When I was in my third year of graduate school I did an unthinkable thing: I had a baby.
I will admit it, I was already one of those organized people, but becoming a parent -- especially as an international student without nearby help -- meant I had to step up my game when it came to time-management skills. Indeed, I graduated in five years, with a solid publications list and my second successful DNA replication experiment in utero.
In a culture where the answer to the question “How are you doing?” contains the word “busy!” 95 percent of the time (nonscientific observation), knowing how to manage your time efficiently is key to your progress, your career success and, most important, your overall well-being.
In fact, a recent career-outcomes survey of past trainees conducted by Melanie Sinche, a senior research associate at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, showed that time-management skills were No. 1 on the list of “skills I wish I were better at.” Thus, I believe some advice could be helpful, whether you need assistance with your academic progress, a job search while still working on your thesis or the transition to your first job (one in which you feel somewhat overwhelmed).
Luckily, you don’t need to have a baby to sharpen your time-management skills to be more productive and have a better work-life balance. But you do need to be able to understand what promotes that constant feeling of busyness that causes us to feel like we don’t have time for anything.
Let’s start with the basics of time-management mastery. They lie in what is known as the Eisenhower method (a.k.a. priority matrix), named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” According to that method, you need to triage your to-do list into four categories:
- Urgent and important. This category involves crises, such as a medical emergency or when your lab freezer breaks down. It is the things that you need to take care of now! If most of the things you do fall into this category, it suggests you are just putting our fires and not doing enough planning, i.e., spending time on the nonurgent and important category of tasks.
- Nonurgent and important. In a perfect world, that’s where most of your activity should be. It requires planning ahead, which can be more of a challenge for those of us who like to wing it, but it is still worth trying to plan some aspects of your daily life. This category also applies to activities such as your career development or exercise. If you want to make sure you have time to attend a networking event or go for a run, you don’t want to start an experiment 30 minutes before.
- Urgent and not important. These include all the distractions we get from our environment that may be urgent but are really not important, like some meetings, email and other interruptions. Wherever possible, these are the things you need to delegate to others, which I know is probably not an option for most of us. Evading some of these tasks sometimes takes being able to say no or moving the activity to the next category of nonurgent and not important.
- Nonurgent and not important. These are the typical time suckers such as Facebook, Candy Crush, cute cat videos and, most recently, Pokémon Go.
As Homo sapiens, we tend to focus only on what is urgent. I am no neuroscientist, but I assume it was probably evolutionarily necessary for our survival to wire our brain that way. Unfortunately, in today’s world, that beep on our phone that we will drop everything we are currently doing to check is often not as urgent as, let’s say, becoming a lion’s lunch. Therefore, ignoring it requires some serious willpower. Since the average person has only so much willpower, here are a few things you can do to make sure you spend most of your time on the nonurgent and important category.
Make a list and schedule tasks. Prepare for what’s coming. Start your day (or even the evening before) prioritizing your to-do list using the priority matrix and writing it down. There is plenty of research that shows that when we write things down, we are more likely to achieve them. I still love a good piece of paper and a pen, and checking off things on my to do-list gives me great joy. (Weird, I know.) But I also find tools like Trello very useful for tracking to-do lists for multiple projects as well as for collaborations. If you make a list but have the tendency to avoid it, try Dayboard, which will show you your to-do list every time you open a new tab.
Also, actively putting things that are important to us on the calendar (e.g., meeting with a good friend or hitting the gym) makes us happier. We all have a gazillion things we can be doing every day. And the key is to focus on the top one to three things that are most important and do them one task at a time. Yes, you read it correctly. One task at a time.
Understand that multitasking is from the devil. In our society, when we say that we are good at multitasking, it is like a badge of honor. But let’s admit it, multitasking is a scam. Our poor brains can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, so when you try to reply to email when listening on a conference call, you aren’t really doing any of those effectively -- you are just switching between tasks. A study from the University of London a couple of years ago showed that your IQ goes down by up to 15 points for men and 10 points for women when multitasking, which from a cognitive perspective is the equivalent of smoking marijuana or losing a night of sleep. So, yes, you get dumber when you multitask.
Moreover, other research has shown that constant multitasking can cause permanent damage to the brain. So instead of a skill we want to be proud of, it is in fact a bad habit that we should all try to quit. It can be as easy as turning off notifications or putting tools on your computer such as FocusMe or SelfControl. Such tools will allow you to focus on one task at a time by blocking distractions such as certain websites, email and the like. This brings us to the next topic of why and how you should avoid time suckers.
Recognize and avoid time suckers. Distractions are all around us: email, meetings, talkative colleagues and our very own wandering minds. The digital distractions such as email, Facebook, texting and app notifications are excellent attention grabbers. We all have a typical Pavlovian response when we hear that beep on our phone or computer -- we have to check it out and respond, and that usually leads to some mindless browsing … then we forget what we were supposed to be doing. Indeed, research shows that it takes on average 25 minutes to refocus our attention after an interruption as simple as a text message. Moreover, research also shows that those digital interruptions also make us dumber, even though when we learn to expect them, our brains can adapt. When you think about the number of distractions we are all exposed to during the day, this accumulates to many hours of lost productive time.
Social science has shown that our environment controls us, whether it is eating, making a decision on what house to buy or trying to focus on a task. Clearly, we can’t control everything in our environment, but at least we can control our digital space. It is hard to fight that Pavlovian response and not check who just commented on your Facebook post or pinged you on WhatsApp.
But while technology robs our focus, it also gave us tools to fight it. Even something as simple as turning off email notification can minimize the distraction. If you don’t think you are wasting time or just like a good scientist want to collect data about yourself, try RescueTime. Additionally, there are some great tools to help us stay distraction-free, such as StayFocused, which is a browser extension that blocks you from spending more than X amount of time on social media sites, and Freedom, which blocks distracting websites and apps across devices.
Take a break. Being more productive is great, but don’t expect to be able to focus on the same thing for long periods of time. Take short breaks to recharge. You should not feel guilty for doing so because you are too busy. The science backs up the importance of taking a break, as it helps you re-evaluate what you are doing, retain information, make new connections and more.
For those of you who love having a structure, a number of systematic methods allow you to take breaks and stay productive. One such method is the Pomodoro technique. You decide the task you are going to complete, set a timer for 25 minutes and, when time is up, take a five-minute break. Another favorite method is to work in 90-minute time blocks, which follows our natural body rhythm. What you do on your break can matter, too. Productivity-boosting activities go beyond getting a cup of coffee: you can stretch, take a short walk, read something that’s not work related, daydream or look at adorable animal videos.
Full disclosure, while writing this post I had to resist endless distractions, some of which I couldn’t resist and gave in to; I am not perfect by any means. Yet, you don’t have to become a time-management Jedi to be more productive in your life and work. Just be aware of how you spend your time and allocate as much as you can to the important and nonurgent category of tasks. Finally, try to avoid the urge of multitasking. Then you can have the time to work productively on your goals and still have enough left over for the things that you enjoy and that make you happy.
Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis is director of career development in the office of postdoctoral education at the Emory University School of Medicine.
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