How can I organise my work day more effectively?
June 13, 2012 6:56 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot of autonomy in my job, along with a lot of responsibility. How can I get better at organizing my working patterns so that I get everything done, without always worrying that I should be working on some other task instead? Looking for recommendations for tactics, mindsets, books, apps, or whatever's worked for you.

I work in academia, as a postdoc in the arts. For the most part, my job's wonderful and I love it - but there are a great, great many things to do. I'm in charge of a lot of the day-to-day running of a major project, with a team of assistants to oversee; I have some teaching duties alongside a professional development course in teaching to complete; and I'm also responsible for producing research, in the form of a set number of journal articles and so on, out of the big project. There are also a number of smaller but still important things to do (publicity, supervising a smaller project I got a grant for, and others). So, things are busy.

There are another two years left of this project, after which I'll need to get another job - hopefully, something more permanent. With the academic job market as fiercely competitive as it is, it's really important that this project goes well and that my CV has things to show for it, especially in terms of publications etc.

I don't mind working long hours, and I cope fairly well under pressure as a rule. In this job, though, I'm feeling increasingly like I'm behind on everything, even when I'm not. Irrational though it sounds, if I work on task A, I feel like I'm neglecting B and C and D and so on, no matter what task A is. I don't like the constant distraction of new emails arriving, but I feel guilty if I turn off my mail client in case there are important messages I need to reply to. It doesn't help that I don't like delegating stuff; I feel very responsible for the success of this project, and want to oversee everything to make sure it's done right. (The project is quite new ground for us and a steep learning curve for all involved, and I'm the one with the most experience at doing something similar in the past.)

This is a particular problem when it comes to producing my own research, writing articles and so on. This is really important, for the project as well as for my future career, but it's definitely something that gets pushed down the priority ladder. I think partly this is because at some level, I feel that it's a luxury to devote time to that, especially because it's an investment for my future career as much as it's a part of my current job. If I'm writing I can't be constantly on-call to supervise assistants and make project decisions and keep up with email discussions, and even though that writing will be important for the project in the long term, it always seems like there's something more immediately important to deal with instead. And it's a lot easier to do the project-running stuff than writing, so if I try to write and I'm not getting anything done, it's so so easy to think "well, not getting anywhere with this, may as well do some project-running stuff so I don't waste the afternoon as well." Recently I've set aside one day a week to devote to research, usually working at home. Out of the last four weeks, though, I've only managed to spend one of those days at home writing the whole day - it seems that there's always an unmissable meeting, or an urgent project thing to sort out (like, 'get the pay claims to the secretaries or the assistants won't get paid this month' level of important), and then I don't make time for research the next day, and the problem goes on.

I know I need to get a lot more ruthless about making time for research if I'm ever going to get much research done, and I know that I need to get a lot better at organizing my time in a way where I won't feel like I'm always neglecting eighteen other things for every task I'm working on. How can I get there? If you've been in a similar position, what's worked for you?
posted by Catseye to Work & Money (6 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I'm similar in my job in that I have a lot to do, and my bosses leave me alone 99% of the time to get it done. My life revolves around my Google Calendar. I can update it from any computer or my phone. I can create different calendars for different projects, create tasks, etc.

I find that if I have it written down somewhere - I've heard people call this a brain dump - I don't come close to stressing about it, because it's written down, it's easily accessible, I can drag and drop things to different days to plan the future and I can check it any time just to give myself a bit of reassurance that it WILL get done.

TL;DR - Dump everything into Google Calendar, take a deep breath, go from there.
posted by THAT William Mize at 7:34 AM on June 13, 2012

I will get in ahead of the crowd and recommend Dave Allen's Getting Things Done as a great system for tracking your commitments and next actions. Doesn't click with everyone but even if you don't take it up wholesale it will probably give you some good ideas.
posted by crocomancer at 8:12 AM on June 13, 2012

I'm not a hardcore GTD user, but I really liked this alternative take on GTD 'contexts' (which are originally places that work needs to happen - Online, Phone, On Jobsite, Office.) The list that this article gives, where you categorize work by your energy level and type of attention, seems much better suited for academic work, especially if you spend a lot of your time in the context called "laptop, anywhere."

Second, you're right that writing time has to be scheduled, and it has to be inviolable. My trick is to mentally recategorize research time to be like teaching time. Do you worry about your other commitments when you are teaching or holding a student meeting? Surely the people you work with know that if the assistants have to get paid, they can't ask you about it while you are standing in front of a class.

