In my experience, one thing early-career academics [and some non-early-career people] often struggle with is getting things done. In fact, I had serious problems here in the past myself. In graduate school, after I completed my comprehensive exams I got basically nothing of any consequence done for about two years. It wasn't for lack of trying. I did "work" just about every day: reading, writing [or, at least, attempting to, often unfruitfully], etc. I just struggled actually getting stuff accomplished. And my problems did not end when I finished my degree. In my first year at my first job [at UBC], I remember spending my entire first semester messing around with a couple of paper drafts for months on end, never finishing either of them. I was wasting a ridiculous amount of time, but, for all that, I just didn't know a better to approach things.
My wife, who is an early-career academic in another field [and who happily encouraged me to mention her in this post], reminded me of these issues when she approached me yesterday asking how I manage to get things done. You see, right now she is struggling with many of the same things I struggled with early on in my career: getting papers drafted or revised in a reasonable amount of time while studying for her comprehensive exams and doing all of the other things she needs to do [respond to emails, meet with collaborators, etc.]. My wife approached me with her question because, whatever limitations I have [and, as with most people, I admittedly have very many], not getting stuff done is no longer one of them. I get stuff done now--I get papers drafted and revised quickly, and manage to get all of the other things I need to get done [teaching, assessment duties, volunteer work, etc.]--without missing deadlines. This isn't meant to be self-congratulatory. It's simply a descriptive fact: I used to struggle mightily to get things done, and I don't anymore. As I explained here, I recognize that in sharing my perspective there is always a risk that saying things like this may come across as self-congratulatory--but, for all that, my sincere aim in sharing is to try to be helpful. I hope readers take my remarks in that spirit. I don't "know it all" by any means, but what I can do is share some of my struggles and experiences grappling with them, in the hope that my remarks can potentially help others facing similar struggles.
Anyway, because I used to struggle with these issues, and know there are others out there who probably struggle with them as well, I thought it might be a good idea if we shared with each other some of our strategies for getting things done. I will begin by sharing mine, and hope some of you share some of your strategies as well. As always, I do not suppose that "my ways are the right ways." I fully recognize that we are all different, and that what works for one person might not work for another. Still, be that as it may, I think it may be useful to share our strategies with each other--as, from experience, I can say that simply trying to find effective strategies through little more than personal trial and error isn't...well, all that effective. Sharing our strategies with each other may, at the very least, help us see how other people do things, and perhaps try out their strategies to see if they are useful in our own case. In any case, this is my hope!
I will begin by sharing a general macro-level strategy for getting things done that I have found very useful, and then turn to some much more specific micro-level strategies. The macro-level strategy is simply this: I have found that, for me, the single most important strategy for getting things done is having effective daily routines. Allow me to explain.
In grad school and my first year or two afterwards, I had sort of a "freewheeling" approach to things. If I had a class to teach, I would prepare. If I had all day to work on a paper, I would spend all day working on a paper. I did not have any specific daily routines devoted to time-management or efficient goal-realization...and, not surprisingly [at least in retrospect], I didn't have good time-management or efficiently realize goals. So, that is the first "macro-level" thing I learned: that in order to efficiently get things done, I had to actually have daily habits conducive to good time-management and efficiency, and pretty much stick to those habits every day.
Which habits are those? My discussion with my wife yesterday, and observation of her habits [which she encouraged me to share], helped me hone in on what I think some of them are:
- I have strict limits on time devoted to email and other "busy-work": I spend no longer than 30 minutes on email each morning, which in my case is enough to read and respond to whichever emails need immediate attention. If I receive an email that needs an immediate response or action, I act immediately, and in the most concise way available [unless absolutely necessary, I do not write lengthy emails; most of them are at most several lines long]. Otherwise, if an email does not need immediate response or action, I set it aside for later in the day--until after I have completed my other important work for the day. This is perfectly consistent with professional email protocol, which is generally that one has 24 hours to respond to non-emergency emails, and it ensures that I do not waste the first two hours [or whatever] of each day on email. Short work breaks and lunch aside, I also do not check email the rest of the day [if I notice a critical email during one of my breaks, I address it; otherwise, I set it aside until later]. I also do not have email alerts set up on my phone [so I am not distracted by emails coming in], and I tend to do work outside at a park, so I do not receive computer email alerts either. I have never once had anyone complain about me not replying to email in a timely manner. At the end of the day, after I have finished all of my other work, I respond to all of the non-vital emails I tabled at the start of the day, as well as other "busy work" I need to get done.
