I have been experimenting with time management for almost 10 years now. Early in my career as a researcher, I noticed that if you manage to focus well, you can get extremely productive and will need only a fraction of the time planned. However, achieving productivity is not trivial: there is no button on the back of your head to switch it on, unfortunately.
In this post, I would like to share the pure basics, which work well for me for many years now. You have heard many of them already, but I am sure you still do not “live” them, for one reason or another.
- Switch off media when you want to focus. Put your phone in the next room, switch off email and all messaging apps. You probably know these. But did you think also about calendar notifications, Dropbox und Google Drive updates, etc? All these disrupt your flow and any disruption, even just for a second, brings you off your real work. In general, I am very conservative which apps can send me notifications and I generally switch them all off. If I know that a meeting is upcoming and I am afraid to miss it because I am so deeply involved in my work, I set an alarm.
- Allow emails to “ripe”. You do not have to answer each and any email that comes and surely not immediately. It is better to wait for at least several hours. This also means that you do not have to check on emails constantly, you can do so during waiting times (e.g. when a meeting has finished earlier). I really hate emails – once you answer one, an avalanche of further emails come upon you.
- Observe yourself and identify the most productive times. For me, these are the mornings, between 9am and 12pm, approximately. Block these slots for your most important work. Do not waste them for meetings, emails, etc.
- Do not overbook your time. You want to work 8 hours per day? Then schedule at most 6. You need the remaining two for breaks, switching tasks, checking emails and buying coffee in the cafeteria.
- Make a (virtual) office hour. Each time somebody asks you for a meeting, it costs you 3-4 minutes to check your calendar and to answer to that person. Especially with students and admin stuff, it is really useful to have a fixed office hour. I switch on my Zoom personal meeting and can check emails and do some other small and quick tasks while I am waiting for people to come. I find this extremely useful and efficient – people know when they can surely find me and talk to me and I know that I usually manage to put some todos off my list. Plus, people tend to be more constructive in your office hour, since they assume others are waiting.
- Organise your todos. It is not enough to keep a list of todos, since these lists tend to grow very long. What works better for me is to organise into sub-lists, which I can grab one by one and work myself down. For example, I have a list for paper writing, a list for teaching and students, a list for admin stuff, etc. The items which have a deadline, get a deadline. I am not a fan of putting deadlines to items which do not have any. For some reason, I always end up not meeting those (because I know they are not real and I cannot fool myself), but I still feel bad about it. What is worse, however, I cannot visually and quickly differentiate between real and non-real deadlines and I end up messing it all up. Thus, only real deadlines are marked. I use Trello for this.
- Reserve time for important tasks. Some tasks, like meetings and email checking, have the incredible talent of eating all your time, if you allow them to do so. If I go to all meetings I have been invited to and I answer all emails immediately, I would end up with almost no time for real work (like papers, and research, and teaching, and supervision – they are not few!) Thus, I started reserving floating slots for time eaters. I would decide how much time I need to invest in them, e.g. 15 hours per week for meetings (wow, so much!). Then, once I schedule a meeting, one of these floating slots disappear from your calendar. Once they are all gone, it is over – first come, first serve. This has taught me also to say no to meetings which I think will not serve my priorities, so that I have meeting slots available for more important stuff. This principle, together with step 3 works well for me to keep control over my time.
I hope these could be useful also for others! Happy time optimising!