Where does the time go?

As we rapidly approach the end of both the fall semester and 2017, it’s a great time to  reflect about the year’s accomplishments (update your C.V.) and look forward to what 2018 will bring (panic about all the things you haven’t finished yet that need to be completed by the end of the year).

Time management is a reoccurring theme in academia, and with so many items on one’s to-do list, it’s not hard to see why.  Everyone has their own advice about how to be more effective; which was the very first meeting in this year’s Faculty Organizing for Success professional development workshop series, which I attended in October.  I compiled some of the suggestions made there, along with advice I’ve picked up over the years, and strategies I use which I’ve found to be effective.

One of the major questions that came up at the FOS meeting was time management in the face of academic duties, namely service.  Academics have a requirement to provide service or outreach to their university, the community, and their field, and as I’ve previously discussed, these amorphous responsibilities can be time-consuming and under-appreciated.  Sometimes, turning off your ringer, closing your email application, or saying “no” isn’t enough or isn’t possible.  So, how can you make the most of your time while navigating the constraints of a fractured schedule?

Lists

  1. I find lists to be extremely helpful in keeping track of everything I need to do, and it really helps me focus on what I need to get done TODAY.  
  2. Lists help me organize my thoughts
    1. by adding notes for each particular item
    2. and ordering the steps I need to take to finish each item.
  3. Being able to cross tasks off a physical list is also a great visual reminder that you are, in fact, being productive.  
  1.  And, at the end of the day, the remaining items form a new list, so I know where to begin tomorrow.  This saves me a lot of time which would otherwise be spent trying to remember where and how I left off.

Calendars

Don’t like lists?  I also heavily rely on my calendar and will schedule appointments for everything, especially the little things that I’m liable to forget, including catching up on emails, lunch, reading articles, writing posts, etc.  I utilize color-coding and multiple calendars within a calendar, like shared calendars from research labs or online applications.  I have learned to schedule small blocks of time after meetings, especially project development or brainstorming meetings, during which I can write notes, look up deadlines, send emails, or any other action items that came up during the meeting while it’s still fresh in my mind.  I even schedule appointments for my personal events, like hiking, movies, or buying cheese at the farmer’s market.  Having them in my calendar keeps me from scheduling work-related things into my personal time.  Academics, myself included, have a habit of working more than 40 hours a week: “Let me just send this email real quick” can easily transform into “Well, there went my Saturday”.

I’ve been known to schedule reminders months or a year in advance, perhaps to catch up with someone about a project, to have a certain portion of a project completed by a soft deadline, or look up a grant RFA that will be made available approximately three months from now.  Making good use of my calendar has been particularly important for tracking my time for reporting (or billing) purposes. BioBE and ESBL use the Intervals tracking program, and it’s much easier to report my time if I have a detailed account of it in my calendar.  Even better- it’s great for retrospective reports:

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The categorical break-down of how I have spent my time from June to November.

 

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That time has been used for a number of different projects.

Perhaps the best use of my calendar has been to schedule themed time-blocks spanning several hours, such as “catching up on projects” or “data analysis”, specifically on a shared or public calendar to prevent time fractionation.  These events are marked as tentative, so I can be scheduled during those times as needed, but I find that I get fewer requests for my time when I don’t have unclaimed space on the calendar.  And, I can focus on a specific project for several hours, which I prefer to a “30 min here, 60 min there” approach.  If possible, I also try to concatenate meetings, seminars, training and workshops, or other short but disruptive events.  One or two stand-alone events can be a nice way to break up the day, but too many can fracture my time into small blocks and make it very difficult to effectively perform the research portion of my work which is best accomplished when I can puzzle out problems at my own pace.  So, I categorize the day as “administrative”, “social media“, or “project management”, and spend the day taking care of all the other responsibilities I have that are tangential (but important) to my research.

Emails

Prioritizing my emails with flags is also really helpful, especially if you can color-code by importance.  I get dozens of emails every day, from six different email accounts, but I keep my inboxes to less than 10 items each, almost every day.  I spend a few minutes to prioritize them for later, I archive old emails into other folders for future reference, and I dedicate time to deal with my emails on a daily basis.  I also liberally use the “unsubscribe” link.  

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Actual screenshot from one of my inboxes.

Caution: Work Zone Ahead

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Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina.

Academics love to work outside the office- most often because the office is where everyone goes to find you for some reason.  Coffee shops, parks, airports, and homes are popular locations for “writing caves” (I’m writing this from home right now).  Being in a distraction-free, or distraction-specific (i.e. white noise of cafe chatter) location helps me focus on things without interruption.  When I’m analyzing data or writing up results, I have multiple computer application windows open and am collating information from multiple sources, so I need to focus or else I waste a lot of time trying to pick up where I left off after every interruption.

 

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Monty Python

When I’m stuck on something, sometimes I’ll take a walk- usually to go get coffee.  Ok, always to go get coffee.  Exercise stimulates blood flow and lattes are full of glucose, so it’s a perfect way for me to recharge.  Often, that change of pace is all I need to accomplish in 2 min what I was struggling to put together earlier.  My best ideas often coalesce while hiking or biking home, so I started taking pens and notepaper with me so I can write them down on the fly before I forget.

When possible, I also try not to force myself to work to continue working on specific things past the point where I can make progress on it (you know, for all those times I’m not up against a deadline- haha).  Of course, this flexibility in my schedule during business hours is a privilege that most people don’t enjoy.  It also takes a great deal of self-motivation to enforce, but it can be very effective for me.  Instead, I set that project aside and  focus on something else entirely.  Often, this leads to procrastinating work with other work, but it’s productive nonetheless.  But for me, it also leads to more effective work-life balance. Late afternoons are not a particularly productive time for me; it’s better if I leave early and go grocery shopping, and then work for a few hours in the evening or on Saturday mornings, when I can get an extremely productive hour or two in after I’ve had time to mull things over.  Having down time built into your day has been shown to improve productivity.

Conversely, when I get new data, start writing a new grant, or acquire a novel task, my interest and enthusiasm are high and I’m tempted to drop everything else to start working on it. Following that passion for a day or a week gives me a great start in which to outline what I’ll do for the next few weeks or months.  Then, as my enthusiasm ebbs, my thoughts wander, and other deadlines become more pressing, I can set it aside and pick that outline up later after I’ve thought it over.  Collectively, these strategies allow me to be productive without reallocating time that I would otherwise use for sleeping, and without racing against the clock to submit something.

Find a system you like and stick to it

Everyone uses different technology and productivity applications, and everyone has a different style of organization, so you may have to try different things to find a method you like.  But once you find something that works for you, stick with it.  Too often I see people abandon a time management strategy because they don’t have time to invest in adapting to it.  Maybe you have several hundred unread emails you don’t want to sort, maybe you are having syncing issues across multiple device operating systems, or maybe you keep forgetting to use your strategy because it hasn’t become habit.  I encourage you to devote time to becoming comfortable with some time management strategy, as I can personally attest that it will pay off later.

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