Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Learning Time Management

Thoughts for Junior Researchers

I'm spending this academic year as a postdoc in Rob Miller's group at MIT CSAIL. My main goal is to learn how to become an assistant professor.

After a semester, I now see how time management is the single most important skill for me to learn at the moment. It's a fundamental prerequisite for everything else in my fledging career: Without enough focused time to do creative work, there is no way that I can survive in this job. I would even argue that without first learning good time management, there's no point in learning anything else about faculty life, since I won't have time to apply those lessons.

I've also realized that I'm not yet good at time management. I'm not terrible, but there's still lots of room for improvement.

I managed to do fine throughout K12, college, and grad school without being a master of time management simply because I had very few external responsibilities in either my work or personal lives. Thus, I could dedicate huge blocks of uninterrupted time every single day – and well into the evenings – to do my own work. I was okay at time management but didn't need to be great at it to thrive as a student.

However, I can no longer sustain my student schedule since the nature of a faculty job involves extreme multitasking. Also, I'm now older and have more personal responsibilities outside of work hours. So I can't stay up half the night grinding away in a frenzy like in my college or grad school days.

Case study of a crappy day

Today I spent 12 hours in the office and got only 1.5 hours of real work done. I came home frustrated and mad at myself. I felt like I did a lot but didn't accomplish much of anything, which is ultra aggravating. (NB: I usually spend only 7 to 9 hours at the office, but today started especially early and ended too late. So this was hopefully a near-worst-case scenario.)

I've had a string of really inefficient days like this one over the past month, so I was growing concerned that it wasn't just a fluke. In the rest of this article, I'll reflect on the possible causes of such extreme inefficiency, and how I could improve in the future.

Here is a breakdown of my work day, starting with my commute at 7:30am and ending when I left the office at 8pm.

Commute times are in gray, and meeting times are in red.

For simplicity, I classify my individual work into two main types: real and administrative. At the moment, real work means writing a grant proposal, which is my next research deliverable. One can argue how “real” of work a proposal is, but it's real in the sense that it's necessary for me to carry out future research. Administrative work means tending to bushels of emails, filling out bureaucratic forms, organizing meeting notes, planning future meetings, and other busywork unrelated to my main mission of producing new research. I don't mean to put down administrative work or imply that it's not real. I just mean that if all I did was administrative work, then I wouldn't be progressing in my job as a researcher and eventually get fired.

Commuting isn't too bad, although it's annoying to walk between buildings or even campuses to attend meetings, especially in the freezing cold weather. I look forward to the day when I can have my own office and host meetings there to eliminate mid-day commutes.

I spend most of my work days either in meetings or doing administrative work related to meetings. Senior faculty and industry executives might scoff at my pitiful 4 hours of meetings per day since they probably have closer to 6 or 7 hours, but I'm a lowly postdoc who is just getting started in managerial life.

When the dust settled today, I was left with 3 hours of time for real work. Sadly, I squandered it by working at about 50% efficiency, which means that I did only 1.5 hours of real work. That's pathetic. I could make up all sorts of excuses for why I wasn't more efficient, but the truth remains – I could've used that time much better than I did.

So the first lesson here is that even if I can't change my schedule due to mandatory meetings and unavoidable administrative work, I still need to squeeze the most out of the time that's left for real work. No more excuses. I have nobody to blame but myself for wasting that time. With those 3 hours today, I might've been able to pull off 80% efficiency if I were really disciplined. That adds up to 2.4 hours of real work. Not great, but not as pathetic as 1.5 hours.

There are two obvious ways to add more time for real work: wake up earlier and work in the early morning, or work at home in the evening.

Most creative professionals realize that waking up super early is the only sustainable way to get high-quality, uninterrupted real work time. So I will need to train myself to wake up earlier. (My mother woke up at 3am every day during her six pre-tenure years, but I don't think I can pull that off.)

Finally, trying to do real work at night is tough since I'm so exhausted from the work day that I can't concentrate at night. I can do some low-intensity administrative work at home but can no longer super-night-grind on anything meaningful. College students might scoff at my feebleness ... but trust me, you will get old someday too :)

Let's try to optimize

Now let's try to do a bit better. The optimized schedule on the right squeezes 3.4 hours of real work out of my day, which is over twice the amount that I actually accomplished:

Today
(1.5 hours of real work)

Optimized
(3.4 hours of real work)

In this hypothetical day, I would do real instead of administrative work in the awkward 9:30am–10am half-hour time slot before a meeting. I hate half-hour free time slots since it's really hard to motivate myself to do real work for just half an hour, so I just end up tending to emails. But again, no excuses! I've gotta try.

