How do I juggle my time?


I have many calls on my time. I prepare lectures, give lectures, set work, mark work, give tutorials, apply for research grants, administer research grants, manage post-docs on research grants, review research grants, advise PhD students, advise potential PhD students, review PhD student applications, examine PhD dissertations, write academic papers, review academic papers, administer paper submissions to the journal that I help edit, help organise conferences, and do my own research. On top of these standard academic jobs, I have roles that require me to approve research grants, approve applications for travel funding, approve reimbursement requests for travel, attend management committees for the department, faculty, school and university, write papers for these committees, keep an eye on the department’s finances, handle graduate students’ crises, and respond to a wide range of requests from the university and external bodies.

Most managers could produce similar lists. One thing that might differentiate the professor from other middle management is that a lot of these jobs are self-inflicted: I do not have to take on any PhD students, I do not have to apply for grants, I do not have to review papers, I do not have to organise conferences and I do not have to edit a journal. Those are all optional ways in which I choose to advance my research. Having taken them on, I have to fit them in around the “fixed” commitments imposed by the university and prioritise my time.

The problem with so many different jobs is that my time tends to get salami-sliced into little fragments, which means that nothing gets done well. To my delight, this week, I found a quote in Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations (published 1786) that matched how I feel about my workload:

It is impossible to pass very quickly from one kind of work to another… A man [sic] commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering, and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily, acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application, even on the most pressing occasions.

I am not saying that professors are slothful and lazy, but that does resonate with me. For example, it takes several hours to produce a good piece of writing for an academic paper. Those must be quality hours without interruption: I need to get my mind into the writing mode and must concentrate to juggle all of the ideas into place within the paper. It is not possible to break from this and come back to it without needing significant time to remember what it is I was doing and what the various factors were that needed juggling. As Smith says, if I am obliged to “change my work and my tools every half hour“, then I am ineffective. But I have so many different things to do that this is just what I find myself doing.

Fred Brooks provided me with some memorable tips on how to manage my time. The following are based on his gratefully-received advice:

Block time is the problem. You need blocks of time in which to do concentrated work. Retreat from the office. Reserve blocks in your diary to do research. Reserve blocks to do administration. Concentrate your teaching commitments into one term to free time in the others for quality research.

People time is not time wasted. It takes a whole afternoon to spend an afternoon with a child. Half an hour spent talking with a colleague can save hours of e-mailing back and forth. Five minutes checking-in with a student can catch a difficulty in the bud before it becomes a fully-bloomed problem.

Know when are your best hours and use them effectively. In my case, I work best in the mornings, so I prefer to defer routine meetings to the afternoon and I should leave checking e-mail until after lunch.

Use time twice. Time on the plane and time in the doctor’s waiting room can be used effectively for work. You can use time in routine committee meetings where you can do quiet work during items on which your advice is not required.

Root out the time wasters. Surfing the web is a killer for me. TV is a problem for others. Refuse time-wasting commitments, especially those that require much time with low pay off, such as a three day trip to give a one-hour talk to a group you are never likely to work with. Streamline (or stop) inefficient meetings. Respond to e-mail effectively, so that you deal with most items only once. One way to do this is to remember to use one of four actions: deletedelegatedo, or the dangerous defer.

Speaking of time wasting, if you write a blog, write it with a purpose. My purpose here is not to communicate to a large audience. I know that most blogs are read only by their author. Rather it is to give me regular practice in writing something short and snappy. The reason for putting it on the web is that this focuses my mind on writing something that might be read by others and, more importantly for the writing process, that might end up as a hostage to fortune: it encourages me to write carefully.

The image was borrowed from the blog of Elijah Meeks, the Digital Humanities Specialist at Stanford University.


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