Month: October 2015

Why tracking your time as an academic is useful: Review of the app ATracker


There is a healthy amount of evidence starting to build up that indicates that tracking how you spend your time, analyzing those data, and making well informed changes can lead to large gains in productivity. I first heard about time tracking through the work of Laura Vanderkam and I’m starting to see it pop up quite frequently in my Twitter feed. I’m all about increasing my productivity and effectiveness, so I decided to give it a go.

The first couple of times that I tried time tracking I lasted a day. The problem was that finding a system for the time tracking was difficult and turned out to be clunky and onerous. I initially tried doing it using a small notebook, which had the advantage of being portable, but that didn’t work out because it took too much time to put in an entry and I stopped doing it. Next, I tried an Excel spreadsheet blocked into 30 minute increments, but that didn’t work because it took a lot of time to fill out and it wasn’t portable. It was clear that I needed an easy to use and portable solution. Shortly thereafter, @Acclimatrix had posted about tracking her time on Twitter and I Tweeted her back asking what she was using to track her time. She was using an app called ATracker.

A quick search of the Apple app store pulled it up. If you want to try it out, there is a free version that allows you to play around with the app to determine if it will work for you. That’s what I ended up doing and I very quickly upgraded to the Pro version for ~$6 Canadian.

Most days at work I feel fairly productive, but I do have those days where I wonder where my time went. This app is a solution to that problem. How long am I taking to prep for class or mark those essays? Am I meeting my research writing goals? Spending enough time mentoring my trainees? I can now also identify how much time I am spending on time vampires (I’m looking at you email, Twitter, and web surfing!) I’m a scientist and I love data and now I have data that I can analyze to make informed changes to my schedule and time use.

So, what has the app done for me? Is it worth tracking your time? My answer is a resounding yes! Here are a few examples.

This semester I am teaching two undergraduate courses. I made the conscious decision that I would only deal with teaching related activities on the same days that I lecture (Mon., Wed., and Fri.). I did this in an attempt to bundle like tasks together to be efficient. Since I’ve been using the program for 2 ½ weeks, I can go back in my history and look at the data for 8 teaching days and see how I spent my time. I’ve colour coded my teaching tasks as green, so I can quickly see that many of the tasks on these days are teaching related which is great. I can also look at my Tuesdays and Thursdays to see if teaching tasks have crept into those days. I was able to quickly see that some marking, mentoring, and administrative tasks associated with teaching snuck into a few Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can then determine if this is something that I need to address and come up with a plan to avoid it from happening again.

A second example pertains to research writing. My major research grant is up for renewal this fall and I’ve designated Tuesdays and Thursdays to do this work. Time tracking has allowed me to see that I am effectively focused and on task in the mornings, but that this tapers off in the afternoons. This is likely because I am running out of the brainpower and energy needed to complete this highly intellectual project. Things that might take me 30 minutes to complete in the morning take much longer to finish if I attempt to do them in the afternoon. I think that this is valuable information about my personal work flow and I’ve now decided to schedule tasks that require a great deal of mental “heavy-lifting” for my morning hours and to leave less mentally challenging tasks for the afternoon.

The ATracker app is very easy to use and intuitive. I’d tried a few other time tracking apps prior to this one and it is the winner hands-down in my opinion.

In the top left corner of the app is a filing drawer icon and if you touch it you go to the screen where you can enter your categories. The free version allows you only a few categories and one of the reasons that I upgraded to Pro is that you can create as many catergories for tracking your time as you would like. I initially started with the categories Teaching, Research, and Service, but quickly realized that those were too simplistic for my situation, so I broke these down into activities that I do frequently. My categories include: lab work, grant writing, student advising, teaching marking, service activities, teaching preparation, email, Twitter, finances, seminars, etc.; you get the idea. You can colour code each category, so as I mentioned above I’ve colour coded all of my teaching categories various shades of green and this allows me to get a good snap shot of the activities I’ve performed on any given day.

You have two options for tracking your time. You can either tap on a particular activity and a timer starts counting up; when you finish that activity you tap it again and the timer stops and the tracking of your time appears on the small daily calendar on the right side of the display. Your second option is to tap the pen and paper icon at the top of the display and that takes you to a page where to can enter an activity using start and end times. This is a great option if you forget to start tracking your time when you start an activity.

The default display is set to today, but you can tap the History icon on the bottom of the screen to look at the time tracking data for any previous date. Another cool feature is the Report. If you tap this icon on the bottom of the display it takes you to a screen where you get a pie chart or bar graph that displays how you spend your time. The charts can be generated for a single day, for 7 days, for 30 days, or you can specify your own time range. This is really useful because it tells you how you really spend your time and can call your attention to problem areas where you are wasting time or spending too much time that you might want to address moving forward.

I’ve already seen the value in time tracking and encourage others to try it. I find that this particular app works for me and I’m very happy with my purchase.

DoctorAl Digest 8

I was lucky enough to be at Game 5 of the Jays-Rangers series last week. The game was exciting and it was bizarre. There was a point in the 7th inning when I left my seats because it wasn’t an appropriate place for my 8 year old to be hanging out. I haven’t seen anything that bananas in a long time.

This post is a hilarious take on how it all went down, including the infamous Bautista bat flip. h/t @kyrajns

A great piece on multitasking written by Tim Harford. h/t to Meg over at Dynamic Ecology.

The challenges of deciding what to wear as a female academic. I love the title!

Nobody wins microaggression Bingo (Tenure, She Wrote).

Stinky seeds dupe dung beetles (Science News).

Very happy that we have a new majority party and PM in Canada. All of my science colleagues are walking around a bit lighter this morning.

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

Planning a Sabbatical

Due to the number of years that I’ve been at my job, I’m eligible for my first sabbatical opportunity next year. I’m planning to go on sabbatical from July 2016 to June 2017. At my institution this means that the application for the sabbatical is due November 1. My application needs to propose scholarly activities, the potential benefits to myself and the university, and the likely outcome of these activities.

I’ve been thinking for several months about what I’d like to achieve using the sabbatical and this has been more difficult than I anticipated. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues at my university and other institutions and have received conflicting advice. I suppose that’s to be expected as one size doesn’t fit all. My partner and I had several conversations about the limitations that we would impose on the sabbatical due to our particular family needs and situation. The two senior women that I spoke to indicated that although they had taken the full year abroad at a different institution with their families, neither would do it again. The stress of managing the logistics of schools, daycare, visas, housing arrangements, etc. made the mental cost of going elsewhere too high. It’s perhaps telling that the one resource that I found that dealt with the nuts and bolts of planning for a sabbatical (a book) was written by the spouse of the academic partner. Evidently she was the one responsible for co-ordinating all of the non-academic aspects of the experience. In my opinion that is an unacceptable burden and expectation to place on your partner.

My plans are shaping up slowly, but I have encouraging news from a friend in Spain and I’m hoping to go there for 2 months next summer with my family while my kids are out of school. The rest of the year I’m planning to attend several conferences that I normally can’t go to due to my teaching schedule. I’m also brainstorming about smaller research trips (2 weeks or so) with collaborators who are within driving distance of my institution (I am very conveniently located geographically). Several of the people I spoke with warned me about flakey collaborators and sabbatical projects that went nowhere.

I’m actively looking for advice from other scientists who have planned and taken a sabbatical. How did you come up with a plan? How did you work around any personal and professional constraints that you had? Did you go for a full year, do mini-trips, or stay at home? If you had the chance to go back in time what would you do differently and what would you do again?