(The following is the extended version of a short article on Time Managament for Researchers that appeared in the Research Special issue of Voices (April 2010).)
Research institutes like IISc are plagued with lack of awareness about soft-skills like time management, communication skills, team work and leadership qualities. Though this predicament is unnecessary due to the simplicity of these skills, its presence is rampant, and its consequences are far reaching. I feel, all that is needed to beat this unfortunate condition is some organisation at a personal level by each research student.
In this article, I present a recipe of time management for the benefit of researchers, particularly PhD students of IISc. I discuss the myths we nurture about research which make us overly resistant in adopting methods like time management that could make research life more organised and managed than it is in our environment. I briefly explain why usual time management methods may require slight tweaks to work for researchers. The article discusses about necessary personal traits to be developed and maintained for time management to work for a researcher. It finally presents the concepts and tools of time management, with their comparative analysis.
Time management is a basic life skill that ought to be learned early in life by everyone. But it’s never too late to learn it. The entry barriers are meagre, and benefits momentous.
On the input side IISc takes in the best of the best in the country, passing them through a rigorous selection process. On the output side, the average duration of a PhD in IISc exceeds 5 years. During this period, the amount of productive research, measured in terms of research publications and patents, is some unimpressive figure. Efficiency of a system, defined as the ratio of the output to the input, would paint a picture of a very inefficient system of our beloved Institute, and probably unjustifiably so. In fact, if someone tries to put down the name of IISc on the above terms, I would stand up and fight against him. However, I wouldn’t go to the extent of mentally dismissing the allegation, and going back to the comfort of the self-image of being the best research institute of the country. I will feel disturbed about the question as to what this place does with those talented guys after taking them in: Trains them to waste their precious youth in the complacency of a lush green campus? I do feel disturbed now. I think, the reader should, too. Fewer and fewer people share our self-image by the day; one day, it will be difficult to convince ourselves of the same.
I am among many IIScians who took an exceptionally long time to finish their meagre PhDs. And beyond that I haven’t fared too badly. The only reason I can see the rise in my productivity since graduation is that I didn’t have anything more to do wrong; I had tried them all during my PhD!
Seriously, on looking back, I find many reasons for my low productivity during my tenure in IISc. I will talk here about those which were intrinsic to me in some sense. I will take the politically correct path of clubbing all the rest of the reasons as ‘environmental’ and will not say much about them. I would like to share with you some insights I have gained in the past some time about using time management in research. When my circumstances after graduating suddenly made it embarrassingly apparent that time is a rare resource, it caused a phase change in me. I just decided that I needed to respect my time more than I did.
Why Time management is Different for Researchers
In the corporate world, millions are spent training employees in time management and other soft skills. Naturally, a lot of resources are also available online talking about time management. But much of it is focused on the corporate style of working. Though, principles largely remain the same, techniques require some tweaking to suit them to the specific needs of researchers. What are the specific needs of researchers? What do they do different from other guys? We will talk a bit about them here. But first, it’s important to bust some myths which people (researchers and others) have about research which wrongly makes it appear that time management can’t be applied to research.
It can’t be planned
It can be to a large extent if you want to. Stop cheating yourself. Long walks through the deserts of ignorance, confusion and indecision – which are the characteristic feature of a research project – may seem the same one day as on the other. This may set in the tendency to lose the habit of planning. But even this everyday exercise of walking endless miles through the desert should be planned. Actually, the real purpose of planning is to plan away those hundred other chores you must do apart from your main duty, so that there’s enough time and energy to carry it out.
There’s too much time; too little to do
Most dangerous myth! There’s too much to do. It’s just not apparent. Identifying what to do is an inherent part of research. Give it time on a regular basis. In those days when the situation is exactly to the contrary, when the mind is crowded with things you would like to do but have no time to pursue, note down those things in a to-do list. Look up this to-do list on the days which appear empty and barren. It’s on one of these days that a thread of activity put to sleep on a busier day should be woken up.
There are no customers
There are. And they are very demanding. And you have to sell your work to them; and sell very hard. Each research community creates very high bars for newcomers. Gaining entry to that community requires getting a few publications and thereby getting noticed. This involves much work, some of which is purely scientific; the rest is all about reporting your work in a way that’s deemed acceptable by that community.
Research progress can’t be measured
Shabbiness indicates genius
The converse of the above statement is sometimes true. That’s because your genius may often make you unwilling to spend too much of your mental resources on looking good. But I see no reason to believe that merely by looking shabby, or by leading a shabbily managed day to day life, one proves his genius. And I feel, it’s stupid to barter success and satisfaction in work and life to a vain bloating feeling of being a genius.
