How do I manage my time?
June 25, 2005 10:58 AM   Subscribe

How do I allocate time to different parts of my life? I'm a second-year PhD student, but I think this is a universal problem. When I am deciding what to do at a given moment I might have a small number of major long-term projects (right now: two research projects and a course I'm taking), a bunch of minor tasks, and planning for fun stuff. I feel like I really should be devoting most of my time to the major projects, but I sometimes despair at the thought that the little stuff will never get done.

Admittedly some of the minor tasks probably aren't that important in the scheme of things, but I still like doing them, especially those that I can do quickly. Particularly the fun planning does not get done—I want to organize a birthday party in a couple of weeks, but feel like there is so much I should be doing instead. When I'm really stressed out, I can find ways of diverting myself right then (e.g. MetaFilter), but I never seem to find the time to plan for travel or some entertaining activity in the future which might be more rewarding.

Sometimes I find when I try to do something major, I just can't focus on it. I should probably fall back to something minor or easier, but instead I just keep telling myself I'll get back to the major project in a second, just after I read one more MeFi thread or the like.

How can I get the major stuff, the minor stuff, and the fun stuff done, considering that time is finite and that these could all soak up infinite time? I'd appreciate any suggestions and stories about what has worked for you.
posted by grouse to Work & Money (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am not in academia but I face a similar problem as you. I have about 20 things that I am working on now but none of them need to be urgently done (yet) but obviously I will be in trouble if I don't start working on some of them now.

I've found that what works for me is creating external motivations. That is, since I cant motivate myself to get working, I'll create situations that motivate me in some other way.

Here's an example: Say, I have a large paper due in a few weeks. What I might do is call someone up who I will be delivering the paper to and say "Hey Bob, you know that paper about blah blah, I almost have a rough outline/draft ready and wonder if you'd go over it/answer some questions for me. Ok, cool. Lets set up a meeting (e.g. in four days)"

The thing is, I have now commited myself to have something to show to Bob in four days. And since I dont want to look like a fool in front of Bob, well, thats my motivation.

In general: set milestones in long projects and setup actual implications of missing those milestones otherwise you have one huge unmanageable chunk.
posted by vacapinta at 11:21 AM on June 25, 2005

I understand completely what you're talking about, and to make matters worse I'm a huge procrastinator. What has worked for me is breaking tasks down into small manageable pieces when they are assigned. So planning a birthday party is split up into all the little components - shopping, invitations, venue, etc - and major research projects are split up too - days in lab, hours on a computer, meetings, literature reviews, outlining, drafting, etc. Then, I assign certain parts of the day to certain major tasks (like I always do my homework for my friday class on Wednesday afternoon, and I always do in-lab research on Monday mornings, etc). Since I've split everything into finite tasks that take a finite amount of time, I should have time left over to do the fun non-essential things.

Defeating procrastination, however, is another point entirely. (On preview, I do something similar to vacapinta).
posted by muddgirl at 11:24 AM on June 25, 2005

One thing you need to do is learn to decide the value of tasks. There are some tasks that I *should* do, but often neglect. The last several years, that's included house cleaning for both my wife and I. We've reached the conclusion it is never high on our list and have gotten used to letting the house go, and eventually getting caught up. When she starts working in the fall, we will probably hire a maid.

Once I let go of the feeling that the house needed to be clean, my stress level decreased considerably. Start figuring out which things you do out of duty or habit that you can ditch and start *consciously* blowing them off.

By the way: organization of own's time is the most neglected part of the education system. I think many middle schools and high schools try to get kids in the habit of planning their work, but once college comes, it gets blown off again. Personal planning and project planning should each be a semester-long course in just about any undergraduate degree, imo.
posted by Doohickie at 11:41 AM on June 25, 2005

I guess as Doohickie says, it is deciding the value of tasks that is really difficult. It's really hard for me to let go of things. I want to get it all done. How were you able to let go of the house-cleaning and decide that it wasn't important enough to worry about?

