We're a little crazy, about science!

Time management and a busy day

As usual, it’s a busy day. This one however is particularly busy and there’s not a lot I can do about it except pull out the magical powers of time management, set some goals and limits on how long I can work on things, keep my head down, and hope for the best. The day will end, eventually, but the amount of work I finish is, in part, up to me. How do I manage to be productive? Well a pseudo-structure method helps.

Ever sit down to do work and you just, don’t? For those of us who rely on a computer to do what we do, you may find yourself staring at the screen for hours. Or maybe you’re surfing the web hoping to find motivation on tictoc or twitter. If you’re like me, you do a combination, check your emails, listen to some music, then chastise yourself for not getting anything done an hour later. Or at least that’s how I used to do things, because we were taught to sit down and work, but we don’t really work that way. Okay, I don’t work that way and I don’t think I’m the only one.

There are a ton of time management techniques out there from pomodoro technique (scheduled breaks in between bouts of work) to the Eisenhower Matrix technique (ranking the stuff that needs to be done by importance and deadlines basically), but I fail at a lot of these. I admit, I do use a pomodoro timer, but for different reasons all together.

My method for time management is what I call pseudo-structured, structured because I need to plan a bit, but pseudo- because I don’t have firm start and stop points. The way I like to do this is by estimating the time I need to do a particular project, then adding on a factor of 1.2 or so, meaning if a project takes an hour estimated, I give myself 1.2 hours to do the thing for the day. Once my day is full of stuff that I need/want to do, I can plan the arrangement based on what I feel like doing and how important the task is. I also try to factor in the time to completion, but more often than not I like to pick tasks I think are hard and sprinkle in easier tasks in between.

Here’s where the pseudo- part of the pseudo-structure comes in. Say I’m working on a task, man does it suck. I really want to stop because I’m feeling less than productive or I frankly don’t want to keep working on it. The secret, I stop. That’s it, seriously. Then I switch to a different task, it helps if some of them get me away from the computer for a bit. But I rotate between tasks until I start checking things off the list. When I don’t feel like doing any of the stuff I need to do, I take a break. If I’m knee deep in a project and I’m blazing through it, I keep going until the momentum goes away or I finish.

Pretty simple really when you think about it. Because if I force myself to focus on doing just one thing, I will eventually get it done, but I will have wasted so much time sitting doing nothing trying to motivate myself to do it that I will have effectively had more than enough time to finish other smaller (or sometimes even larger) tasks. Some days I can spend an hour or two (sometimes even more) at a time on just a single task and I’m okay with it. Other days, even just 10 minutes on a task feels like an eternity. So I rotate as needed to keep my interest up or just walk away when I don’t think I can do anything.

The reason this works for me is because I have a list of stuff I need to do, a realistic timeframe to finish it all in, and I can keep track of what I’ve done as I go. I also like that I’m not forcing myself to do something when I don’t feel like working on it. Because how many times do you want to take a break while doing something and don’t let yourself. Then you find that you never got a break, didn’t get anything done, and feel exhausted for no real reason?

I’m not saying this style works for everyone, or that it will even work for you. I’m just saying that coming up with a time management technique that suits you as a unique and individual person is important. Other more mainstream and established techniques are great if those work for you, but if they don’t, don’t be afraid to combine, cherry pick, or make up some of your own. The point isn’t to follow what people have created rigidly, I doubt that doing that will help anyone significantly. It’s more of the spirit of the technique that you have to look at and see if there’s something that helps you.

My method is probably an amalgamation of at least a handful of more commonly used techniques. The trick with mine is that you shouldn’t feel bad about walking away from an unfinished project or taking a break when you need it (even if you just took a break, trust me). Realizing you need to step away is a challenge too. But for me the pomodoro technique didn’t work because we’re rigidly setting work/stop periods and sometimes I get into a groove and stopping just doesn’t make sense to me (resetting the timer would also get annoying when I’m hyper focused like that).

So really that’s the secret to my productivity. I think I’ve discussed this before, but it never hurts to hit it again and again as it comes up. Writing this stuff out helps remind me too that I’m doing the thing that works for me. It’s taken so, so long to come up with this system, but it’s mostly because I was never really taught how to think about finishing work. Everyone just assumes we work the same way I guess? I don’t know, maybe I’m an outlier in that regard. I like to think that I’m not simply because there are so many time management techniques floating around.

With that, I have a lot to get done and this was a little break I wanted to give myself to focus on something else (see how that works?). Now I feel pretty comfortable diving back into the other stuff I need to do, so guess what? I’m going to go check some other stuff off my list for the day. Oh and let me just say, making a literal checklist is super satisfying, at least for me, but I’m weird, so take that as you will.

365 days of academia post (lol)


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