Monday, April 8, 2013

Balance and Time Management

Oh, time. Source
There's a lot of talk about work/ life balance in science*. It seems like a disproportionate amount of time is spent reaching out to women about this issue rather than men. I assume this is because of the womb thing and it bugs me because we should all strive to have some balance, men included. But this has all been discussed before. It's not a new discussion either. What I want to talk about is how time management specifically works into that balance, what I've done to try to budget my time, and then get your suggestions in the comments.

It seems obvious when you stop to think about it: if you can plan your time effectively you can have both worlds! If you just work at 100% efficiency for every minute that you're at work you can go home at 5:00 pm and spend the rest of the night with your family! But that's not the reality. Science is not easy and experiments and writing always seem to take longer than they should. There is some truth there though: time management IS very important to achieve any sort of balance.

The summer before I started graduate school, I read the book Mastering Your PhD and started thinking more about time management. The authors suggest creating a Monthly Progress Monitor** to plan your experiments and goals for each month, assess what goals you accomplished the previous month, and using it as a discussion point with your advisor. They even provide a template which I handily recreated and began using my very first month.

This is what my brain feels like when an
experiment takes longer than I planned for. Source
Surprisingly, or maybe not if you know me, I've completed one every single month since I started graduate school and I've found it really helpful for working on time management. As expected, when I started I budgeted waaaaay too little time for pretty much every experiment or other project I planned. I consistently felt like a failure every single month because I "didn't get anything done". It sucked. Then I began to schedule experiments on my Google calendar to get a visual on just how many hours certain things take so I could plan more efficiently in the future. I also started a journal where I could keep track of what I did in the lab each day***. This probably sounds like a lot of extra work but it honestly only takes me a few minutes a day and it's so helpful to have it to go back to and remind myself that I AM getting things done. I AM moving forward. Even if most of my experiments lately have had non-significant results. And you know what? It's working. The last few months, I've completed almost everything on my monthly plan. Gee, it only took me 3.5 years.

So, you know, take it with a grain of salt. Different things work for different people.

What prompted me to write this post tonight was another time management goal I've had since before I started graduate school: getting home on time. It follows that if you're not great at planning what you can get done in one month you might not be so great at estimating the time to takes to get things done in one day. It seems like every time I text my son to tell him when I'm going to be home... it ends up being later than that. Sometimes a lot later. Every once in awhile that's okay but when it seemed to be happening all the time I really needed to try to get better at it. The last two nights I actually got home within 5 min of the time I told him. I'm proud of this. It's a little thing but it means a lot to me. I want to be able to be home when I say I'm going to be. I want to be able to spend time with my son. I love science but it's not the only important part of my life.

Tell me in the comments what your productivity tips are. Do you use the Pomodoro approach? Or the Getting Things Done method? Do you plan everything far in advance? Do you have a secret method that you're willing to share?

*I prefer to call it work/ home balance because c'mon, it's ALL life, but even work/ home becomes blurry when you have to bring your work home with you.

**They also suggested mapping out your dissertation outline as soon as possible and I planned to do this in my first semester.  Um, I just finally did that last month.

***It's also been very helpful for remembering when I did something and what the details were. "Oh yeah, I called tech support and talked to Ryan and he said to try this." I am a huge fan of the search function.


  1. I am not getting a PHD, but figuring out work and life balance is a constant struggle. It is a constant sway between too much work and then too much life and then back to work. It is hard to find that perfect balance. I am going to take that idea of keeping track how long things take, so I know. That will be useful.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Sorry it took so long for me to publish it - I never received an email notifying me it was in moderation.

    I'm glad you liked the idea. It definitely helps me be a little more realistic about my time.


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