February 20, 2012

Time management skills in academics

In non-science policy related news, I've been working towards a better system of time management. I'm a fairly organized person, but lately I've been feeling  rather paralyzed about the projects I'm involved in or trying to start. I thought I'd share some of my renewed solutions, in case anyone else out there has similar struggles.

1) Make a decision to change. My decision was partly at the prompting of my advisor, but was also a personal acknowledgement that even though I'm a hard worker, I'm not being very productive and end up procrastinating and wasting time. So I bought this book, and am about half-way through. As the title suggests, it's main message is to "eat that frog," meaning tackle your hardest projects first.

2) Use free technology. I use this app to track how I actually spend my time. Depressingly, I spend about 5-6 hours a week on Facebook. Leading to this app: I can block Facebook for certain periods of time. RescueTime has also taught me that I'm most productive on weekday afternoons, which means that I should structure my days so that I can actually be working at a computer at those times.

3) The "inbox zero" rule and other email tips. I use Gmail, and filtering mail allows me to keep some things unread, but out of my inbox and into their appropriate categories. Unfortunately, my past method of "starring" important mail does nothing to remind me of it later, so what I do now is either keep in unread or add reminders in my to-do list and calendar to follow up with certain things. Here's a helpful website for more detail. Also, I know that it's more efficient to check email more sporadically, i.e. once an hour or two hours, but I have a had time doing this.

4) Use low-tech solutions as well. I have a to-do list document on my computer that's divided into daily, weekly, and monthly goals. But now I've started carrying around a mini-legal pad which has my daily goals broken into small, doable chunks. Seriously, these things got me through undergrad.

5) Take care of yourself and take breaks during work. When you're relaxing, don't feel guilty about not doing work. I struggle constantly with this, but I often need a good night's sleep to solve a difficult problem. Jorge Cham, the author of Piled High and Deeper, gives a talk about the "Power of Procrastination," and how our brain needs down time (and we sort of need social lives). So consider these little breaks and self-care as part of your work routine.

For more tips, check out the GradHacker blog by a group of graduate students at Michigan State University.

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