Strategies (and reasons) for being more productive with fewer hours

A really common theme in discussions of work-life balance is the need to be efficient in getting work done. As I’ve written about before, I don’t come close to working the legendarily long hours some report; instead, I try to focus on making good use of the hours that I am at work. Recently, my colleague Trisha Wittkopp and I led a session on time management and work-life balance at our department’s annual retreat. I figured that it might be useful to write up some of what came up during that discussion.

But first, before going into the strategies themselves, I find it personally useful to reflect on why I want to be efficient. A downside to focusing a lot on being efficient is that I sometimes get really stressed out if something seems inefficient or like a waste of time. I was recently at a meeting that ended up being a complete waste of time, and was getting kind of panicky because there was no good way to leave and OMG I WAS WASTING AN HOUR. That level of focus on efficiency is not so helpful. Similarly, I sometimes get really focused on getting a lot of work done, and then have a hard time turning off the work part of my brain in the evening to focus on my kids. In those cases, I need to remind myself that a large part of why I try so hard to be efficient during the day is so that I can focus on them when I am at home! And, finally, I feel like I need to avoid falling into what I think is a common trap of getting obsessed with efficiency just for the sake of efficiency. When people say one of their time management tips is to always type in 1:11 (or something to that effect) on the microwave to save time, I wonder: how much time is really saved that way? Or, as this piece put it, “This is not so much a ruthless use of time as a fetishization of time—the cult of the billable hour run amok.” So, yes, I think efficiency is important, but I also think that it’s possible to get carried away and get obsessed with efficiency.

Now, on to the strategies. I don’t use all of these strategies, but, if they aren’t ones I use but that seem useful to lots of people, I wanted to include them. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear from others what works (or doesn’t work) for them.

