One of the hardest things about academia is that the activity that is most important, is most likely to get put the bottom of the list by other apparently more critical or urgent tasks. I am talking about writing. As a mum of three young boys, my working week is pretty limited so I have had to learn to be very efficient with the time I have. Here are some of the strategies I have found helpful.
Have a plan
I find the days when I am least productive are those where I didn’t have a list of specific tasks to do in the time I had at my desk that day. These are the days when you get distracted by lots of emails, or you get drawn into spending too long helping someone else, going to talks or meetings that were only marginally relevant. To prevent too many days like this, I always try to have a plan. Each year, and within that each term, I have a plan of what my priorities are. It might be a grant I want to get in, a paper I need to submit, and a piece of pilot work that has to be undertaken. Those key activities I keep at the forefront when I then make a plan for each week/day.
Either on my way into work, or at the end of the day/week before, I write a list of the most important and most urgent things to do that day/week. Some will relate to my longer term goals, others will relate to day-today activities with students or ongoing studies. I work out the priority of each and allocate a week, and sometimes within the week a day, when I will do it.
This sounds time consuming but it isn’t – I tend to do it as the task comes in. My students are used to seeing me turn several weeks ahead in my diary and noting down that they will send me a draft that week on which I will provide feedback. For my own personal tasks, for example writing, I will often actually schedule time into my diary to make sure it doesn’t get left to the bottom of the list. More on this below.
In short, make a list, and schedule the most important of these activities into your diary.
One thing about a list is that it can be very depressing if each task is so large it feels like even 3 hours spent on it got you no closer. To prevent this, I make the tasks on my list small enough to suit the time available. So, I noted in my diary for this morning that I would do a first draft of a blog piece. Yesterday morning I had booked in time to write the second draft of a grant following a meeting two days previously with the other investigators. I put both the meeting and the time to write following it into my diary at the same time. Another issue can be that there are too many things on the list and some of them seem to be there week after week without ever getting done. When I notice this I think long and hard and either prioritise or drop the task.
Make things on your list realistic for the time available.
It can be very difficult to focus on the task at hand, especially when other distractions crop up. Distractions will differ for everyone but for most people the main two will be email and other people’s needs. When writing, or focusing on another important task, the best option with email is not to look at it. Usually I have it closed, but for some activities I need to refer back to folders and information stored there. To prevent new messages from intruding on the flow of my thoughts, I decided to switch off the automatic alert. I found this remarkably effective and now I tend to forget all about email when I am writing. It means I have to spend some time checking and answering more urgent messages when I stop, but it is well worth it for the greater speed and flow I build up during the task.
Another source of distraction is other people needing help. For me this usually comes via email, but for those who have an open door policy or share an office this can be trickier. Everyone needs to find their own way, but sending out a polite signal that you cannot be interrupted right now (closed door, headphones on, even a sign!) are all useful. Most importantly, if you are expected to have some “open door” time, then don’t have it during what you have scheduled as your writing time.
Turn off the email alert, and close your door.
Make sensible choices
The hardest thing for me is saying no to things, as I absolutely love my work. I relish the new challenges, I hugely enjoy getting to know new people and travelling to meet with or present to colleagues. It all appeals, so why would I want to say no? Until relatively recently I found I could keep up with all the activities I wanted to do as long as I only agreed to do the things that really interested me. Lately I have found that if I say “yes” to everything that interests me I am overwhelmed and become too busy to enjoy any of it. So I have had to think more carefully about choices.
Fundamentally, you have to decide whether to do something, whether to delegate or whether to politely decline. For bigger decisions, particularly those involving travel, I have found it useful to talk through the suggestion with someone else, such as my husband, my business manager, or my head of department. My head of department recommended that I only accept invitations if they offer me an opportunity that differs from ones I have had before – and I found that very useful.
In general, I limit myself to one European trip per term, plus one other trip further afield each year. I have found that when I do more than this it takes so long to catch up (at home and at work) that it is just too much. So when I get an invitation in, I have to think, is it worth one of my precious slots? Of course you can also delegate any tasks, including invitations, to other team members and this is often a very good solution. If someone other than you can do the task, pass it on.
When a new task comes in decide whether it is worth doing, and if so, whether it is really you that needs to do it.
Use your peak time well
Everyone has a different natural rhythm and most people will have times of the day when they find it harder or easier to concentrate. For me, the mornings are my most productive time, so I schedule my important writing tasks into the morning. For all meetings where I have a choice over timing I have them in the afternoon, and then I try to have a clear patch at the end of the day when I can check through my emails.
Having decided when your peak time is, and scheduled to do your writing at that point, another common difficulty is procrastination. Usually this is worst at the start of a new task that just feels rather daunting. In this instance, breaking it down and just getting on with starting a part of it, however small, is often helpful. On the other hand if the task isn’t clear, or you don’t feel you should have to do it, then you need to clarify or rebut the request. If you’ve decided you will do it, just make a start. The first attempt may not be ideal, but starting is better than not. There are many analogies out there for this; the one I like best is that you climb a mountain a step at a time. Coming back to writing, the first step could be just a back of the envelope plan, and then making a start on the very first section. Once this initial hurdle has been crossed, it tends to get easier.
Write when your concentration is best, and tackle whatever feels the most manageable starting point.