Time Management

How to improve your time management

Do you have too many things on your to-do list? Not enough time?

Life Science experiments often require us to work outside normal office hours, but also include a lot of waiting time. To make the most out of your day, and to enjoy the little free time that is left, use your time wisely. Here are three suggestions for better time management.


1) Important, but not urgent

You can classify the points on your to-do list in 4 categories:

1)      urgent & important

2)      urgent & not important

3)      Not urgent & important

4)      Not urgent & not important

Everybody knows that they should do 1) first. But after that, most people get preoccupied by 2). So what is urgent but not necessarily important? Emails, Telephone calls, and Facebook updates want to be addressed immediately, but are they really important? We spent a lot of time dealing with them, but over this we forget 3) Not urgent, but important. Sooner or later, 3) transforms into 1), and this can make your life very stressful.

Ideally, 60-80 % of your work should be 3), unless you are working as a firemen or in A&E.

Try to create a sense for these four categories. By the way, don’t even look at 4)!


2) Avoid distractions, avoid the Internet

Distractions are everywhere, emails, colleagues, nice weather, news, etc. Actively resisting distractions will cost you energy, so better avoid them by putting them out of reach.

These days, the major source of distraction is the internet: When online, people switch projects on average every 10 minutes.[1] It is so easy to spend hours on the internet when you should write your thesis or analyse some boring data. Yet, avoiding the internet is difficult when you are already sitting at the computer. Try to disconnect your computer for an hour, and see how much you get done.

If you need to look up references, make a note and do them all together afterwards, instead of interrupting your writing flow.

If switching off the internet does not work, because you might share it with flatmates or colleagues, you could use programmes like Freedom (http://macfreedom.com/) to block your internet access for a given time.


3) Get enough Sleep

Whatever you do, make sure you have slept enough. Otherwise, you won’t have enough energy to concentrate during a busy day with many tasks and distractions.  This can lead to a vicious circle: You get distracted, need longer to finish things, get home later, and go to bed way too late. 8-9 hours would be ideal, less than 7 hours should be avoided at all costs.


4) We always plan too much for the day – why?

When was the last time you left the lab with every item on your to-do list ticked off? Here are four tips on how to plan your day more efficiently.

a)      The third person technique
As observed by the psychologist Roger Buehler, we regularly overestimate how much we can achieve in a day. However, we are actually pretty realistic when estimating how much our colleagues are getting done.[2]  So next time you write your to-do list, imagine you write it for your colleague or any other person.  Ask yourself, how much will they get done?  Also, think about how long certain tasks took you in the past, and plan for a similar duration.

b)      Three tasks only
When writing your to-do list, also ask yourself what should be done first (see point 2) important, but not urgent) Prioritization is vital for a stress-free working life. Do not plan to complete more than three tasks per day, or to fulfil more than three main goals per week. You can still write down additional aims, but they should be on a separate page, and should only be worked on when the three main tasks are completed.

c)       The 80/20 rule
While important tasks need to be dealt with as fast as possible, you don’t necessarily need to spend too much time on them. According to the 80/20 rule, 20 % of the work will complete 80 % of the task; while the other 80 % of work are spend on the last 20 % (e.g. fancy layout, hard to find reference, etc.). Ask yourself how important these last 20 % really are, and limit the time you work on this. It helps to set a timer. If it is a big goal that takes hours or days, break it up into smaller tasks, and limit the time you spend on them.

d)      The pilot experiment
When screening for a lot of substances/conditions in an experiment, it helps to run a pilot experiment first. Choose only a few experimental conditions for the first experiment. Once the experiment is done, ask yourself:

–   Did I include all controls?
–  Does my read-out work or do I need to optimise?
–  How much time did it take, and how many more samples can I process in one go?

This way you can plan your big experiment much more efficiently



5) How to take breaks

With proper breaks spread throughout a busy day you can achieve much more than trying to work non-stop. We are not machines, we need to rest regularly to regain energy. Ironically, most jobs nowadays require us to rest physically for most of the working hours, sitting in front of a computer, a microscope or a laminar flow hood. Mentally however, we are always on alert, reading and writing new publications, analysing data or concentrating on where to pipet which solution. Accordingly, what we need during our breaks is mental rest.

Yet, how can you rest mentally? As a first step of resting your brain, you should avoid any new information input during your break. So looking at Facebook and other internet sites is actually counterproductive, because you still occupy your brain with new information. Instead of resting, you are actually procrastinating.

During a short break, it is most beneficial to look into the distance and breathe in deeply a few times. [3] A break is also a good time to eat something, as your brain requires constant glucose supply. Try to avoid sweets though, because their sugar-spike is followed by an insulin spike, which leads to low blood glucose levels. Rather, eat some chewy, unprocessed food, like apples or nuts.

As a rule of thumb, do the opposite during your breaks of what you do during work. Physical exercise is good when sitting on a chair all day long. Mental rest is needed when your work requires you to process a lot of information. If you are on your own all day, have a chat with a colleague during the break. So in summary, having proper breaks will not only help you to get the most out of a day, but will also contribute to a successful work/life balance.


6) Research success – write daily

Writing daily on your report, publication or grant proposal can significantly enhance your academic career. This is the result of a study performed by Robert Boyce, who compared the career path of 27 young faculty members.[4]  You don’t need to write long, half an hour per day is enough. Set yourself feasible aims of what you can achieve within this half an hour. Also use a timer, so that you don’t spend too long on it. If possible, write early in the day, when your mind is still fresh. The idea is to make writing a habit, so that at some stage writing reports becomes as easy as riding a bike.


[2] R. Buehler, D. Griffin and M.Ross:  Exploring the “Planning Fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 67(3), Sep 1994, 366-381

[3] Sophisticated forms of mental rest include mediation and prayers. The main problem here is the lack of quiet space in most modern laboratory and office environments. Most workers who nevertheless seek mental rest often have to take refuge in toilet cubicles, sad but true.

[4] Robert Boice: Advice for New Faculty Members (Needham Heights, MA; Allyn & Bacon, 2000)