Research Unwrapped

6 Time Management Tricks for Embattled Academics (That Actually Work) , Part 1 of 2

Feeling under siege?

Let’s face it, a seemingly endless list of responsibilities and tasks combined with irregular and fragmented schedules hardly sets academics up for a healthy relationship with time. (Thanks heavy reading lists!) So we’ve put together 6 time management practices that will help to improve your relationship with time and accomplish more of what matters to you.

Get Out of List/Reactive Mode: How Time Blocking Can Help

Flying between meetings, lectures and grabbing lunch with a friend, it’s easy to fall into what Cal Newport terms the “list/reactive method” of time management. This sees the time between scheduled commitments filled with email, attempts at combatting never-ending to-dos and occasionally, if your inbox permits, a stretch of time to work on your latest research paper.

3 issues with list/reactive time management:

Number One:

Because your inbox (and your colleagues) generally aren’t going to be aware of your need for uninterrupted time, you're likely to end up with very little of it, preventing you from focusing on your most important projects.

Number Two:

Instead, you’re likely to spend most of your time multi-tasking or, more accurately, rapidtask switching, as you switch furiously between email replies and reviewing literature. Rapid task switching devastates our focus because our higher mental functions stay partially engaged with the previous task as we turn to the next, limiting our ability to do any of the tasks we are juggling effectively.

Number 3:

On the rare occasion that you do find an uninterrupted stretch of time to work on an important task, you spend even more precious time and cognitive resources just deciding which one you’re going to tackle. Worse still, most of us often rush or completely skip proper planning when a task is left to the last minute, costing time in the long run when work is carried out poorly or needs to be redone.

Time-Blocking to the Rescue!

Time-blocking has you break each day into individual blocks, with each block of time dedicated to completing a specific task. In addition, you then try to protect these time slots from interruptions (or other tasks), as much as you would for any other important appointment in your calendar. Put simply, you give both your time and responsibilities the respect they deserve!

Watch the following video for more info on how to time-block!

By taking this approach, you solve the first issue with list/reactive time management, because each block is scheduled in advance and protected from other commitments, allowing you to carve out uninterrupted time from your day. And since each block is focused on completing a single task, it also solves the second issue by eliminating the cognitive burden of rapid task switching, allowing you to see what’s coming around that corner.

Be Specific

While scheduling one hour to “write a paper” might save you the time and effort of deciding which task to tackle, it still leaves figuring out how to handle it to the last minute. So, the third issue we’ve spotted with list/reactive time management still partially remains. What can we do?

Break It Down

In order to completely solve this problem, you could spend an extra bit of time breaking each of your tasks into individual pieces designed to be completed within a given time block. For example, following Anna Clemens5-step paper writing process, you might block in “Structure Results Section” as opposed to the broader “Continue Working On Paper”, making your aims as specific as possible. In this way, when you actually get down to working on your research paper, you can devote all your time and effort to tackling it in the most effective way possible.

Breaking tasks into sensible and manageable chunks also has the welcome side-effect of boosting your dopamine levels. This drives up your motivation to complete each part (as well as the satisfaction you get from it) and decreases the time it takes to complete the project as a whole. Thanks Anna!

And speaking of Anna, we just couldn’t help but tell you more about this former scientist and science journalist. Naturally, Anna has heaps of experience in writing papers, etching out a unique role for herself as an academic writing coach. She understands that the way you write a paper and what it’s actually about are two completely different things. For her, mastering and combining both elements is the secret to writing quality papers in a (mercifully) timely fashion. Take a look at what she does here, where you can also read her helpful and elegantly written blog (and, of course, meet her dog).

Schedule Deep Work

While the dreaded rapid task switching can make us less efficient at completing even our most simple tasks, it's especially harmful when it comes to the cognitively demanding work academics regularly need to do. These types of tasks are best accomplished through Deep Work (another concept we owe to Cal Newport), which refers to “the ability to focus without distraction on a single cognitively demanding task.”

Utilising Deep Work to make more effective progress on your most cognitively demanding work is simple. Just dedicate one of your time blocks to engaging with your most cognitively demanding and important task for at least an hour, uninterrupted. You can make it easier to limit distractions during your deep work blocks by positioning them strategically - for example, during those times of day when you’re least likely to be distracted anyway, such as early morning.

This kind of prolonged intense focus might take a bit of getting used to. However, developing a Deep Work habit will increase both the quality and quantity of the output you get from your time, especially when completing tasks that require deep thinking and maximum cognitive effort.

Carve Out Some Time for Part 2! 👀

Eager for more time-saving tricks? Start putting these techniques into practice, and we’ll see you next week for part 2, where we’ll round off our battle-plan with some more incisive strategies to make your life that little bit easier.

*Update: Part 2 is already available here!