The ‘Five B’s time management tactics for researchers

Your starting point for any time management plan is to decide what your main goals are and how important it is to achieve them. Your goals can be both professional and personal.

Your professional goals may be; getting your paper published in a high impact journal, securing a particular faculty position, working as part of a top research team, and teaching at a prestigious institution. Your personal goals could be; spending time with family and friends, maintaining a healthy life style, hobbies that bring you joy. All of them can affect your well-being and ultimately how well you maintain and excel in your career.

Professor Nick Feamster, Princeton University, synthesises his many years of time management theories to make them specifically applicable to academia.

Think of time as having monetary value and plan how you use it
Time is an asset that you are always spending and it can never be replenished or replaced, so spending it in the best way possible will always enhance your effectiveness in academia. If you have a budget to help you achieve a saving target it makes it easier to decide whether you can afford dinner out and theatre tickets, or if that will blow your budget and chances of achieving your saving goal. In terms of your academic career you will need to achieve various sub-goals before you secure a faculty role. All of your goals will require a particular investment of time.

Professor Feamster sets out five tactics to help you plan and prioritise how you use your time in academia.

1. Bits
Time is actually fluid and a task may not fill the time you allocate to it. For example, in allocating an hour for a meeting the actual meeting may not take the full hour and you may have a pocket of time you could use productively. So in order to do this, it is worth while keeping a Bits List which has a list of tasks that will take a short amount of time. You could break down a larger task into bits and pop those bits on to your Bits List. For example, you could include writing just a paragraph for a conference paper. Be realistic about what will actually take a short amount of time to avoid ‘precrastination’.

2. Budgets
Be purposeful in the use of your time to spend it well. Set long term and short term goals, and no, it is not about all work and no play. It is important to be purposeful in decompressing and recharging your batteries too. Continuing with the example of a conference paper, you may want to finish the introduction for your paper by the end of the week, which you achieve by having each paragraph on your Bits List. Your overall goal is to have your conference paper submitted ahead of deadline so that you can start on the talk.
An important characteristic of budgeting your time is to have an agenda for every single meeting you attend. This contributes to being purposeful in the use of your time rather than having long meetings with no clear outcomes.

3. Buffers
Create time buffers between scheduled activities. Go early to any activity and also schedule a 50% time buffer for any activity. For example, if you think a meeting will take 20 minutes, schedule 30 minutes, and arrive say 10 minutes earlier and do something on your Bits List. If you think an activity will require 60 minutes, schedule 90 in your plan. This prevents you racing from one activity to another so you can be ready and composed for any meeting or task.

4. Bounds
There is always another paper you can write, another paper to review, however you need to do things in a timely manner. You will never achieve perfection but you can be timely. If there is no deadline for something set one for yourself. Be aware of time thieves, in particular the activities that appear to be productive. The most usual culprit is email; allocate a specific amount of time to reply to emails, so they do not push aside your other tasks that you want to complete that day.
By setting bounds for time you spend on various tasks and leisure activities, including spending time on social media sites like FaceBook, in theory, you will avoid large amounts of time spent procrastinating.

5. Barriers
Following a similar theme to Bounds, set time barriers for everything you do and protect that time allocation ruthlessly. Nothing ever takes just a minute but you can schedule time for those things that people want to take just a minute of your time to discuss. It is absolutely fine to say no to things, and do not feel bad for doing so. You may need to learn how to say no; it will be liberating and help you and others with over commitment and missed deadlines.
Protecting your personal time and space is vitally important too, both for your well-being and, ultimately how well you perform in your career.

These ‘Five B’s are tactics that Professor Feamster has developed over the years, and find works well for him personally in an unstructured and boundless working environment. Click here to read his full post.

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