Applying Google Time to the Scholarly Life

by Anna Blanch on April 7, 2010

One of my favourite parts of my work are those moments where I feel that I am completely free to create. Those moments or hours or half-days where I let my mind run with whatever possibility or spark of an idea. My brain is on pretty much all the time and these moments are genuinely enjoyable as I can give these half-baked kernels their due. Sometimes these ideas will sit in a file for months or even a year or two being added to periodically before hopefully being transformed into a future book, article, or other project – we’ve all got these; Notorious PhD wrote about the resurrection of a couple of projects that she thought were long exiled to the Cemetery of Forgotten Projects a few days ago.

Setting aside a percentage of your work week to work on new projects unrelated to anything you currently have on your plate is nothing new in the corporate world, even though it is still considered somewhat radical. 3M has had 15% time since the 1950s and Google famously has 20% time. Scott Berkun has written about the misconceptions about 20% time in this helpful article – much of which can also be applied to the professional writer, teacher, and scholar. Berkun interestingly notes that Google has acknowledged the influence of the Montessori teaching philosophy on the implementation of the 20% rule.

How much time should you set aside to brainstorm or to be creative about possible future projects?
Like Google you probably don’t track your time by the minute or the hour – I have to admit that academia has this advantage over Law; the lack of billable hours are yet another reason why I am pretty thrilled about where I’ve landed career wise! – but if you do I suggest suggest setting aside an hour or two once a week as reserved creative or brainstorming time to work through new project ideas and to sketch out abstracts or otherwise allow your mind to wander towards those sparks of ideas you might have had during that dinner party, while watching Children’s TV with your little one, or while on that run recently.

If you are not a scheduler who thrives on hour by hour planning and instead prefers a more flexible unscheduled approach to work then be sure to relish in those creative moments and be assured that taking time to look ahead without the constraints of deadlines can be time very well spent.

Where should you do “scholar time”* ?
Now is probably the time to reiterate “know thyself” when it comes to the way you work. There is some apparently benefit to having different workspaces for different kinds of tasks – apparently something about the way our brains connect with different tasks and locations helps us to settle in to that kind of task quickly (this is great if you often change from one task type to another during a day). As I said, you probably have a creative space in mind but if you need some ideas:

  • a table in your favourite coffee shop (i find it helps me to have my headphones and music with me if there is lots of other noise)
  • a nice grassy spot under a lovely big tree
  • a big reading chair with a cup of tea
  • on a garden chair in the morning sunlight
  • on a napkin scrap or the back of a coaster at your local.

I’d love to hear about the spaces and places you find encourage your creativity!

* have you got a better name for this than “scholar time”? I admit that i think this is a little twee and i’d love something a little more creative!

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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