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Monday, 15 May 2017

Time and how to organise it better

Organisation
Time, next to grant funding, is the thing for which most academics would sell their soul. Everything is a PRIORITY that needs doing NOW. This can be overwhelming, especially if you are caring for someone at home who also needs all of your time NOW.
The self-help literature shelves are awash with advice on how to better organise your time. So much so you’d need a whole second life just reading them. Luckily I have read the abstracts, looked at the front covers, chatted to a mate and condensed all this collected knowledge down to 3 easy steps and 5 superpowers.
Time being short, let’s begin:
Step 1, The List. Everyone has a list, be it on scraps of recycled paper or blue roll, lab gloves, google notes or a specially designed pad. The list may only exist in the ether, your head or your PA’s head (if you are lucky enough to have one). But somehow, somewhere, you need to register everything that needs to be done. If you are not even doing this, then you are truly lost. Make a list: write down everything, big or small, home or work, trivial or world changing.
Step 2, The Main Effort. Having written your list, step back and decide what it is you want to achieve. Not only by the end of today, but at the end of the year, in 5 years’ time and if possible over your whole career. Whatever your goal is, from finishing your PhD on time, through getting that paper out and becoming a PI to winning the Nobel Prize, define the activities you need to achieve it and put all your effort into those activities. In military circles, this is called the main effort (or Schwerpunkt): a centre of gravity, where a decisive result is to be achieved.
Step 3, Triage. Inherent in the main effort approach is the need to sacrifice other fronts to achieve the goal. You therefore need to prioritise your work into 4 categories (I use an adaptation of triage).
Red (Immediate): These tasks directly contribute to you achieving the main effort; spend as much time as possible doing them.
Yellow (Delayed): It’s helping, but indirectly; or someone is really screaming at you to get it done.
Green (Minor): It is not on the main effort but needs doing.
Dead: There are some tasks that a) seem urgent but aren’t or b) even if you tick them off the list come back to bite you at the end of the day. Don’t do them!

For example, my goal is to get promoted, to do this I need to publish papers and get grants (my main effort). I split my list into papers, grants, lab and admin (i.e. everything else). Where possible I prioritise doing papers and grants.
So now that you defined your goal and prioritised the tasks that will help you achieve it, you still need to find the time to do them. And this is where my timefighting superpowers come in.
·         Bullet Dodge. Say no. If it doesn’t get you where you need to be, don’t do it. Use this superpower sparingly. Part of being an academic is being a good citizen. If you are a superstar, you can be as selfish as you like, but the rest of us need to keep our jobs in order to achieve our goals and part of keeping your job is saying yes to things you don’t want to do. EO Wilson in his letters advises us to “avoid departmental level-administration…make excuses, dodge, plead, trade”.
·         Hyper-alert. There are parts of the day in which you will do your best work. For me it is in the morning up to lunch (strictly at 12 noon) and after 3 pm. So I schedule deep-thought for those periods and busy work for 1230-3. (If you are in my group and reading this and I have scheduled a meeting for 2…of course I value our time together).
·         Hyperfocus. Time flies when you’re truly engaged in a piece of work. Sometimes you get into a magical state where the ideas crystallise into words on the page. This Zen state of intense focus/ productivity is named as ‘flow’ by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Do everything you can to attain and remain in this state, for as long as possible.
·         Immunity to internet. Having identified your priorities and found your perfect time of the day, don’t let others or yourself come between you and flow. Some tips: divide your time into 45 minute chunks and in those segments, turn off the email, turn off the internet, block social media accounts, hide your phone, have a note pad so if something urgent but not task related comes up you can write it down and move on and focus. If you can’t get away from distractions in your office, work in the library, work from home, put on headphones, get away from that person who always ‘just needs’ to ask you one thing.
·         Let go your over-critical self. Some tasks are never going to be finished to perfection, there are times when you have to accept that 80% and submitted is better than perfect and still on your C drive as the final-final-final.doc. Not everything is achievable in a day; if you have pushed a task as far as it will go, put a mark next to it to remind you more is needed or you are waiting for someone else. One of the best pieces of advice to reduce stress about incomplete tasks is to go home at a sensible time every day and if things are not finished to repeat the mantra ‘I’ll just try harder tomorrow’.

So what are you waiting for? Identify your goal and don’t let anything (including yourself) get in the way!

This first appeared on Digital Science blog, May 2017

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