Time management for the new year

Jan. 22, 2013

by Chris Barncard

Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Associate Professor and Graduate Program Chair Ankur Desai didn’t always bother with managing his time. That changed in a hurry when, as a graduate student, he had his first child.

“That was a ‘Whoa!’ moment,” he says. “I couldn’t stay at the office forever staring at work until things came together.”

That memory led Desai to add a talk on productivity to the AOS graduate student symposium schedule.

“We do a great job training our students to create knowledge with their research and share it through teaching,” he says. “But we do very little in preparing them to manage time, money and people.”

We talked Desai into taking some a few minutes to discuss the finer points of time management with InsideUW.

Photo: Ankur Desai

Desai, at the site of climate research in northern Wisconsin.

Photo: Bryce Richter

IUW: How did you develop your own time-management plan?

Desai: I watched people I admired, people who looked like they had it figured out, and asked them questions. But I didn’t want to do exactly what they did. You have to use what works for you, and the way you learn that is trial and error. Try a week where it’s to-do lists. Try a week that is more goal-setting. Keep track of the things that are working — and, more importantly, probably — the things that keep you from being productive. You can use what you learn about yourself to improve in a more lasting way than you would with some sort of big, top-down change. If you spend too much time trying to fit your life to someone else’s method, you’re just as likely to lose ground.

IUW: What is it that works for you?

Desai: I set short-, medium- and long-term goals, and found ways to keep them where they would be useful. I used to use a lot of handwritten planners, but I’ve found that keeping appointments on a calendar, synced with my wife’s, and a week’s worth of tasks on a text file synced between my laptop and phone with SimpleNote takes care of my short-term goals. I don’t like apps or things with tags and folders. I work on updating a simple list for a few minutes every Sunday night, and look for the things I can get a head start on. Then I check the file daily and erase things as I complete them. Medium-term goals cover a semester or so, and go on a list I keep on the wall in my office and check weekly. That keeps me on schedule for larger projects — papers and grants and presentations. When I have some spare time, or I feel like I’m drifting, I look at the wall and find something to do. The long-term goals are five-year-plan sort of things, and I keep them in an idea journal I like to work on annually or when I’m bored or inspired. A lot of the trouble with the academic environment is that we have almost too much flexibility in our time. And that’s compounded by not thinking about priorities. Just making sure you give some thought to priorities will put you in a position to say no to the things you can’t or shouldn’t do right now, and yes to the things you can and should.

IUW: Is structure the key to managing time?

Desai: Not in my case, and I think that actually hurts a lot of people. Time management doesn’t mean scheduling every minute of your day. Because the moment you break the schedule for one thing, the rest of your tasks are broken, too. You have to find a healthy balance. When I keep a to-do list, it’s relatively small, concrete tasks I write down: Meet with this person; write this introduction. But, again, you can’t get too big, like, “write dissertation,” because that’s not a concrete thing. There are too many different tasks packed into that. And you can’t get too small, or you will bog yourself down in minutia. Where you find yourself most productive on the scale of small to big tasks is something you have to learn by doing. But there is one trick I like to do with my calendar. I under-schedule things. I tend to block out an hour for meetings, even if they might take 15 minutes. Because then it feels like you’ve got 45 extra minutes in the day to use for work that isn’t tied to the schedule. There are all sorts of things you can do with found time like that, and almost none of them are bad.

IUW: What about procrastination, though? Procrastination is bad.
 
Desai: You shouldn’t feel bad about some kinds of procrastination. I stole this idea from Jorge Chan, the author of PhD Comics, who has a great talk about time management. If you’re procrastination consists of Facebook, that’s not necessarily productive. But he says it’s important to have spare time just to think about ideas. That unstructured time is when you brain works creatively. I don’t want to see academics think they are hyper-efficient people who are just going from one meeting to the next. That takes away some of the spark that makes the academic environment work. Creativity is an important part of the research and teaching process, and it requires its own time.
 
IUW: But ... the Internet. People. The drafty window by my desk. Hey, look, a squirrel!
 
Desai: Distractions are a problem for everybody, but there are ways to minimize the time they take. Campus is actually a pretty good place to stay away from those distractions. There probably are a lot of people around with the same priorities. If you keep up with each other’s work, you’ve got someone other than yourself (or your advisor, or professor) that you’re accountable to. You’d be surprised how much that can keep you on task. There are also so many places to go — places other than your usual work space — where you can get something done. Do your work in multiple places and at different times. You can stay a step ahead of some of those distractions, and you will probably find that there are certain places where you’re better at certain tasks. Meetings may go better while you’re taking a walk after lunch. Writing may go better in a library, or on a bench somewhere. Answering your email may get done faster at a table in a coffee shop.
 
IUW: Is productivity all about what goes on while you’re on the clock?
 
Desai: Lack of sleep is probably the biggest physical barrier to productivity I see, and it is really self-reinforcing. When you get behind on a project, you stay up late to get it done and you don’t get enough sleep. So you’re not at your best the next day, your work suffers, and making up for your lack of productivity costs you more sleep. Stringing together all-nighters seems like a given on campus, but the people I know who are making the best use of their time are also holding back parts of their day for some exercise and the right amount of rest.

Slides for Desai’s time management talk are available here.