Time – can you ever really ‘manage’ it?

This post is co-written with Pat Thomson, who is simultaneously publishing on her blog ‘Patter’. If you haven’t already, head on over there and check it out!

A little while back, we co-wrote a post on writing which we wanted to ‘simulcast’ on each of our blogs. Writing this first post was surprisingly easy given all the technology at our disposal. We chatted on Twitter, then switched to email for longer conversations, all the time writing into a shared Google doc. For two people who had only ever met in ‘text’ this process was remarkably smooth.

What wasn’t so easy was managing time.

Inger lives in Australia and Pat lives in the UK. One of us was generally asleep while the other was awake. Our messages travelled instantaneously, but the text lay dormant for slabs of time while we waited for the other person to wake up and answer an email. Trying to publish on our blogs at the same time was particularly challenging. We missed one window and then caught another while Pat was travelling to a different time zone.

In some ways our technologically mediated world  time and space have effectively collapsed, while in other ways the tyranny of distance is as present as ever. Here’s the meditation on time and writing we produced as a result.

Taking time

Academic work is temporally greedy. It eats up days and weeks of thinking and reading time and that’s without even taking into account the analysing and writing time that comes after. Various demands compete with one another for priority – which one deserves and needs more time.

Taking time is intimately related to feeling in control. If you feel you are able to take the time that something needs, then you also feel in control. This feeling can be in short supply when writing a thesis but it’s a mistake to think that things change a lot when you finish. There is Never Enough Time to do every project you are interested in.

Saving time

The best advice Pat got as  PhD student was that having good information systems was ultimately a really big timesaver. Yes, working out the filing systems and entering all the data on bibliographic software is a pain at the start, but it pays off in spades at the end. There is nothing quite like seeing the reference list for a 100,000 word text get done in a few seconds. Or being able to find something you read years ago really quickly, just by doing a word search on Endnote.

The best time saving advice Inger got was to write your own notes like they are for someone else. Don’t expect to remember everything you were thinking at the time you read the reference. You should be writing your thesis as you take notes. One trick which Inger thinks she learned from Pat was to use active verbs in your notes. Academic writers ‘claim, ‘argue’, ‘outline’ – they don’t just write. If you choose the right verbs while you take notes you can often cut and paste those notes straight into your manuscript.

Spending time

The best time is the time you don’t realise you’re spending. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe what happens when you re completely immersed in something. You start working and then look up a bit later and hours have passed.

Flow happens when the challenge is a bit beyond your skills and knowledge and the task is also engaging and meaningful. That’s the best kind of academic work – it’s a bit beyond you and you want to work on getting it sorted. If it’s easy to do it’s probably not intellectually where you need to be working… but if it’s hard, yet the time still flies then it’s likely to be a good, as well as fulfilling, piece of work.

Missing time

But, just as people who go out on drunken benders wake up the next morning and find they cannot remember whole chunks of the night before, it’s easy for time to go missing as you immerse yourself in the Flow. While much day to day life can be ‘fast forwarded’ without too much pain, some of this important missing time is precious and can never be restored.

For example, Inger doesn’t remember much of her son’s first couple of years at school as they were lost in the blur of PhD. It’s fair to say she has some regrets about this and has tried to be more ‘present’ in the years since.

Just in time

Pat finds that blogging has joined the other long list of things that are done just in time – doing reviews, writing conference papers, getting the marking done. She is usually a lone blogger so getting the blog written is a weekly task – it usually happens before the shopping on Saturdays. She blogs and then publishes. However she’s noticed that more people read the blog during the week so she is now is thinking that the just in time writing needs to change. She needs to write to suit reading time, not vice versa.

Inger hates doing ‘just in time’ – it makes her nervous. Instead she makes sure to under promise and over deliver in relation to her deadlines. Luckily she is helped by many blog collaborators, but makes sure she always has a few blog posts half written which can be tidied up Just in time to publish.

Well we are Out of time for  more. But we are wondering about your thoughts on time – do you suffer from Missing Time or Just in Time? Let us know in the comments!

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28 thoughts on “Time – can you ever really ‘manage’ it?

  1. Ohh this is really timely for me, I have been thinking a lot about ‘managing’ time lately and the fact that for so long I thought time management was taking a huge list of everything I wanted to get done and pretending I could do it in a much shorter time period than I could. Now I have realised that real time management is being honest about how long things take. It always ‘seems’ like I should be able to update the website I manage for art historians in 15 minutes, but really it usually takes an hour. It ‘seems’ like a good idea in the morning to plan to work until 9pm at night, but in reality my brain will usually wear out by about 6pm. And so on.

    • Being an honest with a schedule is probably the best advice if you’re feeling like you’re losing yourself in your chores. Technology is meant to help, but in the end it distracts more than it should.

    • So true – it’s kind of sad isn’t it, that putting down achievable goals looks on paper like you aren’t doing enough. I find it helps to keep a retrospective list of what you did each day. These ‘real lists’ help you plan forward with more accuracy.

      • Ohh good idea. That would hopefully also help with that sense that I’m never really achieving anything…

  2. I could not agree more about taking notes and using wonderful things like Endnote which I am actually feeding as we speak, erh, write. :D Especially for me working in literary studies taking extensive notes may eat a lot of time in the beginning but in the end it means that no matter how many months/years have gone by – I won’t need to ever go back to read the damn book again.

