Like most researchers, I have struggled through my initial years of research to find my groove. While I can’t say with surety that I have found it eventually, it would be vain to deny how much learning has happened in these years. I don’t know about genius minds who, with even failing breath, can come out with ground-breaking ideas. I need some sanity in my life, some space in my mindscape, to be able to concentrate, think and look around. I have found methods of time management immensely valuable in keeping away clutter from my surroundings and my thoughts. Below, I share some simple techniques that can create chunks of time/space so that you can focus your energies in doing what really inspires you.
Why is Time management Important for Researchers?
It can’t be planned. Actually, the real purpose of planning is to plan away those hundred other chores you must do apart from your main duty, so that there’s enough time and energy to carry it out.
There’s too much time; too little to do. Most dangerous myth! There’s too much to do. It’s just not apparent. Identifying what to do is an inherent part of research. Give it time on a regular basis.
There are no customers. There are. And they are very demanding. And you have to sell your work to them; and sell very hard. Each research community creates very high bars for newcomers.
Shabbiness indicates genius. I see no reason to believe that merely by looking shabby, or by leading a shabbily managed day to day life, one proves his genius. And I feel, it’s stupid to barter success and satisfaction in work and life to a vain bloating feeling of being a genius.
Research is all about great ideas. As the famous saying by Edison goes: ‘Genius … 1% inspiration … 99% perspiration,’ research too is mostly about persistent, hard toil. Most of it is boring, uninteresting, mechanical and mindless to the core.
Differentiators of Research
So then, what is it that’s really different about research? Really, from the perspective of time management, there is no fundamental difference. Just that the values of some variables are different.
Incentives. The incentives for which researchers work is somewhat (not very) different from that for which non-researchers work. For example, a pat for your work, your name being added among the experts of your area etc. are more important than money, promotions and suave lifestyle to researchers.
Timelines. For researchers, timelines are fuzzier. Had it been possible to have crisp deadline for everything in research, it wouldn’t have been research. Moreover, the smallest atomic tasks that a researcher may have to do would usually be much larger in size than that of others.
Deliverables. The value of a researcher’s contribution to the world is rather hard to gauge. Sometimes, the profits from the same start coming back rather late: months, years, possibly decades after the idea was conceived.
Step 1. Getting back Your Focus
Respect your own time. A feeling that plagued me for a major part of my PhD was the feeling of not doing anything important. I feel this low respect for one’s own time is an occupational hazard of a PhD student. So it’s important to be on your guard against this feeling right from the first day. Everything done in the name of research is very important: literature review, downloading software, learning programming, assembling instruments, or interacting with suppliers.
Distinguish between recreation and distraction. Learn to identify when you are seeking distraction to escape work. It is all the more important to devote a stipulated amount of time to research when it doesn’t seem to be moving.
Minimise interruptions. The time of the day you have decided to devote to your lab work (or whatever it is in your research) must be protected with your life against petty interruptions. The interruptions may appear in many disguises: invitation for a cup of tea, phone calls, and most disastrous of all, the Web (mails, scraps, posts, wikipedia, Google…). Learn to say ‘No!’
Prioritise. Divide most of your time among a top few things which show up in your grand scheme of things.
Step 2. Overcoming Procrastination
Tips to overcome procrastination
Start small. When you are neck deep in the habit of procrastination, there’s only one way to get out: start small. Take baby steps. Keep small targets, achieve them and celebrate the victory profusely. Some examples: I will read this one section at a stretch; or I will get up after I have understood these 10 lines of code.
In the next iteration, raise the bar slightly. Things will gradually start falling in place.
Make it SMART. S(specific)M(measurable)A(achievable, ambitious), R(risky, reasonable)T(timed) goals are the key to time management. For example, ‘I will present this paper tomorrow to my lab mate and make sure that he has understood’ it is a SMART goal. ‘I will understand this paper’ is not.
Create tangible commitments (e.g Involve others). When it’s hard at the individual level to ensure progress, quickly involve somebody else. Usually it could be your boss. But there’s no reason to start or stop there. Also, try to create stakeholders. This means that there should be tangible benefit for those who involve themselves in your work. Therefore, involving your friend in hearing you out in a mock presentation is fine; but presenting it to someone who might potentially be able to use it in his work is much better.
Reward yourself. In the beginning it worked for me to reward myself with some indulgence when I achieved tiny successes in defeating procrastination. For example, I used to promise myself a cup of coffee alone if I finished a small chunk of work. And on actually finishing, I used to make it a point to reward myself. It was very effective. Of course, the reward should always follow the achievement, and not precede it.
Step 3. Implementing Time management
Now, I introduce the method which, if roughly followed, will yield immediate benefit with little effort.
To-do List. The most rudimentary structure of time management is a to-do list. It is a dump of every task you want to do. As a part of your time-planning, it helps to create a to do list. This emerges from the tasks in your projects.
Schedule. A to-do list with chronological sorting of tasks is a schedule. To turn a to-do list into a schedule you have to first assign priorities to your to-dos. Based upon your estimate of how long they would take and when they ought to be completed, you allocate specific times to them. This results in a schedule.
Where to Keep your To-do List or Schedule?
Not your brain. Our brain comes with the birthright to forget. And forgetting is foul in the game of time management. Worded differently, brain is the most high-end tool we have at our disposal. There are better things than remembering trifles that you would like to use your brain for, for example, research.
Pocketbook. A little pocketbook contains the power of taking you out, away from the mess of having to recollect every now and then all your tasks and promises. It’s also the first step one takes in committing to the practice of not hiding behind forgetfulness as an excuse to laziness. Once you have it written down there, you aren’t any more allowed to completely forget anything.
Diary. As you get past the first few baby steps of time management, pocketbook soon starts proving inadequate and messy. While you would still like to keep your pocketbook for its versatility and lightweightedness, in the least, you need a page for each of your day. That’s a way of saying, ‘This is my day today!’
Planner. As you become somewhat advanced in managing your time, you start feeling the need for a more elaborate format. Something that has your tasks sorted, your goals placed at a visible place where you can refer to them often, a scratchpad where you can work on your plan (i.e. breaking down your goals into projects and sub-projects), and a space having your schedule of the days. Planners are the things to be adopted at this point. Planners come with detachable refills. So, you don’t have to carry a lifetime of sheets in your planner. Just keep the current ones.
Software. Software calendars like Google calendar, outlook calendar, KOrganizer etc. are sophisticated applications which allow you to schedule tasks and meetings, and get reminded of the same through various means: pop ups, emails and SMSs.
Important Note: Maintain only one scheduler, whether traditional or electronic.
Time management is one of the basic life skills we all ought to have learned in childhood. Like communication skill, analytical skill etc, time management is something that can be useful in all professions, in all walks of life. Fortunately, the subject of time management is no rocket science. It doesn’t require any special talents to manage one’s time well. It can be learned and profited from by anyone. I encourage you to experiment and find out what works best for you. A personalised combination of the tools above may turn out to be just the thing for you. Even as I write this article, I continue trying out new methods in search of what fits my needs the best. There’s no need to get stuck to one method.
The more critical and harder part of time management are: acceptance and implementation. To make it work for you, you must first trust that it is needed. Once you start, time management is to be implemented with discipline.
- Randy Pausch
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
- Many Google and youtube videos. Just search for ‘time management.’
- KOrganizer (http://userbase.kde.org/KOrganizer)