My task list is prioritized as (1-3) what I have to do, (4) what I should do, and (5) what I want to do. A quick task that I have to do just gets done, but when quick things I should do compete with long-term projects I have to do that I run into problems. I should submit a reimbursement claim for some book. But I have to do a good job on my research, but any payoff for that will be a long time from now (even using vacapinta's technique). What to do?

It's definitely less valuable, the thought of never getting to do the stuff that I just want to do in the 5 zone is just depressing.
posted by grouse at 12:20 PM on June 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Get a timer, and use fifteen minute increments to work on certain tasks. At the end of the fifteen minutes go work on something else. You will be surprised how much you can accomplish with time limits.
posted by konolia at 12:42 PM on June 25, 2005

Konolia makes an excellent point. If it's something small, even if it's relatively unimportant, the feeling of productivity and reduced stress you will get from doing it will help you build momentum for bigger tasks. Set aside a certain period each day for doing the lower-ranked stuff that you should do or want to do.

There's no way any sane person can work on their academic research all the time. You need to allow yourself breaks rather than believing you should be working on it at every free moment. I had this problem in college when I was taking hard classes and felt like I should be studying/doing my problem sets at all times. But that's impossible. Things got a lot better when I started allowing myself a full day off every week with no schoolwork (Friday night through Saturday). It made me much more productive during the remaining times.
posted by mai at 1:08 PM on June 25, 2005

This doesn't answer your whole question (which, probably, shouldn't be attempted), but one thing that's very different about during-PhD vs. post-PhD research life is that much of post-PhD work is likely to be collaborative. I am much much better at getting collaborative work done in reasonable chunks -- the ball lands in my court, I do enough about it that it gets to a level that should be looked at by my collaborator, and I volley it back. Then I forget about it completely until it comes back.

Unrelated -- some projects can be done okay in a small amount of time, or can grow to fill all the time allotted. This should be blown off as long as possible, to preclude the latter scenario.
posted by Aknaton at 3:20 PM on June 25, 2005

It's really hard for me to let go of things. I want to get it all done. How were you able to let go of the house-cleaning and decide that it wasn't important enough to worry about?

You have to remember that it will be personal for everyone. I often let housecleaning go, but it is not a good thing that I do, because waking up in a messy house makes me feel mildly depressive and overwhelmed, whereas when things are tidy I honestly "believe" that I can get more done. In fact, I find that productivity generates productivity, to a certain extent. If I can get three things done before noon, I am often on a roll for the day (just little things - buy those folders, do the laundry, and send out a job application, e.g.). If I laze around, the day can slip past quickly, and I can end up having done almost nothing (reading metafilter, downloading music, talking to friends, picking up food).

One thing I do, more stringently during the semester, is make little lists for myself, and stake out periods of the day. I have to get a task done in each two hour period, and I write a list of tasks which "count" - 2 pages writing, or 40-50 pages reading, or 15-20 pages reading Hegel :), or whatever - I divide things up at the beginning of the week that need to be done, and make judgments then of how much progress will 'count' as a task.

I try to get four tasks done each day - that's an 8 hr day. It doesn't mean that I'm constantly working all 8 hours, but my goal is that for each 2-hr period I get X done. I dunno if that doesn't sound like much, but it's tough enough to keep up for me. I sometimes allow 3 mini-errands (buying, sending, printing, etc) to be a "task", if I have a lot of that kind of crap to handle.

But the main point is, once you've finished the 'necessary' stuff for the day, you are then free to do the fun stuff. Of course, you can also keep working on academic stuff, if you're in the zone, and then you've gone ahead on tomorrow's work, and you'll be able to break off early to plan the birthday party, or whatever. Likewise, you may fall behind on the tasks, but you still have to keep track of it, and then you can see over the course of the week exactly how productive a week you had...
posted by mdn at 4:16 PM on June 25, 2005 [2 favorites]

What mdn said. When I feel I have a lot of things to do (I am in academia also) I prioritize (yes, I think you can do it, if you think hard) and produce a "shopping" list. For instance I put down the things I have to finish this week. Small and large and larger. I usually blow it off but I cannot describe the immense satisfaction and self-congratulation I get when I finish one and scratch it off the list!

