Time Management in Academia

I was in an online workshop for early career academics at the July 2022 Social Media & Society conference @SocMediaConf. One of the key questions was around time management. As a senior (old) academic, I can’t say I have solved that problem – at all, but I have some tips helpful to my own decision-making. The problem is remembering them and following my own advice. I hope they stimulate your own approaches to this problem of time management:

Finish

Try to finish what you are doing. Academics always have multiple projects, papers, memoranda, and so forth in play but if you keep shifting from one to the other you can fail to finish any. If you shift, you don’t finish what you are working on, and when you return to the project, you spend more time getting back to where you left it. Of course, that means you don’t want to start writing a book! That takes us to the next point …

Modularize

Think about how to modularize your work. What can you do in the time you have allotted? Try to split a big task, like writing a book, into smaller tasks that are more doable in a sitting, like drafting the outline.

Do Something!

When I get stuck in writing a paper, and can’t finish it (violating tip 1), then I do something I want to do, such as write this blog. My logic is that it is better to do something positive that has to be done (or wants to be done) than to be dead in the water. Later, I’ll sort the problem out that was blocking progress on my paper and will be enthusiastic about returning to it.

Be Realistic

I won’t repeat the detail of an old story about a lab assistant asking everyone from the person washing test tubes to the lead scientist: “What are you doing?” “How long will it take you to finish?” The assistant then returned to find out how long it took each person to do each task. The average was 2.7 times as long as they estimated. I think that is realistic, but it could take longer.

Present Time is the Best Predictor of the Future

It never fails: Someone asks you if you could do a paper or a talk due at some future date – say six months later. You are busy, but you know your calendar is clear 6 months from now. So, you will agree to do it. Inevitably, in six months, you will be even busier than you are now. Avoid agreeing to do something in the future that you don’t have the time or priority to devote to it now. If it is not important enough to do now, it is unlikely to be a good use of your time in six months, when you will be even busier.

Time is the Secret

I referred the early career researchers to a chapter that John Kenneth Galbraith contributed to an edited book, which he entitled ‘Writing and Typing’. It is such an old book that I can’t locate either the book or the chapter online. But it is often referred and was reprinted in 1978 as ‘Writing, Typing and Economics’ in The Atlantic.[1]

Adapted from Wikipedia

Galbraith, a brilliant and incredibly productive economist and public intellectual, went through all the gimmicks he tried to be a better writer. He discussed alcohol, drugs, humor, … you name it, and why each tactic did not work. What I took away from his essay is that even he struggled with writing, and that he concluded that there was no secret to writing. If anything, time seems to be his secret in doing revision after revision after revisions.

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So, it is good to manage your time, and use it wisely. Don’t look for easy shortcuts, and use your time for the most important work you do – keep typing.

Comments, additional tips, criticisms are all welcomed.


[1] A version of his chapter was published in the March 1978 edition of The Atlantic as ‘Writing, Typing, and Economics’.  

Comments are most welcome