Ask us anything: allocating your time between research projects

Today’s question in our annual “ask us anything” series comes from Tanya Singh, who asks (paraphrased; click through for the original):

How do you allocate time to multiple research projects?

Jeremy’s answer:

I like having multiple irons in the fire, so that I can work on whichever project I feel inspired to work on that day. Ok, that’s often not possible, because often one project needs to prioritized over others because of differing deadlines or whatever. But that’s my ideal.

But that’s just me. I certainly wouldn’t claim my approach–which often has me switching what I work on from one day to the next–is optimal for everyone. I think this is one of those things where you just have to figure out what works for you and do that. Sorry, I know that’s not a very helpful answer!

Semi-related: my old post in praise of side projects, and Meghan’s old post on strategies and reasons for being more productive. (Does me linking to Meghan’s old post count as Meghan answering an AUA?)

Brian’s answer:

Good question! I definitely think its an important skill to have. Most scientific positions beyond graduate student require managing multiple projects simultaneously. I guess there are two main approaches:

  • Top-down or strategic – in this approach you think strategically about how important each project is to your career (and also about how long each project would reasonably  take), allocate your time accordingly  and stick to it. So you decide A gets 60% of your time, B gets 25% and C gets 15% in a rational fashion. Then you make sure that A gets 24 hours a week (at least on average).
  • Bottom-up or opportunistic – Its raining today so I can’t go out in the field so I’ll work on B today. Or I’m really stuck and unproductive on C, so let me go back to A today.

In the real world I suppose it is desirable to use a mix of both approaches. For sure if you only use the top-down approach you will find yourself forced by circumstances to deviate from it and getting frustrated. While only using the opportunistic approach has a real chance of misprioritizing your time. So living with the ambiguity of doing both at the same time is probably necessary. Jeremy’s approach of what do I feel psyched to do today (and hence likely to be highly productive on today) is definitely worth throwing in the mix too (its a bit of a special case version of the opportunistic approach).


5 thoughts on “Ask us anything: allocating your time between research projects

  1. Pingback: Organizando seu tempo para aumentar sua produtividade – Mais Um Blog de Ecologia e Estatística

  2. One thing I try to do is to also look at the stage at which the research project is right now. Often people take a long, long time to finish something that is already nearly finished. Sometimes the only thing left to do is format the manuscript and submit it, or perhaps make a final revision, format it and submit it, and sometimes people take months for it because other projects are prioritized. So I try to also sort my research projects (or papers) into categories like “nearly done”, “analyses completed”, “just started” and so on, and prioritizing the “nearly done” ones while working more slowly on the others and steadily working on the ones which are not urgent but are important on the long run. I still have to test if this strategy will work on the long term…

  3. Hi Jeremy, great question!
    Last year, I worked on three very different projects, and I was always thinking about which project I should put on each single day. However, I realized that I had spent so much time and energy on deciding it. Therefore, as you pointed out, I worked on whichever project I felt inspired to work on that day. That was really helpful. At last, I found that I competed the three projects simultaneously almost, although I once hoped that I could finished them one by one.

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