10 time management strategies for researchers (James Burford)

Part of becoming a researcher is figuring out how to manage yourself in relation to time.

All research work comes with deadlines to juggle, complex work that feels as long as a piece of string, and the need to plan across various time scales. It's a tricky business.

Then there's the fact that we're all different, and have a variety of different responsibilities. So the key thing to do is to suss out what makes you productive given who you are and your unique context.

Some of us are still figuring things out, and may engage in a bit of magical thinking (a couple of days per chapter sounds about right, right?). Others of us are planning superstars, showing up with a hefty toolkit of diaries, and calendars and apps to help us get on with things. And yet all of us have more to learn about time and productivity when it comes to research.

On Friday the 3rd of July we were lucky enough to have Hugh Kearns from Thinkwell zooming in to give a workshop called "Time for Research". This workshop is a popular one, and Hugh is a master of making us all wriggle as we see the missteps that many of us make as we go about managing our own productivity. For anyone who missed the workshop but wants access to the resource, you can buy the book here. I've also summarised some key takeaways for you in this post.

As I said in a previous post on academic writing, one of the best things about zoom workshops is the chatbox! This workshop was no exception, there was a total treasure trove of advice given by our ECR and graduate researcher community.

In this post I have gathered up that advice, and shaped it into 10 time management strategies offered up by our researchers for our researchers. I'd like to thank our researcher community for being so generous with their suggestions, which I'll share in no particular order.

1) Plan well. This involves good longer and medium term planning to make sure big goals (e.g. research milestones) are planned for and in the diary/calendar, and that smaller goals are working toward these bigger goals. Daily planning is also important. Some researchers shared that they find planning the day before really helpful. The decision about what to do the next day has been made for you, and you can get on with making the magic happen.

2) Make lists of things to do, and rank them in order of priority. This can help you know what you need to do first, so you don't have to spend heaps of time thinking about it. Put things on you can cross off easily. This way you get a bit of momentum going! Lots of people said that they really need to schedule in writing time to make sure it doesn't get lost among all of their other responsibilities.

3) Break bigger tasks into smaller component parts. Work on the smaller parts and build up to the whole. If you are the kind of person who writes on their to-do list "write the paper" you may experiment with something smaller (e.g. write  paragraph two of the methodology section). And make sure you have sufficient time for yourself to do the task you need to do. Don't make unrealistic goals that set you up to feel disappointed in yourself. Some people said they use the pomodoro technique to keep track of time and to figure out how long a given task tends to take them.

4) Think about when you've got the "oomph". Some of us found that it is a really good idea to do revisions on a paper or on a thesis chapter straight after being given the feedback when we've got the 'oomph'. Other people found that they had 'golden hours' where they were more productive in the morning. They key message here was do a bit of reflection and see what works for you. 

5) Start writing. It's a fine judgement call to make between 'gathering a bit more information' and spending too much time in reading-land. Sometimes we need to jump into writing and figure it out on the page.

6) Rest and reward yourself. One of our researchers said that they set a goal for how many words they want to write, and then once they've achieved it they will watch an episode of their favourite show on Netflix to reward themselves. Rewards work best when you do them after the thing that you want to do...rather than before (sounds obvious I know...). Walk away. Some of our researchers said a key strategy they use is to walk away from writing for a while. As one of our folk said "When you get to the point you're making it worse, step away" or pause and get feedback. Other people made sure that their weekends were set aside as "recharge time". One of our researchers suggested this book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang as a helpful guide.

7) Time to think. Research work is hard and doesn't always benefit from being too busy. Sometimes we need to set aside time for stillness, silence and special time to think.

8) For those who are managing teaching and research, several strategies were shared. For example, some researchers do a weekly post to students about what they need to do the following week, or make use of a discussion board and encourage students to use it, or use FAQs. Making sure students have all the information they need can save a lot of time with email queries.

9) Uninstall distractions, or keep your phone away. These may include email notifications, social media, news media, and other alerts that flash and buzz and beep. Other people made rules not to check email until lunchtime. Our researchers suggested a number of books that have guidance on this topic including How to Break Up With Your Phone  by Catherine Price, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, and this blog post Why you (probably) can’t multitask. Lots of different applications were shared to block various apps including Appblock or OFFTIME or Freedom or Block Site to help you block distracting applications/websites or Daywise to schedule notifications.

10) Saying no, not right now, maybe later (and all the other variations of 'no'). This is a big one. Many people were trying to find ways to delay saying 'yes' to actually check if they had time. Others suggested sticking a post-it above their desk asking “IS THIS A SHINY BALL?” so they don't forget to refuse shiny opportunities that aren't priorities, or they don't have time for. One of our researchers suggested this book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown, which picks up these themes.

What are your top strategies for managing time? We'd love to hear from you.


James Burford works in the RED team. He's always learning about time and how to manage it.