Time Management

Last night, and again this morning, I had a Twitterant about how it is SO possible to work a 40 hour week and still be successful as an academic scientist. Predictably, some folks always object that, sure, for MY definition of success, which is professorship at a primarily undergraduate university. But, you know, I chose not to be a “real” PI – I decided the R1 wasn’t for me, because I like to teach and don’t love writing grants. So I decided to shift my balance towards something I like.

The underlying assumption of the argument is that, sure, you can succeed at a PUI (Primarily Undergraduate Institution) on a “normal” work week, but not if your goal is to be faculty at an R1. Also, the unspoken assumption, often, is that if you guard your 40 hours, you’re lazy. But both of those are for my next post.

A couple of people expressed interest in my ability to maintain a 40-hour week and be productive, which I have been doing for over a decade now. There was enthusiasm for reading the details. So…here it is. In one blog post. Disclaimer: this is what works for ME. I have refined this system over the course of years. I took what I liked from a lot of places, and made some of it up to suit my own brain and work style.

Let’s start with what I do. I am an assistant professor, five years into my position at a PUI that expects both teaching and a significant amount of research/scholarship (read: papers and grants). Barring something really unfortunate happening, I will get tenure this coming May. Tooting my own horn a bit, I am very successful at what I do. And I do it on 40 (or fewer) hours a week.

Why? Well, because of my other life choices. I’m married. I have two kids in school/daycare, with schedules that are not optional. But even if I didn’t have a family at home to take care of…everyone should have something they do with their time away from work. A significant something that takes a lot of their time. Mine, currently, is young children.

So, how do I manage my work time? Start with the assumption that I have a maximum of 40 hours to work with in a week. Because that’s what I’m willing to do, and I have set my boundaries there.

My current teaching load (pre-tenure) is three classes. One of these I get released from because I have a large lab, so I get teaching credit for the undergrads and grad students I teach there. (FYI, in my college, to get the maximum release of one course (3 units), you have to have either 6 MS students or 9 undergrads, or some combination – 1/2 a unit per MS student, 1/3 per UG. I have 16 students, 4 MS and 12 UG, currently. So I maxed out and then some.)

That leaves two classes, which, for me, is 1.5 hours in class per day M-Th. I have group meeting for about that long on Fridays. Then figure an additional 0.5 per day for other student contact (office hours, advising). I have approximately 8 hours of student face time per week. Add to that at LEAST an equivalent amount of prep/grading, and it becomes 15-20 hours per week of teaching time.

The rest of my time is to be spent on: research, service, writing, curriculum development (NOT to be confused with prepping my current classes), and “other”.

So, I have about 20 hours of unspoken for time in a week. I translate this into a weekly to do list that has no more than 20 items on it. EVER. In fact, I am more regimented than that: I have my five categories, above, and each gets no more than four items per week. All meetings go on this list, so “service” often includes 2 or 3 hour-long meetings. These count towards my to dos, because I have to do them.

“But,” you say, “what if you don’t HAVE four service items in a week?” Well, unless this is summer, it is to laugh. But if I’m short, the list stays short. We’ll see why in a few paragraphs.

Each item on each list (I keep a master list each week with all five minilists on it) much take only 1-2 hours to complete. If shorter, great – that helps accommodate stuff that’s closer to 2 hours than 1 hour. What this means is that there is no task entitled “write manuscript”. A manuscript is at least 15 separate tasks entitled things like, “Write introduction,” and “revise Figures 1 and 2”. A 15-page grant is 5-10 separate items, “write pages 1-3”, etc.

So large tasks get broken down, FORMALLY, into small tasks. They don’t seem overwhelming, they are harder to procrastinate, and they are DOABLE in a single chunk of time. (Incidentally, I have yet another list that includes grants and papers I’m working on, with each divided up by separate mini tasks. I check stuff off and go there when I need to figure out what’s going on this week’s “writing” list. I like lists.)

On Monday morning, when my butt hits the seat, I fire up my computer, and pull together my Weekly Master List from all the places tasks are kept. (Google calendar for meetings, lab meeting schedule to help me figure out which students I need to chat with this week, paper/grants list for writing, etc.) I make the list. 20 items or fewer. It’s done on paper. I found I couldn’t do this electronically.