Research is all about great ideas
As the famous saying by Edison goes: ‘Genius … 1% inspiration … 99% perspiration,’ research too is mostly about persistent, hard toil. Most of it is boring, uninteresting, mechanical and mindless to the core. It is the price a research must pay for those rare ecstatic moments of being able to see something no one else can (at that moment). Unless we figure out ways to keep that 99% done as well and as soon as possible, there will most probably be left no space and time for the remaining critical 1%.
It’s a spiritual pursuit
We belong to a country where researchers used to go to the jungle to do their research. Most of their methods involved observing austerities. Much of their learning was from spiritual relevation. Somehow, that image of a researcher has stuck on to many of us. If it means leading a simple life replete with high thinking, well and good. But if it goes to the extent of pretending that the Institute is a jungle, that we are answerable to no one, and that our only achievement is seeing some light from the other world, I think, that’s taking the idea too far.
Research, in the current day, is a job like anything else. You do it because you want to earn something out of it – money, fame, recognition, ego boost, satisfaction. And it costs someone huge money to make you a researcher. Respect that, and do your research with some modesty. Stop pretending being individualistic sages.
So then, what is it that’s really different about research? Really, from the perspective of time management, there is no fundamental difference. Just that the values of some variables are different.
Incentives: The incentives for which researchers work is somewhat (not very) different from that for which non-researchers work. A pat for your work from a world-expert in your area would perhaps mean more to you than a promotion. Your name being added among those of the owners of an area of knowledge is more important; a fat pay package mayn’t be. I would like to remind that promotions and salary hikes are very much effective for some people to do good research. But that’s not the norm. The consequence is mentioned earlier somewhere: external reasons lose their effect to motivate a researcher.
Timelines: For researchers, timelines are fuzzier. Had it been possible to have crisp deadline for everything in research, it wouldn’t have been research. Moreover, the smallest atomic tasks that a researcher may have to do would usually be much larger in size than that of others. Consequently, while for a product manager, it may be a good day when his calendar is filled with 100 different tasks, each taking a minute. For a researcher, the number is always much lower, and time per task, much larger.
Deliverables: The promise to add to the existing knowledge of the world can be delivered upon in variety of concrete ways. But the promise itself is rather abstract. Hence, the value of a researcher’s contribution to the world is rather hard to gauge. Sometimes, the profits from the same start coming back rather late: months, years, possibly decades after the idea was conceived. Often, a premature attempt to define the objectives of a research project in concrete terms may spell a doom on the project (a common happening in Industry). A research project must be defined in very broad terms with significant elbow space so that there is a chance to significantly change direction and emphasis depending upon developments during the project.
In short, everything about research is more abstract, fuzzier, and less tangible (notice again that the difference is just in the degree). This takes the problem of focus and procrastination to a very different level. In Industry, there are external factors which have the power to discipline you to be more focused on a day to day basis. In research, these factors recede to the hardly visible horizon of time. Usually, when you really encounter them, you already have lost much time. In short, these external factors have the power to punish you harder in research than elsewhere, but they are incapable of giving you early warnings. Therefore, a researcher has to deal with problems of lack of focus and procrastination at a very internal or personal level. If and when he thus learns to deal with them, it also becomes the thing which makes him different from everyone else: he is able to motivate himself to continue working hard in absence of any external factors whatsoever.
What makes the most important practical difference to a researcher from the time management perspective is that the smallest chunk of work that a researcher does is usually not as small as it is for other people. For example, a software engineer in a typical software company may measure his progress through a typical day by counting the number of problem reports he has dealt with. Or, a BPO worker may count the number of customer calls he has answered. But a researcher often doesn’t have such small chunks of activity that are definitive measures of progress. In fact, a researcher must be prepared to throw away fairly non-trivial pieces of effort without counting them as progress in his project. Moreover, replanning and rescheduling is pretty common.
Prelude to Time management – Getting Things Back under Control
By writing this section, I am assuming that, like I was at one point, many of my readers have been out of track at least sometime in their research; that they are losing days by minutes; and years, a day at a time. In my experience, most of us go into this phase at least once during our research career. During this phase, the biggest part of the problem is oneself. We find ourselves pouring our time and energy into things which have nothing to do with what we really want to do. One thing you must have for any time management principle to work is focus and discipline. One thing which must be avoided like — well — swine-flu is procrastination. Unless these two points are thoroughly internalised and believed upon, no time management principle will be effective.