  1. Recognize what is “good enough”. As the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good. And recognize that “good enough” will vary between different tasks. It’s okay if the email you are sending to your lab about lab meeting isn’t perfectly composed.
  2. Say no. Or, put more precisely, choose the tasks you work on carefully. Saying “yes” to one thing means (often implicitly) saying “no” to something else. It’s hard to say no, but I try to remind myself that I’m saying no to something either way, because my time is a limited resource. I try to make myself think of what I will not do because I agree to task X. Sometimes that seems like a worthwhile (or important) trade. Other times it doesn’t, and that can make it easier to say no. That said, this is definitely still something I struggle with.
  3. Block off time in your schedule for tasks that are important but that can be easily postponed otherwise (e.g., writing, analyzing data). I find it much easier to say no to a meeting if I have to physically move the little box in my calendar that says I was planning on working on a proposal or manuscript or whatever at that time. It took me a while to realize that being free at the time of a particular meeting didn’t mean that I necessarily had time for that meeting.
  4. Figure out when you write best and block off time for it then. One thing that has come up in discussions I’ve been involved with on this topic is to make sure that you don’t let email creep into quality writing time.
  5. For me, blocking off time for exercise is just as important as blocking off time for writing. If I stop exercising, I stop sleeping well, and then it all goes south.
  6. If possible, delegate (or collaborate). In recently evaluating what I need to do this academic year, it became clear it just wasn’t logistically feasible. But there were a couple of tasks that could be shared with others and where working on them would help the other person. As another example: when working on a grant proposal this summer, the control freak in me wanted to personally enter all the budget stuff into Fastlane. But we have someone in the department whose job is to help with that, and I really needed that time for other things. In that case, it made sense for her to handle the budget in Fastlane.
  7. Have a way of keeping track of tasks that need to be accomplished. This makes it so that you can get it out of your mind and focus on the task at hand. I mostly use Remember The Milk for this, but there are lots of options. Find a system that works for you.
  8. Have bite-sized tasks on your “to do” list. Don’t put “write paper” on the list – that’s much too big of a task, and it will be hard to motivate yourself to get started on it. Instead, put “make figures for paper X” on that list (or even “Make figure 1”).
  9. Set deadlines for getting tasks done, even if they don’t have a hard deadline. This is something that works really well for me due to some handy personality quirk, but I know it doesn’t work as well for others. I seem to be easily able to convince myself that a task needs to be done by a certain date, even if that date is really just one I made up. This helps me avoid procrastination.
  10. Deal with things that can be done in just a couple of minutes right away. The idea is to do things right away if it would take just as long (or longer) to add them to a “to do” list and to get back up to speed later in order to do the task. Often, this is replying to an email. However, a problem for me with checking email on my phone when I’m walking places is that these tasks end up getting buried in my email. I don’t reply while walking (though others have success with using dictation for this), and it means that things that I could have dealt with quickly right away end up getting forgotten sometimes. So, I liked this suggestion in the article on multitasking that Jeremy linked to on Friday: “Set up a filing system within your email so that when a message arrives that requires a proper keyboard to answer — ie 50 words or more — you can move that email out of your inbox and place it in a folder where it will be waiting for you when you fire up your computer.” I need to try that!
  11. Speaking of dictation software, some people find it really helpful. I’ve tried a little bit, but it didn’t really seem to be helping me, so I don’t use it at present.
  12. If you are sending an email to just one person and it’s going to be more than a couple of sentences, a phone call might be more efficient. Sometimes the email is good for keeping a record of what was discussed, but sometimes a phone call can save a lot of time spent writing the email.
  13. Have a ritual that signals that you are starting work and stopping work. If you work lots of different places (e.g., your office, the library, a coffee shop), this needs to be portable. I haven’t tried this, but really liked this idea. For some people, it’s something like turning on a particular lamp on their desk. I suppose I used to find that putting my headphones on at my computer really helped me focus, so maybe that was a sort of ritual for starting to work.
  14. Try to find a way to keep email from occupying a ton of time. Some people set aside certain time for email and, once that’s up, go back to other things. I should probably try that. I feel like I should treat email the way primary care offices treat sick patients: you know there will be some that need attention right away, and so you should set aside some time in the day to take care of it/them. But I haven’t formalized that yet. A more minor thing I do (but that adds up) is use lots of filters. Each lab member, for example, has a folder, and messages from them automatically gets the correct label attached. That way I can reply and then hit “Send and archive” and the email goes to the correct place without me having to do that manually. I also have some emails that go straight to a folder skipping the inbox (and, for cases where I’ve been unable to successfully unsubscribe myself from some list, even a few filters that set things up to go straight to the trash).
  15. Related to the above: have an email folder for things that still need to be done, but that you don’t need to do immediately. Mine is labeled “1 still needs attention” (the 1 is so that it is right up at the top of the list of folders in my gmail). My colleague Trisha said that, in addition to the folder for things that still need attention, she has a “waiting for” folder for things where she’s waiting on someone else to do something before she replies. That sounds like a great idea. I tend to just archive those (or leave them in my mailbox), but that can mean losing them (or adding to inbox clutter).
  16. Log time spent on work (and perhaps even break it down into different categories). When I first did this, I was surprised to realize how much time those little breaks were adding up to. I just use an excel spreadsheet, but there are fancier programs. I mostly don’t log my time anymore, but if I feel like I’ve gotten in the habit of wasting time, I start it up again. Just knowing that I am logging my time makes me focus better.
  17. That said, remember that taking breaks is important for staying sharp. Breaks are not necessarily a waste of time! Some people use the Pomodoro technique for this. Here are some ideas for what to do in a five minute break. And here are some more.
  18. Write daily. I don’t specifically try to do this, but I often end up doing it unintentionally. One benefit for me of blogging is that it means I am generally in the habit of writing, which makes working on a manuscript or grant proposal less daunting. I’ve had a few writing tasks in the past year that felt completely overwhelming at first, until I started viewing them as blog posts.
  19. Keep track of projects at all stages of development – make sure there are projects at all stages of development. sciwo has a great post on running the research conveyor belt. I have a file that is my “Project Level To Do List”. It includes the manuscripts in review, the ones we are currently writing up (these are also listed on my white board, just to keep them totally front and center), the ones where we need to finish processing or analyzing data, the ones where we are still collecting the data but it looks like it will turn into a paper, the experiments we still need to run but that are relatively well planned out, and the ones that are still nascent ideas that need to be fleshed out. The key is to make sure there are projects at all stages of the pipeline. I recall reading at some point that, when women have babies, if there is a “baby gap” on the CV, it often is 1-2 years after the baby is born. With a newborn, you still manage to make time for revisions, but might not make time for getting a new project started. This visual split of the projects into the different bins helps me try to ensure there are things at all stages of development.
  20. Have a general organizational system. For example, come up with a way of keeping track of the different projects on your conveyor belt, for keeping track of papers you want to read, and making notes about changes you want to make to your lectures for next year. I’ve been using Evernote for this more and more.
  21. Streamline tasks that will need to be done repeatedly. I teach a very large course, where certain issues will predictably come up (e.g., illness, injury, or a death in the family). Rather than write a new email laying out options for the student in each case, we have a standardized version that then gets tailored to the specific case. My colleague Trisha makes great use of keyboard shortcuts and text expanders for these tasks.
  22. Limit the time you leave for lecture prep. Some people, when they are first teaching a course, to try to prep things well in advance. There are at least two reasons why this is not a good idea: a) you may vastly misjudge the pace at which you can reasonably cover things, and so may need to redo almost all of your work later; b) there are diminishing returns with lecture prep. Spending an extra hour trying to find the perfect figure showing an effect of X on Y is not necessarily a great way to spend time. Remember the concept of “good enough” from above! You are less likely to spend a whole ton of time on lecture prep if you haven’t left yourself a whole ton of time. I say all this even though I care a lot about teaching and put a lot of effort into it. But teaching prep can be an immediate reward task that can crowd out other tasks that are also really important (especially work on manuscripts and grant proposals). As a new faculty member, I was given the advice to prep lectures one week before lecture. That leaves a little flex time in case you get sick or have something major come up, but I tried to be religious about giving a lecture in the morning, and then finishing the lecture for the next week (along with various other essential tasks) by the time I left work that day. I now break this rule, and have updated all of my lectures for the semester, but that is because I was just updating the lectures, rather than writing them all from scratch.
  23. Schedule meetings back-to-back when possible. This helps keep the meetings from dragging on, and reduces the number of times you need to get back into work mode after.
  24. Be productive in those interstitial spaces. That can be a good time to tackle emails, for example.
  25. Remember that, sometimes, investing more time upfront is worth it in the long run. I spent a lot of time last semester figuring out how to do things in R that I could have done much more quickly elsewhere because I think that up front investment will have big payoffs over the longer term. Being able to take that view was definitely aided by being on leave for the semester!

