This week’s blog post is geared toward “best practices for time management.” It has been my experience that this is a topic where there is no all encompassing right answer. People find what thing or things work(s) for them. My lab group is discussing this topic this week, which I think is a great idea. I’m hoping to get some ideas for new things I can try that might work for me and hopefully my lab mates will find my own thoughts helpful too!
I use a combination of time-management techniques or “best-practices,” so I’ll be kind of talking about a couple of them, but the reality is that I don’t use all of them at the same time.
I have an overall timeline, but I really focus on a smaller part of the picture
This is really kind of geared at the PhD experience. You are working on essentially a 4 year project. Which is a lot. It is good to have an idea of your overall time frame, but its overwhelming to me to think about the specifics of all of that. I break it down to think about the smaller time scale. I have a general sense of what I’ll be working on two terms from now, but I have a much more real sense of what I’ll be doing for the next month.
In the same line of thinking, I break my project down into smaller and smaller tasks. For example, I want to have a paper draft by the end of May, but I’ll break it down into writing sections (Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, Figures, References) and assign them a time frame like “Monday and Tuesday of this week I’ll work on writing the introduction.” But then my task list for Monday might be “Make an outline of the introduction, what do you want to cover?” while Tuesday is “Write introduction draft 1” which might really mean “vomit words onto the page about what is going to be in the introduction and then try to fix it so its a set of paragraphs”
To have the easiest time achieving tasks, I sometimes break it down to very very small things like “Go to PILOT website” “Find images that overlap this spot (Lat, Long)” and “Download 2 of those images” and every step of the way I feel like I can cross something off my list.
Acknowledging my feelings
Related to the previous note about best practices, I have to pay a lot of attention to how I feel on a given day. I’ve become a lot better at this lately. On days where I don’t feel much motivation to work, I do things that are easier on my brain. For me, this is reading papers and taking notes. Its productive and needs to be done, but takes a little less out of me. My friend Jahnavi once told me something she read about doing some of your hardest tasks on days when you feel good. You might be tempted to do “easier” tasks on those days so that you can get a lot done or just because they are easier, but instead its sometimes helpful to take advantage of feeling motivated to do the things you know you struggle more with. I have taken this advice to heart a bit and have gotten much better at knowing that certain days are paper days while other days I knuckle down and open ArcGIS to fight with software.
As I alluded to up above, having a list of things to do, or tasks, is my overall main way of time management. For me, part of what makes me feel overwhelmed is having all of these tasks and deadlines and requirements in my head. When I write them down, my brain feels like it can relax a bit as I’ve now acknowledged the things that need to be done. At various points in time this has looked like sticky notes all over my desk, a daily lab notebook, a list in my notes app, random scraps of paper, a word document, etc. Once I have a list of things to do, I can then assign them timeframes. This is sometimes the day they are due, the day(s) I’m going to do them, or the amount of time it will take me to do the task or all of the above. I think about all of them, as well as their priority, when thinking about what order and on what days to do them. It’s almost like a puzzle. I fit things that will take less time and less energy next to things that will take more focus and more time. When nothing big is pressing (so just smaller things like doing a blog post or preparing for a meeting) I often just work off the list as a whole and plan just what I am going to do for a specific day, just keeping in mind my tasks for the overall week.
When I’m making my lists, I often end up really making multiple lists. It depends on what is bothering me or what feels impending. Sometimes when I have a lot of things to be doing at home, I end up making a list of household/administrative tasks I have to do. This is often things like “Check the mail, buy groceries, make dinner, call Mom, etc.”
If instead, I’m worried about a lot of different projects, I might make lists based on when they are due. So that might be lists titled “Things to do today, things to do this week, things before the end of April, things to do before I leave for California.” I was speaking with my friend Ashka about this and her habit of doing a similar thing. She pointed out that one of the benefits of doing this is that it allows you to only focus and worry about doing the specific things that have to get done that day. As long as you break up tasks that are going to take longer to do into smaller things to do on specific days, then you can take each day at a time and still complete larger tasks or tasks that are due further down the road.
Time blocking in calendar
When I have a deadline approaching, or just a lot I want to do in a week or two weeks, I’ll often time block my calendar with those tasks. After I break down my list (see above) into specific tasks, I assign them to days (also see above), and then I fit them into my google calendar. I block out the time in my calendar that I am going to do that specific task. Sometimes I write notes or specific sub tasks into the “notes” part of the calendar event. I don’t do this all the time, usually it is only when I’m feeling like it is a particularly hectic week or as I said, leading up to a bigger deadline! I only do this is manageable time chunks, a week or two, and I include buffer time for if things take longer than they were supposed to. I try to be flexible with time, as the reality is that things don’t usually go the way you expect them to, particularly with research. If my schedule gets off, I’ll often redo the events to change things around, or just assign things to the “buffer” time.
Environment is everything
This is really just about me, but might apply to others. Personally, I work much better in an environment where others are working and an environment away from home. My brain associates home with relaxing, doing things for fun, sleeping, and essentially everything not work related. This makes it more difficult to work there. In contrast, my brain associates the lab, and campus in general, with work and focus. This is essentially my form of separation of church and state - separation of home and work. I bribe myself into going to campus (yay chai lattes!) and then I’m able to focus and get work done. A good beverage and a nice large table or work space (sometimes big screens!) is really conducive to me feeling driven to get work done.
Take breaks! Know when to step away!
Perhaps it's a bit cliche, but for research work, I find that I end of trying to go for quality over quantity. Especially lately, I’ve been working on essentially de-bugging some processing steps. This is endlessly frustrating. As I’ve mentioned to Catherine, several times I’ve had to step away from a problem and literally go home and do nothing related to work. When I come back in the next day, I’m usually able to solve the problem in comparatively little time. Rather than continuing to try and make progress when I’m not being productive, I leave and do something to reset my brain before I tackle it again.
One last thing. In seminar this year, one piece of advice we were all given is that part of what we do as we get further into our career is that we learn how to judge which things need 100% of our effort or rather, which things need to be done as well as we can do them versus which things just need to be done. For example, this blog post. The purpose of doing it is to get some writing practice and then later some presentation practice. As well as the time management tips of course. But really, in the span of my PhD, it just needs to be done. So I’m not going to spend more time doing it than I need to. It needs to be complete and I need to have tried. But it doesn’t need me to worry about the overall structure, or double check my spelling (shout-out to the time I had a bunch of dessert vs desert issues), or redo the structure multiple times. I don’t need to make sure I have a certain number of pictures or the right key-words. I’m not trying to get followers, I’m just achieving a task that helps me in more subtle ways. In contrast, applying to a job/post-doc next year will need me to really give it my all. I’ll have others read my applications and I’ll have read through them multiple times. I’ll have done research on all the best practices and the background knowledge for those jobs. I’ll have reached out to contacts at the locations or cold-emailed someone if I don’t know anyone. In order to balance things of different levels of importance, we realistically just can’t give everything our all or we’ll burn-out and collapse. So learning to judge which things are important in that way is a useful skill.