How (not) to manage my time.

Time management has been a long term challenge for me. I am a classic multi-tasker, love “to do” lists but can procrastinate for England. The challenge increased when I took on the Head of Department role, as the number of meetings and “interruptions” multiplied. Last year I found it really hard to carve out any lengthy period of time in order to focus on any one task. So in October, I resolved to try some time management techniques (again) to see what I could achieve. The basic plan was to ring-fence two 3 hour periods each week, protecting them from meetings and telling my PA that only in exceptional circumstances was I available. I originally had the idea that these would be designated “research time” and I would actually get some hands-on analysis or coding time. The reality is that although many parts of my role have benefited from a focussed period, e.g. designing the work-load model, reviewing a paper, planning a lecture, preparing a proposal or writing a blog, hands-on analysis time is still lacking. But there are many ways to “do” research, and in reality there are plenty of people better at the hands-on stuff than me these days. Last term this seemed to work fairly well. Most weeks I managed to keep at least one of these periods free and spend a blissful 3 hours immersed in one of my “important, not urgent” tasks.

Last week however, this aim led to a spectacular own goal. The flip-side of ring-fencing time is that the myriad of meetings ends up crammed into the remaining days. For some years I’ve tried to put all my research meetings on one morning or afternoon. I still like to touch base with all my postdocs and PhD students weekly whenever I can so when I succeed in lining them up, it can mean 4 or 5 hours of successive meetings on related but quite different topics. Although I am usually tired at the end of them, it is exhilarating to be thinking about so many interesting questions, and I get to talk to lots of enthusiastic people (most of the time). Last week however, I thought I was being “efficient” in lining up 5 hours plus of administration related meetings back-to-back on both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday I went from Head of Department meeting to budget meeting to staff meeting to Royal Meteorological Society committee meeting. On Friday it was 2 research meetings, a staff review and the school steering committee. As a result, by Friday night it felt like all I had done for two days was collect action items, and no space between meetings meant I couldn’t tackle even the smallest of these. I went home feeling panicky and dissatisfied about the working week and woke at 5 am stressing about my work “to-do” list – something that usually only happens in the 3 weeks leading to a field campaign.

Reflecting on this from a little distance I can now see my mistake. Whilst back to back research meetings work on the whole, back to back admin meetings don’t. Firstly, with the best will in the world, I don’t tend to pick up any concrete action items from meetings with my postdocs and PhD students (wise on their part). It is entirely appropriate that I pick up actions from the leadership and administrative meetings that I had at the end of last week. But I was surprised how quickly the list became lengthy and how overwhelming it felt to have no opportunity to do anything about them. Secondly, my research supervision meetings tend to take place in my own office or at least nearby. The admin meetings of last week took place in other buildings and rooms, with no escape to my pictures and my coffee mug. So, although I continue to ring-fence “no-interruptions” time, and would recommend this, I also have to be vigilant that by doing so I am not storing up trouble and stress for the rest of the week. Some weeks, it may just have to not happen. Finally, if I do have to stack up these meetings, it might be better to stack them at the start of the week so that the weekend isn’t destroyed by worrying.

It’s probably also a good idea to end this reflection by identifying the time management successes. I find the Important/Urgent matrix (See an explanation here ) very useful, although invariably end up with too much in the “important AND urgent box”, and find it hard to put time in on the  “important but not urgent” tasks. I also find that turning off my email for most of the day (or even just minimising the window) limits distractions, and I no longer have my twitter account open on my desktop. If I want to spend time brainstorming about something, then moving to one of the campus cafes is the best way to do it. It frees me from the feeling that I should be ticking off things on the urgent list, and the buzz of being surrounded by students somehow both grounds and energises me.

Right, so, it’s Thursday again. It took me until last night to get back to grips with everything from the end of last week. So what does today look like? Hmm… perhaps next week will be different.

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