I don't make a point of telling people that this is personal work time because that is seen as flexible (which is to say, everyone has this problem! because we're all moving our research time around to accommodate other schedules.) But it's on my calendar and I tell people I am not free for meetings. I've found it easiest to schedule starting 2-3 weeks out if I have a schedule change - there's an unmissable meeting this Thursday, but probably not three Thursdays from now. And then I am absolutely as 'not free' to schedule something as I would be if I had class then.
posted by heyforfour at 8:35 AM on June 13, 2012

I work as a Library Coordinator for a school, and my job is sort of the same way- no real "manager" many tasks that need to be done each day and a whole bunch more tasks that pop up like a whack a mole game. What I do is I have a google spread sheet that I fill out at the end of every day to track what I am doing. The spread sheet just has four columns: Date, Activity, purpose and time spent. If you used this system then you could have a column for the specific project so that you can see how much time you really are spending on each one. I think that it is easy to minimize all the work we do each day that moves us closer to our project goals. I also use Google Calender to set tasks that I must do and the times I need to do them- so once a month I run a report about books check out/in- I made that a repeat on my google calender once a month.
posted by momochan at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2012

You have to make research time an appointment with yourself that you cannot break for any reason. Tell your assistants that you will not be available at those times, and enforce it. If you turn out to be available once, they will keep bugging you during that time. If someone else tries to schedule a meeting during that time, say you cannot attend, you have another obligation; however you a free for meetings during the following other times this week...

I've had some success with breaking up my "research day" for the week into two mornings, rather than one full day, and that feels like less of a burden on my schedule for some reason. It helps also that I find it easier to concentrate in mornings than afternoons. If you feel like you need a full day to "get into" your research, though, YMMV.

I shudder to suggest, but, if all else fails, can you make Saturday your research day, to avoid conflicts?

On "research day" isolate yourself as much as possible. If you can, leave your computer in your office, and take your books and papers to the library. If you must have a computer, use a library computer that's not configured for your email, or purchase an inexpensive used netbook and don't install an email client, use Leechblock or other software to block access to other temptations, or see if you can borrow/check out a similarly crippled laptop from IT.

As a general rule you need to quit rushing from crisis to crisis because there is no such thing as an academic emergency. As academics, we want to think that what we are doing is Very Very Critical and we rush about and shout and act like it is, but, seriously: no one is bleeding, no one is on fire, nobody is going to die. Those are actual emergencies. Nothing at all that we do is nearly as urgent as all that.

If an assistant has to wait until tomorrow for you to answer their question, the world is not going to come to an end. Either they'll move on to something different until they can talk to you (and you should explicitly train them to do this), or they will be able to find someone else to help them, or they will figure it out themselves.

If a day passes without your comment in an email thread, you can come in at the end of the day to weigh in. In fact, you should tell people to expect you to check your email twice a day, so that they don't expect instant responses for you all day long. If emails are flying fast and frenetically, you check your email as scheduled at 10 AM and 4 PM, skim the thread, and give your considered opinion. Not only does it save you time, it is a much better way to communicate than sending one-sentence emails all day long. If people are taking action before they get your input, you need to tell them that they should wait to hear from you, and remind them that you check your email at 10 AM and 4 PM without fail. (And, naturally, follow up, and be reliable about that.)

The thing with the secretaries and assistants not getting paid is poor planning on someone's part; either you or the people working with are screwing up their time management and prioritizing incorrectly and making an emergency out of what should be an absolutely routine event. Figure out what is going wrong and institute a plan or schedule that means routine paperwork is completed on time.

Most importantly, do not apologize for not being available to everyone all the time. Adults are busy. Adults have things to do. Other adults can cope if you are not at their beck and call every minute of every day. If something bad happens because somebody needed desperately to contact you and couldn't wait a couple hours for your next email check, that's because somebody screwed up (Because, academia! What on earth is it that needs to be done NOW that couldn't have been done a couple days ago, if everyone had their shit together?!) and it probably wasn't you. Say, "That's regrettable. Next time, I'm going to need the TPS report by Tuesday afternoon at the latest so that I can sign it and submit it on time," or what have you.
posted by BrashTech at 8:56 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love the Career tools podcast, which touches on a lot of this. Very business focused, but a lot of it is relevant to other areas.
posted by greytape at 10:46 AM on June 13, 2012

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