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Written by Natacha Wilson

Time management tips for researchers

Working around the clock is a familiar feeling in the world of research. Researchers are faced with tight deadlines for research outputs, grant proposals and papers to write, as well as additional teaching and administrative duties. Too much to do and not enough time to do it!  Managing one’s time to be an effective and high-performing researcher is a skill which needs to be developed over time. I have added below a strategy and tips which should help you get results. 

How to boost your productivity?

The feeling of “not accomplishing enough” is frustrating to say the least. Before jumping into conclusions, you need to identify the root of the problem. To boost our productivity, and increase our publications, impact, and public engagement, we need to understand what stops us and how to befriend the time we have. It is helpful to know that time management challenges tend to fall in three top categories: 

·       planning issues

·       prioritising challenges

·       performance issues

The first two are easy to relate to and are often solved with calendars, planners, and priority matrices such as “urgent versus important”. The latter needs to be defined in your own terms, but it is about ticking the box on your to do list and making progress in your career. My advice is to focus on a diagnostic phase and assess the type of challenges you are faced with before rushing into an implementation phase. So, to have more time, you need to take time to identify the problem!

A powerful way to assess how you spend your time is to use a timesheet. For a week or so, you will need to write down what you do throughout the day. You can choose a time unit that suits you, for instance 30 minutes slots, and capture your activities on a spreadsheet or a traditional paper method. 

It is important to consider interruptions, planned and unplanned activities and related outputs. This is, effectively, a “time audit” where you meticulously observe and identify patterns that emerge. This phase in invaluable. It provides rich data which helps you understand the type of time management challenges you are faced with. You can then focus on a solution.

Time management strategy for increased productivity

Now you know what you are spending your time on, you need to prioritise what you want to do with your time. You can make a list of your high-level goals and write down what is important to you. I would suggest having this list visible or at least accessible so that you can refer to it daily. 

Looking back at your timesheet, you need to identify times in your schedule where you can, either reduce interruptions, increase your focus or work on specific activities that are best suited to the environment and your level of energy/concentration.

One approach you can use is to book allocated times for specific activities and tasks in your online calendar. This works well when you have a high level of control over your schedule. If you must work with constraints, make them your friends, and plan your additional or core activities around them.

I also suggest that you get familiar with priority matrices which help categorise activities under specific criteria such as urgent/important. You can also sort your work against additional criteria such as easy/challenging”, “rewarding/boring” etc… Choose criteria that resonate with you, and which can help you prioritise easily.

Consider energy management to increase impact

Working in highly intensive research environments require us to work at full capacity most of the time and this often means working long hours and weekends. At times, when we are faced with tight deadlines, this can be a strategy that works. Overtime, this can also lead to fatigue, low productivity and even burn-out. In addition to this, as “super-humans”, we often underestimate how long tasks can take and overestimate our time capacity.

I would encourage you to assess the amount of energy each activity requires and decide when you can best tackle it during the day/week. For instance, if you need to write a proposal or a grant application, this may require a high level of energy and concentration. Depending on your preferences, you may want to focus on this activity first thing in the morning (if you are an early riser) or late at night when everything is quiet (if you are night owl). It is also good practice to add some “buffer” time for new or more difficult tasks. Problems and delays occur and when we are new to a project or a specific task, it is best to add extra time to ensure we have the space to complete the task within our set schedule. 

Effective time management tools

There are many time management apps and software tools at our disposal. Once you know what your main challenge is, you can try 2 or 3 apps that can help you re-gain discipline and create healthier habits. These tech solutions can of course be used in the long run, but our situations and challenges may change throughout our projects depending on the roles and responsibilities we take on. I would advise to be flexible and stick to a few tools that really work for you.

For instance, I am a great fan of the Pomodoro technique for specific activities such as writing, creative thinking and planning. This is a useful technique that helps you work in a focused manner in specific time intervals. So, for instance, you could spend 30 minutes writing, 5 minutes break, followed by a further 30 minutes writing and a slightly longer break. It works on the idea that we are “rewarded” with a well-deserved break after a focused session. Another example is the use of scheduling tools for meetings which send an automatic calendar invitation with options to re-schedule or cancel. This type of automated tool can be a real time saver.

Final time management tip

The above strategy and tips are effective ways to re-gain productivity and achieve your goals. You may also want to take time to pause, reflect on your thoughts and allow for “down time”. This can be counter intuitive, but it will create space and boost your productivity. I like to leave you with a quote from Brittany Burgunder and the relation between time and our mind: “It’s surprising how much free time and productivity you gain when you lose the busyness in your mind.” 


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About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson is a learning and development director who works with transformational leaders in highly intensive research environments. She creates tailored development programmes, which combined 21st century skills, mindsets and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support “leaders in the making” solve global challenges and create a greater world.

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About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson, founder of Cambridge Insights, is a learning and development consultant and coach. She creates tailored development programmes, which combine 21st century skills, mindsets, and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support transformational leaders and  “leaders in the making” increase their postive impact, solve global challenges and create a greater world.

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