CAREER COLUMN

Six easy ways to manage your time better

The amount and quality of what you achieve are crucially dependent on how effectively you manage your time. Andrew C. Johnson and John Sumpter propose some simple steps that scientists can take to improve their time management.
Andrew C. Johnson is an author of How to Be a Better Scientist.

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John Sumpter is an author of How to Be a Better Scientist.

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Illustration of a man staring worriedly at a giant clock on the wall

Credit: Jozef Micic/Getty

Scientists are often passionate about their research, and frequently work long hours. However, it is not necessary to become a workaholic to be a good scientist. If you attempt to accomplish too many tasks simultaneously, the most likely outcome is that you will be overwhelmed in the forlorn hope of ‘catching up’. Here is some advice on how to better manage your time as a scientist, based on our experience as scientists and supervisors.

Make a plan

There are many components that need to be drawn together to achieve success in a project. You want to deliver good science while simultaneously helping your manager, completing your training, coping with all the administration and dealing with the many other distractions you face. Sometimes it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed. The best way to achieve success and preserve your sanity is to make a plan. This starts as a list of all the tasks that are either desirable or vital for accomplishing your goals. Write them down, don’t just rely on your memory: it’s not as good as you think it is.

As far as possible, break down the workload into a series of achievable, simple tasks. This will reassure you that there is a practical way forward, and will give you a better ‘map’ of what needs doing, and when.

Consider blocking out your calendar into chunks of time dedicated to a specific task. This is particularly important when you are writing a paper or report. These are tasks that will require your undivided attention.

Next comes the crucial step of prioritizing. Highlight tasks on your list to signify their urgency. This allows you to identify at a glance the tasks that you need to focus on. Consider how crucial these items are to your career and the success of your organization, and when they need to be completed — not how enjoyable or easy they will be. Focus only on one item at a time: the others can wait their turn. You will need to update and review your list regularly, but don’t deny yourself the pleasure of putting your pen through items that you have completed.

Beware of distractions

Take a long, hard look at your relationship with e-mail and social media. Although they are vital to everyday communication, they can claim much more attention than they deserve. Consider shutting them off completely as you work on a task that requires your full attention.

Learn to say ‘no’

Many business leaders put a lot of their success down to simply saying ‘no’. That is, they prioritize their efforts in the few areas that really matter and have the courage to say no to everything else. Those asking for your involvement would be more disappointed if you unwisely agreed to do something, but then failed to deliver. Be realistic with yourself, and honest with others.

Saying no is much more difficult if you are, or perceive yourself to be, low down in the hierarchy of your organization. Nevertheless, it’s important to be honest and to look after your health. Sharing your prioritized list with your supervisor will also help with any potentially difficult discussions around not being able to deliver or take on additional work.

Give yourself a break

Taking breaks is good for your brain. Don’t be hard on yourself: you will actually perform better if you take breaks and cultivate a life outside science. This might seem counter-intuitive with all those tasks on your list, but solutions to apparently intractable problems can come from a refreshed brain — and a brain that can keep things in perspective. During your working day, allow yourself time to think, to be open to alternative ideas and to chat with others about new methods. Alternative approaches could save you time in the long run.

Try to avoid looking at your work e-mails when you are not working. They do not need to be answered until the next working day. The world will not collapse if you delay opening some e-mails.

Don’t try to chase every great idea

The other side of permitting yourself time to explore alternative ideas, as well as the suggestions of managers and colleagues, is that you are left with a lengthening list of new directions to investigate. Try to distinguish between things that would be nice to have and things that are crucial to the delivery of your project, or PhD, on time.

A plan can help in a crisis

Your plan and priority list will need to be regularly updated, particularly when things are not going well. Don’t panic if your experiments or initiatives fail: instead, redraft your plan and aim to offload all other distracting tasks as you devote more time to a resolution. Work with your supervisor to formulate an updated list of priorities: your mentor can bring their experience and wisdom to the problem, as well as reassurance to you.

Succeeding against the odds and in the face of time pressure is one of the most valuable experiences you can offer to a future employer.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00973-6

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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