Doing too much or not enough?

It’s fair to say that 2014 have been pretty busy for me so far. Things didn’t start well when I broke my leg skiing in Japan (holiday was lovely otherwise), but apart from dragging around a full leg cast since New Year’s I seem to have been doing lots of “stuff”. In the last two months I have:

  • re-submitted a paper for (hopeful) publication – this took about 4 weeks of solid work
  • assisted in submission of three other papers for which I am a co-author
  • co-authored a scoping report on an international environmental policy issue (a topic for future posts)
  • assisted in facilitating a 2-day workshop with CSIRO and Government colleagues
  • gave a lecture on conservation planning to a 3rd year course at the ANU
  • developed and ran 3x 1 hour practical sessions on conservation planning for the same course
  • reviewed 4 papers for inclusion in a conference proceedings which I’m co-editing
  • reviewed 4 other papers for international journals
  • coordinated meetings for ANZSEE
  • attended a regular Fenner School Board meeting as student representative
  • coordinated initial organization for Fenner School PhD student retreat along with other committee members
  • other random bits of analysis

So, that seems like a lot to me – or at least it feels like a lot (I’m a wee bit tired). That said, I’m pretty happy/amazed that I managed to get it all done. Deadlines certainly help me get motivated, and I’ve had a lot of tight ones lately. I’ve also been using a new time management strategy.

xkcd: http://xkcd.com/874/

It sounds pretty simple (probably because it is), but I’ve been planning out my time using a two pronged strategy: week-by-week, plus day-by-day.

I have one table where I have one week per line; and columns for Deadlines, what Project I plan to work on that week, any Events I’m attending (workshops, conferences), and a Diary where I indicate anything weird that happened (hello broken leg). I have this table for all of 2014 – so as soon as I know that I want to attend a conference, I slot in the date and when I need to submit an abstract by.

Month Week beginning Deadlines Project Events Diary
January 6/1/14   Annual/sick leave Broken leg
  13/1/14 Paper resubmission   Broken leg
  20/1/14   Paper resubmission   Broken leg
  27/1/14 Paper resubmission due Paper resubmission   Broken leg
February 3/2/14 Report Panel meeting Broken leg
  10/2/14 Report due Project 1 Broken leg
  17/2/14   Lecture prep, Project 1 Workshop Still broken leg
  23/2/14 Lecture prep, Project 1 Conservation planning lecture: 28 FebMarxan tutorial: Friday 28 Feb Still broken leg

My second table is day-by-day – now, I’ve really needed this lately and it’s helped me a lot. Every time I complete my task for the day I cross it out with a strikethrough – rather than deleting it – so I can see that I achieved that task. As days go past, I grey them out.

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

February

3/2/14

Report

Report

Report

Report t

10/2/14

Report

Workshop prep

ANZSEE meeting minutes

Project 1

Project 1

Report

Project 1

17/2/14

Workshop

Workshop

Reviews

Report due

 

Reviews due

24/2/14

Project 1

Lecture/prac prep

Project 1

Lecture/prac prep

Project 1

Lecture/prac prep

Lecture and Prac

So, yay! I’ve been getting stuff done. Or at least I think.

I submitted my annual PhD report this week, where I needed to detail the progress I’d made over the past year, as well as set out a plan for the upcoming year. I had listed things like “submit abstract for X conference”, “attend conference”, “analysis for paper 1”, “audit this economics course” etc. My supervisor was looking over it, and gently asked – “So, what’s missing from this?”

I already knew the answer.

“Er, thesis chapters.”

Now, neither I nor my supervisor think I’m in any trouble at the moment – I am doing my thesis by publication, so writing papers *is* writing thesis chapters. I do however have a tendency to get involved in lots of things that are not necessarily my work – e.g, co-authoring papers led by colleagues, or committees, lecturing, etc etc. Of the list of things above, probably only 2 of those will contribute to my thesis itself. Now, all of the things on that list, I think, are part of the PhD experience – part of training to be a researcher. I just need to be mindful that I also need to produce a thesis at the end of 3 years!