Focus and discipline
How does a researcher get into the habit of turning his days into well-planned productive time units? It is important the he maintains an explicit list of what is important for him and what is not, and sticks to doing the important one. Success in this indicates focus; and the only sure sort mechanism to achieve this is discipline.
Respect your own time: A feeling that plagued me for a major part of my PhD was the feeling of not doing anything important. The fact that there was no one really asking me what I was doing for weeks and months gradually brought in this deception that I had no work. Naturally, for that period of time, everything else could pre-empt my work time. I had all the time in the world for artistic pursuits, socialisation, philanthropy, and philosophical discussions over coffee.
I feel this low respect for one’s own time is an occupational hazard of a PhD student. By the time you realise its presence, you have usually whiled away months and years of precious time. So it’s important to be on your guard against this feeling right from the first day. Everything done in the name of research is very important: literature review, downloading software, learning programming, assembling instruments, or interacting with suppliers. In research, particularly in the earlier phase, a lot of what you do doesn’t look like work to oneself. Fight that instinct. Treat your time with respect.
Distinguish between recreation and distraction: There is no clear line of distinction between recreation and distraction except in your own mind. Don’t do anything to escape work. It is all the more important to devote a stipulated amount of time to research when it doesn’t seem to be moving. Wandering away at that point could be a big mistake.
Minimise interruptions: One way of summing up the above two points is to minimise interruptions. The time of the day you have decided to devote to your lab work must be protected with your life against petty interruptions. The interruptions which figure highest in my list are: invitation for a cup of tea, phone calls, and most disastrous of all, the Web (mails, scraps, posts, wikipedia, Google…).
Prioritise: And the other way of summing up the first two points is to prioritise. There are just too many good things in this world (isn’t that wonderful?); but accept that you can’t do all of them. In fact you should feel lucky if you are able handle 2 or 3 of them at a time. Divide most of your time among a very few things which show up in your grand scheme of things. Keep the rest of it for everything else.
They say procrastination can have only two reasons:
– Fear of failure
– Lack of answerability
Tips to overcome procrastination
Start small: When you are neck deep in the habit of procrastination, there’s only one way to get out: start small. Take baby steps. Keep small targets, achieve them and celebrate the victory profusely. Some examples: I will read this one section at a stretch; or I will get up after I have understood these 10 lines of code.
In the next iteration, raise the bar slightly. Things will gradually start falling in place.
Make it SMART: S(specific), M(measurable) A(achievable, ambitious), R(risky, reasonable), T(timed) goals are the key to time management. For example, I will present this paper tomorrow to my lab mate and make sure that he has understood it is a SMART goal. I will understand this paper is not.
Create tangible commitments (e.g Involve others): When it’s hard at the individual level to ensure progress, quickly involve somebody else. Usually it could be your boss. But there’s no reason to start or stop there. Also, try to create stakeholders. This means that there should be tangible benefit for those who involve themselves in your work. Therefore, involving your friend in hearing you out in a mock presentation is fine; but presenting it to someone who might potentially be able to use it in his work is much better.
Reward yourself: In the beginning it worked for me to reward myself with some indulgence when I achieved tiny successes in defeating procrastination. For example, I used to promise myself a cup of coffee alone if I finished a small chunk of work. And on actually finishing, I used to make it a point to reward myself. It was very effective. Of course, the reward should always follow the achievement, and not precede it.
Time Management Myths
This myth has to do with myth mentioned above that research is all about great ideas. Time management lets you manage that major portion of your research which has nothing to do with creativity, so that enough space is created for that minor but critical portion of your research that needs you to be in the garden when the apple falls. Use time management to remove clutter from your mindspace and let your creativity breathe free.
It’s not for the genius
I think everyone can benefit from time management. After all, there’s nothing to lose.
Now, I introduce the method which, if roughly followed, will yield immediate benefit with little effort. There are a bunch of keywords one may like to remember around which he can create his own process of time-management. They are as follows:
Values: It’s worthwhile for everyone to list down what are the things which add value to one’s life. Put another way, things without which nothing really would have any value. Someone I know considers financial integrity as a value. This means that whatever he does, he doesn’t find it worthwhile to earn money through crooked means. He like to keep his finance issues immaculately clean. I consider honesty and simplicity as my fundamental values. Other examples: No discrimination, patriotism, environment friendliness etc.
