For the last couple of weeks, we have addressed several topics that mainly relate to long-term career advancement for academics. We wrote about setting Career Goals and how you can benefit from a Personal Career Development Plan as a tool to achieve them.
However, achieving your ambitions comes down to taking effective action in the short term. That’s why today we will focus on time management for academics. We will take a closer look at task inventories, prioritization, scheduling, and execution. Of course, there are many different approaches, but for the sake of brevity we will present some that worked well for us.
How often have you said no to something because “there is no time”, or felt overwhelmed because of all the “stuff” that had to be done? To get organized when it feels like too much, or avoid reaching this point in the first place, a task inventory is the way to go. A task inventory is nothing more than a list of all the things you want/have to do, with no ranking or importance associated to the tasks. It can be as simple as a piece of paper, or an elaborate online digital system. Most importantly, it has to be accessible for continuous updating and you should be comfortable with it. The best way to get going is to sit down (with a pen and piece of paper) and record everything that comes to your mind. By transferring it to paper, you will realize that the list often is shorter and more manageable than the unstructured thoughts distracting your attention. Now that it is on paper and out of your mind, you can use your brain power to get work done instead of worrying about . Be sure to constantly update your task inventory as soon as you get confronted with new tasks.
Figure 1: Using an Eisenhower Matrix, you can easily categorize your task inventory and prioritize what you will dedicate your attention to.
Once the task inventory is made, you can start ranking the tasks. A very useful tool for prioritization is the so-called Eisenhower Matrix, where you classify each task for its current importance and urgency. Doing so leaves you with four categories: 1) Tasks that are important and urgent should be moved to your “To do” list for immediate action; 2) Those that are important but not urgent have to be scheduled for a later time; 3) Tasks that are urgent but not important can be delegated to others; and 4) Tasks that are not important and not urgent should be avoided. By doing so, you will immediately see which tasks to focus on, thereby greatly increasing the effectiveness of what you are doing.
Scheduling & Execution
Our time is limited, especially when it comes to the amount of focused attention we can dedicate to a task. An approach that works well is based on the so-called “Pomodoro technique”, where you divide your day in short segments, followed by a short break. Starting from the most urgent and important tasks, estimate each task’s duration and allocate them to a segment. A good segment length is 20-30 minutes, where the aim is that a task is completed within the allocated time. If a task is too large for such a segment (e.g. write the introduction to the manuscript) this is an indication that it has been to broadly defined. Break it down into manageable subtasks (e.g. draft a paragraph with our hypothesis and objectives). When distributing tasks over the day, consider when you are usually most focused (morning, afternoon, evening) and allocate accordingly. Also put in sufficient breaks for physical activity and social interaction.
Newly incoming tasks should be quickly evaluated. As a rule of thumb, if it can be processed within 2 minutes (i.e. executed, delegated) you should do that immediately. If it is urgent and important, try to allocate time in your schedule. If not, add it to your task inventory for later prioritization.
This basic introduction to time management should enable you to increase your personal effectiveness. If you are interested in learning more, we can highly recommend diving into “The pomodoro technique” by Francesco Cirillo, “Extreme productivity” by Robert Pozen, and “Getting things done” by David Allen. Also search the internet for “Eisenhower matrix”.
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