Monday, February 3, 2014

Some thoughts on time management

Life is busy. And as I've gotten older, it's gotten busier, to the point where I need a strategy to manage all the stuff I'm supposed to do. Here's are some general thoughts and some specifics of what I've found that works for me in case this is useful to someone (most of this comes from workshop for young faculty I did some time ago that Uri Alon had organized–thanks Uri!).

The main problem that we all face is a large number of meetings and administrative tasks that clutter up our mind, preventing us from doing more useful and meaningful things. A few observations:
  1. Once you have a lot of tasks, there is a lot of cognitive overhead associated with remembering the tasks. Like "oh yeah, I'm supposed to e-mail that person about the seminar." Multiply that by 100 (or 1000) and you get the average faculty member's academic life these days. To do lists are valuable because you can spend less time stressing about what you should remember to do and more time just doing them. But they can rapidly become overwhelming and unmanageable if not used with care.
  2. Most of us are very bad at prioritizing these tasks.  Eisenhower had it right when he said "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important."
  3. Technology has made it so that one can deal with a lot of administrative stuff without administrative support. However, while technology has facilitated this ability, others have taken advantage of it to inundate us with huge numbers of requests to do things like scheduling meetings, etc. These would have seemed unreasonable in the past, but now that the overhead to ask someone to do something is very low, we have a problem.
  4. The feeling of a lack of control over how we spend our time largely stems from our desire to please others, leading us to agree to do too many things. There's a good reason for this, because being a responsive member of a social group, however defined, is a good thing. The key is how to have your cake and eat it too.
In order to deal with this, I have come up with the following system, which I guess is more a set of guidelines than anything else.

First up is the to do list. I have used a to do list since I was a postdoc. But it became completely unmanageable as things progressed. I use the "A, B, C, D task" system, where you have a 2x2 grid of important/not important, urgent/not urgent and put tasks in them. By FAR the biggest problem for me is distinguishing the B vs. C task, which is [important, not urgent] vs. [not important, urgent].
  1. "A tasks" (important, urgent): grant due by deadline, prepare lecture for class at noon. These are things that would be catastrophic if you didn't do them.
  2. "B tasks" (important, not urgent): study literature for a new research direction, read that highly relevant paper, come up an experimental strategy, finish writing manuscript. These are things that lay the groundwork for the future.
  3. "C tasks" (not important, urgent): file reimbursement paperwork, review a paper for a journal, send that collaborator some images from that project. You should do it, but the world won't end if you don't.
  4. "D tasks" (not important, not urgent): Write a blog post. :)
I use a piece of software for this called OmniFocus. It has a bewildering array of options, but for me, I organize tasks by project and then have a context for A, B, C and D. That is working well for me, especially since it has a system-wide hotkey for adding in tasks.

A few comments: if every task is an A task, you're doing it wrong. That's a recipe for being overwhelmed. Taking control of your time means making choices. It's hard, and I'm still working on doing a better job of it. But it's essential.

The B/C distinction is a big challenge, both in assignment and execution. B tasks are, by definition, more important, but seldom give the quick little adrenaline rush of completing a task that you can tick off. C tasks are those little things staring you in the face all day, like responding to some e-mail or filling out a Doodle poll for a thesis committee time, that give you the sense that you're accomplishing stuff in the moment, but leave you with that empty feeling at the end of the day (you know what I'm talking about). The temptation is to finish off all the C tasks to have a "clean plate" for doing A and B tasks. Avoid this urge. C tasks are sponges for time: they take up whatever time you give them. So limit the time you spend on them–remember, they are NOT IMPORTANT. Also, many of these requests, while well-meaning, simply would not have existed a decade ago, and the world still went around. A surprising number of these will just resolve themselves, like a "delegation mirror". Remember also that many of your C tasks may have been someone else's A task. The person who needs feedback on the seminar schedule will write to you at 10am about it because it's important to them. Which is fine, but this doesn't mean that it has to be important to you. You can do it later.

This leads to the next point about strategies for making the most out of your day. I function best in the morning. So I try to reserve morning for things that are my A and B tasks. For me, this means interacting with my group and some important writing tasks like manuscripts and grants. I try and avoid the temptation to do those silly e-mails and forms and whatever. After lunch, I'm a bit... less... sentient. So I try and schedule other stuff then. For me, the strategy is clear: PROTECT MY MORNINGS at all costs, and try to make the most of them. One way to do this is to explicitly block off time in your calendar for A/B tasks in the morning (or whatever your "go time" is). It's important to you, and so you have to commit to it. Think of it this way: if someone out of the blue wrote to you asking you for a protocol in the middle of a meeting with a collaborator, would you respond to it right then? Then why do it when you're in the middle of quietly thinking about a project? The point is to reclaim control of your day for you to do the things you want to do, which is presumably what you were hired for anyway.

The other main bugaboo is the dreaded endless e-mail reel. I keep my e-mail on all day long in case something important comes through, but I try and deal with the vast majority of the others on the morning train ride (~15 minutes) or in the evening. During the day, I just try to stick to the ones that really really matter (to me). It seems to be working okay, actually.

Anyway, those are some thoughts on some time management, and there are tons of other approaches to this as well. Probably most senior faculty have already intuited and incorporated many of these suggestions into their day to day life, but I offer them to anyone who's feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number and variety of demands on their time and is looking for some way to deal with it.

Oh, and one other thing. A lot of this thinking goes in reverse. So before sending that e-mail asking for 20 people to figure out dates for a conference call, just be mindful that that single e-mail is generating work for a whole lot of people, most of whom are probably just as busy as you are.

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