Taking back control of time

Tips on time management in academic research

Part 1

C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince.

It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince.

The Persistence of MemorySalvador Dalí 

It is common for us academic researchers to have our own special concept of ‘time’. Our days rarely follow the 9:00 to 17:00 schedule as we juggle our time around manuscript writing, conference preparations, grant deadlines and experiment planning. Although we all enjoy the freedom and autonomy of academic research life, I do sometimes wonder if we are doing a good job at efficiently managing our time without letting it manage us. Are we using our time ‘wisely’ and most importantly are we allowing ourselves a mental break to move from one task to another?  

To answer these questions, I have gathered some of my thoughts on how to cope with the time at our hands without feeling too overwhelmed. In the first part of this blogpost, I go over some tips on time efficiency to enhance our productivity. In the second part, I highlight the importance of not forgetting to take care of ourselves in our endless race against the clock. 

Adjusting to post-pandemic life

During the pandemic, we all had to adjust our working schedule and opt for a ‘virtual lifestyle’ as meetings, conferences and socialising activities were all done online. Some researchers felt more productive during this period while others felt no motivation at all, really missed the social interaction and lacked the necessary focus to keep up with an event taking place online.

As the pandemic was slowing down, many had to adjust as they felt overwhelmed by the returning high number of ‘in person’ events. It is as if we forgot how to travel/commute to work and hold conversations with people again! It is certain however that post-pandemic life seems to have adopted a ‘hybrid lifestyle’ to accommodate best of both worlds: ‘virtual’ and ‘in person’. This might be a good solution in terms of better time management as it can limit the need to commute or travel to attend a certain event. On the other hand, the pandemic taught us that human interaction is key for our work and that certain events and meetings are better held in person. So, depending on someone’s priorities and expectations, it is best to decide in advance which event or meeting requires a physical presence and which one can be taken from the comfort of our homes.  

Plan your days and weeks ahead

It is always helpful to organise your weeks in advance and plan your days accordingly while introducing some variety in the tasks ahead. This variety can be in the form of meetings in the morning and lab work in the afternoon or writing in the morning and experiment planning in the afternoon. I usually find it useful to plan up to 2 tasks per day and you can decide how big or how small you want these tasks to be. This strategy tends to make my days feel productive and gives me the satisfaction of ticking the items off my to-do list at the end of the day.

Dedicate a specific time of the day to answer and write emails 

It is sometimes difficult to stay focused on a task when email notifications keep popping on the screen. I found it useful to dedicate a specific time during the day to read and answer emails. You can inform people to give you a call if there are any urgent matters. Removing email notifications from the phone makes you take control and places you in charge of when it is best to read or answer emails.  

Are you tired of endless group “reply all” emails when discussing a project? These emails can be replaced with discussion platforms such as Teams (https://www.microsoft.com/en-ww/microsoft-teams/log-in) or Slack (https://slack.com/). These applications are widely used in tech companies and facilitate the exchange of ideas, meeting scheduling and file sharing. It is also easy to dedicate a certain channel to a subject or a project rather than scrolling through lists and lists of emails to find hidden information. 

Reading and replying to emails will only generate more emails and at the end of the day, you realise that you haven’t done much else!

Organise your meetings 

After spending your dedicated time on reading and answering emails, you might find it is sometimes easier to schedule a meeting with someone rather than solving the issue via a ping-pong email session. The best way to organise meetings is by preparing an agenda and create action points from each item on the agenda. This will inform people in advance what they need to prepare and what to expect from the upcoming meeting. Meetings with no pre-set agendas and time allocation are often confusing and lack purpose. If planning several meetings in a row, it might be good to include buffer times or breaks in between and schedule them to be slightly longer than planned. 

What are your tips on time management and what works for you and what doesn’t?  

In my upcoming post, I am excited to share some ideas on another important aspect of time management and that is how to get a proper mental break and set up boundaries. 


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