Goals: Values form the basis of your goals. A goal is something concrete you wish to achieve within a stipulated period of time: A publication in XYZ journal by 2010 end, exercising five days a week for 10 weeks in a row by June 2010, learning playing flute etc. are all examples of goals. Notice that they all have deadlines. Without that they would just be dreams with no drive in them. Also observe that it is reasonably easy to find out whether you have succeeded in them. In other words, they are measurable. In the first look, the above goals also look rather specific – which means that they will take a focused effort in a certain direction. Hence, it’s possible to plan the process of achieving them. There also seems to be a balance between their ambitiousness and reasonability. Such goals are called SMART goals, as I have mentioned earlier too.
Finally, it’s important to evaluate your goal against your fundamental values. For example, making a film star may be a great goal to target, but perhaps not for a person who considers knowledge creation and dissemination as one of his fundamental values.
Projects: A goal will typically translate to one or a few projects. A project is a set of activities directed towards achieving a goal. A project may be logically comprised of sub-projects. The goal of getting a publication in some reputed journal may typically consist of making one or more investigations, writing technical reports on them, presenting them to colleagues, and being collated into a research paper. All these may be considered projects. This project-subproject hierarchy extends to the level where we have with us atomic activities called tasks.
Tasks: As mentioned above, tasks are atomic activities which can’t be sub-divided further to any profit. For example, depending on your tastes, you may consider writing a complete simulation code as a task, or may be smaller fragments of it. It’s always desirable from time management perspective to define tasks as small as possible. This makes tracking of progress easier, resulting in quicker feedback actions in contingent cases. If it is proving hard to track the progress in finishing a course-grained task, it may be necessary to grind it finer. In corporate world, they encourage defining tasks not taking more than half an hour to two hours of time. In research, defining tasks which are so small may not often be feasible. But the push towards dividing and conquering your tasks one bit at a time is important nevertheless.
Scheduling: Planning part of time management culminates in dropping your tasks into a schedule. This means assigning a start time, a deadline, and preferably a priority to your task.
To-do List: The most rudimentary structure of time management is a to-do list. It is a dump of every task you want to do. As a part of your time-planning, it helps to create a to do list. This emerges from the tasks in your projects.
Schedule: A to-do list with chronological sorting of tasks is a schedule. To turn a to-do list into a schedule you have to first assign priorities to your to-dos. Based upon your estimate of how long they would take and when they ought to be completed, you allocate specific times to them. This results in a schedule.
Time audit: A time audit is nothing but a log of what you are doing at a very fine-grained level. To create a time audit, just add a line to your time log every fifteen minutes or half an hour, or whatever time you consider large enough to allow some progress, and small enough to be meaningful. Keep doing this for a few days or weeks. You will be surprised at the insight this simple activity gives you about how efficiently you are using your time.
Why not brain?
Our brain comes with the birthright to forget. And forgetting is foul in the game of time management. Also, even if you remember well, you mayn’t be able to recollect when needed. As they say: ‘brain is a terrific information storage device; but it comes with a terrible retrieval software.’ Finally, there is no comparison between the complexity of the lives we lead and that our parents/ancestors led. The ratio is in orders of magnitude. So, you can pretty much ignore their suggestions about using your brain to remember things. Worded differently, brain is the most high-end tool we have at our disposal. There are better things than remembering trifles that you would like to use your brain for, for example, research.
A little pocketbook contains the power of taking you out, away from the mess of having to recollect every now and then all your tasks and promises. It’s also the first step one takes in committing to the practice of not hiding behind forgetfulness as an excuse to laziness. Once you have it written down there, you aren’t any more allowed to completely forget anything.
Using the pocketbook effectively requires some practice in the beginning, and some discipline. Initially, the practice of noting down whatever you wish to remember seems like overkill. But that’s just resistance to change. You quickly get over it as the benefits of noting down things are visible rather early. Referring to the pocketbook every now and then may also sound strange to a beginner. Once moulded into a habit, it’s the most natural thing to do.
As you get past the first few baby steps of time management, pocketbook soon starts proving inadequate and messy. While you would still like to keep your pocketbook for its versatility and lightweightedness, in the least, you need a page for each of your day. That’s a way of saying, ‘This is my day today!’
As you become somewhat advanced in managing your time, you start feeling the need for a more elaborate format. Something that has your tasks sorted, your goals placed at a visible place where you can refer to them often, a scratchpad where you can work on your plan (i.e. breaking down your goals into projects and sub-projects), and a space having your schedule of the days. Planners are the things to be adopted at this point. Planners come with detachable refills. So, you don’t have to carry a lifetime of sheets in your planner. Just keep the current ones.
