Managing time and projects (at least in a research setting)

Written on January 24, 2017

I sometimes get distracted with other things going on in my life that end up making me less productive in my work (an academic setting). I want to try to determine what is the best (or better) approach to getting things done and producing things. Many approaches I use or try to use come from recommendations in the “Getting Things Done”. Several recommendations also come from project management or software development practices.

This blog post is to outline some of the things I use or want to try to do more of, for myself to record my process and also for others just starting out and hoping to get an idea of how to do things. There are three things I’ll cover here. First is the daily routines of work. Second is to define what is the thing to get ‘done’, aka a product. Third is what is the process for getting things ‘done’, aka a project.

Daily routine

I think one important part of getting things done is your daily routine. Here are some tips to include in your daily routine. Some of these tips are specific to me (e.g. the music playlist, since not everyone uses music to help them work).

  • Deal with email at set times of the day (start and end).
  • Try to keep your email inbox empty.
  • Deal with email right away or put it into a ‘todo’ item.
  • Mute cell phone (only use at set times or at breaks).
  • Limit the number of open applications/programs.
  • Restrict non-work related Internet usage.
  • Put (almost) everything into tasks (A, B, C, D) on your TODO list.
  • Schedule your week early on and chunk time blocks (~5.5hrs/day) on specific tasks.
  • Take breaks! Move during those breaks!
  • Use a playlist or radio for music for continuous music listening.

I’ll go into more detail here. Most of these items above can be summarized generally as a way to reduce context switching. Context switching, also known as ‘multitasking’, is when you switch your focus to something else. For example, you are writing code for an analysis and you switch to your email to answer an email that came in. It takes time for your brain to get into a topic or project, so when you switch your attention to something else, you essentially reset the time on that task. Stay on as few tasks as possible to finish them quicker and at a higher quality. Chunking your time is a useful way of reducing context switching since you know you are working on only that task or project, which gets your mind deeper into the problem.

Email is an important part of work, but it is also a major time sink. Limit how much you are on or dealing with your email so you can focus on actually making or doing things. Read and respond to email only during set times of the day. During those times, respond immediately to easy emails, put harder emails that require tasks to finish into your TODO list, and try to keep your inbox (fairly) empty. When not dealing with email, close your email application so you don’t get distracted.

Similar to email is messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp, or even simple text messaging. These are also distractions as they require context switching. Mute your cell phone (or close the messaging app) to prevent this and only check it during your break, or during the times you check your email.

Using the Internet is an important and necessary part of being a researcher. Need help with a particular code? Use StackOverflow. Trying to find a research article? Use PubMed. Can’t think of the right word to use for your manuscript? Use the online thesaurus. However, the Internet also has many distractions. Youtube, Facebook, and other social media. Knowing how to manage these distractions can also help you with getting things done. I normally use Firefox and it has a plugin called LeechBlock that stops you from using certain sites at certain times. I would recommend using something like this to restrict usage of these ‘leeches’.

I use music to help me focus and give me background noise. However, there are some sites or applications that encourage choosing each new song (e.g. YouTube). I would recommend either choosing a radio station/website or listening to a playlist. That way you don’t context switch as much.

New tasks that come up, for instance from email or messages, should be written down and categorized in a TODO list right away. These tasks don’t need to be dealt with right away. Try to use a TODO manager that is as simple as possible (I use a style called Todo.txt, that is also an app, and QTodoTxt on my computer because it uses plain text to manage the todo list and is simple), since this is something you don’t want to be too complicated. Work toward closing off tasks as quickly as you can. Use due dates when necessary or if there is a clear deadline. I would recommend tasks be categorized into at least four groups and completing them in order.

