40 points
2 hours leisure time = 0 points
TOTAL = 40 points

2 hours productive work = 20 points
4 hours in the grey zone = 12 points
TOTAL = 32 points

So more gets done in the first example. But there’s another factor to take into consideration. Even though 4 hours in the grey zone is less productive, it’s still pretty tiring. Without the extra time to relax, you might not be fully rested for tomorrow. Here’s what might happen the next day:

4 hours productive work = 40 points
2 hours leisure time = 0 points
TOTAL = 40 points

2 hours productive work = 18 points
4 hours in the grey zone = 10 points
TOTAL = 28 points

Of course these figures don’t prove anything; I’m just using them to illustrate my points, which are:

  • The grey zone is easy to fall into without clear start and end points to your work periods (and knowing specifically what to do within these ‘time boxes’)
  • Overall productivity is lower in the grey zone
  • The grey zone drains your motivation to tackle work with focus

Escaping The Grey Zone

It’s easy to get into and hard to get out of – unless you know how.

1) Fixed Scheduling

This is an idea popularised by Cal Newport. The principle is simple – you set a fixed schedule to study, and once that time is up, you stop working and start your leisure time, however you might choose to spend it. This is a bit scary at first, you might think you need the time too much, but give this a try for a few weeks. You’ll find that you get as much or more done, for two main reasons. Firstly, you’re forced to be more productive in the time that you have, so your overall efficiency will improve. Secondly, you’ll be better rested the next day, and won’t feel the need to float around in the grey zone. But you must stop when your schedule tells you to! Then go relax and recharge for the next day. If you ignore your schedule, you’ll just keep your old pattern; and if your time runs out before you get the work you wanted done, it will remind you that you’ll need to be more focused the next day.

2) Time Boxing

I came across this one through Steve Pavlina, many moons ago. Within your fixed schedule, set specific blocks of time out to work on specific tasks. Buy a cheap academic diary for this purpose. For example, say you have a lecture between 2 and 5. Your schedule for that day might be to work in the library from 10-1.45, then go to your class until 5. Your time boxes might be a two hour session between 10-12, and another from 12-1.45. Time boxing is very useful when you can’t break a task down further and it’s now just a matter of putting the time into getting it done. You know you only have to do a certain amount of work, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

3) Planning

Some people prefer to ‘go with the flow’ in terms of when and what they study, but I’m willing to bet that most people couldn’t do better on the fly than they could with a schedule. Therefore, you need to adopt some kind of system. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but you should know exactly what you need to do when you sit down to work. This doesn’t mean “Work on essay.” ‘Work on essay’ is not something to do, it’s a very vague notion. Instead, something like “Download Diener (1995), read and take notes.” Don’t put “Revise for working memory exam,” put “Draw mind maps based on notes on working memory.” It’s best to be as specific as you can so you don’t waste time in the grey zone deciding what to do. Although I accept there are times you cannot be any more specific than “Write essay” – sometimes it’s just time to start writing.

Remember the key points. The results by volume approach to study makes intuitive sense but it’s not entirely accurate. The quality of the time you put in is also important, and if you’re spending a long time putting minimal effort in, it will produce worse results and more stress than if you spend shorter periods putting lots of effort in. It will be difficult at first – focused studying is a tiring thing to do. After a couple of hours you’ll get hungry as your brain eats up glucose to fuel your efforts. But it is something you get better at over time.

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