Any modestly modern cell phone comes with organiser applications containing a calendar, a to do list, a notes list etc. These can not only be used to take down your schedule, but to actually remind you of the same. Myself being very absent-minded, I have allowed myself to completely depend upon my phone to remind me of anything short of breathing. To the extent that if you want to ruin me, don’t eye my bank accounts; just flick my cell!
Software calendars like Google calendar, outlook calendar, KOrganizer etc. are sophisticated applications which allow you to schedule tasks and meetings, and get reminded of the same through various means: pop ups, emails and SMSs.
Comparison between Electronic and Non-electronic Tools
Non electronic media (pocketbook, diary, planner) are more handy in most cases. You can carry them in your pocket, hand or bag. You can quickly open and close them. You can scribble on them freely. You can tear pages out of them. However, the biggest disadvantage with them is that they can’t remind you. If you wish to profit from them you have to develop the habit of periodically looking at them to see what’s next. It works often; but not always. Another big disadvantage is that you can’t share your reminders with others. Your pocketbook, diary and planner are all your own personal tools. No one else can significantly profit from them. Therefore, if you wish to schedule a meeting at office, your planner is good in reminding you of it. But other attendees have to remember it on their own. Yet another disadvantage is that you can’t effectively schedule repetitive reminders. For example, if there’s a weekly meeting you wish to schedule, it’s easy to schedule it on electronic scheduler, but pathetically clumsy on your planner. Finally, pocketbooks are cute, small and inexpensive. But as you progress towards elaborate planners, cost becomes apparent. Diaries aren’t dirt cheap; and planners are expensive. Planner refill pages are a recurrent cost too. The fact that you are being part of deforestation may also be an important parameter to your choice.
Electronic tools (phone, software planners) are better in many ways. They can remind you when you wish to be. And they can remind in whichever way you prefer: popup, mail, SMS. They can remind others when you wish others to be since events can be shared by many participants. If you wish to schedule an event on the Apocalypse day, it doesn’t cost any more than scheduling it today. Also, electronic tools score over non-electronic ones in certain aspects of flexibility, e.g. rescheduling an event is hardly an issue. However, there are some downsides too. If your planner is computer based, the greatest hurdle in using it is the inaccessibility of your computer.
Time management is one of the basic life skills we all ought to have learned in childhood. Like communication skill, analytical skill etc, time management is something that can be useful in all professions, in all walks of life. Fortunately, the subject of time management is no rocket science. It doesn’t require any special talents to manage one’s time well. It can be learned and profited from by anyone. I encourage you to experiment and find out what works best for you. A personalised combination of the tools above may turn out to be just the thing for you. Even as I write this article, I continue trying out new methods in search of what fits my needs the best. There’s no need to get stuck to one method.
The more critical and harder part of time management are:
Acceptance: A reason why a lot of space in the beginning of this article was given to convince you that it applies to you. Innumerable myths rooted in our age-old traditions, our low confidence as a society, and lack of recent experience as a successful nation make us cynical about anything working, most of all, simple techniques of time management. Once we get over this cynicism, it’s not a long and hard way to see how simple little things can work wonders on the quality of our life and work. If there’s one thing I don’t mind reiterating again and again to sell the idea to an unwilling prospective user, it’s this: Use time management to remove clutter from your mind and day, so that you can freely do things which you consider valuable.
Implementation: As mentioned above, the only way to succeed in managing time well is a continued observance of discipline to never let your goals out of sight, and avoidance of procrastination at all costs. This requirement, however, isn’t as severe as you might surmise. It’s always possible to begin small and build up upon that. After all, time management is for life; and we have all the rest of our life to perfect it. But, isn’t it time we started learning?
If these two hurdles are surmounted, details of the methods don’t matter. If each student employs just a small portion of his intelligence in using his time more effectively, IISc will soon be freed from its need to take shelter in arrogant silence when questioned about its actual status as a premier research institute are raised. Whatever be the metric of excellence, IISc will excel in all of them.
1. Randy Pausch
2. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
3. Many Google and Youtube videos. Just search for ‘time management.’
4. KOrganizer (http://userbase.kde.org/KOrganizer)
– Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti (Alumnus, CSA)
The Voices Research Special Issue is now out! In this issue we try and decipher what it really means to be a research student, once the euphoric dust has settled and as far as you are concerned, if the fat lady sang out now it wouldn’t be a minute too soon!
November 2010 issue merged with December 2010 issue