Workshop: Scientific Work — Task Management

Ask yourself if what you are doing today
is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.

Like with time management, task management will not work if you do not like what you are doing. External motivation (e.g., money, the fear of being unemployed) will get you only so far. But even if you love what you are doing you might find it difficult to do all the tasks you “need” to do. You need to prioritize and connect the tasks you are doing each day to the greater goals you want to achieve.

The following points might be helpful when it comes to task management:

  • What do you want to achieve?
    Task Management is about prioritizing. There are just too many things to do each and every day. If you were working on an assembly line, you would not need to worry about task management, but in science there are countless assembly lines containing tasks from interesting projects — you can always do more (and some seem to do more). You have to select and focus. Ask yourself about your goals. Do you just want to get a PhD and then leave academia? Which skills or contacts would you need then? Do you want to make a career in science? What are the requirements you have to fulfill to get tenure? How did the professors who just got tenure do it (times change, and if your adviser is older, the conditions might have been different)? What other goals do you have? How do they fit into your picture?
    In many cases your answers and priorities will change over time as you get to know scientific work better and the conditions you are operating in. Perhaps you will keep two or more possible options open, perhaps you have to cut down quickly to one avenue. But ask yourself the question at the beginning of this posting — what do you want to achieve — and are you moving in the right direction?
  • “Big Picture” vs. “The next short step”
    Make sure that you have the “big picture” in mind (and remind yourself of it occasionally) to keep on track and break down the project into small steps you can realistically do in a few hours. A scientific work is a huge project and unless you break it down you are standing in front of a mountain unable to make the first step. To quote Henry Ford: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”
    If you are stuck with a complex work it is often because the structure is not clear — so focus on this first.
  • Quickly do the small tasks
    If the “short steps” are very short (about 2 to 15 Minutes) you have filler tasks you can do whenever you ‘have a minute’. It’s easier to say “I’ll only quickly do x” when you know it helps you on your main task (big picture, i.e., the scientific work) and you know that you will be finished soon.
  • If you set goals, use SMART goals
    SMART is (among others) the abbreviation for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. For example, if you set a goal on your to do list for the day that you cannot do in a day (or in that day), you are setting yourself up for failure. Break the task down (not “read book x” but “read the first two chapters of book x”). This helps you to actually do your tasks for a day and makes you think about what tasks (and parts of tasks) to do.
  • Do something each day
    Like written in the posting about Positions & Advisers, likely your project will stand next to a fully fledged scientific project with a fixed time plan and clearly defined tasks. Given that this project might also be the source of your money and is likely to be evaluated, your own — relatively unplanned and unfixed — project is likely to lose. At times you might realize that the last time you did something for your project was a month ago (or longer). Don’t let this happen — do something for your project each and every day, even if it is only a small task. Stay in your project.
  • Make it easy for you to resume your tasks
    You can do a few things with your infrastructure to help you do your tasks. Most of all, something that AsianEfficiency calls clear to neutral. Whenever you finish the work for the day, you clean up your desk/environment so that you can start immediately the next day. Similar to this is the “downward slope” — when writing, stop in the middle of a paragraph when you know how to continue (make some notes if you think you might forget it). The next time you sit down to write, you can easily finish the paragraph and thus have already resumed writing. It makes it easier for you to continue writing beyond this paragraph.
  • Task Management is also about other people’s task management
    Have a look at the posting about time management, esp. when it comes to delegation. If you are (usually) on the receiving end, make sure you have a feedback loop regarding the amount of tasks you have to do and can do during the time you have available. Some people think they are at fault if they cannot do all the delegated tasks in time. Usually, this is not so. It might be the case that the person doing the delegation does not know how long the task will take (for you! you are learning the job) or what else you have to do (worst case: other people also delegate tasks to you). While this is no justification for perfectionism — do not spend ages on a task until it is perfect because it never will be and you are just wasting time to do other tasks well enough — establish this feedback loop. You might not be able to say “No”, but you can demand clear priorities among the tasks: “I have a, b, and c to do, if I also do x, which of the other three can I drop?” And make sure that it is not the task that is crucial for your work that is dropped.
  • Use External Goals
    External Goals (combined with deadlines, real ones, see Time Management) can not only provide you with motivation to work stringently to this clearly defined goal (conference submission, adviser), but also give you a goal that is challenging and improves your work. It is one thing to write a theoretical background for your thesis, quite another thing to do it for a conference where you can present your work. As soon as your work is good enough, present your preliminary results (use the final results only for journal papers, unless conference papers count more in your discipline) at a conference or meeting.
  • Document what you do
    A good documentation of the tasks you have done helps you to get back to your prior works in the future — e.g., when you want to continue with something, someone asks you for it, or you have to show what you have done. It is also motivating to see what you have achieved. Major tasks (e.g., conferences, papers, etc.) can even be added to your CV.
  • Try out different techniques, but focus on the results
    There are a lot of different techniques to improve your task management — on very different levels. From a complete solution like Getting Things Done to specific tasks like being able to focus on a task like the Pomodoro technique. Some might work for you, some might be an over- or ‘under’kill. Have a look whether the technique really improves your the work you do.
  • Task Managers are not task managers
    One word on “Task Managers” (Apps, Programs like “Things“, “OmniFocus“, and the like) — they do not manage your tasks. The best most task managers do is to keep a list of your tasks — perhaps nicely ordered, perhaps with estimated time, perhaps with due dates and the like, perhaps with priorities. But nothing in these apps manages the tasks. It does not suggest to you to drop tasks, or monitors whether you actually do a task (and rewards/punishes you), or even connects them to higher level goals that you really want to achieve (I think I have some nice ideas in this regard, but not the time to implement them). So keep in mind that you have to do the tasks. It is not “Getting things done”, it’s “I get this thing done”, it’s not “To Do Today”, it’s “I am doing this thing today”. Don’t (mentally) delegate your tasks to your “task manager” — use it to get an overview of what you have to do, until when, with which priority, what really brings you closer to your life goals — and then show persistence in doing these tasks.

Well, that’s it about task management. I’d recommend quickly scanning the text again, reflecting on what you personally can use and above all, answer the question in the beginning of this posting.

Time to do stuff.

Next up: Finding & Selecting Literature

See also:

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