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Time management tips

October 20th, 2004

If you’re reading this, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re in need of time-management tips[1]. On the other hand, the idea of a blogger giving time management tips is problematic, to say the least. Undaunted by this contradiction, I’m going to offer a few. The details reflect my main activity, which is academic research but may be more or less adaptable to other kinds of jobs.

First, the best way to avoid a piled-up in tray is to deal with jobs immediately, either by doing them, or by deciding never to do them. This won’t work for every kind of job, but the more types of jobs you can handle in this way, the better. So to implement this tip you need a way of classifying jobs. One way is by the time they are likely to take (see tip #2). IF you take this approach you can decide to do all 5-minute jobs immediately, or not at all. I prefer to focus on discretionary jobs where an immediate decision not to take the job is feasible. For an academic, refereeing for journals is like this. I try to deal with requests for referee reports in the same week I get them. If I have free time, and the job looks straightforward on a first reading, I try to do it within two days. Editors who are used to waiting for months really love a quick turnaround like this, and I live in hope that it will build up good karma for my own submissions. If I can’t manage a report within a week then, unless the paper looks to be very important, or I am obligated to the journal in question, I reply immediately that I’m not available. Editors usually don’t mind this, especially if I can suggest someone else.

My second tip is that the average 5-minute job takes about half an hour. This is an example of asymmetric risk. If all goes well, I might do a five-minute job in three minutes, saving a bit of time. But when things go badly, a job that should have taken five minutes cascades into a series of tasks that chew up an hour or more. The person you had to call doesn’t work there any more and when you eventually find their replacement it turns out that you’re missing some crucial piece of documentation, and while you’re searching for it the computer crashes and so it goes on. So, if I’ve accumulated 8-10 jobs that ought to take 5 minutes each, I find that setting aside an entire morning is usually realistic.

My third tip is particularly relevant for people prone to distraction, which obviously includes all of us here. My core business is producing academic journal articles (and the occasional book). In this business, it’s easy to drift along, reading lots of interesting stuff, making notes, and imagining you are making progress, but not actually getting anywhere. So in homage to Taylor and Stakhanov, I discipline myself by setting word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on. Blog posts don’t count, of course, though occasionally I can get myself an easy day by reworking blog material into academic output. This may sound crass, and it’s not appropriate if you’re a creative genius, but it works pretty well for me, and I think would work well for others in similar circumstances.

fn1. The obvious one is “Get back to work!”, but that wouldn’t do much for my pageview counts.

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  1. Rex
    October 20th, 2004 at 17:01 | #1

    I do believe there is a small but quantifiable drain on the economy caused by blogs.

    Although by no means anywhere near the level caused by office gossip, football, hangovers and dicreet liasons in the stationary cupboard.

  2. Dano
    October 20th, 2004 at 17:05 | #2

    Actually, I think the prospect of liasons in the stationary cupboard actually increases office productivity. At least I feel more productive if I think about it…

    But I like John’s 3. & I’m going to try it.

    Thanks John,

    D

  3. James Farrell
    October 20th, 2004 at 21:02 | #3

    Captain

    I tried (3) the last time you recomended it, and it went well for a couple of months, but then I got stuck – for months – on some really thorny formal modelling problems and soon abandoned the 500-word goal. And it happens to me all the time. Does it just mean one shouldn’t swim out of one’s depth?

    Rex

    “I do believe there is a small but quantifiable drain on the economy caused by blogs.”

    Only if you measure ‘the economy’ by GDP rather than utility. Of course if you’re stealing time your employer is paying for, that’s another issue.

  4. Nicholas Gruen
    October 20th, 2004 at 21:17 | #4

    Charles Dickens’ target was several thousand words – and it shows!

    Another tip. Don’t download your email till 3 pm. (This has some costs, but more benefits – for me anyway).

  5. October 20th, 2004 at 22:00 | #5

    I worked with a manager who sat us down one day and imparted his time management wisdom, “Don’t look at your email until five minutes before lunch, then don’t leave your desk until you have answered every single item.”

    Twenty pairs of eyes bugged as we simultaneously arrived at an understanding of our manager’s unique – and extremely terse – email style.

  6. Jill Rush
    October 20th, 2004 at 22:05 | #6

    Very male solutions. I find that it is rare that I have this kind of luxury of managing one task at a time. It is quite possible to make lunch, eat your breakfast and hear spelling at the same time.

    My tip is to start one job that takes time and begin another whilst the first is bubbling along and to have a rigid schedule, remember all the trivial things as making lists takes too much time, make up time schedules – and get the malingerers to leave by getting out of my chair and helping them out the door.

