Managing your Workload

By Dr Sarah Robins-Hobden

It’s the nature of the research environment (especially at a research-intensive HEI or institute) that there is much pressure to perform, to publish, to win funding, to build your reputation, to further your career, to collaborate, to contribute, etc. There is potentially more work to do, than hours available in which to do it. Just trying to attempt to keep up could be causing a sense of overwhelm and fatigue. And you might be putting your health and wellbeing second in line behind all that work.

If you are a researcher, you probably don’t need time-management skills – I bet you already have those skills and use them to survive and thrive in the research environment. There may be scope for improvement and refinement, but you might make a bigger impact on your wellbeing and productivity by focusing your efforts on managing your workload, rather than letting it manage you. Here’s why.

Plan for a whole life, not just a work-life

Six reasons why managing your workload is important and will improve your wellbeing:

  1. Reduce stress – function better
  2. Gain clarity on your goals and motivations – increase motivation, enjoy what you do
  3. Decrease time spent on tasks that are less important – reduce frustration and boredom
  4. Release time to spend on other areas of your life outside work – e.g. relationships, family, social, emotional, health
  5. Make progress on the things that really matter to you, rather than just the things that matter to others

Here’s three tips towards taking control of your workload. Do join us for the workshop on the 26th May to discover more, and develop your own personal action plan for taking control of your workload.

Triage new opportunities ruthlessly

Every time you say ‘yes’ to doing something, you are saying ‘no’ to lots of other things. The hours in a day, week, year, and decade are finite. We often say yes to work that we’d really rather not, e.g. If we’re feeling under pressure to give an immediate answer, or if we fear saying no (even though we’re already overloaded) might mean we miss out on an opportunity. If you allocate time to doing things that you don’t enjoy, aren’t rewarding, or don’t move you towards your goals, your workload is not your slave, it is your master. Use the remaining five tips to help you triage your work.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. Ask yourself what you will not be doing if you accept the task, and whether it is more important to you than the task you are about to accept.
  2. Ask yourself: if this were tomorrow, would I still say yes? We are rubbish at anticipating how we’ll feel in the future, but better at working out how we feel right now. By bringing a future task into our imminent future, we’re better able to decide if we’re doing it because we want to (or it serves our need) or because we feel we ‘ought’ to.

Know what you want and why you want it

Not everyone has a five-year plan, and some of us (e.g. me) don’t have much more than a three-month plan at any given time (I struggle with strategic thinking). No matter the extent of your future vision, working out what you want and why you want it will clarify your goals and motivations. Use this knowledge to guide your workload decisions, and you’ll feel more focused, energised, and purposeful in your work.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. What are your three most important goals, right now? What would be the next step to move your progress towards them?
  2. Rate your commitment to each of your goals. If it’s less than 8 out of 10, you are unlikely to prioritise working towards that goal. Perhaps you could review your goals (e.g. The desired outcome, timespan, measures, plans, milestones) until you feel more committed.

Pick the sweetest fruit

Look for the added value in the work you take on, and be creative in looking for alternative ways to get that value. For example, if you are tempted to accept a place sitting on a committee or working group, define why you want this opportunity. Pin down which of your goals this would contribute to. Then look around for other opportunities to achieve the same thing, that might be less time-consuming, or more enjoyable to engage with. For example, if your motivation for sitting on the committee is to increase your visibility in your department (rather than because you like committee meetings), then you might achieve the same thing by organising a symposium, exploring the possibility for collaborating with your colleagues, or choosing to engage with more teaching – whatever you feel is more rewarding to you.

Ideas to experiment with:

  1. Analyse what you want to achieve from engaging with a piece of work. Be creative, and list as many possible ways you can think of that would achieve the same result for you.
  2. Then rate all the options for your preference, and actively seek out those opportunities.

Not every tool will work for you – experiment with as many as you like, test them out and discover what’s going to be most useful for you. Ultimately, wrestling your workload under your control, and cultivating self-awareness to better define your direction and motivations will serve you well in freeing up time and headspace to invest in the other areas of your life that contribute to your wellbeing.