Recently on twitter I made the absolutely terrible mistake of claiming that I am good at time management. I am totally infuritated by the running gag that academics are busy because they are very bad at organising their time – in my view, the reason we are busy is because we have too much to do.
Still, my claim was foolish, because I quickly received a reply asking me to write a blog about how I manage my time. Oh dear.
So here I go, with the proviso (very familiar to anyone who works with me) that I frequently fail to follow my own advice and realise that these strategies won’t work for everyone – especially if they don’t have various luxuries that I have (e.g. the opportunity to work flexibly, a partner and co-parent, a lot of control over how I organise my time).
I should also add that I think every recommendation here requires a penchant for colour coded calendars… For me, time management is all about planning, and reserving time for specific things on specific days. If you are more of a list-maker or a fire-fighter, then a lot of this won’t work for you.
1. Know yourself
The single most important element of managing my time is knowing my own preferences and limitations. I know I work most efficiently first thing in the morning, so I try to set aside this time for the work that is most demanding of my intellectual capacity – writing. If I have a specific piece of writing to work on – like a grant proposal or a new paper – I will reserve a series of chunks in the first two hours of the day, because I know that will be much more productive than something in the afternoon or evening.
Likewise, I never plan two pieces of writing in a single day. If the morning has a blog post, paper or proposal, the afternoon should be meetings, emails, data etc. There’s no point in pretending I will get two pieces of writing done in a day. The exception is when I have the opportunity to write for a full day, which is amazing, but incredibly rare.
To help make the best use of writing time, I will also often try to set aside a half hour the day before, in the afternoon or early evening, to plan the writing. If I can get the new document open and saved, read through the call for proposals, pencil in a few sub-headings, it will make a huge difference. I can hit the ground running and use my writing time to best effect.
The corollary of this is that I try to schedule less demanding stuff in the afternoons. I avoid booking meetings before 11am, and block out time for emails and admin tasks in the second half of the day.
2. Plan ahead
One of the major threats to time management is the way that your schedule looks so empty, if you scroll forward a few weeks. The best specific time management trick I’ve ever learned is to programme in regular tasks for the future, so that when you are planning ahead you can make realistic predictions about your availability and capacity.
For example, I block out time every week labelled “emails” – this is in my calendar for the next decade or more. The reserved time comes to about 8 hours every week, which is essentially set-aside for stuff that comes in, inevtiably and without fail, that I know I will need time to handle. I also try to set aside the first Monday of the month, every month, for “catch up time” which is to clear the backlog of things I have agreed to over the preceding month, but not yet done.
I also set aside the entire day on Tuesdays, every week, for responding to enquiries from students and people I line manage. I can use this time for one to one meetings but also try to keep large swathes of the day open for drop-ins. It is also time I can use to feedback on student work, and avoids them having to wait too long to get comments. Having dedicated time for my team also helps reduce my email, as we can resolve things quickly in person (or via a video call nowadays). This tends to be much more efficient, as well as enjoyable, for all involved.
Another bit of forward planning is to block out time associated with future events. For example, if I agree to give a talk, I will try to not only put the talk itself in my diary, but also block out travel time (even if I haven’t booked it yet) and prep time for writing the slides a week or two before the event.
Finally, if I am taking some annual leave, I will try to reserve the entire day before I go, and entire day when I get back, for emails. If I can clear most of my inbox before I go I will be able to relax much more happily, and a day for catching up when I get back will help avoid a long-term “hangover” from being away.
Something I haven’t done yet, but is next on the cards in my perpetual quest for efficiency, is to make my work calendar entirely public and simply invite people to book themselves a meeting directly. I need to check the way that events would be made visible, and limit my availability to ensure that I don’t find myself with back to back meetings day after day. But I love the idea of escaping from the endless process of scheduling, which feels like such a disproportionate volume of email traffic.
3. Be (un)realistic
It is no good planning an ideal day that’s not realistic – if you set yourself a series of tasks that won’t fit into the time available you will only make yourself stressed and anxious, and the quality of the work will suffer. If you book in back to back meetings, you will be exhausted and end the day with a long to-do list and no time to do it.
Try your hardest to reflect on how much time something needs. If that means it won’t get done for a while, so be it. Sometimes, you won’t be able to do everything you want to do within a particular day, week, month or year. There’s no need to add guilt to the mix by making over-ambitious plans that just make you feel like a failure.
That said, sometimes being unrealistic – specifically by setting aside too much time – can be really helpful. My calendar works in blocks of 30 minutes. I will sometimes block in half an hour to send a tweet, or a single email. These jobs take 5 minutes in realty and give me much-needed flexibility in my day.
Recently, I have started trying a new trick, which is asking people to plan for a default meeting length of 45 minutes, instead of an hour. My calendar booking looks like an hour, but if we’re done 15 minutes, or even just 10 minutes before that, I have a moment to stand up and move around, make a cup of tea, maybe even do one of the wee actions I agreed to during the meeting itself. So often discussions in meetings expand to fill the time available and it is worth considering whether 60 minutes is really necessary.
4. Set expectations
Related to the above, you do need to communicate clearly with people about your availability and when things will be done. Earlier this year I took on a task with no particular deadline, but which I hoped to complete “before the summer”. In early June, having bumped the job to the following week, every week, for 2 months, I finally faced up to the fact that my self-imposed deadline was totally unrealistic. I emailed everyone concerned and explained that it wouldn’t happen until the autumn. Everyone was fine with it and it took a huge weight off my shoulders. So being up front and willing to change your plans is really crucial, I think, to managing your time without working yourself into the ground.
I also encourage my colleagues to set their expectations of me. For example, I ask students to give me deadlines for feedback and – even better – to let me know in advance exactly when I will receive their work. If I know a student will send me something by Tuesday evening, I will set aside time on Wednesday afternoon to look at it. They get feedback within 24 hours and I get more control over my schedule – everyone’s a winner!
Another key part of expectation-setting is delegation. I have worried sometimes about passing menial tasks onto people who are junior to me – things like setting up a meeting time, taking minutes or chasing action points. But this isn’t about me feeling too superior do those things – or even me being too busy to do them. This is about the fact that control and responsibility go hand in hand. Scheduling a project meeting, setting the agenda for it, circulating the minutes and chasing the action points is a hugely powerful role. The timing of the meeting may determine when specific things need to be completed. The minutes will crystallise the next steps and who is responsible for them. My time and focus is split at any one time between about a dozen projects of varying scale and at different stages. If I were in charge of these actions, I would use my personal availability and interests to dictate when we met and what we talked about. It is important that instead, the project is owned by the people working at the coal face, and that they are not at the mercy of my schedule.
6. Say No
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am also a big fan of saying no. Ultimately, no amount of time management tips will tackle the fundamental problem of having a workload that is too big. If you are working efficiently, while taking care of your health, and still not getting everything done – and if this is not a short-term blip but a long-term pattern – you need to think about how you can actively discard some of the duties you have, and stop yourself from acquiring new ones. Easier said than done, I know, but we can’t pretend that inefficiency is the reason we’re all so busy!