  7. kyan gadac
    October 21st, 2004 at 00:06 | #7

    Nice Jill:-) I started making mine own bread recently and was surprised at how useful it was as a time keeper to organise my housework around. Animals and children are both excellent task masters when it comes to reproductive work.

    As to the general question of time manamgement the real secret IMHO is seeing time as cyclical as well as a linear process. You can’t get by on less than a certain number of hours of sleep. If you don’t get this sleep then then you will not be able to function effectively at task where time is measured linearly.

    In an economic sense time has two dimensions, the dimension of production, of the pin maker where time equals money, and the dimension of reproduction, where time is compulsory and cyclical. (Compulsory tasks are ones that can’t be done at a chosen time, pins can be made when we choose, but nappies waht for no man.)

  8. Harry Clarke
    October 21st, 2004 at 07:37 | #8

    I just realised that for teaching alone, over the past two years, I have put around 300,000 words of text onto the Web so in terms of word output (no claims re quality) I am about 50% above your daily target. Apart from this I have attended hundreds of boring, pointless meetings and relentlessly chauffered my kids to hundreds of swimming sessions, music classes and schools.

    I feel better about myself today than I have for quite a while. An unsung suburban hero.

  9. October 21st, 2004 at 09:18 | #9

    Occasionally I can get myself an easy day by reworking blog material into academic output. This may sound crass, and it’s not appropriate if you’re a creative genius, but it works pretty well for me, and I think would work well for others in similar circumstances.

    Why ever not? This way of working may be new but it could be compared to using your journal as a “sounding board” for material which perhaps isn’t quite cooked. Writers have done this for centuries. The only difference is that blogs are more public, but then, you can use useful input and discard whatever isn’t useful. And why would you think it’s crass?

  10. October 21st, 2004 at 09:49 | #10

    I recommend “Getting Things Done” by David Allen (re-titled “How To Get Things Done” in Australia for no apparent reason) which mostly argues that one reason we’re all stressed and disorganised is that our heads are full of TODO notes that are incomplete or otherwise useless and generally pop up to our attention at the most useless times (in the shower, while working on something else, …)

    His fairly simple plan is to dump all that stuff in your head out into some other system (paper or electronic) in a specific and well-organised manner (eg. don’t just record “write that journal article”, you record the next step required to *do* the task, so eg. “create new Word document for journal article and start writing” or whatever) so that your brain can think about other things, like actually doing the tasks. Oh, and if you write down a task that’ll only take a couple of minutes to perform, then just *do* it right now.

  11. John Quiggin
    October 21st, 2004 at 10:10 | #11

    Helen,

    “This may sound crass”

    was meant to refer to the word target, not to my practice of using the blog as a sounding board. I have found blog feedback most beneficial, and intend to keep asking for it. Like you, I don’t see anything crass about this.

    James (and Jill)

    “I tried (3) the last time you recomended it, and it went well for a couple of months, but then I got stuck – for months – on some really thorny formal modelling problems and soon abandoned the 500-word goal. And it happens to me all the time. Does it just mean one shouldn’t swim out of one’s depth?”

    Jill is right in saying that multitasking is crucial here. Always have something going (for example, a descriptive or policy paper) that you can write about when you have hit a brick wall on the hard stuff.

  12. John Quiggin
    October 21st, 2004 at 10:20 | #12

    Harry, I’m impressed. Of course, I already knew you were very productive, but 150Kw/year is a hot pace.

  13. chico o’farrill
    October 21st, 2004 at 15:16 | #13

    “If you’re reading this, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re in need of time-management tips”

    That’s a sentence so zen, I wish I had time to meditate on it, crack it right open.

    Thanks for the joy JQ…

  14. ml
    October 21st, 2004 at 17:06 | #14

    An argument for a quality or significance criterion in time management: To me the key significance dimensions are: scale of topic/contribution to global wellbeing. Sorting your options in these terms and rejecting the bottom half can give you – half the labour with the prospect of much more than double the return. And the extra leisure? Wonderful for reflection, the light bulb flashing on, and exploring the road not travelled – good in themselves, and they feed back very well into the quality.

  15. October 22nd, 2004 at 02:05 | #15

    I have two rules in relation to the block problem, though I work in much less rigorous areas.

    Never get too far away from creativity. Blogs help a lot here. Something lateral and expressive, preferably every day.

    Get a dog. You have to walk it, and this gets you outside, trudging along, freeing the mind. Bikes and karate do the same.

    My big problem is that time simply does not exist when I am absorbed. Damn, its three am again. Curses, sleep debt one more time..

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