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Settling In: The Researcher's Guide to Your University

4.2 Time management

“Arrive at the office and pick up the mail. Oh no, Jamie has put a note in my pigeonhole begging me to get the thesis feedback to her as soon as possible. She has been waiting two weeks now and I did promise I would get it done last week. But I really wanted to get into the data analysis today. Head up the corridor feeling overwhelmed only to discover my three honours students lined up at my office door. They are all having trouble with their research studies – mostly problems with the new report format they have to submit. Deal with that but it takes an hour to sort out the problem. Look around my office and wish I had time to tidy up – I can hardly find my desk. Manage to clear a small portion to put the new papers down.

“Open up the email – aarrgggh, 200 new messages – mostly junk and Viagra, but who has time for sex these days? Certainly not me when I am working till 1am each night trying to write my paper. Not that it makes much sense the next day when I review what I have done!

“Answer the emails and then it's lunch.

“Where did that morning go? And now I have two meetings this afternoon and there goes the day. Have to pick up the kids this afternoon and that will be it until 10 tonight. And I haven't even looked at the thesis or the data yet. How am I going to get everything done in time?”

Time management can be challenging but it needn't leave you feeling that you are out of control. This section will offer you some broad principles and strategies to gain the extra time you need to focus on your long-term priorities. Some of the suggestions you may already do. Others might be new ideas that are worth adopting. Before we progress to the tips and principles, you may wish to review where your time is lost. The next list identifies a number of typical time-wasters. Consider which are your challenges.

Research distractors

  • Responding to crises
  • Time spent training new team members
  • Poor planning
  • Poor communication between team members
  • Too much work
  • Time taken looking for things that haven't been filed
  • Interruptions from people visiting
  • Poor personal organisation
  • Procrastination
  • Tendency to say Yes to requests
  • Meetings attendance
  • Reports and paper work
  • Socialising with colleagues
  • Seeking perfection on tasks
  • Incomplete tasks
  • Limited capacity to delegate tasks
  • Poor project management
  • Insufficient resources
  • Poor technological support
  • Travel demands
  • Telephone calls
  • Email demands
  • Lack of clarity as to work expectations
  • Unclear goals and timelines
  • Time delays in waiting for others' contributions
  • Student demands
  • Awaiting inputs from other colleagues
  • Inefficient systems
  • Poor quality inputs from others that must be reworked.

You may have identified quite a number of areas that are challenging your time management. It is important to think about why these are occurring and what can be done about them. In some cases, your research project management may require fine-tuning. In others, your own personal time management could be at fault. On the other hand, some of these time-wasters may be outside your control. The next section explores how you might improve your personal time management.

Academic time management principles

The following principles are simple and practical approaches to finding the time for your high priority activities. You will notice that they tend to focus on retrieving useful time to redirect your effort into more important strategic outcomes. This does not negate the importance of other everyday activities, but it does emphasise the need to balance all facets of your work. Research has to reflect both long and short-term goals. Here are some ways you can achieve that balance, and also leave time for other personal priorities.