Next I would shorten my lunch break from one hour to half an hour, which gives me a 2.5-hour time slot to do real work. I usually do one-hour lunches when I want to socialize, but I would probably still get most of the benefits of a social lunch in half an hour. Also, I'd amp up my work efficiency from 50% to 75% during that time. It's impossible to sustain near-100% efficiency for 2.5 hours, so I won't kid myself.

Finally, I would squeeze 100% efficiency out of my 3pm–4pm work time, which I think is doable.

Let's try to optimize even more

Okay, let's carry this thought experiment one step further. What's the most that I could practically get out of my day?

Today
(1.5 hours of real work)

Really optimized
(4.5 hours of real work)

I would cancel my 2:30pm–3pm meeting, which was fun but not essential for my research. However, doing so means that I would've been obligated to stay until 2:30pm in my previous meeting instead of ducking out early, so that doesn't actually save me much time. Doing so expands my afternoon work slot to 2:30pm–4pm, but I doubt that I could grind at 100% efficiency for 90 minutes, so let's say that I do only 75%. Okay, that's not much of an improvement over 3pm–4pm at 100%. Interesting ... so a one-hour time slot might actually be better for productivity than a 1.5-hour slot.

The final bit of extra squeeze I could do is to blow off my 7pm–8pm administrative work (which I could do later at night at home) and instead crank on some real work for my final hour in the office. However, this would probably be hard to pull off since I'm already exhausted after a full day of meetings ... and getting hungry too.

Anyways, I'm not saying this schedule is realistic or desirable, but it does triple my real work time from 1.5 to 4.5 hours.

Future optimizations

The single biggest optimization I want to make in the future is absolutely no morning meetings. Ideally, I want my entire morning to be a three-hour block of real work. However, as a junior colleague, I'm still not yet in the position to unilaterally ditch all morning meetings, so I'll have to be patient for now.

Another optimization, which I already mentioned, is eliminating commutes to meetings. When I have my own office, I will host all meetings there whenever possible so that I can schedule them in contiguous half-hour blocks in the afternoons. Besides eliminating mid-day commutes, this could also eliminate schedule fragmentation.

In reality, as a professor, I probably can't get below 4 hours of meetings per day. So my dream schedule would be to have all of my meetings from 12:30pm to 4:30pm, thus leaving my mornings and late afternoons completely free for real (and some administrative) work!

Yet another classic optimization that's much easier said than done is to just say “No” more frequently to professional obligations. However, as a junior colleague, it's often hard to say “No” to senior colleagues. But I do have to try my best or risk getting overloaded and burned out.

One final optimization is to outsource some of my administrative work to my future grad students, especially when it is relevant to their research. This topic is delicate since I don't want to appear exploitative, so I'm not sold on it yet. However, to see why grad students have more than enough time for such occasional errands, see the next section ...

Postscript: Comparison with grad school days

Just to make me pine for old times, let's compare today's schedule with a typical day during grad school:

Today
(1.5 hours of real work)

Typical grad school day
(6 hours of real work @ 63%)

Back in grad school, even working at a leisurely 63% efficiency, I would usually get 6 hours of real work time per day ... which is ridiculous!!! I could take giant breaks for lunch and in the afternoons for coffee, meetings, or general screwing around with fellow students.

Also, I had almost zero administrative work throughout grad school since I was funded by no-strings-attached fellowships and had a hands-off advisor who didn't give me many errands.

Finally, I had both the energy and time to night-grind each evening on real work since I was mostly living by myself in a grad dorm and had nothing better to do at night. Plus, my friends were also night-grinding as well, so that was the thing to do.

(My undergrad schedule looked pretty similar, except I was usually in class from 11am to 4pm, but then I had a gigantic block of work time from 4pm to 1am each night.)

So if you're a student, enjoy those giant blocks of real work time ... you'll never get that again after you graduate.

Aside from crunching on deadlines, I never felt strapped for time in grad school. Thus, there was no need to optimize my schedule. Back then, the main limit to my productivity wasn't lack of time ... it was that I had no freaking clue what the hell I was doing and made a ton of mistakes throughout my Ph.D. grind.

In contrast, now I'm finally beginning to get the hang of being an academic researcher, but I have a lot less time to execute on my ideas. So the main challenge moving forward is to find ways to do more real work in fewer hours.

Created: 2014-01-22
Last modified: 2014-01-22
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