Time Management for Scientists

Over the years I’ve come to realize that science is an extremely creative enterprise. I am of the mind that I can be at my most creative when I have the time to think deeply about scientific questions and how I might approach answering those using various experimental approaches. I would argue that having time to think and plan is required to be a successful scientist.
With that in mind I’m always on the prowl for effective time management and productivity techniques. Below I list some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might prove helpful to others.

1) Plan ahead. I can’t count the number of times that this mentality has saved my bacon over the years. I once heard that 3 hours in the library can save you 3 months in the lab and I absolutely believe it. I try to do some planning at higher levels (1-4 year time scale), medium levels (per term), and low levels (weekly and daily). I’ve found it useful to have weekly goals for what I want to accomplish and to plan which day I want to tackle particular tasks. I use Friday afternoons as my planning time as campus is quiet and I can reflect on the past week and then have a look at what’s on my plate for next week. Before I leave for the day I try to have 3-5 goals that I’m aiming to accomplish the following day.

2) Bundle tasks. As scientists we have to simultaneously complete multiple projects pertaining to research, teaching, service, and administration which have a tendency to fragment our days and have massive negative effects on our productivity. I’ve found that a good strategy is to group like tasks together and to complete them all in one go. For example, this term I was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was therefore in a teaching mind-set on those days. As a consequence I made a conscious choice to offer office hours and to book my one-on-one update appointments with my lab trainees on those days. I also used those days to mark assignments and tests and to prepare for upcoming lectures and assignments. This left Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open for research focused tasks.

3) Wrestle email to the ground. Email is a time suck and it will take over your life and destroy your productivity if you let it. Humans see something new and shiny and are immediately drawn to it and forget what they were previously focused on. Your goal should be to only check email 2-3 times a day and to respond to messages during those times. Close your email program and turn off your notifications and get on with your tasks. Don’t leave emails sitting in your inbox as reminders to do something. Convert the contents of that email into a task that you can do and aim to get your inbox to zero. Easier said than done I know, but it works.

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