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