Everyone talks about how busy they are, especially in academia it seems. We have lots of things to balance – research, teaching, meetings, talks, fieldwork, paper reviews, grant deadlines, as well as family and personal activities. A lot of these have hard and externally imposed deadlines. These rise to the top of my to-do list. There are also other things, like data analysis, that are fun (I guess I’m in the right profession), so these also get priority. My leadership activities, on the other hand, don’t have any deadlines, and often don’t involve any tangible or immediate results, so they get pushed to the bottom of the list. Tending my social network garden, reading up on leadership, or assessing my team leadership just don’t seem to be priorities when there are papers to write and review, lectures to prepare, and students to supervise. I have to admit that I’ve only looked at my leadership plan once or twice since November.
I think this highlights one of the critical leadership challenges: finding time to think critically about leadership; what your values, strengths and skills are; and what areas you need to improve on. And equally, making time for leadership activities that are mainly self-directed. I definitely haven't been 100% successful in this, but I have found a couple of tricks that have helped me manage my time better and make sure that I get some leadership tasks done.
1) Talk about time management. If you have a mentor, make a point of talking about time management with them. My mentor, an amazingly productive associate professor, had some great tricks and tips about how she manages time and all of the different tasks and deadlines that she has. Not all of her strategies have worked for me, but most have really helped.
2) Schedule my days. Be consistent at scheduling out each workday the night before. This helps me think about what my priority tasks are and make sure that I allocate time to each of these so that they don’t get forgotten during the day. I also make a point of scheduling in less critical tasks at times of the day, like late afternoons, when my mind is tired and I’m not very good doing intense thinking tasks. I’ve found the key here is to make sure that I do this every day and try my best to stick with the schedule.
3) Keep track of tasks: I keep a to-do list with everything that I need to get done, both in the short-term and long-term. This has helped me keep on top of everything that I need to get done and use my time efficiently, which has led to more time available for other tasks, like leadership. I use Workflowy (www.workflowy.com), a very simple but powerful online list.
4) Track my time: Sometimes I completely lose track of what I’ve done during a day and where the time has gone. By tracking my time an the programs that I’ve used on my computer, I’ve been able to better understand where my time is going and where I might be more efficient. I’ve found doing this really useful, both as data to help me better manage my time, but also as a motivational tool. I use RescueTime (www.rescuetime.com), which gives me a productivity score each day or week. You can also set minimum goals for your productivity. Trying to meet these goals has helped encourage me to really stay focused on my work and not check out Twitter or my email every five minutes.
These are the main tricks that I’ve started to use to better manage my time. Hopefully, they’ll allow me to find more time for my leadership activities over the coming months. So, what do you think? Are there other strategies that I’ve missed, or are there ones that I use that you’ve found aren’t effective? My sense is that time management is pretty individual and what works for one person may not for another, so I'm keen to hear what tricks other people use.