I’m a big fan of making the most of the time I have as it means I have more time to spend on the things I enjoy. Here are my three favourite strategies for doing just that.
Eat a Frog
If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting down to check your emails first thing in the morning, only to realise three hours later that the most productive time of your day has disappeared, then I highly recommend frog eating. The idea comes from Mark Twain – he suggested that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ll know that’s the worst thing that will happen to you all day. (There’s a thought for when your doctoral writing is getting on top of you.)
The popular time management book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracey suggests that your “frog” is your biggest and most important task. For many of us, this is the task that we are most likely to procrastinate over. It’s also potentially the task that could make the biggest difference to productivity or progress towards a larger goal.
Tracey’s book has some excellent tips for frog eating (e.g. if you have to eat a live frog, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long). For researchers, I have a couple of my own tips:
- Don’t eat a frog that’s too large – tasks (and frogs) are easier to achieve when they’re bite-sized. ‘Work on my PhD’ is too large, and not specific enough, but reading that journal article on your desk is do-able in one sitting.
- Reward yourself for eating your frog – I keep Freddos (a.k.a. chocolate frogs) on hand for when I finish a particularly difficult task.
The Pomodoro Technique is based on those tomato shaped oven timers that you’ve probably seen before – Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. The idea is that you set a timer for 25 minutes, and you work uninterrupted for that time – turn your phone, email etc. off and just focus. After 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break and do something different – stretch, get a cup of tea or walk around the office. You then start another 25 minute block. The people that developed the technique suggest that for every four Pomodoro’s you complete, you should take a longer break. I find for me personally, I need to take a longer break after three.
There are a number of things that I particularly like about the Pomodoro Technique – one is that you start to learn how long things take you – most of us are terrible at estimating how long a task will take, but you start to get better at this once you chunk things into 25 minute blocks. Also, research consistently shows that regular breaks improve performance, but we can be quite bad at actually doing this, so the Pomodoro Technique is a good reminder.
Fit the Big Rocks in First
A standard technique for teaching time management is to give a group a pile of rocks and a carton of sand and ask them to put both into a jar. The idea is that the rocks represent the high priority tasks and the sand is the low priority tasks. Obviously the order you put them into the jar is important. If you put the sand in first, the rocks just aren’t going to fit. If you put the rocks in first, the sand can filter into the jar around it. Moral of the story, if you don’t complete the important tasks first, they’re not going to get done.
A nice technique for helping you fit those big rocks in is to make a meeting with yourself – literally. If you were meeting your supervisor, you’d arrive on time with your phone switched off and you’d dedicate your concentration for the time you have set aside. So why not treat your own time with as much respect? The really nice thing about this technique is when a colleague or family member asks you to do something else, you can honestly say, “I’m sorry but I have a meeting at that time”.
My last tip also relates to the jar of rocks – there’s always smaller blocks of time that you can make the most of. The jar looks full with rocks, but there are in fact small gaps. I like to keep a list of tasks that will only take me 5–10 minutes (I call these my ‘quick wins’). That way when I find myself with a few minutes to spare I can get a task achieved and cross it off my list.