10 Tips to Better Manage Your Time in Academia

Posted December 9, 2014 by Charles Ofria in Productivity / 3 Comments

As an academic, work comes from many different sources and it’s up to you to keep it all under control. As a grad student, you have your research projects, your classes, obligations to your lab, and the need to balance a personal life. By the time you are a faculty member, you still have research (now guiding numerous projects), classes (now teaching), a research lab (that you’re leading), and a life outside of work (hopefully), but you’re also expected to write grants, serve on a myriad of committees, advise students, write reference letters, and review the work of others (manuscripts, proposals, tenure cases, etc.) Each of these can easily become a full-time job unto itself if you’re not careful.

Here are some tricks that work well for me (when I manage to do them):

1. Never give an immediate “yes” when someone asks you to do a task. Always say “let me check my schedule” or “let me see if I can fit that in”, even when you’re pretty sure you’re going to say “yes”. You’ll find that, when given more thought, you will be able to say “no” to many more requests.

2. Schedule new tasks right onto your calendar. By blocking out time for items on your todo list, you will get a better idea of how much time you really have available and a good excuse to say “I’m sorry, my calendar’s full” or “I’m available in two weeks.” Remember that you will likely underestimate the time a task will take, so you probably want to double your estimate at least. Also, keep in mind that unexpected, urgent matters frequently pop up, and, if you’re a faculty member, keep some time free each week to have spontaneous meetings with students.

3. Think about what you’re NOT going to be able to do if you add this new task. Often the tradeoff will mean less time working on an important, but non-urgent project, less mentoring of your students, or less personal time. For me, it works best when I recognize that saying “yes” to someone else is implicitly saying “no” to spending more time with my son. Of course, if you don’t have kids the core of this advice still holds, but for me the best way of beating guilt of turning someone down is by applying stronger guilt in the other direction.

4. Reserve some of your working time for important projects that you enjoy. You need to protect some of that time even when other stuff is getting urgent. When I’m not careful, my schedule becomes dominated by “urgent” at the expense of “important”. If this happens too frequently, the quality of my work suffers and I feel burnt out from focusing on tasks that don’t fuel my passion.

5. Remember: Work/life-balance is more than just juggling urgent work matters with urgent home matters. If you’re not feeling fulfilled, think about what’s changed at work (you went into this field for a reason!) and what you’re missing from your personal life. For me, this led to some reduction of my work hours some to spend with my family, and making sure I spend at least 1/2 hour of my work day coding, which I love. The extra energy I’m able to put toward work because of those changes has easily made up for any lost productivity due to less time.

6. Don’t let your e-mail continually distract you. If you frequently let your e-mail pull you out of what you’re working on, you’ll never maintain deep enough concentration for maximum productivity. My three-step program was: 1) Turn off all notifiers. 2) Simply notice each time I check my e-mail. 3) Require myself to deal with one waiting e-mail when I check, even if there is nothing new. Step two made me more aware about checking and enabled step three. Step three helped me internalize that checking e-mail would never just be a brief diversion.

7. Reserve time for writing. When I force myself to write for at least 1/2 hour per day, I find that my ramp-up time shrinks to almost nothing and the overall quality of my writing improves greatly. As academics, we constantly have things that we need to be writing, and if we spread them out to work on them every day, we can produce more eloquent writing in much less time. As a computational scientist, I find the same is also true for coding, which I’ve recently been much better about keeping up with.

Some advice more relevant to faculty

8. Make sure your research group has good cohesion. This will make your group members happier and make them comfortable helping each other (of course, make sure they’re also comfortable coming to you when they need to). Set the tone by encouraging collaborative projects (or a lab blog!) and events outside of normal working hours; I used to throw many more lab parties and should try to do so again. Also, make sure prospective students are interviewed by as much of your lab as possible and take your lab member’s feedback very seriously.

9. Have your students turn in weekly progress reports. This technique keeps meetings more productive, keeps your students more organized, and keeps you on top of your students’ continued progress. Of course, make sure your students know that not every project report needs to have a major advancement. Sometimes classes take priority. Sometimes you just get stuck. But it helps both you and them keep a better perspective on the research.

10. Put a system in place for others to request reference letters. I point people to my requirements for writing reference letters. It clearly lists what I need from them to simplify my job writing the letter. In some cases, I never hear back from the requester, which is fine (if they’re not willing to put work into me writing them a letter, neither am I). If they do send me the information I need, it cuts the time I need to spend on the letter in half. The hardest part for me is to remember to tell them!

Of course, even with these tricks I’m still usually quite stressed and overworked, but they do help a lot. What do you do to cope with the academic workload?

— Charles

Charles Ofria

Charles Ofria is a professor of Computer Science at Michigan State University, director of the Devolab, and deputy director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

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3 responses to “10 Tips to Better Manage Your Time in Academia

  1. Bob Greene

    Pretty good.
    I’m willing to bet that things in academia are not that different from industry.

    I’d suggest adding something about prioritizing work. Everything can’t be equally important.
    Also, look at time/results. Low priorities should be those time consuming low-results things. I’ve seen a number of people get consumed in some time-consuming piece of minutia that produces no meaningful and sometimes no noticeable results.

    To a great extent, meetings were the bane of my existence. If uncontrolled, we spent hours tenderizing expired equines. No meeting should be held without an agenda that’s been published in advance. The meeting should have a fixed time. Adhere to the agenda unless the participants agree to vary and agree on what that replaces. That even applies to one-on-one meetings. No meeting should be longer than an hour. After an hour, your mental efficiency goes asymptotic to 0. If you really have to go longer than an hour, take a 10 minute break at 55 minutes.

    My last employer had daily teleconferences that could have been handled in an hour if a couple people had put some basic data on notes circulated before the meeting. They managed to cram a 1 hour discussion into 3-4 hours, starting 5pm eastern. I survived by buying a cordless phone set with a mute. Got lot’s done in the garage during those meetings.

  2. […] Here’s a post containing 10 tips to better manage your time in academia, by Charles Ofria of Michigan State. I found tip 6 related to email particularly interesting – he forces himself to deal with one waiting email each time he checks, as a way to try to avoid viewing email as a quick diversion. I’ve been trying to avoid reflexively checking my email, so hearing how other people avoid doing that is interesting to me. […]

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