Thursday, June 2, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Time management essentials for researchers

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Good planning is the key to a successful PhD... The old adage still holds true, and regardless of the stage of your academic career you are in, planning and managing your time is essential if you want to deliver your work on time.

During your studies, you might be able to pass a class by cramming for the exam a few days before the exam, and then forget about it. A PhD doesn't work like that: you can't lollygag for 3,5 years and then push out a thesis (even though there are online services that claim they can write a 10k word dissertation for you in 2 days *__* ). Research is a continuous process, and in order to stay on top of your game, you will (and I'm repeating myself here ad nauseum) learn to manage your time.

It might come as a surprise to you, but I had to learn how to divide my time and plan for my studies as well (during my studies in Brussels). As I got away with studying maximum 20 minutes a day during high school, I had to learn the hard way how to chew my way through pages and pages of coursebooks. So if you are one hell of a disorganized mess, don't worry - that level of chaos does not need to define you. You can learn how to manage your time - not overnight, but by incorporating time management elements bit by bit, and morphing towards a system that works for you.

In this post, I will focus on concepts and tools. I will explain you basic time management concepts, and then the tools you can use for it, so you can go ahead and try this out yourself. I will also refer you to some previous posts of mine on the discussed concept, for further reading. We will start by reviewing some basic concepts, and then look at planning: from long-term all the way down to your tasks in a given day.

Concept: Measure how much time your work *really* takes

Before you can start having realistic estimates of how much time you need to reserve for carrying out a task, you need to know how much time things take you. To learn to quantify your time in detail, I recommend you record your tasks and how much time you spend on time. You might be surprised that, while you think you spent an entire day working on something, you maybe only really worked 5 hours on it, and spent the rest of your time replying emails or answering the phone.

The tools: You can record your time by hand, by using an Excel spreadsheet, or, my favorite, by using software like ManicTime.

Further reading: Here you can read about how I was using software tools to track how I spend my time. Note that I am not doing this anymore - by now I have a good understanding of how much time certain tasks take me.

Concept: Learn how to prioritize your tasks

Let's assume that you've already figured out your tasks (we'll talk more about knowing what you need to do everything by going from long-term planning down to daily tasks lists). And let's say that you have a lot of things on your plate in a given week. Now how do you prioritize your tasks? Organize your tasks according to the urgent-important matrix:

Spend more time on tasks that are important but not urgent - these are the tasks that tend to slip between the cracks if you do not consciously make time for them (such as writing your journal papers, which don't have a deadline).

The tools: Pen and paper works well for this, or you can assign a priority level to tasks in an app that manages your tasks, such as todoist (my favorite task list app).

Further reading: Read more about the urgent-important matrix here. Learn more about dead work in this post. An application to the responsibilities of a junior faculty members can be found here. And, often it comes down to finding time for writing (and guarding this time for dear life).

Concept: Don't plan more than 75% of your time

Whenever you make a planning, allow for some air in your planning. You need to move from one place to another. Sometimes you need to stare at the wall. Sometimes you need to sit in silence for 15 minutes over a cup of coffee. You need to pick up the phone sometimes. All these small tasks are things you can't expect to have in your planning. To avoid feeling rushed and stressed all the time, add extra time to your schedule. If I know for example a certain task is going to take me 1,5 hours, I will put 2 hours for it in my schedule.

The tools: You can either plan your day by using a paper planner, or by using a calendar application like iCal or Google Calendar.

Further reading: In general, my days looked like this during my PhD.

Concept: Reverse-plan from a deadline

If you have a given deadline, don''t just think you will handle it once the deadline starts to draw near. Instead, start to plan for a task right when you learn about a deadline. Say you need to submit a conference paper in 9 months from now - that does not mean you can twiddle your thumbs and ignore the paper for the next 8 months. What I usually do, is to try and have the first draft of the paper ready 2 months before the deadline (or earlier, if it suits my paper planning schedule). From my self-imposed deadline, I count back and calculate the time I need to drafting the text. If all research is done and I have a research report available, I will typically need 2 weeks for this, writing 2 hours a day. I also need to count in 4 hours for brushing up figures and about 4 hours for proof reading and making changes. All in all, I typically would start scheduling in time about 3 months prior to the deadline, so that I can get my draft to my coauthors 2 months in advance.

