Manage your tasks, not time

This post is highly inspired by the book of Tim Ferriss “The 4-hour Workweek”. I find the title a little misleading, but the ideas do work also for academics.

So let us start straight away. Let us assume you need to work on your paper. No, you must! Let us also imagine that you would like to work for 2 hours on it. There are two ways you could plan for it:

  1. I will work today 2 hours on my paper.
  2. I will write today the related works section.

Oh, I already hear you screaming: I cannot possibly write a complete section in 2 hours! Tim Ferriss says you can, and I confirm.

The first plan has a glitch: you could spend the complete two hours shuffling your references and playing with the format. Is this what you wanted? Is this what you want to report to your supervisor? I don’t think so. In fact, one of my Ph.D. students once confessed to me, that sitting in front of the computer already “feels” like work, so he would try to spend as much time as possible in front of it, staring at the simulation running … What a terrible way to fool yourself and to waste your youth!

The second plan has a huge advantage against the first one: it pushes you to quickly do and FINISH something. You only have two hours and you need to get this done. Thus, you stop shuffling references and playing with the format, but finally get back to the pile of printed papers on your desk and write that section down.

Now, we have to discuss another problem: The references probably do not compile and the format is broken! But this was also not the task. The task was to write it down. Another task, maybe for tomorrow when you only have 30 minutes, could be to fix those.

In general, I advise all my students to work in cycles. I also live this advice myself. I would start writing raw drafts with bullet points and copied paragraphs, then turn them into first drafts, then polish and sharpen the writing, and finally spell-checking the text.

Take-home messages:

  • Define clear, concrete, doable goals. Do’s: finish section 2, fix all references, make graphs 12 and 13, polish the writing.
  • Prioritize your tasks: polishing, formatting, spell checking are done at the end. Writing and presenting results are your first priorities.
  • Learn to work in cycles: write the first draft, re-write later, polish, and spell-check at the end. This also applies to result presentation: make a hand-written graph first to check your hypotheses, create the graph later, play with colors and text size last.
  • Define one or two clear tasks for the day, depending on the time available. Challenge yourself a little bit every day!

Happy task management and paper writing!

P.S. Oh, I forgot the good news: if you finish your task earlier than expected, get a coffee and enjoy your free time!

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