    And maybe as a tipp for time schedule on blogs. Since I’m posting daily in my folktale blog and writing daily would mean goodbye phd I just prepare a bunch of posts over my one-day-week-end-saturday and then either schedule them to post themselves or log on long enough to click publish. :D

    • P.S.: Another thing which took me a while to figure out is that some stages of writing a thesis just take the time they need. For example, I cannot start writing something down until I have the structure of it fixed. So until then I just move around my bullet points or actually do something completely different (like watch tv) and then it’ll click and there is that flow you were talking about. I used to stress myself out about losing all that time and being so unproductive until I realised it’s just a case of sorting things subconsciously.

      • Oh MY is this my struggle right now. Because I am “late” in finishing my degree, moving things around on an outline or even ADDING to an outline feels like “not writing.” How long will I “not write” I imagine that my cohort members and advisor want to know! But then when I abandon those activities and tell myself, “Just write!!!” I then end up wasting even MORE time creating false drafts. I just spent 4 hours reading and distilling what I read into notes attached to an outline in Citavi. I then had to calm myself down about having done THAT instead of “writing.” Hmm! To help soothe myself in the future, I will try to remember to recite your words, berlinickerin: “Some stages of writing a thesis just take the time they need. For example, I cannot start writing something down until I have the structure of it fixed.” That is me for sure when it comes to the amalgamation of complex theory. Best to allow it the time it needs in order to honor the work! Now if I could only burn that sentiment into my being!! ;-)

      • Yes, I’m still struggling with that last part. I guess it because there is this weird imagination of how work should be done and having to stop and well, stare, does not fit. So everybody feels like the worst procrastinators when it’s just as often actual work of sorting through stuff. :D

  3. The idea of ‘managing time’ is a misnomer. ‘Managing ourselves’ is a more accurate reflection of the ideas associated with ‘managing time’.

    • Yes–I read somewhere that the idea of TIME management is an illusion! We only manage activities–i.e. the ceasing and starting of activities, or the “in-depthness” or “thoroughness” or “briskness” of an activity so that more or less time remains for other things.

  4. This post just reminded me that I also wanted to write about this topic, but… never made the time :). Interestingly, though, some time ago I was reading an article by Dave Navarro on “More time now: Time management made simple again” (in fact you can download his free 40-page manifesto at: http://www.rockyourday.com/moretimenow/ ). The key message is that if we just make a few consistent baby steps to change some of our ingrained habits we can free up an incredible amount of time. In fact he gets very specific to state that 3 changes a day = 1000 hours/year! Well, I thought the manifesto (not sure I like this word) is worth reading. And I thought it was worth sharing all this here.

  5. Pingback: Clearing the desk. « Philip and Mary

  6. Worth noting with the publication of your blog: I find I get the time to blog on a Sunday morning, and generally publish straight away. However, wordpress allows ‘scheduling’ of blogs, so you could still write when it suits you, but publish later in the week, or on a Monday morning. This is a great feature that can help you feel ahead of the game. Enjoying reading both this blog and “patter” too. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  7. Hi everybody, I’m a newcomer in researching and writing, and I’d like to ask you what would be a good way to take notes about papers ¿in the same pdf? in a notebook? I would really appreciate your help

    • Hi Ariana, a piece of advice that I always give my students is the following: prepare a template file with the following fields: title, authors and journal (for easier retrieve later on); nature of the paper (theoretical, computational, experimental); aim of the work; why was the study undertaken (i.e. importance in the wider context); approach/method used for data taking; approach/method used for data analysis; key findings of the study; implications for the wider context; limitations of the study; conclusions and outlook. Of course you can modify the fields based on the specific needs of your subject. Once you the template, every time you read a paper you can fill in the key aspects in the appropriate field. This will help you greatly when, several months after reading the paper, you need to remind yourself what it was about without having to read it all over again. Also, if you are consistent, and do the same for every paper you read, it will be a lot easier to summarise everything in your literature review. And it will assist you in your final write up. It also gets easier with practice. I hope this helps. PS In fact, I have just put a template on my website. Click on the image and you can download it directly. http://www.marialuisaaliotta.com

    • Hi, Ariana.

      So, the form that Marialuisa shared is excellent. I have a VERY similar method/form. One question is Where will you collect all of your forms? You could answer the questions on the form in your bibliographic manager–something I later discovered that Peg Boyle Single, author of Demystifying Dissertation Writing (see http://www.amazon.com/Demystifying-Dissertation-Writing-Streamlined-Process/dp/1579223133/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337645845&sr=8-1) advocates.

      A great, FREE academic all-in-one memo-making/source management/outlining/quoting/note-taking piece of software is Citavi. For each reference you create or import in Citavi, you have the following pages: overview, reference, content, context, quotes, tasks/location, and preview. On the content page are huge text fields for pasting in the abstract and table of contents and for writing your evaluation of the resource. In the evaluation field is where I recorded my answers to all of those questions like those on Marialuisa’s form. I then used my answers to those questions to write an annotation for the reference. This is how I generated my annotated bibliography for my literature review.

  8. Based on my experience the key to manage time effectively is with self discipline. I also manage time and before I start to work I always see to it that I list the entire that I’m going to do for the day. Then, I organize it depends on priority level and set an estimated amount of time when working on each task. It helps me stay focus on tasks, limit wasted time and improve productivity. The key that I can follow scheduled tasks and finish it on time is with self discipline. That also helps me ignore work distractions and finish tasks on time. Take a look at this productivity review http://reorg.co/timedoctor-review-2012-04/ of a tool that I also used to track time accurately.

  9. Pingback: 5 time management ideas… from part time PhD students | The Thesis Whisperer

  10. Great post! I was wondering about the ‘additional time’ one spends in going through notes one makes maybe in a seminar, during a webinar or a lecture. I find I never go back to those notes and they remain forgotten in my notebooks. Any recommendations about managing notes that may not be exactly related to one’s research, but if revisited may spark some interesting ideas?

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