BU BEST program: Time Management

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

As a post-doc, I like to think that I’ve gotten where I am because I have good time management skills. I’d rate myself 4 out of 5; good but there is room for improvement. As I progress through my post-doc, I am having a harder time responding in a thoughtful way to demands on my time, and instead find myself reacting quickly to get things done and off my plate. So, when I got an email from our BEST program in conjunction with the office of Professional Development and Postdoctoral affairs about a time management workshop, I jumped on the chance to get my hands on some new ideas and to get myself in better shape for my current job and any I might have in the future.

The first exercise is pretty simple, but can be eye-opening:

1. Ask yourself, how do you spend your time at work?
Write out an average day using 15-30 minute intervals. Alternately, pick a day where you find yourself having difficulty getting things done.

If you often find yourself wondering where the day went and why you didn’t get much done, this activity can help you identify problem areas.

Many in the group had distractions like Facebook, going for coffee, chatting to co-workers; for me, it’s getting texts from my two best friends. I’m lucky in terms of coffee—I can have it at my desk as I work in an office separate from the lab, so coffee is usually paired with computer-based data analysis for me. Generally, I am good about not checking Facebook at work, and I try not to tweet, although I feel less guilty about tweeting because my tweets are usually about science (@Biologista_ if you’re so inclined). Generally, these types of distractions don’t take up much of my day. Most of my time at work is spent performing experiments and going to meetings. The most challenging time for me is during computer analysis where my phone or the fun parts of the internet are at my fingertips. Now that I’ve identified the times when I am more likely to be distracted, it is easier to recognize when it occurs and get back to my work.


2. Think about when you are most productive. Why? What are the conditions?

For me, I’m most productive when I get to do a new experiment, go to meetings with colleagues, do data analysis, or share positive results with my boss. Why this collection of things? For all of them, it’s that they make me excited: I like the novelty of a new experiment, the second because I get to engage in what I like to call “productive socializing” – talking about science and science problems with peers, and the last two because I feel like I am making concrete, solid, positive progress towards a scientific goal.

Other activities, like writing financial reports and troubleshooting, are not as exciting for me, but I get motivated to finish them by reminding myself of why they are urgent (a grant deadline) and important (if I don’t figure out the problem, I can’t get the data I need). Previously, I did this sort of thing subconsciously; usually I would make a list at the beginning of the week. I would do the most “fun” important/urgent things first, then the less fun but important/urgent things, and then other non-urgent or important things as I had the time to do them.

Sarah Hokanson, the leader of this program and the director of BU’s Professional Development and Post-Doctoral Affairs office showed us this figure:

time management matrix












Instead of making a single list, we put action items on the matrix according to their importance and urgency, where the most important urgent things go in the top right quadrant, while important but less urgent things go in the upper left quadrant and so on.

A light went off in my brain: what a great way to organize my usual list! Although, I alter this layout and keep urgent items on the left because that is what I see first when I scan a page. You can even simplify this into two lists. For example, I keep all urgent items in one list, ordered top-to-bottom by importance, and keep a second list of the non-urgent things. It’s only been a few weeks but I already feel more organized as my priorities are literally in order! Previously, I would sometimes get bogged down trying to complete everything on my list; now it’s easy to make sure I’m getting the essential items done.

3. Use a time management tool

The third item we discussed was using a task-management tool. This is something I struggle with. Other graduate students and post-docs are meticulous about keeping either an online or written calendar of all their experiments. I initially hated this because it felt too rigid and over-scheduled (more about that in the next section). However, I know see how useful this can be. I often make a list of tasks, and then schedule them for that week. Depending on what is going on in my life, this may take up an entire month’s calendar or more. Here’s where I struggle: paper or electronic calendar? I love my paper calendar because writing things down by hand is a strong memory aid. However, I also love my Google calendar, as it will remind me that I have things scheduled. Hopefully, soon there will be some sort of handwriting recognition for online calendars so that I can have everything in one place. In the meantime, I use a paper calendar for my experiments (it sets right over my desk so it also is a good visual reminder of what I to do), and the online version for meetings, lectures, and booking shared equipment. Important items often go into both. Not a perfect system, but so far it is going well.

4. Schedule your time appropriately:
     a. Balance what you have to do, and what you like or want to do
     b. Plan your most challenging tasks for when you have the most energy
     c. Limit your scheduled time to 75% of your awake time (Lakein, 1973)

This the keystone of the whole program. For the most essential important and urgent items, I like to do these early in the week when I’m refreshed from the weekend, or if needed, on Sunday rather than Saturday so that I have a bit of break and time to myself. I like balancing the “have to” things with the “want to” things; if I have essential items in both categories—great! I will alternate them to keep my energy up. If there are only “have to” essential items on my list, I’ll reward myself for completing the “have to” item with one non-essential and small “want to” item and then return to the essential “have to” items. Knowing yourself, what you like and don’t like to do, when you have energy, and how you recharge is key to keeping this system rolling.

The last point, though, is probably the one I’m currently struggling with the most and why I feel like I’m reacting rather than responding. In academia, it’s hard to resist that urge to keep pushing and working in order to get closer to the next paper, grant, or position. However, we tend to lose efficiency when we over-schedule. This is when knowing what items are non-urgent and not important and can be done later can be really helpful. If delaying something a week isn’t going to cause problems, and doing so will give me some downtime, it can be worth postponing to avoid burnout. Also, having some flexible, unscheduled time in your day can be important for when something goes wrong, or someone adds an urgent and important item to your to-do list. Being overscheduled can make these moments feel like a disaster, but if you have a bit of “scheduled” free time and clear priorities, you can handle these urgent items when they occur.

What are some strategies you employ in time management and that keep you engaged for the long haul? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Bold text and images generated by Sarah Hokanson.

Covey, S. R.; Merrill, R. R. (1994). First Things First: to Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lakein, A (1973). How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. New York: New America Library.

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