Finally, this isn’t so much a strategy as an observation: An interesting thing that came up during the recent discussion I led with Trisha is that some people do better when compartmentalizing tasks, whereas others are integrators. I tend to shift my brain to work mode and then can have a hard time shifting back to “life” mode if something comes up during the day. I also tend to compartmentalize within work tasks, which is why my collaborators will suddenly receive 12 emails in a row from me, or why I will reply to all the comments on a post at once. Others do better if they just deal with the “life” tasks when they pop up, even if it is in the middle of the day. Which comes to a bigger point: just keeping in mind that different things work for different people is important. This is part of why I like hearing about what other people do: I’m sure some of what they do will be useful to me, too, but also that some of what they do won’t work for me. That’s fine.

So, what are some of your strategies for time management and efficiency?

Postscript: After writing this, I finally got a chance to read this recent piece by Tim Harford on multi-tasking and how to survive in the 21st century. I added one relevant bit above, but mostly didn’t update the post related to it. Some of the strategies at the end of his piece overlap with ones above. The piece as a whole is interesting and worth a read.

43 thoughts on “Strategies (and reasons) for being more productive with fewer hours

  1. Great post Meg! One of the resources that was life changing for me was David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”. My blog post about it is here:
    Your view that what works for one person may not work for someone else is spot on!
    I’m curious how faculty responded to your workshop at the retreat. Was it something that people wanted to talk about and found useful, or did you have a lot of naysayers who didn’t see the point?

    • I’ve heard great things about Getting Things Done, but haven’t read it myself. It does sound like it would be worth checking out.

      The workshop was mostly attended by grad students and postdocs, but also a few faculty. I think most people seemed pretty interested (but it’s possible that the naysayers just didn’t come or didn’t speak up). I’m sure some would argue with the goal of being more efficient to be able to limit working hours, but no one voiced that.

    • Seconded, this book has helped me a LOT in terms of organizing all aspects of my life (personal, professional, home/family). I’m not an academic (wildlife biologist at environmental consulting firm) but since becoming a father of twins in Oct 2010 I’ve HAD to introduce better planning and task management structure into my life just to keep track of everything.

  2. This post impresses and intimidates me, because I don’t do most of these things, and I’m confident that if I did I’d be more productive and happier. I do 2, 8, and 22-24.

    The one thing I’m trying that’s not on your list is distraction blocking software. In my case, a Firefox addin that keeps me from accessing a long list of websites during specified hours of the day, and that is a pain in the butt to turn off once I’ve set it.

    • Surely you do 1, too, right?

      Distraction blocking software is a great one that I forgot to include. That did come up during the discussion. It sounded like there were varying levels of it, from hard to turn off to needing to restart the computer to absolutely no way you are getting out of that decision. I’ve never tried them. The things that I distract myself with tend to be things that I need to log in to. So, if I log myself out, just seeing the log in box is enough to remind myself that I had logged out for a reason.

