Time management for researchers

Time, time, time. It’s all about time, what we do with it, or what we don’t do with it. I’ve been hearing a lot about overwork and burnout in academia lately, so I felt compelled to also say something on the topic of time management!

Here, I will share some of my thoughts on time management as a researcher-in-training. This is not going to be a ‘lifehack’ blog post where I tell you to drink more coffee or to use the Pomodoro technique. Instead, I will share with you what I perceive to be the three underlying principles of academic time management (good or bad).

In brief, I have a zero-tolerance policy on procrastination, and I’ve managed to maintain a 9-to-5 workday so far (five days a week, not seven days a week, important clarification!) with a 99% success rate. Still, I’ve noticed that many academic tasks tend to take longer than I estimate that they will take. Mind you, it could just be my own way of doing things, but I do wonder, objectively, and on average, how long it takes academics to read and respond to emails, clear their tabs, write a conference abstract, proofread work, write a summary of the minutes of a meeting, and so on.

This really came to mind a few weeks ago when it took me 8 hours in total to write a one-page conference abstract. I had budgeted 4 hours. Was it worth the extra time spent on it? Totally! Did I expect it to take 8 hours in total to write? No! So why the extra time? In this case, and many others, the extra time was spent on editing (done by myself or as a response to feedback)! What about other activities such as clearing tabs – how long should they take? What is an acceptable time to allocate each day to respond to emails?

On one hand, responses to such questions will vary from person to person and from situation to situation, and it may be futile to try to estimate the time needed for tasks approximately. On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped me from trying to attach time estimates to everything, and I think there are some merits to doing so. If you go into a task without an estimate or any particular expectation, you could get lost in it, end up spending way too much time on it, and neglect other tasks. It might be better to at least try to impose some sort of time limitation on tasks, I reckon, even if your guess is off by an hour or two. It’s almost like a reversal of that famous cliché saying – “aim for the stars and even if you fail, you will reach the moon” – except it’s more along the lines of “aim for the moon (i.e. aim to spend one hour on a task) and hope that you don’t spill over and end up going to the stars (i.e. spend 16 hours over 3 days on a task for whatever reason)”.

Overall, I think that time management for academics boils down to a combination of three factors:

1. High standards,

2. Learning as you go, and

3. Being your own editor/manager/personal assistant/transcriptionist/marketing specialist (the list goes on!).

There may be other factors that I’ve missed, but these are the main ones that come to mind. It follows on from this line of reasoning, then, that the way to improve one’s time management is to either:

1. Lower standards and be a selective perfectionist (not an option for most tasks, but maybe for less important tasks). Associated with this would be an evaluation of which tasks absolutely need to be done to a high standard and which don’t need to be done perfectly every time. A conference submission should absolutely be perfect. A routine two-liner email to a friendly colleague – maybe one missing comma is OK?

2. Be in peace with the fact that learning takes time and that tasks will start to take you less and less time as time goes on and you learn more. If you’re still learning how to do something at the same time that you’re doing it, it’s going to take you longer than it would take someone who already has that skill. An example would be writing for different audiences, which is an advanced academic writing skill. It’s one thing to knock out a sensible, well-structured, well-referenced academic text, and it’s another to anticipate what information might be most pertinent to a particular audience and edit accordingly. Experienced academics are really good at this, while novice researchers might require some extra time to get to grips with it.

3. Academics wear a lot of different hats and are good at a lot of different things. The practical life advice that stems from this point would be to enlist the help of others with tasks that are taking too long or seem to be too challenging – particularly of friends and colleagues who have skillsets different to your own, or who are experienced in academia and can advise you/ facilitate your learning. Partial delegation or task swapping might not be a good idea in all cases, e.g. where ethics are involved. However, if someone is good at making infographics, and you’re not, it might be more time-efficient to ask them to help you out or coach you rather than to go and learn how to make infographics from scratch?

Speaking of time (and also digital well-being), I will be trialling two new formats of blog posts here over the course of the next few months: a 500-word format and a 1000-word format. Why, you may ask? Because:

  • it’s the middle of winter, the pandemic is still going on, and people seem to be getting a bit tired of it all. We should probably all disengage more, go for more walks (the government will disagree with this one for sure!!!), or just do activities that get us away from our screens in general. Why should I ask you to read a long blog post when you would likely also get the message via a shorter one?
  • I want to improve at writing up to spec. Wordcount limits and page limits are a fact of life!

This blog post is the first entry in this new, truncated format. A three-part series on the topic of literature searching/writing a literature review for a PhD is coming next, starting with literature searching. The next two parts to come after that will be about indexing/organising papers and writing a literature review.

P.S. Is there a case, in general, for bringing back the ‘estimating reading time’ feature? Knowing how much time an article will take to read might help us all with time management. It would make it easier to decide if one should read an article now, later, or maybe never. It’s a feature that used to appear in magazines in the 90s frequently, but for some reason, it’s no longer a thing. Maybe because everyone has different reading times, so it’s not such a useful feature to have? Medium has estimated reading times, which is great.

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