Academic work, as many people are aware, has certain affordances (relative autonomy with time, an emphasis on self-directed tasks, lifelong learning, pretty generous annual leave) and constraints (heavy workloads that are often erratic, high preparation time to event time ratios, activities that demand switch-tasking when, in Daniel Kahneman’s words “slow thinking” is needed).
However, of all the joys and concerns, probably the most common phrase is “I don’t have enough time”. It’s a fair statement. We could all do with more time, but time-travelling devices have yet to be invented, and most of us on the planet are stuck with a linear model, in which most events run cyclically: hours, days, weeks, months. The sun rises, the sun sets, the moon has its phases.
So what to do with the time we have? I now have two rules:
First of all, focus on the important stuff. We spend time on urgent tasks a lot (or things that seem urgent), but often run out of time to do the important ones. Clear time in your schedule each day to work on that conference paper proposal, make notes on that article you’ve been meaning to read, write in your journal, exercise, you can even spend time planning your time! One way of focusing is to use the Pomodoro Method – there are plenty of apps for your PC/Mac or phone that have a 25-minute timer, followed by 5-minute breaks.
How do you avoid interruption, I hear you ask? Find the button or setting on your desk telephone or mobile that says “do not disturb”. Turn it on. Shut your door (if you can) and/or put your headphones in. Turn off e-mail on your computer. If possible, tell people this is your quiet work time, or put a polite note on the door.
Secondly, do it daily. I’m terrible for procrastinating on a range of things, but mainly in the important category. I also hate a full inbox. The simplest solution, suggested by Gretchen Rubin, is to schedule and perform daily tasks, essentially as a means of building an architecture of habits. If possible, set a specific time to get your e-mails done everyday – do not postpone replies if you can help it. I do this everyday, and if I can’t reply then and there, it goes on my task list. Going on holiday? Block out at least a day to deal with the messages when you return.
For me, the daily principle is about the only way I discipline myself and maintain momentum, not just for the things I don’t like doing, but for the things that I do! I actually quite like meditation, but it is very easy to drop it if I feel too busy or too tired.
So, there you have it: deal with the important stuff, and do it daily. Priorities and habits are key ways of getting things done. Try it out and see how much diem you can carpe!