Then I make Monday’s list of goals. I have an app (Timeful) for this. I pull four items from the week’s list, and add them to the empty spaces in my calendar for the day. EVERYTHING GETS SCHEDULED. Everything. Everything has a deadline. Timeful chats to my Google Calendar, too, which means I can’t accidentally schedule something on top of something else. Incidentally, I lied. I have five goals per day, but one is a repeater: every day, “set today’s goals” is first up. Takes less than 15 minutes. Scheduled, most days, from 9 to 9:15 a.m.

So I get started. Whatever is first, I start there. I check it off when it’s done. If it takes less time than I thought, great. Maybe I go for a walk. (By the way, schedule your walks or other exercise.) I always take at least a 5-minute break between tasks, because it’s good for me.

If something is taking longer than the time I have for it, I stop (barring an immediate deadline). I take it up again tomorrow. This is where those empty spaces come in: if a list doesn’t have four things on it, that lets me sometimes have one that bleeds over into two tasks. It also lets me handle things that arrive in my inbox on fire, and need to be handled NOW. If I have unfilled spaces, I don’t make up work to put in them. They’ll fill up on their own. (That said, all 20 slots are usually spoken for. What happens then, when something is on fire, is that the lowest-priority task for this week gets bumped to next week.)

Every day, M-F, I put four things on my list. Every day, I work really hard to finish all four by 5:00. Every day, I leave at 5, even if I only finished 3/4 tasks.

It works. I don’t sit for an hour trying to remember what I need to do. I do have limits – if I’m done, I’m done. Yay for me. I can surf the net for a bit, write a blog post, etc. If I finish REALLY early, I may pull another task down and do it, and get – gasp! – ahead. I often don’t finish all 20 in a week. But, hey, doing 15 things in a week is pretty awesome. Really.

I wrote an NSF grant this way this month. And a manuscript. I have lectures prepped for two Fall courses through the end of September.

So, there you have it. I am a compulsive list-maker. I make lists at work and at home. I plan as far ahead as is feasible. My husband probably thinks I’m a crazy person, looking at my Google Calendar with all its oddly-specific “meetings”. But it works for me.

It works very well. I am well-funded (yes, for my institution, but grant writing is grant writing), I publish, I am a spectacularly good teacher, and I am about to get tenure. And I am very happy, and only barely feel like I work too hard (two kids will do that to you).

Tomorrow or Friday, I’ll talk about how what I do isn’t less work, or less DIFFICULT work, than what others do that they say can’t be done in 40 hours.



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5 responses to “Time Management

  1. When I was graduating, I asked my adviser how many hours I should work. She told me that it wasn’t the hours, but the output and noted a very famous theoretician who only worked either 4 hour weeks or 4 hour days, I forget which. Some people are smart and organized enough to get the same amount of work done in a shorter amount of time than others. Some people work past their limit and introduce costly mistakes.

    I tell my students that it should take them about 4x as long to finish an in-class exam as it takes the TAs.

    • I think everyone has both a work limit, and a work style. Knowing what both of those are helps you to get more done with less time. First you have to accept that time doesn’t equal output, though, and I find many scientists struggle with this.

      My work style is very regimented. My native work limit is about 45 hours in a week. My self-imposed work limit is 40 hours.

      And, yeah, I think that everyone will eventually start making mistakes once past their limit, which is then setting you back. If you work 50 hours and make a mistake that costs 5 hours to fix, well, then, you should have worked 40 hours.

  2. Do you ever struggle with getting discouraged when things take longer than expected? That’s been the real sticking point for me so far (I’m a PhD student) in developing a functioning work system.

    • Much less often than I used to. Years of experience have taught me how long things are apt to really take. I write at a predictable pace, I know how long experiments really take as opposed to what the protocol says. (Same goes for recipes.) I always figure half again the time the protocol says.

      But, yes, sometimes you budget two hours for something that takes six. In which case, it either gets bumped if lower priority, or other things get bumped. I try not to let it bug me.

      And sometimes you have an open-ended task. Like writing a new policy for a committee you serve on. In those cases, I budget an hour, work for an hour, then stop and figure out how long it seems like it will really take, and adjust plans accordingly. (This requires me to start stuff far ahead of deadlines, which works for me, but not for everyone.)

      You just have to keep adjusting your system until it works for you. It will, given enough experimentation.

  3. Pingback: Tenure | Holly Witteman

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