Battling with time management

How many of you start the week with a rigid plan? Time management is an aspect of my career I have battled with for a while. Having said that, I have only really started reflecting on it since managing my own projects and personnel. Some weeks I have clear objectives that are defined by my own research plans. This can include developing modules for regional air-quality models or tidying up some additional code for UManSysProp, for example. Other weeks this can include preparing teaching materials or some such. Sounds logistically simple doesn’t it? Can’t I just retain this plan of attack with a simple Gantt chart every Monday?

Well, it would appear not. But what not?! In the worst case scenario, I can leave the office feeling like I’ve done so much and yet so little, causing me to carry on pushing at home. This is neither sustainable nor healthy for my own sanity or the quality of work produced. I decided to start digging a little deeper on this and brutally arrived at key culprits:

  • Email
  • Oh my, so many meetings.
  • Working to other people’s timelines.
  • An open door policy
  • Procrastination

Email, the scourge of modern times?! Bit dramatic perhaps. I used to poo-poo this burden. “Just delete them !”, I would naively shout. Alas, I’ve managed to drift into a situation where I have this lovely notification pinging on my Mac which lets me know when someone at the other end of the communication highway desperately wants to tell me something: A new initiative, suggesting a catch up, an update on something, a one liner or emotion, a report that needs completing, a review that needs doing…etc. Being instantly responsive can absolutely kill a train of thought.

Meetings fill my calendar. Some meetings are useful, others are not. I use Google Calendar for everything, and externalising the proposed times for such meetings really helps. This coincides with the third point, and that involves bending my own time to those defined by others whilst remaining collegial.

So why is time management important to me? Well, it’s the resource drain that bad management always leads to. Working on large bodies of code can take a lot of cognitive power, and that power needs to be sustained over a minimum length of time. The open door policy is a difficult one. The ‘knock while entering’ culture is quite damaging without pre-arranged visits. Don’t get me wrong, I love discussing scientific theories and such like and the odd visit is absolutely fine. I want to see people, and there are plenty of positive colleagues around! Indeed, I previously blogged about the need for forums of discussion to do with elements of research life. However, planning and management for the overly tasking discussions is key.

Ok, I will stop there as I’m painting an overly bleak picture and these factors are part of the academic life. However, I doubt very much this is a unique rant and you can see how these things could fill a week. No wonder academics persist on working out of hours. Are we really overburdened or are we not working smart enough? This applies to so many other disciplines too. I’ve never understood why we tend to ignore the opportunity to speak with experts about this for help.

Why have I waited this long? I finished my Phd 10 years ago. I suspect its driven in part by the culture of control and imposter syndrome. I’m currently reading a book called ‘The Organised Mind’ by Daniel J Levitin and it’s a real eye opener. There is solid neuroscience about why we work the way we do, and why we shouldn’t ignore what can be effectively managed according to how our brains are wired.

I look forward to delving more into these issues rather than letting them sit as pure negatives at the forefront of my mind. What is your solution to these issues?

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