  • (A) = important, urgent
  • (B) = not important, urgent
  • (C) = important, not urgent
  • (D) = not important, not urgent

Lastly, try to keep a strict or narrow time window for working and take breaks to move around. When scheduling tasks and work, try to keep within ~5.5hrs/day of actual productive work (not including breaks etc). I’ve found that more than this does not make me any more productive and actually ends up wasting my time since I just daze off or get easily distracted. Try to work the set hours, then get the hell away from your work! You need a fresh and energized mind when doing research… working longer hours does not allow that to happen. Taking breaks also helps to keep your mind fresh and aware, and moving helps to relax the mind and energizes the muscles. It also prevents you from getting too exhausted. I’ve found a 20 minute break every 1.5 hours (or 10 min every hour) to work for me, with 30 sec eye break every 30 minutes (your eyes can get very tired from staring at the screen). Try using an application that forces you to take a break (I use Workrave because it locks my screen, forcing me to take a break).

I often forget about these daily routines, so it may be a good idea to print off your daily routine to remind yourself.

What is a product?

Society values tangible products, so it makes sense to try to create more products. But what exactly is a scientific product and how do you create more? Traditionally, a large portion of the scientific community places value on journal articles as research products. However, this view is changing given the rise of the Internet, societal challenges that require scientists to be engaged with the public, and the changing values of a new generation of researchers (e.g. through the Open Science movement).

I’m more of the new generation. The overall definition for me would be that a product is something that has a tangible “finished” end or outcome. Traditional ‘products’ would be:

  • Journal articles
  • Books or book chapters
  • Courses
  • Scientific equipment/methodologies
  • Research events/meetings/conferences
  • Presentations
  • Posters

Non-traditional, though increasingly common would be:

As a researcher, a good aim is to focus on products that are of higher value to your own career goals and to produce as much high quality (an important keyword here) products as possible. An effective way of making products is through project management.

Creating projects

“The [person] who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”

  • Confucius

All products, no matter how complex, can be created by breaking it down into manageable pieces; project management is that process. Projects are a defined set of tasks and timelines, with a objective of creating a single product. Often projects can spawn multiple products (as a side effect), but their goal is generally narrow and focused to only one. Creating an effective project relies on the following tasks:

  • Specifying the final product
  • Creating a list of actionable tasks to create the product
  • Assigning a completion time to each task
  • Linking tasks based on dependency (i.e. one task relies on completing another)
  • Putting all the tasks into a chronological order

Completing a project and each task requires a cost that needs to be considered, such as time, funding, and skill set. However, you also need to consider the upkeep costs associated with the completed project. Upkeep, or maintenance, costs occur after the product has been created and include:

  • Administration of the product
  • Fixing issues, bugs, or errors
  • Dealing with Pull Requests (Git)
  • Improving the product or staying up-to-date
  • Marketing or advertising the product
  • Learning the skills to continue the upkeep (e.g. new techniques for version control)
  • Generally improving your own skill set unrelated to a specific product (this can help with making more products or dealing with existing ones)

Because of these upkeep costs, any new project that you start has to consider your existing upkeep costs and the future upkeep costs. And not all products have equal upkeep costs. Some are very small, such as for articles, while others might be more substantial, such as for an organization. Depending on your own career goals, you’ll need to consider which products are of higher value to your career and factor those upkeep costs into your planning.

These considerations are especially important if you are a single researcher with few to no collaborators (team members, graduate students, technicians, etc). You only have so many resources that you can use. As upkeep costs increase, production/creation costs will by default decrease.

Creating a project can be simply done by using a pen, markers, paper, and stickies. Once the project tasks and timeline have been estimated, put these into a TODO list with an attached time limit/deadline to each task. Then just start working on checking off each task.

Final remarks

These perspectives and workflow for creating scientific/academic products are continually evolving. This continual evolution is a major, but vital, upkeep cost that ensures you as a researcher remain relevant and productive well into the future. Especially with the rapid integration of using the Internet and putting everything online, the definition of ‘product’ will change. I hope to keep this post updated as I continue learning and developing my own research workflow. Comments on improvements/thoughts are welcomed!