About the fun stuffs: do not underestimate the need to get out of it and have some fun. I sometimes just quit everything for a couple of hours/days and do irrelevant, completely outside the list, things. I come back so refreshed, I finish more, I think...
posted by carmina at 8:41 PM on June 25, 2005

I used to get a lot of flak for multitasking, but honestly, it's the only way I can get anything done: break down big tasks into tiny fragments, take frequent breaks from them, and intersperse fun stuff in between. I find it impossible to focus on just any one thing for any length of time so I have to do this to keep sane. I tend to think of it like balancing my diet; the things I have to do are a meal, the broken-down tasks represent parts of the meal (protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals) and the fun stuff is dessert.

Of course, there will be times when you are so revved up that you forget to eat or sleep or that the rest of the world even exists, and this is ideal when it comes to important work but it's not something you can really force.

If I really want to get organized, at the beginning of the day I write a to-do list of things with soft and hard deadlines and try to break things down in as tiny units as possible so that they all seem equally important. For example: "write a paper" becomes many tasks - "come up with your main thesis/position", "compose an introduction", "list reinforcing points", "flesh them out", "conclude", "edit and proofread" (you get the picture) among other tasks like "pick up package from post office", "buy milk", and "read readings". And the thing is, non-physical objectives like coming up with that thesis can be done while doing other things, like eating or reading or talking or peeking at MetaFilter or Googling an unfamiliar concept or just doing something else which inspires me. Then again I find it really easy to switch from one thing to another, and I tend to work really fast when I actually get to working, so your mileage may vary.

All I can really tell you is: break it down, balance it out.

There is another way called structured procrastination which involves a creative twisting of priorities. It's amusing to say the least, but it works for me, too. :)
posted by Lush at 9:58 PM on June 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

My strategy for getting my PhD done whilst still having a life is as follows (warning: I think you need to be a geek):

I bought "Getting Things Done" (google it) and followed it for a while, with success, to clear my backlog. GTD briefly is where you have an inbox that you put stuff in, and periodically empty the inbox by either doing the thing if it takes less than 2 minutes, putting it in a context-based list of things to do (calendar, "on the phone", "out and about", etc), or giving it to someone else. The key to GTD is not to put as your task "Write thesis", but to only worry about the next action, e.g. "Set up meeting with Jim to discuss paper". You also get to buy lots of cool stationery.

Anyway, when big projects are happening, the inbox doesn't get emptied so often. I've decided this is OK - I make an appointment with myself every friday afternoon to catch up.

My infrastructure is the Hipster PDA, which is satisfyingly physical in terms of arranging ToDo lists on your table and tearing up the cards when you've done them.

The trouble is deciding what to do once you've got all your 2-minute tasks out of the way. The GTD guys answer to this is basically that given the appropriate list for the context, you "know" what you should be doing. And if you don't know, just do the short tasks, which frees up more contiguous time for the long ones.

The result is that my brain feels clearer because all my worries are written down in a doable way.

However, GTD doesn't really represent a technique for avoiding procrastination. I had to hack myself out of my main procrastination routines: I added bloglines, some forums and erm, metafilter to my .hosts file, preventing me from visiting them. Now I'm out of my routine, I can visit them, but I deleted all but the most (academically) vital bloglines blogs, so visiting bloglines counts solely as work.
posted by cogat at 10:53 PM on June 25, 2005

Damn. Cogat beat me to it.

Some admittedly scattered thoughtshere (it is 3 am)...

GTD (getting things done) is an excellent book and as far as I am concerned a must read.

I also employ a cousin of the Hipster PDA - Cardster PDA (using biz cards). Very cool, but I would like it to be smaller (I hate carrying anything).

But I digress. One of the core tenets is to to record activities that you need to do - the act of recording closes the task in your mind until you are ready to think about it again (this helps w/ distraction / procrastination). There is a lot more of course.

Recommended productivity sites:

You may also want to look at looking what you do now - see if there is room for "optimization". Television always drives me to distraction. With a heavy work/play list watching as little television as possible has made me more successful (and "created" more time)..
posted by gnash at 12:44 AM on June 26, 2005

Struggling with this myself, with thesis due to be submitted..... uh... soon... yeah, soon.

