TIME MANAGEMENT

I realised my brain works very well in the mornings. . . what I really needed to do was make sure that all my creativity and writing, and stuff that I really needed to think about were in the mornings, and then all my meetings could be in the afternoons.

Once I started doing that, I started being much more productive and feeling much happier with how I was spending my work time.

Many successful researchers identify time management [1] as an important skill for career success [2][3]. For example, a 2009 study reported that planning and meeting deadlines (two key time management skills) were positively related to course grades in middle school [4]. Another study shows that successful time management can also facilitate a sense of well-being among college students [5].

 

"Scheduling is quite important, I've tried to move away from To Do lists to actually just scheduling things in my diary, and I think that works quite well."

- Professor Sally Gras

 

Factors affecting individuals use of time  

 

Research suggests that your ability to manage your time can be constrained by four sets of factors: personal, role, resource, and environmental factors (see below) [6].  

This model of time management suggests that everyone has different experiences of pressures on their time, depending on these factors.

 

Time management: plan, focus, avoid and limit

 

How do you divide up your time? Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, proposed a useful and simple time management model. Covey suggested that people spend time in four ways, which can be captured along two dimensions – urgent responsibilities that require immediate attention and important responsibilities that contribute to your goals [7].

 

The matrix includes the following [8]:

  1. Quadrant A (MANAGE): Characterised by high urgency and importance. Requires immediate management and attention.

  2. Quadrant B (FOCUS): Characterised by high importance, but low urgency. Requires strategic planning and focus because this quadrant has long-term importance. Careful planning here will reduce Quadrant A tasks.

  3. Quadrant C (AVOID): Characterised by high urgency, but low importance tasks. These activities are distractions that get in the way of your goals and should be avoided where possible.

  4. Quadrant D (LIMIT): Characterised by low urgency and importance. These are obvious time-wasting activities that hold little value for you. Try to limit these as much as possible.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to spend too much time on the tasks that are urgent, irrespective of importance (including both the MANAGE and AVOID quadrants). But this can mean we ignore tasks that are important but not yet urgent (FOCUS quadrant). Not putting time into the FOCUS quadrant can backfire in the longer term, as FOCUS items become more urgent and become MANAGE tasks.

 

Academics can struggle with prioritising important tasks over urgent ones. This can cause problems with tasks such as writing papers, which are crucial for career success but often do not have the same sense of urgency as many other tasks which are less important for your long-term goals. Academics are prone to issues such as procrastination [9], attending to interruptions [9] (e.g., email, phone calls, text or instant messages, and visits of co-workers), and a lack of discipline [9]. Studies show the average professionals spend nearly 23% of their day emailing [10], sending/receiving nearly 112 emails per day [11]. In a 2012 study, researchers examined worker productivity and stress levels when email access was restricted, finding that employees who were not continually connected by e-mail showed better focus, multitasked less, and experienced lower stress levels [12].

 

Another time management trap is multitasking. Although some people believe multitasking improves efficiency, the brain is more effective when it can focus on a single task over a longer period of time. Research claims that multitasking hinders brain functions, resulting in less cognitive control and poor attention spans [13]. For example, a 2006 study showed that multi-tasking affects the brain’s learning systems, impeding the brain’s ability to absorb information [14]. Another study found that individuals who multitasked were more susceptible to interferences from irrelevant environmental stimuli and representations in memory [15].

Strategies for managing your work

 

There is a plethora of management strategies that can help you become a more efficient researcher. Time management is critical, as is keeping up your attention and energy levels. It can also be useful to have a strong understanding of how to delegate tasks and run efficient meetings.

 

Manage your time

 

As effective time management directly contributes to your productivity as a researcher, it is an important skill to master.

Successful time management strategies include [9]:

  • Setting realistic and attainable goals

  • Optimizing realistic planning

  • Prioritizing your goals

  • Effective scheduling

  • Maintaining focus on your research program

  • Involving your team

  • Rewarding yourself for your achievements

  • Managing potential distractions

  • Problem solving and managing barriers

  • Balancing the different aspects of your life

  • Periodically analysing your progress and time management strategies

 

Consider optimising your use of time by [16]:

1. Applying the principles of triage to schedule your tasks and projects.

2. Schedule time to manage your e-mail: divide and conquer.

3. Set aside time for scholarship, including reading and writing time. Put these in your calendar as appointments so that you do not schedule other meetings or distractions during that time. Read more about academic writing here.

4. Maximize positive impact by being selective when saying “no”.

5. Avoid preparing your teaching “to perfection”: use lesson plans and alignment.

6. Maximize your office hours by carefully considering when to work and where.

 

Manage your energy

 

Time management can be hard when you’re feeling low on energy. Employees who stay energized throughout the day are more engaged and perform better [17]. Consider the following strategies from a 2015 study of employee techniques for raising energy levels during short work breaks [18]:

1. Work-related strategies:

  • Make a to-do list

  • Focus on what gives you joy at work

  • Set new work-related goals

2. Private micro-break strategies:

  • Have a non-work related interaction

  • Listen to music

  • Surf the web for non-work related information

3. Physical micro-break strategies

  • Get moving with some physical activity, such as a brisk walk or gentle stretching

  • Step outside for some fresh air

 

Boosting your attention

 

Being successful and productive at work requires you to utilize and allocate your attention efficiently. Attention management [19] is the ability to control your distractions and maximize your focus. Tips and tricks for managing distractions and boosting your attention span include [20][21]:

1. Identify your stressors

2. Remove distractions

3. Take a digital ‘Sabbath’ i.e., take a break from your devices and technology

4. Use the power of music: music without lyrics can enhance your ability to focus [22]

5. Adopt the 10-minute rule – try focusing intensely on your tasks for short bursts

6. Know your attention’s “circadian rhythms”

7. Deal with your emotions

8. Track your time

9. Give yourself a reward

10. Get out into nature to ‘reset’ your attention

11. Quit trying to multitask

12. Take a nap

 

Delegate your work

 

Another way to ensure more tasks get done in less time is to delegate [23]. Delegation involves the assignment of responsibility/authority to another person to carry out certain tasks. Read more about how to successfully delegate tasks.

 

Make meetings more effective

 

Finally, your capacity to get the most out of meetings can improve your utilization of time. Harvard Business Review [24] suggests seven tactics to make meetings more effective:

  1. Keep the meetings as small as possible – no more than 7 people (to prevent social loafing [25]).

  2. Ban devices (remember, multitasking is a myth).

  3. Keep it as short as possible – an hour or less is ideal.

  4. Stand-up meetings are more productive and shorter than sit-down meetings.

  5. Make sure everyone participates and cold-call those who don’t.

  6. Never hold a meeting without value e.g., meeting just to update people, which could have been done via email instead.

  7. Always set an agenda ahead of time –be clear about the purpose of the meeting.

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