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Time Management Advice?

October 2, 2008

Hello everyone,

Been planning for months to contribute to the blog, so perhaps this is the best way to start.  I wanted to make some comments about keeping that balance between work and non-work activities.  Clearly, I have time management issues, but who doesn’t?   I’m no expert, but here are some things I’m trying this year to increase the amount of non-work time I have by increasing what I get done during the work part of the day.

My goal was simple – last year (my first year in tenure-track position) was quite literally insane – I spent close to 60 hours per week at work and then did more at home nights and weekends.  While that kind of time commitment isn’t surprising for a first year prof., it’s not something I can (or want to) keep doing.  I want to be more productive so I can keep up with the work demands but still get enough sleep and a weekend off here and there.

The plan…

1.  Organization.  Just a simple system of keeping things straight – I keep hanging folders for important topics (one for each class, one for conferences, one for the promotion/tenure file, etc.).  I know what I need should be in those folders – so I can avoid spending time searching through stacks of paper to find something.  There are numerous computer apps out there for organizing the computer equivalent of the file drawer (pdf organization, to-do lists, etc.) as well – searching for the right reference shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

2.  Priorities.   What needs to be done today, what can be done tomorrow?   Not to encourage procrastination, but to finish the most important tasks first.  Another place where technology helps – my calendar app sends an email for important deadlines, and reminders of what meetings will be taking up work time tomorrow; plus a to-do list app to keep track of what tasks need to be done.  I can both identify the most pressing need and the timeframe I have to do it in, but also to pick out small tasks that can be done in those few free minutes before a meeting or class.

3.  Limits.  Now, the more difficult stuff — all projects seem to hit a point of diminishing returns… when the time spent editing and fixing problems doesn’t really improve the overall product much.  Does that lecture really need a better picture of Mt. St. Helens?  Does the manuscript really improve much if I spend 30 minutes redrawing the scale bars?

Some other limits I’m trying to observe is a limit on the time I spend both at work and working at home.  When I know I’ll be working until late in the evening, I don’t leave for work until later in the morning – and I avoid taking home  I know won’t get done.   This forces me to be more productive in the office and to take a break at home, even if its just browsing the ‘net over morning coffee.

Then there’s learning to say ‘no’ – not overcommitting to projects, or conferences, or committees.  But I’m finding this difficult to do…

4. Asking for help – I don’t know about others out there, but I sometimes feel like I’m somehow less skilled or well-prepared for my job if I have to ask someone else for assistance.    This includes simple things like asking colleagues to cover classes or for small bits of advice as well as recruiting help for projects or using pre-made lectures (or class notes) for my own clases.

So, I’ll finish up by asking for your comments:  do you have a time managment strategy that works for you? advice for saying no to that additional committee or project commitment?  or perhaps, if you also feel awkward asking for help, is there a technique you have for convincing yourself that asking for help isn’t a ‘sign of weakness’?  Please share!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2008 10:24 am

    Hi all,

    I don’t know how many of you are also a member of AWIS (association for women in science) but they are having a series of teleseminars titled “Strategies to Deal with Your Career and Work-Life Balance Challenges”. They start october 14th and go through Nov 19th…


  2. Susan K permalink
    October 10, 2008 9:55 am

    It is all about letting things go. The kids don’t need a bath EVERY night. The house doesn’t need to be spotless. The grass could be a little long before it gets cut. You can outsource – neighbor kids actually mow our lawn now and we gave in and got maids every other week – both money well spent if you can afford it! You don’t need a “House and Garden” garden. Dinner out of a box is OK.

    Focus on what matters – you’ll never regret that the carpet wasn’t clean, you will regret not playing ball with the kids.

    And remember – better is the enemy of good enough. Know when enough is enough. Some things will never be perfect, so don’t keep trying to get it there.

  3. October 9, 2008 8:41 pm

    I wish I had a magic bullet of answers here! But the truth is, with two kids, my own scientific consulting business, a NASA grant, and several web blogs, I’m always a bit on the hairy edge of getting everything done too. I think maybe it’s just this time of life … there’s just so much to do!

  4. October 5, 2008 6:48 pm

    Great article. I think you hit the nail on the head with priorities. Lets face it, we are all really busy, and if you are not careful you can end up being controlled by the tyranny of the urgent, constantly putting out fires. Prioritizing and planning your work, and then working your plan, is a great step towards getting the most important things done.

  5. October 3, 2008 8:30 pm

    Funny that I just mentioned time management in a recent post about writing my first poster. I’ve found that it helps to have someone you report your progress to–a support group, I suppose. The possibility that I’ll let others down is a huge motivator.

    I also use Google calendar obsessively. I change my entries to reflect what actually happened so I can account for past time, enter major deadlines and all appointments, and scheduled social events (to make sure I don’t let life outside of school slide).

    For organizing computer files, I have a hierarchy of folders and archive the ones I am not actively using. For paper stuff, I have many, many binders and tabbed dividers. I find them easier to store than hanging files.

    In addition to all this, I keep a running to-do list in a text file. That way I can rearrange items to fit my priorities for each day. I suppose a spreadsheet might work better for this so you could sort by task name, priority, due date, or whatever other fields you enter, but textwrangler takes less memory than excel.

    I hope I’ve offered at least a kernel of help. I just take it day by day with a loose long-term plan. Good luck in your battle to maintain balance and sanity.


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