Wednesday, November 13, 2019

How to Manage Your Time - some ideas

The DRYBAR (Hendry-Barrett) lab meeting lastweek was about time management. Everyone in the group shared their strategies for best managing their time. The most important overall message was that different things worked for different people - there isn't any one-size-fits all (or even many) strategy. Many excellent and diverse ideas were raised, and so it seemed most profitable to simply share these diverse ideas. Try them out - one could work well for you. 

I (Andrew) have written a few relevant posts on this already:

How to Be Productive

From Work-Life Balance to Like-Dislike Optimization

The rest of the ideas below are from a diversity of students in the DRYBAR labs - each paragraph in each grouping is generally from a different person.


I started to use Trello for looking at all my tasks. The cool thing about it is that you can share your activities so is great for group projects too. Here's a link: Also some tips about writing goals: Personally, I like to have everything in different categories. Academic related stuff, personal stuff, ideas, etc. Something that I started recently is having something to write down random thoughts to look for future ideas, projects or anything really.

I make to do lists for separate subjects/areas of my life and most days work on my main focus (job/school) but every few days I'll take a day and do a bunch of little things from the other areas so I don't get too behind in them. It also helps that I focus all on the same thing one day so I remember things a bit better because I'm working on related tasks.

Having a weekly to-do list versus a daily to-do list helps me achieve a work-life balance. On Sunday evening, I make a list of tasks I wish to complete over the course of the next 7 days, and in my physical planner I break them down into smaller, daily activities. Even though I have a long list in front of me, subdividing tasks into smaller components spread over multiple days, allows me to feel I am advancing towards my goals. Thus, after I have achieved some items on my daily task list, I am content and can come home with small victories. Outside the office and lab, I can relax knowing tomorrow will be just as productive as today.

Avoiding distractions

Personally, I found when I started my PhD that I was easily distracted. When I ran in to little chunks of empty time (while code ran, or when I got a brief bit of writer’s block, or just lost focus while reading a paper), I’d check the news, or Facebook, or my email, and then get sucked in to that. I’d spend a lot of time “working,” but the distractions meant I never was getting as much done as I wanted. For the past couple years I’ve used to block these distractions. It blocks websites, but when I really need to hunker down I also have it block my email app so that I only check it once or twice a day. I’ve found it really helpful for making me more productive when I’m at work, which means I can relax more in the evenings and weekends.

I mostly try to focus on one thing at a time, but still reserve some time to work on something else. This allows me to get a break from my main activity while working on something that will be my main activity later on.

Reward systems

Be sure to take holidays and don't feel guilty about it. Do what works for you. Try things out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it won't.


Environment is also very important to me, depending on what I'm doing. If I'm writing or reading I like to go to the library in my neighborhood where there is complete silence so I can focus. Oddly enough, the coffee shop also works for me because there is so much noise that it all counteracts each other.


Commute by bike! Almost always saves time. Also improves mental and physical health (which saves time indirectly). Managing work time is perhaps less important than managing time off. Make sure you get enough time off, and that it is is well spent doing things that make you happy and recharged for working again. Binge-watching Netflix might feel good in the moment, but can often make you feel like crap afterwards so you won’t feel rejuvenated and motivated to go back to work.


I keep myself productive and happy as a researcher by taking frequent breaks throughout the day. Besides needing to rest my eyes after looking at a screen for prolonged periods of time, that downtime gives me an extra boost of energy to finish my task at hand. This often takes the form of brewing a cup of coffee or tea, or calling my parents to check-in. In the spirit of the Pomodoro technique, I like to take a long break after 1 hour of continuous work. 

One thing I also find important, personally, is taking a "chill" or mental health day where I watch my favorite movies and lounge around etc. I struggle with this sometimes because you feel guilty for "doing nothing" all day however doing nothing once in a while can be a good thing!

Fuck it (from Andrew's How To Be Productive Post): Go for a walk. Binge watch Game of Thrones. Read a book. Go to the climbing gym. Play guitar. Cuddle the cat (or dog). Play with the kids. Do the weekly ironing. These mental breaks will make you more efficient when you get back to work. Here is a compiled list of cool procrastination techniques of ecologists and evolutionary biologists.

Task switching

In general, switching between activities also keeps my brain stimulated and prevents me from feeling bogged down. For instance, I tend to dedicate my mornings to reading papers and answering emails, and in the afternoons I prefer to do lab work. I push forward with my morning tasks as I look forward to the exciting lab work I have planned for later on in the day.

Serial multi-task (from Andrew's How To Be Productive Post): By serial, I don’t mean do many things at the same time – unless that works for you. What I mean by serial is that, if you have multiple projects on the go, try to stay on the maximal effort-to-payoff area of the function. If one project is slowing, send it to coauthors, and work on the other projects. If one project looks like it will have a higher payoff overall (first authored papers), then work on that first.

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