Not that Kind of Investment: Tales of Time Commitment
One of the biggest adjustments in being a principal investigator (PI) running a research lab has been the near constant, usually urgent, demands on my time. Some of these demands are enjoyable (new data!) some less so (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee protocols, blah!). Gone are the days when my two main occupations were writing and experiments. Now it is meetings, protocols, training, and putting out whatever fires have arisen from smoldering tasks ignored. My bench is lonely, my Inbox is full, and trainees keep reminding me about things I have apparently forgotten. In an attempt to reclaim my time and sanity, I have started protecting my time like never before. As always these days, n=me, and these are my emerging strategies for time management.
Identify strategies that work for you: Above all else, identify time management strategies that work for you. For me, my most productive time is in the morning, so that is when I sit and write. I have tried to sub-divide my morning time with Pomodoro, but the forced break times interrupt my focused time. I have also tried timeboxing, committing a certain amount of time to a task and no more. Although better than Pomodoro, I still underestimate writing time and have found my writing time is best left as a block. If I finish early, I can move on to other tasks. Otherwise, I keep working until I am done or until I cannot write anymore. Where I do find timeboxing useful is for small tasks, like responding to emails, booking conference travel, social media, and smaller service tasks that should have finite time requirements.
Limit distractions: This is easier to say than to implement. Keeping off social media during the day is easier than not checking email. On big writing days or close to grant deadlines, I do not log into email until my brain is fried from writing and I need a break. This seems to work pretty well and if people really need something, they follow-up with a phone call. I also limit the number of impromptu meetings. Unless it is urgent, I ask most people who stop by the office to schedule an in office/coffee/lunch meeting.
Use your calendar for everything: I have a full year’s worth of events on my office calendar, always in sight. This includes immovable occurrences like grant deadlines, conferences, and life events like vacations or weddings. At any moment, I can tell you whether I can commit to a date for a seminar or conference. As soon as I commit, the date goes on the board. Electronic and paper calendars work equally well, but I prefer dry erase, since this gives me the option to include a full twelve months and not just the calendar year.
Track your activities: Any activities that are not part of my research program, I document. This includes time spent in meetings, seminars, committees, etc. Part of this has to do with annual documentation on my faculty activities form, but it is also important for me to identify how much time I am spending on activities and whether they are worth the time investment. Unfortunately there are tasks from which you cannot opt out, like the departmental seminar, but that does not mean they do not count towards your percent time. Having data documenting your hours of service or teaching can be really powerful when you are “saying no” to requests.
Learn to say no: You cannot attend every conference, every seminar, and every event to which you are invited. You can also not write every grant for which you are eligible or collaborate on every project. You cannot agree to review every paper and take on every student who knocks on your door, looking for a lab opportunity. Identify the opportunities for which you have time and agree to those. If you are not sure you have time, you do not. Also, share the wealth. If you cannot do a review, speak at a conference, or participate in a committee, suggest one of your new colleagues (with their permission, of course!) who might still be trying to break into these spaces.
Travel with purpose: Travel is one of the biggest disruptors, but also the best opportunity to network and share your research group’s work. The cost of these great opportunities is time out of the office (with tasks continuing to smolder) and a return to a growing to-do list coupled with lost sleep and disruption of home life. Identifying specific goals for work travel can help you decide whether a trip is worth the time, money, and effort. I will cover how I pick which talks and conferences to attend in my next blog post.
Do not steal time: There are only so many hours in the day. If you keep taking hours from your personal time and giving them to work time, you are stealing time. Be firm on the amount of time you are working versus not working. I am not here to tell you how many hours you should be working (Twitter has that covered), only that working too many keeps you from doing the life things that need to get done and/or are enjoyable. Of course there will be times when you work more than others. But, there are only so many weeks you can tell yourself “I just have to get through this week” or “I just have to get through this month” before it becomes a problem. This has been a recurring problem for me, and part of the motivation of implementing some of these strategies.
Invest time in yourself: This should go without saying, and I hope you are better about it than I am, but you have invested a lot of time, money, and effort into your career, so make sure you are investing some of that into yourself. It does not matter what this looks like: gym time, hobbies, travel, kid-centered activities, reading great literature or the newest young adult novel, etc. Be attentive to your health and your relationships. Building a life outside of the lab can help you weather the inevitable rejections and failures in your research program. Without this balance, a bad week in lab can feel like a bad week in life. Try to build in good things to buffer the bad work times.
I admitted on Twitter that I have been working on this post for two months. Part of this has been trying out Pomodoro and timeboxing. The other part has been overcommitting to work tasks not directly related to my science. But, these time management strategies seem to be paying off, and I am actually ahead of schedule on my next two grant submissions. Now, I just need to take my own advice and commit some time to health and wellness. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps a time management strategy to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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About the Author
Screen Name: Pipette Protagonist, PhD
About Me: I tell tales of career development awards, job searches, the tenure track, and life in a clinical department as a PhD.