Perhaps I shouldn't be giving advice, since I think I suck at this but here's one thing that helps, and people have touched on it:

Establish a metric. A metric is a definition of measure. One problem with academic research is that so much of it is structureless and open-ended. You can really feel like nothing's getting done, and the psychological effect is to throw you into a pit of procrastination. The viscious cycle bites, but you can turn it around by knowing that you are, in fact, getting stuff done. All you need is a way to measure it.

Right now, I operate with two, semi-interchangeable metrics: pages and figures. At several points during the day, I compile the thesis and look how high the page count got. This is amazingly helpful because I can see progress. And its motivating. Now, some pages and figures are easy and take ten minutes, others take an entire day. Don't worry if the metric isn't perfect! In fact, if you're having a sluggish day, do some of the easy stuff, count the pages anyways and use that to get out of slug-mode.

Even if you're not writing, you can still establish a measure. Need to read papers? Count journal pages read. A hundred small tasks, each on little index card? Count index cards torn up.

I combine this with (1) quotas and (2) gambling. The quota system is what lets me go rockclimbing once a week, spend lots of time with my special ladyfriend and surf Metafilter daily. Right now, a week's quota is 20 pages and five figures. At this rate, I will have the draft of a 350 page thesis by the end of the summer. If I get my quota done by Wednesday (no chance), I can take four days off, without guilt or feeling inadequate with respect to my Nature publishing office mate.

Gambling is what breaks the back of one of the worst scourges of academic work, that is, that it is often solitary. On a gambling day, I meet with a friend or two who are also facing big daunting projects (P. is submitting her thesis in a month, I. is submitting a paper for publication in a few weeks). We meet for coffee, announce the day's quotas, drink fast and run (literally, run) to our offices. Periodically we send each other emails keeping the competition level high. The loser makes the others breakfast, or buys them a bottle of wine or something similar. I can't believe it, but the days I have done this, I didn't even open up my email let alone my browser for hours.

Finally, thanks to everyone who commented above. Alot of that makes sense, and I will follow-up on that, once I get my quota done for the day.
posted by bumpkin at 8:49 AM on June 26, 2005

The big points have been covered well already, so here's a little one: try to find ways to combine chores with fun. For example, if you enjoy cycling, ride your bike to the grocery store. If you have a portable hobby, like knitting, bring it to the laundromat. Invite friends over for dinner and ask them to help with the cooking (I had a Chinese friend in college who used to organize wonton-folding parties - they were a lot of fun!). You get stuff off your to-do list in a more enjoyable way, and you sneak a little fun into your day at the same time.
posted by Quietgal at 10:11 AM on June 26, 2005

Thanks to everyone who responded. This is one of those rare AskMes where everyone had a helpful answer.
posted by grouse at 12:25 PM on June 26, 2005

this is a bit late, but i've been thinking this over for a day or so.

i'm not sure how this applies to your situation, but what i sometimes find useful is to look for the common threads in various different projects. so maybe you are juggling several different things, but they revolve around some similar ideas. looking at things this way helps because you become less invested in any particular project and more in the general scheme of things, which makes switching (or even abandoning) tasks easier.

that's my first tactic. the second is to focus on whatever is most appropriate for how i feel at that particular moment. i have some things that are very important (to me), but which involve mental effort/focus that comes and goes. over the years i've learnt to roll with my moods - which can vary over long time scales (weeks/months/years). there's little point in forcing myself to do something badly and with much effort, if i can do it better and with much less effort when i'm in a different mood.

so putting those together, my life divides into three chunks: thinking, sleeping and socialising. if i can think (eg work, do creative stuff), i do. otherwise, better to recognise the fact and do more social stuff (eg spend quality time with my partner) than get frustrated i'm stupid. and when i'm in the thinking mood, i'm happy to switch between projects as long as i can see the connections between them (certain abstract ideas to do with language, representation, complexity, that interest me).

don't know if that helps.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:05 PM on June 26, 2005

Thanks to you too, andrew. :)
posted by grouse at 12:33 PM on June 29, 2005

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