26: Time Management

When I was Chair of AHRC, I occasionally attended small meetings of academics who we were consulting about various issues – our version of focus groups. On one occasion, we were expecting comments – even complaints – about various AHRC procedures. What we actually heard were strong complaints about the participant’s universities who ‘didn’t allow them enough time to do research’. This was a function, of course, of the range of demands in contemporary academic life with at least four areas of work: teaching, research, administration and outreach – all figuring in promotion criteria. There is a classic time management problem lurking here and the question is: can we take some personal responsibility for finding the time to do research amidst this sea of demands?

There is a huge literature on time management and I have engaged with it over the years for my own sake as I have tried to juggle with the variety of tasks at any one time. The best book I ever found was titled ‘A-time’ by an author whose name I have forgotten – jog my memory please – and which now seems to be out of print. My own copy is long lost. It was linked to a paper system which helped deliver its routines. The fact that it is now out of print is probably linked to the fact that I am talking about a pre-PC age. I used that system. I used Filofax. And it all helped. There was much sensible advice in the book. ‘Do not procrastinate’ was good. In the pre-e-mail days, correspondence came in the post and piled up in an in-try and it didn’t take long for it to form an impossible pile. ‘Do not procrastinate’ meant: deal with it more or less as it comes in. This is true now, of course, of e-mails. I think ‘A-time’ in the title of the book referred to two things: first, sort out your best and most effective time – morning, night, whatever; and secondly divide tasks into A, B and C categories. Then focus you’re A-time on the A tasks.

So what does this mean for contemporary academic life? Teaching and administration are relatively straightforward and efficiency is the key. Although sometimes derided, Powerpoint – or an equivalent – is a key aid for teaching: once done – no pain, no gain – it can easily be updated (and can easily be an outline of a book!). Achieving clarity of expression for different audiences can be very satisfying and creative in its own right. Good writing, as a part of good exposition, is a good training for research writing. So teaching may be straightforward, but it is very important.

Research and outreach are harder. First, research. The choices are harder: what to research, what problem to work on, how to make a difference. How not to simply engage with the pressure to publish for your CV’s sake. Note the argument in Alvesson’s book The triumph of emptiness. So what do we actually do in making research decisions? Here is a mini check list. Define your ‘problems’. Something ‘interesting and important’ – interesting at least to you and important to someone else. Be ambitious. Be aware of what others are doing and work out how you are going to be different, not simply fashionable. All easier said than done of course. And the ‘keeping up’ is potentially incredibly time consuming with the number of journals now current. Form a ‘journals reading club’? All of this is different if you are part of an existing team but you can still think as an individual if only for the sake of your own future.

And finally, outreach. ‘Interesting and important’ kicks-in in a different way. Material from both teaching and research can be used. Consultancy becomes possible – though yet another time demand – cf. spinning out-2.

Thinking things through on all four fronts should produce first a list of pretty routine tasks – administration, ‘keeping up’ and so on. The rest can be bundled into a number of projects. The two together start to form a work plan with short run, middle run and long run elements. If you want to be very text book about it you can define your critical success factors – CSFs – but that may be going too far! So, we have a work plan, almost certainly too long and extensive. How do we find the time?

First, be aware of what consumes time: e-mails, meetings, preparing teaching, teaching, supervisions, administration – all of which demand diary management because we have not yet added ‘research’ to the list It is important that research is not simply a residual, so time has to be allocated. Within the research box, avoid too much repetition – giving more or less the same paper many times at many conferences for instance. And on outreach, be selective. On all fronts, be prepared to use cracks in time to do something useful. In particular in relation to research, don’t wait for the ‘free’ day or the free week to do the writing for example. If you have a well-planned outline for a paper, a draft can be written in a sequence of bits of time.

What do I do myself? Am I a paragon of virtue? Of course not, but I do keep a ‘running agenda’ – a list of tasks and projects with a heading at the top that says ‘Immediate’ and a following one that says ‘Priorities’. It ends with a list headed ‘On the backburner’. Quite often the whole thing is too long and needs to be pruned. When I was in Leeds, I used to circulate my running agenda to colleagues because a lot of it concerned joint work of one kind or another. At one point, there were 22 pages of it and needless to say, I was seriously mocked. So, do it, manage it – and control it!!

Alan Wilson

October 2015

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