Time management and science

Time management is important in any career. You want to get the work done that you need to, you want to do it in a reasonable amount of time, and you want to leave enough extra time to do all the other things in life that you enjoy. But in positions where work time or location is largely unstructured, keeping track of how you get things done and how efficient you are can be a lot more difficult.

As an academic researcher, I’ve learned that time management is just another aspect of career training, and one that most of us don’t get any formal guidance or advice on. In graduate school, I noticed that the students who stayed late and worked weekends didn’t necessarily finish their degrees any sooner than the ones who held themselves to more structured hours and went skiing all weekend. What really mattered seemed to be if you could work hard during worktime (e.g. Focus), and learn to set good self-imposed priorities and deadlines (with the added bonus of gaining more free time!).

Time management can be a challenge in grad school, but I was in a very laid back environment, and it wasn’t something I found particularly stressful. But when I began my first postdoc, I was surprised by number of new responsibilities, projects, and collaborations that I had compared to being a student. These were all great things that provided me with a lot of new opportunities, but it was suddenly easy to feel like there wasn’t enough time to do everything, unless I increased the number of hours I was working significantly. I started listening to the people that said things like “The best thing about academia is that you get to pick which 80 hours a week you work”.  Yikes! Succeeding as a grad student, postdoc, or at any level of science does require hard work. But I don’t believe that it needs to come at the expense of time for hobbies, family, or relaxation.

I’m not alone in this, and there are plenty of scientists who have satisfying careers and actively pursue interests outside of work. In fact, recent research suggests that consistently working too many hours may actually result in declining productivity (although of course there are periods of time when extra effort is needed!). There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to time management, but it’s worth thinking about how you manage your time, and what motivates you when you are doing your most focused work. What hours are you most productive? What work requires the most/least focus for you? Regardless of the exact amount of time you spend on a particular activity, are you satisfied with your results and your ability to keep to deadlines?

For the past 2 years, I’ve been logging my time using a mobile app (Timesheet for android). Formally keeping track of time is motivating for me, although it might not be for everyone. I’ve done this for 2 main reasons: One professional and one personal.
  1. To keep track of how I’m prioritizing my time Screenshot_2015-09-22-17-12-40at work. For example, am I spending too much time in meetings? Are there certain times of the year when certain activities require more attention (e.g. service or teaching)?
  2. To keep track of the total number of hours I work each week, which helps me battle impostor syndrome (e.g. do I work enough?) and helps me to detach from work when I  need a break (e.g. I already put in 40-50 hours this week, so I’m not allowed to feel “guilty” about going for a hike).

For me, just the act of pushing a button that says I’m working on “Research” helps me focus on a single task, and not get distracted by something else, such as “Email”, which would require me to stop what I was doing and push a different button. I don’t check my overall stats very often, but earlier this week I looked at the data since I started my postdoc fellowship (about 10 months ago). Here’s my breakdown over all the hours summed together:

  • Focused Research: 44%
    • this is uninterrupted work on data, code, writing manuscripts, reading papers, learning new methods, or outlining new projects/proposals.
  • Travel: 21%
    • this includes commuting, flights (I traveled A LOT this year), and sometimes overlaps with research if I can work on the airplane.
  • Meetings: 17%
    • this also sometimes overlaps with research if its a working meeting, or skype meetings with my collaborators. It also includes time spent at conferences, lab meetings, one-on-one discussions, etc.
  • Service: 7%
  • Email: 6%
  • Social Media: 2%
    • twitter, blogging, and maintaining my website
  • Teaching: 2%
    • I don’t have official teaching duties right now, but I volunteer for Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry 1-3 times per year.

Each week can vary quite a bit in how I spend my time, because there is an ebb and flow to projects and professional duties. But looking over the past year, I’m pretty happy that, on average, I’m not spending too much time on social media, email, or service items (and I’ve been happy with my results in these areas). Although I am sometimes doing research while traveling or during time that I have logged as meetings, I do wish my “focused research” time was higher, so I might try to work on that. The good news is that although I traveled often for conferences, working groups, and collaboration during the past 7 months, I have almost NO travel scheduled for the next 9 months, so time spent just getting places should decrease in the near future. The percentage of time spent in meetings is about where I expected it to be, and I think I’m ok with it – I have collaborators in many different places, and periodic Skype or in-person meetings are necessary, as well as keeping connections with folks at my home university through weekly lab meetings. My total hours per week are generally 40-55, depending on what’s needed.

What works for me might not work for you, but I do think it is helpful to have a plan. There’s been plenty of other discussion on time management in academic science, and I’ve posted a few of them below for you to check out and see what you think.

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