- Whenever possible, I have determinate, realistic [but challenging] daily and weekly goals, and hold myself to them: I have never owned a daily planner, and don't outline on paper things I need to get done--but for all that, I always have clear, realistic, determinate daily and weekly goals I make myself meet. For instance, to the best of my recollection, yesterday I had two main goals: to write a [very] rough draft of one section of a new paper I am writing, and write a blog post on anonymized review. I did both. Today, my main goals were to draft the next section of my paper, write this blog post, and then match one or two mentor-mentee pairs in our mentoring program. I finished the first goal earlier today, am in the midst of the second, and will turn to the third as soon as I am done. My goal tomorrow is to draft the next section of my paper. Etc. When it comes to the week as a whole, my primary goals are to finish the paper draft and match several mentor-mentee candidates. I will hold myself to these goals, and do not let myself fall behind, in part by making my goals challenging but realistic: I do not insist that I have a good paper draft done by the end of the week, just a paper draft [even a totally messy, messed up one] to work with by the time the week is done. In my view, the realism element is crucial: one has to set goals that one will actually get done; otherwise, there is little point in having the goal. Evidently, or so my wife tells me, the empirical literature broadly backs this overall approach [she directed me to Locke et al. 1990, which she says supports the importance of realistic, determinate daily goals. Interestingly, although the empirical literature apparently suggests that goals should be realistic, it also appears to suggest that it is more effective to have "hard" rather than easy goals, see e.g. Mento et al. 1987, as goals that are too easy to meet may not challenge one to accomplish enough per day].
- I do not go on wild goose-chases, but instead set time-consuming problems aside for later--specifically, until I have completed everything else I can efficiently complete: In my experience, this is an especially important strategy. Suppose one is writing a paper draft, and one comes to a section where you really feel like you need to "read up on X." In some cases, you might really have to read up on that thing in order to move forward. However, in my experience, many cases aren't actually like this--and actually spending hours reading X would distract me from a more pressing thing: namely, finishing a section of my paper today. Indeed, in my experience, reading up on X might be a profound waste of time: a "wild goose-chase", as it were, eating up hours of my day...for me to still not adequately understand X, and not only that, prevent me from actually drafting things I wanted to draft today. So, here's what I do instead, whenever feasible: if I run into a problem like this, instead of going off on a potentially wild goose-chase [e.g. hours and hours of reading up on X], I "table" it, noting in the manuscript ["read up on X here"], and then simply move on to further drafting. Usually, what happens here is that I get stuff drafted [meeting that daily goal], leaving me time to read up on X later in the day. In other words, I only go on the potential "goose-chase" after I get other stuff done, not before. It works like a charm, at least for me.
- I partition my day, ensuring I get a little bit of everything done just about each day, rather than focusing on one or two "big" things per day: In my experience, one of the biggest reasons people [e.g. my wife, my past self, etc.] fall behind on things is that it is easy to get "swamped" by one project, in such a manner that all kinds of other uncompleted activities pile up, making one fall further behind on many different things. For instance, suppose you focus all of your attention on writing a paper today--neglecting other things like emails, etc.--but you don't get that far on the paper. If this is your approach, not only did you fail to meet one goal [moving forward on the paper]. By focusing all of your attention on that one goal, you didn't get any of your other goals met either--and so now, in addition to whatever else you wanted to get done tomorrow, now you have all of those other things you didn't do today on your plate the next day. I've been down this road before, and it's not a good road. Some days, you will fail to meet a particular daily goal [e.g. sometimes I have my goal to write a section of a paper on a day, and I fail at it]. Here again, I have found it is important not to go on a wild goose-chase--but instead have realistic daily goals in many different areas, partitioning my day across many projects so I get a little bit of each project done per day: for instance, a research goal of drafting 4 pages, a teaching goal of finishing 1/2 of a lecture, a professional goal of spending 30 minutes responding to emails, writing a blog post, etc. That way, even if one does not finish one of the goals, one finishes the many of the others--and you don't have all of the other things piling up that you could have gotten out of the way.
Anyway, these are some of my major daily strategies for getting things done. I hope some of you find them helpful! Still, they are just my strategies, and may not work for everyone. Accordingly, I'd like to put the question to you all: what strategies do you have for getting things done? I'm really curious to hear what you all do!