The pressures on researchers seem to have grown over the last decade or so. Competition for funding, external assessment and information overload all combine to add to the stress and make it harder to create the space and pace needed to develop and sustain new ideas.

In the Time Management session run in 2016, we talked and worked through the following approach to develop more control over your time. The tools that were identified are clearly linked and I’ll try to keep this page updated as I find new resources.

Step 1: Articulate your time management objectives. What is it that you want to be different?

I start with this because everyone has slightly different time management problems. If you understand what your problem is you are more likely to find tools and approaches that will make a difference. In talking about it you will often hear yourself describing the solutions.

Step 2: What tools and approaches are available?

These are found in the plethora of time management books available. Basically they can be distilled down into the single message “do the most important stuff first”. I’ve gathered together ten approaches from working with academics and researchers and you can find these in the associated time management blog. This covers saying no, links to a time management guide which includes a time log for monitoring how you spend your time and talks about the control of email and screen time.

Other tools we looked at:

Being clear on the WHY: Spend time embedding your motivation to do the thing you are struggling to. We did this through free writing – spending ten minutes writing without a break or pause (you can write anything) starting with the line “I really want to do this because…” This approach was prompted by a conversation with an academic earlier that week who told me about a colleague who spent what felt like a disproportionate amount of time “psyching herself up” to start a task as she was always far more effective and efficient when she was motivated to succeed.

Scheduling: Get out your diary and think about when would be a GOOD time to do the thing you need to do. A little reflection on the times of the day when you tend to be more productive will probably help (early mornings for me) as well as trying to schedule less important or more straightforward things in your “low energy” moments. You will also help yourself if you make your scheduled tasks SMART – this acronym denotes the five key characteristics of better goals – Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timed.

SUAW: Shut Up and Write or the Pomodoro technique are similar frameworks with intensive bursts of writing/doing separated out by short breaks. There is a SUAW group in the School of Modern Languages on Wednesdays from 4.-5pm organised by PhD students (Hetherington building, room 217). A longer session runs every other week on Mondays. Check with the College Office for details.

Step 3: When have you made it work?

You cannot get to the point of doing a PhD if you are a total flake, so repeatedly during your life you have cracked this. You’ve achieved success and got things done well. Think about the times when you’ve been in control of your time. What was going on and what motivated you? Can you take some of these elements and use them to improve your practice now? The group I was working with recently identified the following:

  • working collaboratively or alongside a partner
  • scheduling work at good times (and downtime)
  • working in the right environment
  • having a plan with short, mid and long term goals (underpinning motivation)
  • knowing your “energy” cycle and not trying to work at times which make it more challenging than usual

Step 4: What is the horrible reality?

At this point it’s tempting to ride the euphoric wave of “everything will be different from now on” but the reality is that it won’t. Nothing you learn or reflect on in a time management session is anything other than common sense. You know what you should be doing, but you don’t do it. The next step is to think about WHY you don’t have better habits and what are the things that undermine your good intentions. Some of these may ring a horrible bell.

  • day is written off after a bad start
  • make a plan, but the reality is never like the plan (this needs a little more digging into…why?)
  • lack of motivation
  • distractions
  • bad news from home
  • lack of self discipline
  • self loathing (I can’t do this)
  • not planning
  • too much planning, not enough doing
  • distracted by friends
  • guilt management

Be honest with yourself about the behaviours, circumstances or skills which are sabotaging your good intentions.

Step 5: Back to Step 2

With a better insight into the full picture surrounding your time management challenges, it’s time to go back to Step 2 and think again about approaches that will work for you. Connect the dots with stage 3 and play to your strengths. Don’t try to become a paragon of time management virtue overnight – think about the little things that will start to make a difference. In the workshop I suggest a 5% difference as something to start on.

Step 6: Review and involve others.

Get into the habit of reviewing your progress – a list of what you plan to do each time you sit down to get on with something. A list at the end of the day on what you actually did and an honest note to yourself about what’s happened if these two lists look very different. It might help to involve others, particularly your supervisors if you are doing a PhD, using them to create deadlines and deliver dates for things.

Remember all this is a work in progress. It’s about 20 years since I started working on my time management and I’m not there yet, but every time I stop and work out what will really make a difference and then do it, I get a bit better.