Three Stories: #3 Taking Time for Cats

There are a number of draft posts sitting on this blog. Posts, which for one reason or another, I’ve either never finished, because the inspiration ran out, or I’ve never published, because I decided not to share them. Most of them were written when I was trying to make sense of being too busy, while at the same time I was taking on more work and feeling bad about not being able to commit properly to everything. I probably won’t ever share many of these posts but I still want to talk about some of the themes.

So, let me tell you a story about  cats.

One of the things about cats is that they can be mercurial, creatures of fancy and rapid mood changes. You can spend all day trying to get a cat to sit on your lap and, once you’ve given up and sat back down, 5 minutes later you find a cat on your lap. That’s just the way of cats.

When I was very busy last year, and the year before, I started to see feedback comments from my students that said things like “Nick is great but I feel interrupting him” or I’d try and squeeze them into the 5 minutes I had between other things. Now, students are not cats, but they do have times when they feel they need to come and see you and, sometimes, when that time passes, the opportunity is lost. This isn’t just students, of course, this is people. That’s just the way of people, too. No matter how much you want them to be well organised, predictable and well behaved, sometimes they’re just big, bipedal, mostly hairless cats.

One day, I decided that the best way to make my change my frantic behaviour was to set a small goal, to make me take the time I needed for the surprising opportunities that occurred in a day.

I decided that every time I was walking around the house, even if I was walking out to go to work and thought I was in a hurry, if one of the cats came up to me, I would pay attention to it: scratch it, maybe pick it up, talk to it, and basically interact with the cat.

Over time, of course, what this meant was that I saw more of my cats and I spent more time with them (cats are mercurial but predictable about some things). The funny thing was that the 5 minutes or so I spent doing this made no measurable difference to my day. And making more time for students at work started to have the same effect. Students were happier to drop in to see if I could spend some time with them and were better about making appointments for longer things.

Now, if someone comes to my office and I’m not actually about to rush out, I can spend that small amount of time with them, possibly longer. When I thought I was too busy to see people, I was. When I thought I had time to spend with people, I could.

Yes, this means that I have to be a little more efficient and know when I need to set aside time and do things in a different way, but the rewards are enormous.

I only realised the true benefit of this recently. I flew home from a work trip to Melbourne to discover that my wife and one of our cats, Quincy, were at the Animal Emergency Hospital, because Quincy couldn’t use his back legs. There was a lot of uncertainty about what was wrong and what could be done and, at one point, he stopped eating entirely and it was… not good there for a while.

The one thing that made it even vaguely less awful in that difficult time was that I had absolutely no regrets about the time that we’d spent together over the past 6 months. Every time Quincy had come up to say ‘hello’, I’d stopped to take some time with him. We’d lounged on the couch. He’d napped with me on lazy Sunday afternoons. We had a good bond and, even when the vets were doing things to him, he trusted us and that counted for a lot.

Quincy is now almost 100% and is even more of a softie than before, because we all got even closer while we were looking after him. By spending (probably at most) another five minutes a day, I was able to be happier about some of the more important things in my life and still get my “real” work done.

Fortunately, none of my students are very sick at the moment, but I am pretty confident that I talk to them when they need to (most of the time, there’s still room for improvement) and that they will let me know if things are going badly – with any luck at a point when I can help.

Your time is rarely your own but at least some of it is. Spending it wisely is sometimes not the same thing as spending it carefully. You never actually know when you won’t get the chance again to spend it on something that you value.

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