The tools: For keeping an overview of the papers that I need to work on, I use a designated "Writing papers" list in ToDoist. To reserve time in my schedule, I put blocks of time in Google Calendar.

Further reading: Here's how I keep track of my papers in progress.

Concept: Plan long term

For a long-term project, like a multi-year research project or a PhD project, it is good to have a general overview with different milestones. You want to have a vague idea of which subtask you want to have finished in which month, and you want to have enough buffer at the end to catch unforeseen circumstances (they always show up - you can foresee that the unforeseen will make itself seen...).

The tools: For a PhD project of 4 years, I like Klaar in vier jaar (ready in four years), a tool to help you plan for the 4 years of a PhD by identifying milestones and placing air and holidays into your long term planning. Other good tools could be a big chart that you put on the wall, or a gantt chart in Excel.

Further reading: Here you can read about how I planned towards my defense.

Concept: Make a semester overview

Let's zoom in a bit more. Now that you've defined your major milestones, you can see what needs to be done in each semester. Before the start of a new semester, list your tasks and estimate how many weeks you need to spend on each. Then reserve your required number of weeks for these tasks.

The tools: I like doing a brain dump before every semester just with pen and paper to list the major research tasks that I have in a semester, the papers that I want to write, the service responsibilities that I need to take care of, the teaching activities that I need to plan in and the conferences I will travel to (i.e. weeks in which I do not plan to work on the other tasks). Then, you can select in for example Google Calendar the number of days/weeks that you plan to work on a certain task, to have this show up in the month view of your calendar.

Further reading: You can find an example here about how I outline my semesters. Read this if you are new to research.

Concept: Make a weekly schedule to fit all your tasks

If you know which tasks you need to work on during a semester, you can start playing time Tetris to make everything fit. Allow for buffer time. Plan in time to eat, plan in time to reply emails (it takes me 1 - 2 hours a day). I recommend you do not plan to have more than 50 hours in your schedule. If you start with 60+ hours in your schedule, and have some work flowing over into your "spare" time, you will end up with nothing but eat, sleep and work. And I know very few people who function well on such a schedule.

The tools: Here, either a template in Excel or using Google Calendar or iCal works great to divide your time into time slots of a weekly template to make everything fit in. I like using different color codes: red for general work, light blue for research, dark blue for teaching, yellow for personal, pink for the blog and green for sports - so that in a quick look I can know how my day is split among my major tasks.

Further reading: Read here on how I try to balance teaching and research. I've written about my experiences with a weekly template as well. Read here how I deal with email. Oh, and we are all different - some people need more room for freewheeling. If you're new to teaching, this post might help.

Concept: Know what you need to do in a day

Once you have your weekly template, you might need to tweak and twist it a bit on a weekly basis to fit in meetings and special occasions, and to add which research in particular you will work on, or which class prep task you will tackle in a given "class prep - teaching" time slot.

The tools: Once you have the weekly template, you an easily have an overview of your different tasks in a day through Google Calendar or iCal. Additionally, I use ToDoist, with an overview of the smaller tasks that I need to do in a day (i.e. drop off a form to the secretary, put anti-flea stuff on the cat), or to check off tasks that I want to do on a daily basis (meditate, work on paper X). In ToDoist, I like adding a due time: if I need to take care of things on campus, I will but the due time shortly after class. If I need to do things at home, I will put a due time of 9pm. ToDoist has the neat feature that it then will show an overview of your tasks for the day sorted by time, so you can see what needs to be done when during the day.

Further reading: This post describes what my time management system looked like in 2012. One year later, it had morphed into something different. Nowadays, I basically fully rely on Google Calendar and ToDoist, and then pen and paper in a notebook to outline my major tasks for an entire semester. Read here for tips about using lists.


  1. I first read about this concept in Covey's book and I strive to be in the second quadrant of urgent and import. Great post!