I wish I were better at… managing my time

Before I started my PhD studies, I used to feel quite good about my time management skills. So good in fact that I would name those skills when asked about my qualifications in job interviews – and yes, even the interview that got me my current PhD position. However, looking back at the past few months, it is indisputable that I have not been juggling my different tasks very well.

For instance, I once spent a few days carefully reading through half a dozen articles as a preparation for a longer-term assignment. Before I could actually write about what I had read, I became busy with more urgent, smaller-scale activities. One thing leading to another, it so happened that I did not resume working on the longer-term assignment before three weeks had passed. Not surprisingly, I had by then forgotten about most of what I had read, and had no other choice than going through the same articles again in order to write my assignment. Even more irritating is that my “to-read” list has seemingly been growing exponentially since I started my PhD education, while my “read” pile has been stagnating at an almost depressingly low level.

Needless to say that this is despite the fact that I actually am going to work every day, and am doing so in order to carry out tasks I am supposed to be carrying out – not just sitting at my desk waiting for the 8 hours to be over. So what is it? And, more importantly, how can I become more effective at managing my time?

Part of the answer to the first question is, in my opinion, the work dynamic inherent to being in academia. While I could, throughout my Bachelor’s and Master’s studies, choose to focus on a few tasks at a time and clearly delimit when I was working on which assignment, I have come to realize that this is no longer possible in my current situation. First of all, I am now constantly required to work on multiple fronts, including various research-related subprojects, administrative tasks (planning events, booking trips), several PhD courses taken in parallel as well as teaching duties. Another problem is that I find it hard to focus on a single one of those tasks without being interrupted. Interruptions are not that easy to handle because they are of two kinds: externally triggered (like for example when a colleague drops by to discuss an issue or when a new message is received) and self-initiated (in my case generally because I realize that I need to take care of something while I am in the middle of doing something else). External interruptions can be more or less controlled by closing one’s office door and mailbox, but I find self-triggered interruptions, as a rather vicious type of thought digression, more challenging to avoid.

Taking this into account, what strategies could be helpful in making better use of my time? Here are a few of the ideas I have gathered so far:

  • The “Pomodoro” technique, as recommended by my supervisor;
  • Working from home when in-depth work on a specific task is needed (as in a kind of short, self-organized retreat);
  • Trying to always keep at least one day a week meeting-free, as suggested by Elizabeth Grace Saunders in this blog post.

Have you also faced challenges when it comes to time management? If so, what are the time management strategies you have found helpful?

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