Research Unwrapped

6 Times Management Tricks for Embattled Academics (That Actually Work), Part 2 of 2

So you still haven’t lifted that siege eh? Under assault from a battery of academic demands and research responsibilities, you hunker down in the hope of surviving total time bombardment.

But what’s that on the horizon? Yes, it’s us, riding in on a white horse to unburden you of your woes!

Take a moment. Breathe. Your minutes, hours and days are valuable to you, and we want to help you make the most of them. Here, valiant researchers, is our second set of tricks to make sure you keep things ticking along nicely throughout your working week.

Take a look at Part 1 in case you missed it - we’ll be right here when you’re ready.

Now, let’s get to it!

Use Technology to Win More Time

 
In Part 1, we explored how the demands of modern technology can end up taking time away from us. That endless stream of distractions and (un)prioritised tasks makes it very easy for us to use our time less effectively. 

However, technology, when used wisely, can have the opposite effect. Browser extensions like StayFocused can help you (ahem) stay focused during your Deep Work Sessions by allowing you to block websites like Facebook or Reddit. Spell checkers, like Grammarly, can surface-proofread a manuscript in seconds, and reference managers like Mendeley can save you hours of formatting and reformatting references.

Another little gem of technology that can help save you time is Audemic. It's an app that enables you to read or listen to research papers anywhere, with all the ease of your favourite podcast platform. For example, say you’ve scheduled a lunchtime walk in your time-block planner to catch a bit of sun and get your legs moving. Just as you’re about to leave, your colleague sends over a paper that you really want to read (as it might be useful for the grant proposal you’re writing that afternoon). With Audemic, you can simply upload the paper in seconds and listen while you walk, with seamless navigation between different sections and the playback speed of your choice. You can even take highlights, so you’ll easily find those important bits again later.

Result? Exercise: done. Sunshine: gained. Important paper: understood, absorbed, and out of the way.

Routine


Even with time-blocking bringing a little more structure to your life, each day in the life of an academic can end up looking dramatically different. The problem here is that too little predictability and stability is likely to increase our stress levels and decrease our overall well-being . So it's no surprise that consistent, daily routines help improve wellbeing, reduce stress and improve productivity.

Morning Routine


A consistent morning routine will allow you to get the most out of your time by improving your health as well as elevating your mood and focus. One of the biggest benefits of a morning routine comes from simply waking up at the same time every day, as this helps regulate our circadian rhythms. Getting these rhythms in line is key - it’s going to make it easier for you to fall asleep at night and improve the general quality of sleep. 

Consistent routines can also serve as anchor points for building healthy habits in our daily life. For example, it's easier to exercise consistently if we anchor a quick session to our morning routine as opposed to scheduling it haphazardly whenever we find the time. That consistency will also have the bonus effect of improving your cardio-fitness along with any other fitness aims you might have. 

In all, the improved quality of sleep and cardio-fitness you stand to gain from an enhanced morning routine will lead to improved wellbeing, mood and cognitive ability during your academic work.


End-of-Work Routine

 
You could also try anchoring your time-blocking practice to an end-of-work routine. For example, set a strict cut-off point for the end of your workday and finish it by going through your current tasks and blocking them in for the next day. Actively planning the following day’s set of tasks (before you pop off to the pub) will help to clear your mind of them for the evening. This will allow you to be more present and make the most of the time spent with other people, or simply relaxing by yourself - critical if you have a hard day’s research ahead of you.

Don’t Try to Do Everything

 
Daily routines, time-blocking and Deep Work can allow us to get more out of our time. However, using our time with more intention can also make us realise just how few of those endless goals, responsibilities and tasks we can genuinely make progress on, especially given the finite quantity of time we have each day. This is because the List/Reactive mode we talked about in Part 1 helps to maintain the illusion we are always on the cusp of getting it all done - if  we could only receive fewer emails or find the right task-management app, that is.

Don’t try to “Clear the Decks”

 
Oliver Burkman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, subtitled Time Management For Mortals, explains how most of us are engaged in a constant and futile effort to “clear the decks”.  He even describes how it can make the situation worse. For example, the person who starts making a valiant effort to clear their inbox inevitably starts receiving even more emails from colleagues as a result of their growing reputation for swift and helpful replies.

Because we will never “clear the decks”, and because on some level we know this, abandoning our efforts to do so can be incredibly freeing and beneficial for our wellbeing and stress levels.  If we know at the outset that we cannot get everything done, all that’s left is to spend our time doing what’s most important to us. Viewed in this way, daily routines, time-blocking, and a consistent Deep Work practice can become tools, not only for getting more out of our time but also for improving our relationship with it. Each time block or routine, then, simply represents your best effort at spending your time on those things you have decided to prioritise, as opposed to the infinite number of other things you theoretically could have spent it on.

Pursue Goals Sequentially

 
On a practical level, Oliver Burkman suggests that you split your life into separate domains, say, home, work and fitness, and then pursue only one major goal to completion in each domain at a time. Critically, you should do this knowing that you are going to fall short on all other goals in each of these domains. 

This singular focus will allow you not only to accomplish more of your big goals over the long term, but also has a nice bonus effect - the clarity and peace of mind that comes from choosing what you’re not going to accomplish in advance can be extremely liberating. So, if you have the goal of getting your research published in a major journal, you won’t be stressing about getting to an unattainable ‘inbox zero’ or taking on an extra committee role, because you will have decided in advance that you are not, in fact, going to try and achieve those goals. In all, a nice way to let things flow.

Final Thoughts

 
For researchers and academics, the constant strain of trying to clear the decks with such a scarcity of time can be extremely challenging and stressful. Is it a losing battle? No, but it all depends on the way we look at things. If we try manically to clear the pile of papers in front of us, and insist that the only way we can feel like we’re doing a good job is to cling to that attitude, then further stress is likely to be the outcome. However, if we adjust our view slightly, and resolve to define our own battles, goals and priorities, then we take control of the situation. Suddenly, what matters is what we actually want to achieve. We might still be under bombardment, but if we can see the next step, then we can march with determination towards it.

Best of luck in implementing these strategies and, as always…

Keep asking questions!