  • Balance your priorities. The earlier exercise in which you explored your priorities was an important prompt to clarify where you should allocate time. Your research work is a major priority which must be given sufficient time to be undertaken and completed. A major challenge for new teaching–research academics is the balancing of teaching and research. In many cases, research becomes the poor relation as the academic seeks to develop better educational outcomes for the students. If you are one of these academics, it is important to recognise that your outcomes will improve over time with practice. You should not be aiming for perfection in teaching at the expense of your research. Instead, you need to balance those demands. Consider allocating certain days of the week to research activities and other days to teaching-related activities. If you are a research-intensive academic, you might need to focus some blocks of time on strategic activities as opposed to the more operational matters that could otherwise consume you.
  • Take time to plan. Don't let your tasks control you. Take 10 minutes at the start of each day to think about what needs to be done and identify the items that are the highest priority. Keep focused on those items. The other things can wait. At the end of each week, review the coming week and identify the new high priority outcomes you hope to achieve. Aim for at least one long-term priority as well as the more immediate demands. Integrate the tasks related to that long-term goal into your plans for the coming week. A useful reflection is to keep a list of what you have achieved each week. Identify the long-term, strategic goals that have been furthered. If you cannot find any advancement, consider how you will ensure those priorities are reflected in the coming week.
  • Keep on top of urgent tasks. While it is important to do the strategic tasks, it is also important to make time for the little jobs. Monitor any likely urgent tasks and aim to have them completed in a timely fashion. Keep a list of tasks to be completed and make sure they are managed effectively. This list requires ongoing review to monitor tasks that have escalated in importance. This is particularly important when your activities impact on the work of others.
  • Structure your time to suit your working style. When is your optimal time for productivity? If you are a very effective person in the morning, complete your more intensive work (such as writing that paper) when your mind is most focused. Schedule your less demanding or routine activities (such as meetings or administration) into less productive or disruptive time zones.
  • Take time to save time. The time you take to set up systems or to learn how to do things properly will be well and truly recompensed by your subsequent efficiency. As part of this principle, identify the areas that you manage less effectively and seek help. Courses or advice from an expert can be an efficient mechanism to learn more effective strategies.
  • Practice makes perfect. You will find that as you practise your skills (whether it be time management, research writing, grant seeking, supervising, or project management) you will become much more efficient. Persevere.
  • Avoid double-handling. How many times do you handle the same task? Aim to complete the task the first time around. This means allowing a realistic amount of time to undertake an activity. Each time you have to return to a task, you will lose time refreshing yourself on what has been done.
  • Batch your work. An economical time management strategy is to group like tasks together and to ensure you have sufficient time to work on high-intensity tasks in one go. Some useful tips include: look at your email twice a day, not as messages arrive. Emails can be a major distraction if you answer as a message is received.
  • Distinguish between important and urgent. There are many activities you will undertake. For each task, make sure you can outline why you are doing it, and what consequences there will be if you don't. Clearly identify the tasks you MUST do, should do, would like to do, or don't need to do. The first two categories are the areas on which you should focus.
  • Clarify which tasks need to be high quality outcomes. This may sound strange, but you need to be realistic about the level of effort you expend on each activity. High quality outputs are obviously important for strategic research publications, grants, and activities that are high profile or public. Other tasks may require much less care with the final presentation. Be clear about the use to which your contributions are put and don't waste time on non-productive activities. Set time limits on tasks according to how important they are.
  • Manage your calendar. If you are travelling to a meeting, put in travel time either side of the meeting. Block in a lunch time. This allows you some quiet time to catch up, reflect, or interact with others. Where you have large tasks to be completed, block out sufficient time to work on those tasks. Similarly, it is useful to schedule routine tasks into your calendar to ensure you have sufficient time to manage your workflows.
  • Manage your email. Aim to keep your inbox empty! Yes, it can be challenging, but it isn't impossible. First, only scan your mail once. Immediately delete irrelevant messages. Respond to quick requests and then either file or discard the message. If the email entails a more intensive task, add it to your task list and give it a deadline by which it must be done. Delegate any emails that others should be doing and set a time by which it should be done. Monitor the lists to which you subscribe. Are they useful? If not, consider unsubscribing, or place messages from the list directly into a folder on their arrival so that you can browse later. Keep your archive folders simple. Email systems are readily searchable if you need to retrieve a message later.
  • Manage your records. How do you store your completed papers and documents? An effective filing system obviously saves substantial time when you need to find something again. Take time to sort your papers once per week. (Don't forget to allocate time to undertake the task.) It will save you substantial time looking for papers later. You may wish to manage your filing differently depending on the likely reuse of an item. High priority documents are those which might need to be retrieved or which are in process. These need to be filed for rapid retrieval. Manila folders can assist. Start a file as soon as you handle the document and file it in a drawer close to your working space. Archives of significance are documents which need to be held for possible future reference. These can be stored in a general repository for subsequent filing or try using a pigeonhole system which roughly groups papers into broad categories. The third record category is papers that you are not sure will be useful. There is little sense in managing these records until you are really sure they have value. Try placing them in a drawer or box and review them every 6 or 12 months. Most of them will be disposable at that point.
  • Break large jobs into small tasks. Monitor the achievement of those smaller elements and reward yourself for reaching those milestones.
  • Look at how you work. If you have focused intellectual tasks to complete, consider working out of the office. Many academics find it helpful to block 1 day per week to work at home or in a different space, such as the library. This discipline also ensures at least 1 day a week is focused on those strategic goals.
  • Batch your research. If you are working with intensive teaching demands, batch your research into a concentrated zone when teaching is finished. Speak with your supervisor to absent yourself from the office for a week or two following the conclusion of teaching to write that paper, book chapter, grant, etc. Try to do the preparatory work in the little slots that you have available while teaching. For example, the latest literature could be collected in small time slots.
  • Monitor how other colleagues work. When you are new to a university it can be hard to judge whether there is support to assist you with your work or whether you must do things yourself. Make sure you ask. You are being paid to do academic work. Don't run around doing photocopying and other administrative tasks if support is available. Make yourself known to the administrative team and treat them well. They will assist you as much as they can. Check with other colleagues as to how much administrative work they do. Don't be afraid to compare notes on the additional service or administrative loads other staff carry – inequities can occur and if you feel you are being overloaded, speak to your supervisor about this concern. In this discussion, ensure you have concrete examples of the research you need to pursue and how your overload is impacting on your achievement. Also ask your supervisor about the support you can reasonably expect from other staff in your area.

