A question of time management

In my experience, effectively managing one’s time is an important part of succeeding in academia, because for the most part no-one else is going to do it for you. True, there is the occasional fixed deadline around conference time, and any involvement in teaching will also impose some structure on your days; but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of research – producing data and turning into papers – the structure has to be imposed from within. It requires a certain amount of self-discipline, and I’ve recently been confronting the fact that I’m not being as efficient as I could be – or as I need to be to be really effective (blogging being one of the many balls in the life of Chris that has been fumbled recently).
I don’t certainly don’t lack in things to do. At the moment I have a number of different pending projects – which range in completeness from the ‘write the sodding paper already!’ to the ‘it would be quite cool if I could work out how to do this’ stage. Each of these projects can be broken down into a number of different sub-tasks – from struggling with the idiosyncracies of my lab equipment, to reading through a stack of papers for background information, to producing and interpreting pretty graphs. The question is, what’s the best way to cut through the fog of lists and work out what is most important? How should I divide my time between all of the things that need to get done, without flitting between different tasks so rapidly that I don’t give myself the opportunity to really concentrate on, and make solid progress in, any? How much time should I sacrifice away from projects with the shortest immediate payoff in order to keep other promising avenues simmering? When it comes to concurrent projects, how many is too many?
Half of the problem, of course, may well be that I don’t feel I’m getting much done because I’m spending too much time obsessing over how to chop up my day. Part of me thinks the solution might lay in thinking in terms of larger chunks of time; rather than saying ‘I’ll spend the morning doing x and the afternoon doing y’ perhaps I should be thinking ‘I’ll spend the next two days/week concentrating on x before moving onto y’. But I’d be interested in hearing my readers’ suggestions, and stories of how they decide what to do with their days.

Categories: academic life

Comments (8)

  1. I forget where this idea comes from–it is definitely published–but what I find extremely useful is to consider all tasks on two dimensions: urgency and importance. People have a tendency to overemphasize urgency–when a task need to be complete–at the expense of importance–how a task contributes to achieving your long-term goals.
    Tasks that are urgent, but unimportant, should not be given precedence over tasks that are important, but not urgent. Devoting undue effort to urgent unimportant tasks is an insidious form of procrastination.

  2. Bob O'H says:

    My strategy is to make lists of things to do. Often there are “small” things, like reviewing papers or (much smaller) writing emails and doing admin. Then I try to complete each one before I start the next.
    For big projects, it’s more important to finish than to start, so perhaps you should keep a rule like “for every project I’m doing the research on, I have to be actively writing up another one”.
    This way you can put something aside, because it’s on the list anyway, and you’ll find there are less things to do. For small things you know roughly how long they’ll take, for big things try regularly allocating half or whole days to them.
    And don’t worry – it doesn’t work out as neatly as that.

  3. DD says:

    Go fishing. Doesn’t matter what happens. Just *go fishing*.

  4. ScienceWoman says:

    Yes, exactly what CPP said. I find the urgent-important distinction very helpful too. Lately, I’ve also been writing a list of just 3 things per week and trying to keep focusing myself back on those things over the course of the week. It helps, but it also helps by limiting the obsessing and list making. :) Good luck!

  5. kjhaxton says:

    This is why August is one of the hardest months for academics – we are free to do as we choose with our time, and have no meetings or teaching to give structure to the weeks. I vary, sometimes doing a little of each thing, each day makes me feel OK, but then I don’t get many things completed in the short term. That approach does bring about days or weeks where everything seems to get finished at once. The rest of the time I work on one thing until I am sick of it then move on to something else by way of a break.
    I’d select two things to work on in a focussed way per week – one that satisfies long term productivity/opportunity, and one that satisfies short term success and a feeling of completion.

  6. Michael says:

    Don’t we all wish that there were a magic solution to this!
    Not that I am in any way a shining example of time management and efficiency, but what’s sometimes useful is, rather than making a list, which is a dreary, linear, thing, take a large sheet of paper and simply write tasks in a random scatter across the page. Then sit back and look for connections, tasks that are related to each other as parts of larger projects. With lines in jolly colours, clump them together and allocate time/effort on this joined-up basis. Often, connections that are hidden by a linear list become apparent.
    Well, it works for me – it’s actually a form of what has been referred to as “mind mapping,” and can be really useful in planning a piece of writing or a talk. It’s very much a personal thing – one individual will approach it in a completely different way to another – but, for example, each chapter of my book began life as a (densely-covered) piece of A1 paper.

  7. Silver Fox says:

    I often end up working on one thing until I’m sick of it, like kjhaxton above, which often leaves me bleary at the end of a long day. Other days I’ll concentrate on getting a lot of smaller tasks on my TTD list (things to do) out of the way so I can feel accomplished. I like the ideas above about urgency v. importance.
    Could not “preview” this, btw.

  8. Jim Thomerson says:

    I once got into a mental state such that I thought, whatever I was doing, that I should be doing something else. The result was that I dithered around and accomplished nothing.
    My youngest son asked me to take him fishing. I did so. Sitting on the river bank, it came to me that when one is fishing, one is not suposed to be doing anything else. It was like the lightbulb lighting up you see in the comics. It took me a while to get my life back in order, but I understood what was needed, and did so.