  3. This is a great post! I love coming across posts from academics on time management/efficiency, because I’m often told that I “just don’t understand” the unique constraints of academic jobs and that academics HAVE to work 60+ hours per week. I’ve stopped arguing with people who say this, because if they want to live their life that way, that’s up to them. I’ve never been a professor, but I’ve held management jobs in biotech startups, and those aren’t cake walks, either! And I’m a 40 hour/week person, and have been for years. I think your point #2 about realizing that when you say “yes” to something you are implicitly saying “no” to something else is a great one.

    One thing I’d add: if you’re having trouble figuring out how to start improving your time management, spending a week or two tracking your time (essentially, charging your hours) can really help- not because you need to be using every minute efficiently, but because it will help you see what your specific problem is. E.g., Pomodoro is great, but it won’t help you if your problem isn’t that you don’t focus but that you’ve said “yes” to too many things.

    • “I’m often told that I “just don’t understand” the unique constraints of academic jobs and that academics HAVE to work 60+ hours per week. I’ve stopped arguing with people who say this, because if they want to live their life that way, that’s up to them.”

      Most people, including most academics, don’t live their lives that way, even if they think they do. And in any case, the claim that you have to work ridiculously long hours to make it in academia is 100% wrong:

    • Yes, I am a huge fan of tracking hours! The post Jeremy linked to has more on that. But I was really surprised when I first started tracking my hours at how little I was working. It’s sort of like a fitbit, I guess. It’s easy to overestimate how much you’re doing, until confronted by data indicating otherwise!

      • I’m prepping for a student/lab workshop on productivity and mental health, and revisiting this post confirms it’s an evergreen goldmine. Specifically re time tracking: I’ve been tracking my hours (not breaks/time off, but work time) since the middle of November 2019. It was astonishing how much I learned about myself in the first days and weeks. My spreadsheet has spooled out to a degree that might be “eye roll” to some, but it has given me valuable insights. I used to task-hop as frequently as every 5-10 minutes. Once I noticed that, I was more able to stick with tasks for longer periods of time, and I *finished* more. I’ve gleaned a lot of other useful info about myself, and I’m now a serious advocate for this process. I track every time I change tasks (vs. say “lawyerly” tracking every 15 min.), and that works for me. YMMV. 🙂

  4. I also have the personality quirk that makes self-imposed deadlines seem real — but that has led to a lot of stress when working with collaborators who do not share it. Realizing the difference has been helpful, but I’m still struggling to figure out how to work with it to get things done and minimize my own stress.

    • Good point. A related issue I’ve run into is wanting to be able to budget time for a high priority manuscript or proposal, but not knowing when it will come back from a collaborator. (Related: this is an aspect of being an associate editor that I find stressful.) I sometimes ask, but that feels pushy (like I’m saying “Hey, get on this!”) and, when I do, the time it comes back can be pretty far off from the initial estimate. I’m not sure how to deal with that, other than for me to try to become a little more easy going about it.

      • One thing I should add that has helped is trying to take the view that the best I can do is not be the limiting rate step on manuscripts or proposals. It’s not always possible, of course, but it helps reduce the stress if something is moving along more slowly than I’d hoped because of a collaborator. I am definitely most stressed when I am the hold up.

  5. Lots of good advice!

    It strikes me that #1, #2, #3, #10 and #23 are really the core and most of the rest are elaborations.

    Any successful person in this day and age needs an effective strategy for email, and I agree that do the 1 minuters immediately and queue the rest for later seems to be effective. I use an email system that lets my apply different color codes to emails when they come in. I’ve found myself getting increasingly complex in using this. This allows me to answer things that take less than a minute, read things I have to read only, and then mark everything based on urgency of getting back (and compartment – e.g. family vs. work).

    I personally have gone the opposite direction of #7 and #8. I find myself using todo lists less and less often. Either its important enough it goes on my calendar with blocked time (if I’m 100% going to do it it needs time on my calendar), or it just sits out there in the ether for me to grab in those “interstitial times”. Many of those things never get done. So by not keeping a list, my subconscious prioritization of things to pick out works better than letting – e.g. the order in which I wrote things down on my to do list – dictate what I do.

    • The nice thing about Remember The Milk and systems like that is that you can assign a priority level and target date to a task, and the list gets ordered by those. That helps avoid having something at the top of the list that is low priority.

