10 Tried and tested time management tips for researchers

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10 Tried and tested time management tips for researchers

That feeling when the deadline is fast approaching and you have barely made a dent in your work – yes, it is dreadful to say the least. At that point when you think you won’t be able to make it, how you wish you’d planned and managed your time better!  

The fact is that researchers have a lot of deliverables; at a minimum, you are likely to be working on publications, presentations, proposal submissions, and conducting studies. Many of you might also be teaching, or mentoring students, or doing peer review work. Apart from the intellectually stimulating work; there are a lot of admin and logistics related issues that researchers need to juggle with their core research related activities. In addition, unprecedented delays may leave you with less time than you had imagined.

To be a successful researcher, it is imperative that you make optimum use of the time available to you. Effective time-management not only helps avoid the last-minute stress and delays but will also ensure that your research journey is smoother and happier.  This article is a compilation of wisdom shared by researchers about time management strategies that have helped them improve their efficiency.

1. Use project management tools: Efficient planning is the key to effective time-management. Therefore, it is best to have a structured plan in mind at the beginning of each semester or academic year. Several project management and planning tools are available online (Asana, Trello, ProofHub, to name a few) and these can help your project stay on track. Katie Gambier-Ross, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh says in her blog: “I’ve only really embraced using a digital calendar in the past two years and it has been life-changing.


2. Work on multiple goals simultaneously: Once you’ve listed down your major goals, consider if it’s possible to work on some goals simultaneously, as this will ensure that you make steady progress.  For example, don’t wait to complete your research and analysis, and then start writing your paper. You can write the Methods section as you conduct your experiments, as the details of the procedures will still be fresh in your mind. Deciding in advance which goals you can tackle simultaneously will increase your productivity.


3. Assign realistic deadlines to tasks:  If you have a deadline for an important goal in mind, work backwards and split it into smaller tasks with assigned deadlines. Factor in foreseeable challenges and set realistic timelines. Keep some buffer time to ensure that your plan is not over-ambitious. Fitting in too much into a day or week can be counter-productive: you may lose motivation and stop following your schedule altogether or you might overwork yourself and run the risk of an early burnout. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, an Assistant Professor at a university in Mexico, shared in his blog how he initially wanted to achieve all the goals, but later change his system to listing only the tasks which were actually feasible to complete by the planned date: “This is important because I am always shooting for achieving more and then realizing my body (or life) happens.


4. Create daily to-do lists: Creating to-do lists on a daily basis is a great way to track your work for the day and see it to completion. It is really satisfying to see your planned tasks struck off the list at the end of the day. Spend the last 5 minutes of each work day to create a quick to-do list for the following day while it’s still fresh in your mind. 


5. Block time for high-priority tasks: Blocking your calendar for larger tasks that need focused work is a good strategy that works for many researchers. For example, some researchers have found blocking a large chunk of time at the beginning of their day for writing helpful. Rather than attending to your emails first thing in the morning, investing that time in making headway in your manuscript writing or grant writing will give you a sense of accomplishment and will take you a step closer to your goal. Dora Farkas, a PhD from MIT and founder of the Finish Your Thesis Academy, says in a blogpost: “When you begin your day by reading messages, you are prioritizing other people’s requests before taking action towards your long-term goals… To make consistent progress, begin your day by doing the highest priority task.”


6. Learn to say “no”: As a researcher, a lot of requests and opportunities come your way, but consistently agreeing to take them up can be distracting and make you lose sight of your goals. Ask yourself: Do you have the bandwidth to take on, say, an extra review? Or should you attend that conference that focuses on a related field or work on your study instead?


7. Avoid distractions: Turn off push notifications on your phone or put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode during your focused work sessions. At the end of each session, spend 5 minutes checking your phone and mails. However, resist the temptation to attend to all emails immediately. Send out short replies to only the urgent ones. The rest can wait for later.


8. Do not procrastinate: Procrastination is the biggest enemy of good time management: we   have all faced it and know how difficult it is to get ourselves to do the tasks that we don’t like or that we know will be challenging.  One good way to avoid this is scheduling a difficult task on the same day that you have a personal plan. Say you book movie tickets for the evening and decide to complete the task you’ve been putting off before you leave. Agata, a PhD student in the University of Nottingham recommends doing this. “There is no better booster of your time management than having plans after work. If you know you need to leave office/lab at the certain time suddenly you productiveness increases significantly,” she says.


9. Do not precrastinate: Though the term “precrastination” may be new to some of us, I’m sure most of us have been guilty of this at some point in time. Precrastination is another way of delaying a task that you don’t want to do by telling yourself that you must attend to other less significant tasks first, such as responding to emails. Resist doing this and stick to your schedule as far as possible. Respond to emails at a fixed time during the day. Use a time slot when you generally feel less productive to attend to emails and other low-priority tasks.


10. Take breaks: In a blogpost in The Thesis Whisperer, Dr. Inger Mewburn, director of research training at The Australian National University, advices against spending the whole day at your desk. Instead, working in focused blocks of one to two hours with a break after each session helps improve productivity, she says. Using these breaks to incorporate some physical activity, whether it’s a walk, a swim, yoga, cycling; or on really busy days, just walking to the balcony with your cup of coffee, can be immensely helpful. Your body and mind will thank you for it and you’ll come back to your desk refreshed. In addition, setting aside some time dedicatedly for your family and friends is important will help you give your best to your work.

While it is important to follow your plan and your schedule, don’t be too hard on yourself. Accept the fact that there will be days when you are super-motivated, and others when you’re rather unproductive. Overall, it is important to remain committed to your long term goals and keep revisiting your plan to see what’s working well and what could be improved. Each person has their own style of work and not all of the above tips and strategies might work for you; however, I’m sure each of you will find in this piece a few tips that  resonate with you and when applied, will lead to increased productivity.

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Published on: Dec 05, 2019

Senior Editor, Editage Insights. Researcher coach since 2015
See more from Kakoli Majumder


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