Workshop: Scientific Work — Time Management

The real problem of leisure time is how to keep others from using yours.
Arthur Lacey

No question, to write your dissertation thesis or do (serious) scientific work you need time. But how much? If we make a (giant) leap and look at the time need to gain expertise in chess (Simon & Chase), we can look up that it takes about 10.000 hours to gain expertise (in chess).

But how much is 10.000 hours?

One of my favorite diagrams is the following. It depicts the amount of time needed to reach these 10.000 hours (y-axis) depending on the amount of hours one invests each day (including weekends and holidays!):

Time and duration for expertise
Simon and Chase did some studies regarding the amount of time it takes to gain expertise in Chess. The came up with the amount of 10.000 hours. But what are 10.000 hours — that’s a number that’s hard to imagine. So let’s have a look at the amount of hours each day (x-axis) and how long it takes to reach expertise (y-axis).

If you invest one hour each and every day, it takes you about 27 years(!) to become an expert and if you invest 7 hours per day, it takes about 4 years (normal workday, normal time for a dissertation thesis).

The figure also shows that you cannot shorten the process much — even if you would invest 14 hours each and every day (without holidays or illness) it would still take you about two years to become an expert.

So, becoming a scientist takes time. Time you must have and invest — which leads us to the topic of time management.

First of all, the best time management cannot solve a motivation problem. If you are not motivated to do your dissertation or work in science, time management cannot solve this issue for you.

Second of all, time management must never become more important than what you actually do with your time. It is very tempting to invest a lot of time in ‘improving’ how one spends ones time — yet doing nothing that brings you forward. In this and other cases, the following quote is worth answering:

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

But what you do regarding time management? Quite a few things, actually:

Deliberately select what you want to spend your (work) time on

When it comes to time management itself the first issue is that it is not so much what you do but what you don’t do. Today, we have more demands on our attention that we have time. You have to choose, you have to say no.

While this sounds easy, it becomes hard when the person asking is your superior or partner. But even in these cases when you cannot ever possibly say ‘no’, you can ask for priorities. You can say: “I have x, y, and z to do. If I also have to do a, what of the other three should I drop?” In many cases, superiors (esp. in academia) do not know what you have to do. Unless you give them feedback (not with “No” but with a quick overview what you have to do) they will continue to delegate issues to you — why shouldn’t they. If you ask them for ‘advice’ on prioritizing, you keep your workload manageable and you make them feel good about themselves. Win-win all the way.

Regarding the tasks you have to do, you need a simple reminder system. There are a lot of system that seem … interesting (like GTD). But in most of the cases, they are an overkill. A simple to-do list and a strong focus on priorities is (in the beginning) all you need.

Have Make time for the important Stuff

As the crossed out word “have” shows, you will never ‘have’ time for the things you want to do — you have to make it — and defend it. Establish fixed times to work on the things that are important for you — and defend them against interruptions. One great idea is to treat, for example, time for writing like teaching a course (Silvia, 2007). If you were giving a course and a colleague or your superior opens the door and asks you for something, you wouldn’t drop everything and do it. You would (hopefully) say: “Sorry, now is a bad time, can I come back to you later.” and it would be okay. Establish this for the time you need for the really important stuff. The thing you should be aiming for is “He’s a great guy/gal(?), but s/he also has an eye on the important stuff (and that’s cool).” [I read something like this ages ago, if anyone has read something similar, please drop me a line.]

And yes, this does mean that you do not need to be available 24/7. To quote Anitra Eggler (a “digital therapist”): “Only slaves are available 24 hours a day”.

Another aspect you can have a look at is the competition. There are a lot of things we do each day that aren’t necessarily in our best (long term) interest. Watching TV for example. Personally, the best decision I ever made was to discard my TV — and I was one of these boys who watched about 8 hours each day during my youth. Still, find out what competes with the time you need to qualify/advance yourself and discard it. Set priorities.

Keep your time frame

It’s easy to be a perfectionist. But seriously, it’s the worst thing you can be. And believe me, I’ve dealt with a lot of perfectionists (the German Mensa is full of them). Mostly, perfectionism is a bad thing because YOU CANNOT BE PERFECT. Seriously, what is perfection? It would be something where you cannot improve a thing. But think about anything you have produced — anything. A text, an artifact, whatever. Now imagine two completely different people — would it be perfect for both of them? Probably not. There is no perfect text-artificat-whatever because people differ and nothing is perfect for everyone. The best text for yourself would differ from the best text to someone who is new to the topic. Michael J. Fox probably said it best:

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection.
Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
Michael J. Fox

Strive for good work, not perfection. And get feedback early and regularly.

One thing that is very helpful here are deadlines. And I really mean deadlines. The (historical) definition of a “deadline” is: “a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot” — if it is not a real deadline, it does not work. If you can easily and without consequences move the appointment it’s not a deadline. Make fixed dates where you have to present your work (and yes, personally, I have never worked to quickly and intensively than the day before I presented my work to my colleagues).

Physical, virtual, and mental space

If you really want to use your time efficiently, look at your physical, virtual and mental space.

  • Physical space: Can your work without distraction — or do colleagues or students disturb you? Personally, I did my best work either at night (you have the building for yourself) or in the university library (nobody knows you). Working at early hours (if you can work in the morning) might also work. A good door policy (open = come in, closed = only if its really important) can also help.
  • Virtual space: Do you need to be available by telephone, eMail, instant messager, or whatever? Or can you disconnect your Internet access (and mute your phone/cellphone)? Some programs offer a fullscreen modus (Scrivener, even Word) which might be helpful at times. There are also some applications like RescueTime or Freedom which can block the Internet Access for some predefined time.
  • Mental Space: Do you feel ‘safe’ where you work? Do you have the ‘head free’ for the issue you are working on? Sometimes it’s just writing down the things you have to do later (so you can forget about them and have the ‘head free’ for the important stuff). Sometimes it’s leaving the office to go to a place where you feel … safe.

So, in short, time isn’t the problem, it’s how you use it:

Don’t count the days, make the days count.
Mohammed Ali

How you set your priorities and defend these priorities. And this does not only a work issue. As the quote at the beginning of this posting shows it applies to other areas as well.

So make the best of it — after all, your time is limited:

When people say to me: “How do you do so many things?” I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel: “How do you do so little?” It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.
Philip Adams

And time is what you make of it …

Next up: Task Management

See also:

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