Sunday, March 27, 2011

Decisions and priorities

In roughly two weeks I'm leaving for a conference, and then a holiday, and suddenly it seems as if I'm overloaded with work with so many tasks waiting to be finished before I can leave with a peaceful mind.

At a certain point, one week ago, I felt like starting to yell at the top of my lungs and run away from my office. Instead, I took a deep breath, a nice cup of tea, and I made a list of what precisely I had to do before leaving.

Then, I looked at these tasks and started to make an order of importance. Which tasks do I really need to do? Which ones are important and which ones are urgent? I remembered the important-urgent matrix about which I learned previously.


picture taken from this article

However, I found it quite difficult to categorize my work. All tasks seemed to be urgent, but for various reasons. I can't postpone registering for my next conference, booking the flight and arranging my administration because that would mean I can't go to the conference. However, I tend to classify "writing the paper which is due mid May" as more important, and I've been giving priority to this over the past week to allow for time to discuss it with my supervisors.
Likewise, I would be tempted to postpone my experimental work so I can finish all the other tasks at hand and not get too physically tired (my new setup seems to break my back when I'm using it - I still need to solve this too).

This rambling of thoughts made me feel quite stressed out. I needed another deep breath and another nice cup of tea to shift the tasks into categories of this matrix.
And indeed, more thinking did result in the following tasks per category:

Category 1: Important and urgent
- Paper deadlines
- Registration deadlines
- Experiments when I'm in a series of experiments

Category 2: Important and not urgent
- the core of my research
- planning experiments
- calculations with my results
- keeping up with the literature (which sadly always ends up way down in my list of things to do or in my weekend)

Category 3: Not important and urgent
- educational tasks
- phone calls, e-mail
- someone showing up in my office

Category 4: Not important and not urgent
- lunch and coffee breaks
- sticking around
- blogging

Realizing this, I decided to focus on finishing the paper, arranging my next conference, trying to discuss some things with my supervisor and just carrying out my experiments. I've been classifying my basic test results, but I will program my Matlab code for the plots of my experimental data after my conference and holiday. I'm skipping coffee breaks, but not lunch breaks, and I'm not skipping the gym nor choir practice. And, if everything works out alright, I'll finish my most urgent tasks this week and will have some time to think and move forward next week (I like the idea of having buffer time).

How do you handle extremely busy periods of time? Do you skip tasks or do you work more hours?

8 comments:

  1. Eva- great post. I would highly recommend reading the 7 Habits sometime. The chapter explaining the above matrix is very impacting -- that chapter alone is worth the price of the book. One of the major ideas of that book is expanding the time you spend on Non-urgent but important activities. The idea is that if you consistently invest in this area, it decreases the number of urgent-important things you encounter. One example is working well in advance on a paper so that you never become extremely pressured by a deadline -- you've been proactive and the paper is finished well ahead of schedule.

    It's very interesting to see this concept applied in a research context. I actually view blogging, assuming it is a about a topic which I think will be valuable to people, a category II activity because of the value in exploring new ideas and hopefully encouraging others, although it's irresponsible if that significantly impedes research.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts -- this was a really interesting post.

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  2. We also discussed the urgent/important matrix in the PhD course which I attended, and were asked to log our activities for a week and categorize our activities.
    I wasn't extremely busy at that time, so I didn't appreciate it as a system (except that I remembered that our coach told us that it is category II in which our long-term investment should lie), but now I suddenly have discovered the value of this.
    Thanks for the book recommendation!

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  3. I should try this! Until now, I've worked with the "activity inventory" (sort of a general to do list) and the "to do today" list, which includes items of the "activity inventory" of the Pomodoro Technique". I tried this technique out and liked the idea of working in chunks/units. I also like the above mentioned lists, which is why I adopted them. There is also the option to note down urgent things in the "to do today" list that come up during the day. But I like your 2 by 2 suggestion even better!

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  4. I should look up the Pomodoro technique... Do you have a recommended reading for that?

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  5. here's the link. the e-book is free for download:
    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

    and here are my lists, thought they could have been any pieces of paper, i got used to these :)
    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/products.html#pomodorotodo

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  6. Great post! Thank you!
    I find the pomodoro technique very useful.

    Cheers!

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  7. Pleased to read you find it useful!
    I had a quick peak at your blog as well - congrats on all you've accomplished!

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