Quasimodo is a pretty top bloke
Quasimodo is a pretty top bloke

I’m confident that, using my handy strategies above, that I’ll get through the tasks I have ahead and will make time for myself to focus on my thesis. I wouldn’t have had that confidence 6 months ago – and I think that back then, I had far fewer things on my plate.

In the past, I’ve generally worked on a single task at once “to get it done”, which would then drag out and my ‘to do’ list would inevitably get longer.

So, yes, I’ve got some things I need to be mindful of, but I’m pretty confident I can do it. And, since I’m currently walking around with the speed and grace of Quasimodo, I think things will be a bit easier when I have a functioning leg again too :-)

Do you have any time management strategies that you find useful? I would love to hear about them in the comments!

6 Comments

  1. Megan, my thoughts exactuly. Remembering how we used to work, I’m glad we have both attempted to improve our time management skills. =) I have also found this week-to-week, day-to-day strategy works too! I’ve been using it for 6 months and I’ve been getting a lot more of my ‘actual PhD work’ done, rather than all the ‘other stuff’. Since then, my efficiency is amazing and I’m not as stressed either. The occassional late nights are no longer the night before the deadline, but a week before, so I can do the final editing when I’m not in a zombie state. =) To figure out how I’m going to spend my time each week and day, I break my tasks up into important and urgent, important and not urgent, urgent and not important and not important nor urgent categories. I also keep a record of what I actually achieved each day; even its as simple as ‘read paper xxx’, ‘sent that important email to xxx’. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t all go to plan, when I drastically underestimate the amount of time things take and when new interesting aspects come into the picture. But the ever looming deadlines and the week-to-week tasks remind me that I can’t waste time on Facebook or reading irrelevant papers. Thanks for your ideas. Good luck and I hope your leg gets better!

    1. Hey Jess, that’s really great to hear you’re using this strategy too and it’s working well. Yep, I’m finding I’m a lot less stressed overall (not saying I never have freak-outs). Wow, that’s great you’re managing to do the late nights a week early – I definitely haven’t gotten there (I submitted my revised paper at 4:30am on the due date…)
      So does this mean you don’t sleep at your desk anymore? :D I don’t sleep at my desk, but there IS a couch and I have a blanket and cushions which I use to take a nap occasionally ;-)

  2. I’ve been doing a full-blown daily breakdown of action items, but I’ve found it difficult to stick to because sometimes “external factors” can cause things to be delayed or cancelled (e.g. the weather/grocery shopping/general faffing about).

    I think I will try your method. Starting with just two priority items listed for each day, rather than a list and time for every single activity of my day (like my other half does, and quite well too).

    1. I think a really detailed breakdown of what I need to do each day would stress me out. I have the 1 or 2 key tasks I need to work on in a day, and another list of random ‘to do’ things in Evernote (e.g email this person, run this errand) which I update every week.
      One reason I’m liking the approach I’m using is if external factors interfere, I can pretty easily see which day I can move the impacted item to. I’ve even had cases where I’ve finished things in less time than I originally estimate – which provides some spare slots for things that end up needing to be rescheduled.

  3. This sounds SO familiar (even down to the evernote to do list)! I’ve started doing the monthly/weekly plans too – although I never bothered with this during my PhD. It is really helping me juggle multiple projects, commitments, tasks. I break my weekly plan into writing goals, research, planning (I’m currently embarking on my next field season), reading and other. It is helping to make sure I stay balanced across lots of things but also that I make sure I try and do something associated with writing (composition, revision, responding to reviews) for at least two hours a day.

    As for the question of whether you’re doing too much – I think learning to juggle multiple balls – and get lots of exposure to lots of different things is part of the PhD learning experience. I took every opportunity I could for the first two years (including suspending for a semester to convene a course) but then in my final year I said no to almost everything. I finished in about three and a half years – but I think this two years of overcommitment and one year of writing is probably not going to work for a thesis by publication so… I guess as long as your publishing through the chaos it isn’t going to be too much of a problem. But that said, make sure you take time to stay sane! I totally burnt out towards the end…

    check this out:
    http://t.co/HpLImuJjG5

    And good luck with it!

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