Task (Time) Management

Finding a balance between your career and your home life, or within either of those broad categories, is largely a matter of managing your time and prioritizing the tasks you "need" to do. Many books and articles have been written on time/task management; here are a few of our favorites.

Jump down to Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List * Science Magazine * Other articles, books, and chapters * Tips from Early Career Workshop Alums * Tips from Other Academic Geoscientists

Articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education

  • Setting Boundaries in the Ivory Tower, by Ellen Ostrow. Specific suggestions for clarifying your priorities and setting boundaries to achieve them.
  • An Academic Life Out of Sync, by Ellen Ostrow. Redefining balance as an outgrowth of "your vital engagement in, and personal striving toward, goals that give your life a sense of meaning and purpose," instead of as a struggle to find enough time for competing demands.
  • Coping with Obstacles to a Balanced Life, by Ellen Ostrow. Ellen describes some common obstacles to balance, and how to overcome them: have clear goals, tackle important work without procrastinating, avoid the trap of perfectionism, and make specific plans to accomplish your goals.
  • Lessons in Time Management, by Lee Tobin McClain. How to limit one's committee work, make time for research, cut teaching preparation time, and make sure that important tasks get priority.

Articles from Rick Reis' "Tomorrow's Professor" Mailing List

Articles from Science magazine online

  • Mind Matters: On Balance, by Irene Levine. Irene summarizes recent research on work-life balance amongst faculty members, then recaps the advice from experts on achieving a balance you'll find rewarding.
  • Overwork: Does it Have to be a Life of Quiet Desperation? by Adrienne Kitts, reprinted from AWIS magazine. Adrienne explores the psychological causes of overwork, especially amongst women scientists. She also suggests methods of changing your own, and other peoples', expectations of you.

Other articles, books, and chapters

  • 9 to 5, from Inside Higher Ed, cites research showing that working more than 45 hours per week significantly impacts one's productivity. It also offers suggestions for getting more done in fewer hours.
  • How to Make Work-Life Balance Work is a TED talk, by Nigel Marsh, in which he lays out four principles for finding one's balance and making it work.
  • 10 Common Time Management Mistakes: Avoiding Common Pitfalls, from MindTools.com, is a short article with a focus on how to better manage your time, achieving this through identifying and offering advice for remedying common time management pitfalls.
  • Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. This book on task management walks you through a set of straightforward strategies for getting and keeping your work under control: identifying all of the tasks you need to do, deciding what needs to happen next for each task, and organizing those tasks. The fundamental premise - that you can't make the best choices about what to do next until you know what all of your choices are - is simple, but powerful. Once you have a handle on all of the tasks demanding your attention, you'll be able to make appropriate choices about what to do next.
  • Balance is a Nice Idea, But My Reality is Closer to Juggling, by Janet D. Stemwedel. Janet sees juggling her responsibilities as a far more practical (and attainable) goal than balance. This philosophy allows her to choose when to be good enough, rather than perfect.
  • "Taking Charge of Your Life: the Management of Time and Stress," in Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges, summarizes the research about stress in academia and outlines time management techniques, specific to the demands (and freedom) of an academic job, geared toward coping with that stress.
  • First Things First, by S. R. Covey, A. R. Merrill, and R. R. Merrill, New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1994. (See description on Amazon.com.) This book shows you how to go beyond the familiar reminders and lists, calendars and appointment books, and even planning and prioritizing, to adopting the "importance paradigm" of putting first things first by "doing what's important rather than simply responding to what's urgent."
  • Coping With Faculty Stress, by W. H. Gmelch, London: SAGE Publications, 1993. (See description on Amazon.com.) Eighty-five pages packed with practical advice on how to deal with the whole range of academic pressures, including how to tackle the ten most troublesome stress traps for professors.
  • Aspiring Academics: A Resource Book for Graduate Students and Early Career Faculty, edited by Michael Solem, Kenneth Foote, and Janice Monk. Drawing on several years of research, this set of essays stresses the interdependence of teaching, research, and service - and the importance of achieving a healthy balance in professional and personal life - in faculty work, and does not view it as a collection of unrelated tasks.
  • An Empty In-Box, or With Just a Few E-mail Messages? by Farhad Manjoo. This New York Times articles offers exceedingly simple advice for keeping your email from becoming overwhelming.
  • Saying No to Your Boss, by Rachel Zupek. While written with the corporate world in mind, this article has several concrete suggestions for how to decline or deflect a task without ever actually saying the word "no."
  • Leadership Development Institute: Personal Mission Statement, from the Ohio Literacy Resource Center. This site provides tips on writing a personal mission statement, which can help guide your career through defining your goals and by prioritizing those things that are most important to you.
  • NSF's Career-life Balance Initiative website highlights NSF's efforts to clear the obstacles from the STEM Career-Life pathways leading from graduate education through to full professor.

