3 steps to better time management for overstretched researchers

There are just 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week, and on average, depending on how many days in a month, about 730 hours in a month, and about 8,760 hours in a year. How you use those hours to work, eat, sleep and relax is down to the choices you make. But very often we feel at the mercy of deadlines and unexpected things that crop up and require our urgent attention. So, how do you manage your time to avoid racing or lurching from one task to another before sleep over takes you and you simply have to go to bed?

Here’s three things you will have to do:-

1. Take stock of where you are now
2. Plan how you would like your working week/month to look
3. Try to stick to the plan. Even if the plan doesn’t go as intended it does not mean that you should give up instantly on the plan. Keep trying!

1. Where to start
First take stock. Yes, stop and asses where you are right now. You are going to need to invest a bit of time to decide what is important and what is urgent. . As you review and then go on to plan your time for the coming weeks, it is worth considering how you want your career to progress. This will help you to evaluate what is important to you and how you should spend your time. Perhaps it is important to you to publish in a journal or at a particularly prestigious conference, or you may place more priority on teaching. Whatever your career priorities are, it will help you to shape how and where you want to spend your time. As part of taking stock of things that are important to you, you should also factor in your own well-being. It is not worth exhausting yourself to the point of a physical crisis. You may also need to consider the needs of your family in your career choices, for example location and travel commitments associated with a particular role that you would like to achieve.

2. Decide how you want your working week and month to look?
Once you have an overview of the things that you need to spend time on and the things that are important to you, it is time to plan things differently. Some simple tactics for setting time slots to get through the list of priorities in your working week are set out in our popular Five Bs time management tactics for researchers. This post is based on a piece written by a very experienced academic who has worked through several time management theories and come up with his own easily applicable technique.

3. Stick to the plan
Managing your time differently does require a lot of self-control, especially when you are absolutely exhausted. A way to do this is to perhaps to think of the time you have in terms of having monetary value and you need to plan how you spend it. So if you blow your time binge watching a Netflix series until 2am to unwind, you may be late getting up, which in turn means you start the day rushed and having to play catch up throughout the day.

If you stopped work earlier and either took a walk home or went for a swim, you may actually be more refreshed. This in turn could mean that you could either do some more work before going to bed, or you may wake up earlier to start the day and are then able to fit in the extra pieces of work in the morning. So if you squander your time instead of using it wisely you may feel like you are constantly in time debt, as in not having enough time to do the things you need to do without exhausting yourself

All aspects of your life should be factored in to how you spend your working week because if you don’t you could easily neglect your own well-being. The costs may not be obvious at first, such as a constant back ache that becomes a chronic problem. Small changes in your lifestyle and working week are often more sustainable long term, than making big changes quickly. If one time management theory or system doesn’t work for you try another that is better suited to the way you work, but do commit to trying a new technique for at least three months. You may not stick to it completely at first, but when you see perhaps that having a ‘Bits List’ is helping you get through lots of small tasks quickly and ‘Buffering’ time before and after meetings means that you are always on time arriving and leaving meetings, you may feel more ready to make bigger changes.

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