A good plan is a good start

As I wrote in the first article of the “Absolute beginners” column, I think that one of the fundamental things for those who start doing research is to learn to manage time well. There are many deadlines in a researcher’s career (conference papers, special issues in journals, project deliverables, doctoral thesis). Therefore, it is necessary to manage time well to not risk being sucked into a vortex where you are always working under pressure because of the next deadline. In addition, there is also the risk that having many deadlines takes away space from personal time and that you sacrifice your free time to chase deadlines, whereas, to protect our psycho-physical health, we need to maintain an excellent work-life balance.

A friend of mine who was a researcher for many years at one of the most prestigious American universities told me about researchers who worked day and night, occasionally resting on the office couch and obsessing over their research. Unless your goal in life is to win a Nobel Prize, I suggest you avoid this lifestyle.

To manage your time well, you need to be very organised. Apart from Mary Poppins, I have never seen anyone with this innate ability. However, many techniques and tools can help you learn to organise your work better. In these almost ten years of research, I have experimented with various techniques and tools. I have realised that there is no “one-fits-all” solution, but we need to find the mix of solutions that suits each of us, our way of being and working. I will tell you here which ones I have tried, which ones I have kept, which variations I have adopted and which ones I have abandoned.

GANTT chart and Work Breakdown Structure

These two famous “techniques” borrowed from project management are the ones that were suggested to me by my supervisors when I was an absolute beginner for my PhD research. In fact, if we were to apply them “by the book”, we would risk getting lost in a rather complex system, but adopting a “simplified” version of them was essential for me, and I still use the two techniques. Initially, I apply the WBS and then create a simple GANTT chart. For each activity (be it a project or writing an article), I identify all the different components. For example, trivially, at the beginning of the writing of my PhD thesis, I made a chart showing all the chapters and a summary of the contents of each of them. The same thing can be applied to writing a paper by considering all its parts as components (introduction, literature review, methodology, etc.). Once I am clear on all the subtasks I need to complete for each element of the main task, I estimate how long it will take to complete each subtask. I then look at the delivery date of the work, subtract seven to ten working days to try and be ready on time and have a buffer in case something unexpected happens and start to enter the estimated deadlines for the subtasks by going back in time and creating the GANTT for each subtask, identifying those that may overlap. The process may seem complicated. In any case, it takes some time, but consider that you have to do it only when you have a new project or a new article in front of you, so it is not a method to be applied very frequently. However, in this way, you will always be able to keep track of the progress of each task you are carrying out without risking arriving late at deadlines. I usually display these tasks and deadlines according to four different time intervals: quarterly (January-Easter, Easter-Summer holidays, Summer holidays-Christmas break), monthly, weekly and daily.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Time blocking

Once you have carried out the process described in step 1, you will find yourself with all the intermediate deadlines of the activities on the calendar. To mark each deadline, I use Google calendar. In particular, I mark in green all deadlines and activities related purely to research (papers, conferences, paper reviews) in orange all deadlines related to projects and in yellow all deadlines related to courses. For each week, I decide how much space to allocate each day to each activity, depending on the deadlines that are coming up. I try to alternate activities (research, projects, courses) so that I don’t get exhausted by a single thing and at the same time slowly advance them all. This means that I also try to make sure that I have meetings and phone calls scheduled as much as possible and to schedule a time slot to check emails (usually one as soon as I start work, one after lunch and one at the end of the working day).

A good program that I found to combine the system of time blocking with the management of activities through GANTT and WBS is https://getplan.co/login in which you have different ways of displaying the calendar (monthly, weekly, daily, synchronised with Google Calendar), GANTT with the possibility of also having the tasks to be performed in the form of a daily or general to-do list. There is also an option to collaborate in teams. But I have never used it. To coordinate with colleagues when working on several projects together, I prefer https://trello.com/ which allows you to create a tab for each task in a shared dashboard. Each tab contains deadlines, to-do lists, subtasks, allows files to be attached and shows all changes made by the team.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

POMODORO technique

It is clear that for GANTT, WBS and time blocking to make sense and really help you, you need to make sure that any activities you are carrying out in parallel are carried out regularly. Consistency is indeed the key element to see your research progress. Procrastination should be avoided at all costs. It is better to do little but always do something than to let things pile up. Suppose there is an activity that you never want to do. In that case, it is better to ask yourself why this is happening and evaluate (perhaps together with your supervisor or a colleague) why it is happening. One of the techniques that can help on those days when motivation is low is the tomato technique. This technique consists of deciding on a task, setting a timer to 25 minutes, and working on 25 minutes. At the end of 25 minutes, you can take a 5-minute break. After 4 sessions, you can take a more extended break (15 to 30 minutes), after which you can start again. This technique is effective, but I have always found it a bit frustrating. 25 minutes of consecutive concentration is a bit short for me (once I’ve found my attention, I prefer to carry on with the activity), and I found that every time I was interrupted (by a phone call, a colleague asking me a question), I felt a bit anxious about taking time out of my precious 25 minutes. However, suppose it’s a day when you don’t have the motivation at all. In that case, it remains an effective technique, at least to start working on something.

Eat the frog

Many websites and articles dedicated to working and time management strategies advise us to ‘eat the frog’ and start the day with the most complex/difficult/tiring activity on our to-do list. I’ve never managed to implement this technique unless it’s a day when I’m feeling great, I’m super focused and don’t get interrupted. I prefer to divide the frog into many “tadpoles” and adopt the usual techniques that I explained in the first two points. If I really have to do this because there is some emergency, then I apply the tomato technique.

I have read about many other techniques (Eisenhower matrix, list method, the 5-second rule, work routines, etc.), but none have ever convinced me entirely. As I said, everyone has to find the way that best suits his or her style and characteristics. The ones I have given you are the ones I prefer. Remember, however, that these techniques should be a guide, help to continue to carry out one’s work serenely, but they should not become an instrument of further anxiety or absorb too much time. In addition, it is right to try to plan your activities as much as possible so that you do not end up with an excessive accumulation of things to do. Still, you must also consider that there may be unforeseen events, emergencies and delays that we have to accept, perhaps rescheduling without making ourselves overwhelmed or crazy trying to keep up with the schedule we have set ourselves. Flexibility is the key to everything. Sometimes, it is enough simply to change the amount of time we had planned to devote to one activity and devote it to another instead. What are your favourite techniques of time management? What methods do you use to plan your activities?

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