Tips from Early Career Workshop Alums

  • Figure out what tasks you can hire out. Yard maintenance? Snow removal? House cleaning? If it helps, calculate your own hourly wage, if you were to work a reasonable number of hours each week. Then, if you can hire someone to do a job for less money than it would "cost" you in time spent, hire them! Your time is worth more than you might think, and your sanity is priceless.
  • I think the best advice I ever got was to write a little bit each day. If I hadn't done that, I don't think I would ever have finished my dissertation and published my papers!
  • I have only recently decided to take advantage of our university's on-line technology. Many universities use programs for the students to access their class notes and grades etc. One function of the one we use is that we can store question banks and the system will create random quizzes for the students. The system will also grade the quizzes, or the students can use the question banks as practice. I am adopting this function to keep the students in my large Gen Ed Physical Geology course thinking about Geology outside of the classroom (2 mandatory quizzes per week), and giving them an extra study guide, all without adding extra work (besides the initial set up) to me.
  • Although I don't always practice these well, here is what I know:
    1. Learn to say "no" (or postpone your "yes" until after you have thought it through).
    2. Turn off your email (and limit how many times you check it).
    3. Post your writing/research times on your door and follow a schedule.
    4. Set goals for blocks of time. Get done what can be done in that time.
    5. Only sign up for half of what you think you can do.
  • I find it useful to schedule "unscheduled" work like writing on my daily calendar, because I find that I will tend to do (and prioritize) things that are on my calendar. For me, this works better than a "to do list" because it's harder to ignore a scheduled task.
  • Be realistic about how much you can get done in an hour, an afternoon, a day, or however long you have to work on something. One of my biggest challenges was being overly-optimistic about the number of things I would expect myself to get done in a free afternoon, and then instead of being satisfied with what I did get done I would focus on tasks I hadn't finished. Once I became more realistic I was more satisfied with my work rate.
  • When I have many projects going on at once and I am having trouble concentrating on one before I jump to the next project I set myself a time limit and then set a timer. It helps to know that once the timer goes off I can decide if I am going to keep working on one project or if I am going to move on to the next project.
  • During my first year as a professor, one of the main difficulties that I had was over-committing to things that were outside of teaching (e.g. serving on committees, outreach activities, etc.). As a result, I quickly found almost all of time outside of the classroom consumed by various meetings, appointments, and other commitments that left me with very little time to work on my courses while I was on campus. I quickly realized that it is important to prioritize my commitments in terms of what is important to me, what is important to my department, and what is important to my institution. It is also important that I have enough time to do perform well on the activities that I am a part of.
  • Block off times for research, writing, lecture prep, lab prep, just as you would for classes and office hours; even blocking off time for personal things works well.
  • Utilize campus areas other than your office to get writing done.
  • Turning off your email alert prevents frequent distractions from the work in front of you. Set aside some time each day to process email, and have a catalog of prepared replies for student questions that tend to repeat (e.g, "What do I do if I forgot to turn in homework 4?").
  • Block off time for at least several hours a couple of days every week in your calendar just for you. Communicate that you will be unavailable at these times with the people who need to know. Use this precious time to think, reflect, write, plan, and to organize your upcoming days and weeks. Do not feel bad for doing this! Do not feel guilty. Your graduate (and undergraduate) students will be just fine. Your lab will be just fine. Be very stingy when it comes to giving up this time for something else.
  • With respect for the fact that everyone has a different working style and obligations, I've had the best success at time management by maintaining an office schedule of 8 am to 6 pm, and making every effort to avoid taking work home. Though it would be easier some days to work at home in the mornings, that eventually leads to broken promises to myself about projects that I'm going to finish at home on evenings and weekends as well. Compartmentalizing my work and home activities into the appropriate spaces forces me to maximize my time at the office so I can fully focus on non-work things at home.

Tips from Other Academic Geoscientists

  • Don't say yes to requests right away. Give it a day or two. Find out more information first. You are likely to be asked far more things than you can do. It's easy to end up overcommitted with things you don't really value. Giving yourself time to respond lets you figure out if the activity matters to you, if it matters enough to add it to your schedule, if it fits with your strategy, and if there are reasons not to do it (e.g., a committee chair you really don't want to work with). It's important to make sure the things you say "yes" to are what you want.