These practical tips and principles are not exhaustive, but they do offer useful pointers on how to keep workflows focused on strategic and operational processes.

While these are useful general time management principles, the time you corral for research also needs to be well used. Here are some brief tips on how to maximise your research time for best outcomes. As you talk with other researchers you may hear of other good ideas. They will all assist in building a methodology and system that work for you.

Paper publications

  • Write a rough draft of your paper in one sitting, then refine it over the next weeks/months.
  • Don't procrastinate: submit a paper for publication as soon as it looks reasonable. (If the paper isn't published you will have feedback that will assist with revisions. On the other hand, if it is never submitted, it was definitely a waste of time.)
  • Never waste a paper! If a paper isn't accepted, rework it, based on the feedback and submit it to another journal.
  • Make a file for correspondence on each paper so that you can review its progress easily.
  • Don't wait for a response – start the next paper immediately. (One very prolific writer said to the module writer that he tries to ensure there are always five papers in the works! – an ambitious goal, but the principle is worth considering.)
  • Keep a list of your publication ideas prominently displayed so that you are regularly reminded of what you want to achieve this year.
  • When you think of a new idea for a paper, write it down.
  • Monitor ‘calls for contributions’ in journals in which you would like to feature. Submit a proposal for any that appear compatible with your expertise. The deadlines are more likely to be met if they are set by someone else.
  • Look at how you can collaborate with someone else or others on papers. Working with colleagues helps to keep the momentum as you have more of an obligation to finish. The collaboration also stimulates new ideas, builds a research base, and makes research more enjoyable.
  • When your paper is accepted for publication, prepare the documentation necessary to show the refereed nature of your paper or its history of development. You will need to verify the background for audit purposes in the year following its publication, and it can be very time consuming looking for this evidence a long time after acceptance. Take 10 minutes now while you know where everything is!

Grant writing

  • Prepare a brief project outline when you think of a new project possibility. This can be revised and enhanced as the idea gestates. Set up a folder to add ideas, clippings, and other thoughts as they emerge.
  • Rework your idea when a grant round or sponsor becomes available. Alternatively, if you have an established sponsor, take the next step of meeting to discuss an idea before you flesh it out. Your sponsor may have some valuable additional ideas to weave through before you get too deeply into the concept development.
  • Draw together some likely collaborators and brainstorm ideas on the project.
  • Create a personal production timeline to allow for critical review by colleagues.
  • Delegate some of the information-finding, budget estimates, etc. to others in a team. Meet regularly to ensure the preparation is happening. (Meetings are cues for action for many people.)
  • In the case of getting tasks done, the fewer the meetings, the less the action! Make short 30 minute meetings over a coffee – there will be little time lost but the progress will be steady.
  • Prepare for grants by drafting papers that explore the need for the research, or the results of pilot studies. This helps to justify the proposal.
  • Monitor the types of projects that have been successful in a grant round. The outlines can help you to see what is successful and may assist in reworking an unsuccessful grant.
  • Don't wait on the results of the last grant proposal before submitting your next one. Get into the grant rhythm of working to the grant round cycle. This simply becomes another task to be completed in your academic year.
  • Use 'prototype' applications to get small/local/start-up funding to help build your track record and prove proof-of-concept before applying for big funds.
  • Publish your results and strategically follow-up potential collaborators for the bigger project. Make sure these are specific goals on your task list so that the weeks don't creep away before you act.
  • Make a special time each week to review your grant-writing work. Don't allow it to be taken by other tasks.
  • When you write a grant proposal, include a costing for project management support. There is increasing acceptance of the worth of people providing this support, and if successful the grant will operate more efficiently with that dedicated resource.

Get the research done!

  • Delegate and manage activities rather than trying to do everything yourself.
  • Aim to block out at least 1 day a week to solely focus on your research writing activities.
  • Set challenging goals, visibly display them, and go for them.
  • Review your progress every 3 months and change your time management strategies if you are not seeing good progress.

This topic has aimed to guide you toward more efficient use of your professional time. Experienced researchers often do many of these things automatically, but many of us ruefully acknowledge that we wish someone had told us these things much earlier on. As one academic noted during the pilot of this module: "I could have saved myself 6 years of wasted time". We hope you do!


Acknowledgements

Sincere thanks to Wanda Jackson of UNSW for her contribution to this topic.

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