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Divide and conquer… your workweek

I was recently re-inspired by this post over at Academic Productivity. I had tagged it ages ago, but never gave serious consideration to putting the work schedule into practise. My schedule has changed significantly over the past year, and I now often find myself concentrating so much on the day-to-day minutiae of academic work to the point that I too often get distracted from my long-term projects.

This post by Cal Newport is entitled How Do the Best Professors Work?, and tries to demystify the structure of a working day of some productive scholars.

The take-away message that I found most helpful was the idea of The 3 + 2 Graduate Student Work Week:

a) Designate one day each week to be your Administrative Nonsense Day

Spend this entire day taking care of any work on your plate that doesn’t directly connect to the task of conducting research and writing research papers. This is when I fill out forms, return library books, hand in reimbursement paperwork, call the cable guy, and add new publications to my web site. You get the idea…

b) Designate one day each week to be your Big Idea Day

Spend this entire day doing literature search and brainstorming on that research project you’ve always day-dreamed about, but have been to afraid to mention to your advisor. If you don’t set aside this time, you will get stuck in the rut of happenstance papers — the projects you fall into out of convenience or advisorial coercion. This work is fine. It’s how you earn your research stripes. But some time along the way you have to be fighting to make your own mark.

c) Use the Other Three Days to Get Your Normal Work Done

Most of what we do as graduate students is working on various stages of the paper-writing process. This spans cleaning up numbers in Excel to editing the related work section of a journal submission. Use these three days to get this work done. Because you isolated the administrative nonsense on another day, you might be surprised by how much gets accomplished in just 60% of the week. I like to make my Admin Day on Monday and my Big Idea Day on Friday, so this work can happen consecutively in the middle of the week; but preferences differ here.That’s it. A simple structure. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that yield the most consistent results over time. This approach, of course, gets complicated by classes, group meetings, and collaborators who don’t know about (or, frankly care) that a certain day is your big idea day. So it will never apply perfectly. But even the attempt can make a difference…

[from How Do the Best Professors Work? ]

In the discussion following, commenter mom suggests an alternative, though similar, type of time-grouping:

Great in theory, except that administrative nonsense doesn’t behave sometimes… I am a young prof at an R1 and I save 3-5pm, my least productive time of the day, for administrivia, coffee mtgs, etc. I’m on leave so now I do it 5x a week, but when teaching I do it 3x a week, and have office hours on the other days during the same slot.

This approach is supported by a recent post over at Signal vs. Noise, 37signals’ blog (the makers of my beloved Backpack!):

And the primary observation that comes out of all this is that multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity. Things suck when you don’t give them your full attention.

I’m not thrilled with the work I’ve been doing lately.

This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s just a reminder. If you want to do great work, focus on one thing at a time. Finish it and move on to the next thing.

[from Multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity ]

So: divide, time-block, conquer… and theoretically have weekends free. Sounds good; let’s see if this works.

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Filed under: Academia, Advice, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Research, Time Management, Writing

3 Responses

  1. sazky says:

    great post,think almost the same,thanks

  2. […] Advice for students with an emphasis on time management and academic efficiency. This post on dividing your workweek has me thinking about changing things up a […]

  3. […] Advice for students with an emphasis on time management and academic efficiency. This post on dividing your workweek has me thinking about changing things up a little. GradHacker has some great material on how to […]

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