      For some things that are very high priority, I do skip the to do list and just block off the time on my calendar. But, more often, I try to do both just to let my brain stop worrying about whether it will get done on time.

    • Huh, I am also finding this move-away-from-lists happening. I still use them in my home life. But for work, I find that I’m more efficient if I focus on the 1-3 big things that have to happen rather than having a list of the 30 things I should be doing. This means I fail on some things. But they’re generally minor thing. And the payoff is that the big important things get done. Failing on the small stuff has become key to efficiency since I’ve had kids.

  6. There is a lot of food for thought in this post. I would add:

    #26 work in a team on a specific project at times. I tried this strategy this week. A postdoc who primarily works at an offsite station came to campus this week. We selected two projects we are jointly working on, an old one that has been on the back burner for a couple of years and a new one where the data has just come in from the field. We started the week with a discussion about what analyses needed to be done on each project, and then each took one to work on. We would then meet back every 2-3 hours and discuss our progress and next steps. The result – it is now Thursday morning and one project has a complete set of tables and figures with writing underway. The other, with admittedly a more complex analysis, is about 75% done.

    This requires the ability to schedule larger blocks of time concurrently with someone else, but it sure keeps you focused on the task at hand when you need to report to someone else in a couple of hours!

    Jeremy – can you list the name of the firefox blocking addon? (Be warned – Dynamic ecology may need to be blocked….!)

  7. Wow, quite a list. I’m also a separator and handle most of the long-term-planning-and-logistical-household tasks at home. (Husband handles most of the physical things — cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc.; we play to our strengths.) Sometimes the number of household things that need doing pile up and I feel like I don’t have time to do them — I don’t want them to cut into my work time, but my home time is dominated by my kids and needing to sleep. That’s when I get the most stressed. I find that carrying a (paper!) notebook with me everywhere helps. If I think of a “home” task that needs doing while I’m at work, it gets written down for later. If I think of a “work” task that needs doing while I’m at home, it gets written down for later. Keeping all the little things out of my head is really important for me to be functional and efficient. I also try to remember that while sometimes work will cut into home time (working evenings close to a deadline, for example), it’s also okay for home time to cut into work time. So I sometimes block off a chunk of work time to get caught up on home tasks. This keeps me focused at work and not worrying that bills are going unpaid or the kid wasn’t signed up for lunch at school, etc.

  8. Great post, Meghan. I just put a document together last week for a women in geosciences lunch here that was almost identical to your list. One thing I would add is that in order for time management to “work” you need to know what your priorities are. I think those of us that have been doing this awhile understand that, for example, we need to be writing papers and proposals all the time and that those things often need to come first. However, I think it is sometimes harder for students and those earlier in their careers to really understand what their priorities should be, especially when it seems like there is an endless list of tasks to be done. So in my work/life class we spend a lot of time talking about priorities and what is really important, both in terms of career development and also in terms of work/life balance. I think all these strategies for working efficiently really work best when placed into the context of knowing what is most important in your life.

  9. A few postdocs and I spent many a lunch hour sitting at a shady bench a few years ago, talking about things like this, and our overall conclusion was to follow one simple piece of advice, whatever the scenario:

    Don’t dither.

  10. Great post and follow-up comments. Since becoming more diligent about creating a workflow system that works for me a few years ago (having kids kinda forced me to!), I think I’ve finally gotten there. I still tinker with new apps/methods now and then but the combination of creating email folders for certain categories in Outlook (@To Do, @Waiting For, @Pending, to name a few), note-taking apps (Evernote for personal, OneNote for work), Todoist (one of many cross-platform task management apps), and paper (tracking hours worked for billing purposes, note-taking in face-to-face meetings) has done wonders for me. Now I just need to get off of here and get back to work. 😉

  11. Thanks also from me for that great compilation of ideas and comments. A couple of weeks ago my mailing program just decided not to automatically check for emails that then pop up on my screen distracting me from whatever I was doing at that point. That was a real eye-opener to me so I decided not to find out whats the cause for this malfunction. I feel that I can now work better and stay more focused than before and simply check mails after I finished my task. An easy way to be more efficient 🙂 (you could just close your mail program otherwise but for some reasons I was thinking of “missing” something or being “late” on my mails).

    Somewhat related to this: Have you seen the recent science alert post on Sweden turing to a 6h workday scheme? Well, its not official by government yet but the case studies referred to in this post are kind of nice. I’m wondering if this model holds for academia as well?

    Here’s the post:

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