Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Things I didn't know before becoming a professor: #5 How to manage my time

Grad school is an exercise in working independently. 

What I mean by working independently is this:  Your daily activities are barely supervised.  Your long term activities are heavily scrutinized and harshly judged. 

You must master this skill in order to finish a PhD.  You must have a PhD to be a professor.  So.... You'll be all set.  Right?

This covers a lot of careers, not just academics, but being a professor provides an extremely lightly constrained schedule.    On one hand, in this, grad school prepared me for the challenge of controlling my own time.  On the other, it gave me a false sense of confidence.  I was driving so well in the parking lot, and then I pulled into midtown traffic at rush hour.  And I'm driving a go-kart.

In grad school you learn how to motivate yourself. You can read another paper, or you can watch another episode of The Sopranos.  You can write up an experiment or you can play one more hour of Halo.  Or you can just go to the beach.  Once you're done with classes, there're no midterms coming up in a month.  No papers due in two weeks.  Just an uncomfortable meeting with your advisor, where you can make small talk and rehash previous discussions and results until the meeting is over and you think you've played it off. (You haven't, btw.)  Most people figure this out.  There is a wealth of advice about how to get off your rear and get work done.  There are theories and apps and support groups and better blogs than this devoted to the subject.  So I'm going to assume that even the most procrastinative of professors (my wife lovingly refers to me as an "epic time waster") have a set of tools at their disposal to handle the inevitable distractions and failings of motivation.  

But here's where it goes haywire. The breadth and depth of things that need to be handled on a given day is far greater than what was expected in grad school.  This isn't revelatory. Its to be expected; its much more responsibility.  The diversity of responsibility is as surprising as anything else.  Being a professor requires you to teach, write grants, mentor grad students, handle bureaucracies (internal to the university and externally), manage budgets, foster relationships with a broader scientific community, attend conferences, project meetings and site visits, and do some research.  Its not too much; its very doable. But its much more faceted than grad student responsibilities ready you for.  As a grad student, your responsibility is typically to do your research, and occasionally teach or take classes.  There is relatively little necessary by way of prioritizing which of many projects and tasks need your attention.

I see the challenge in transitioning from student to professor like this:  The motivational chops you honed during grad school have made your job as entertaining and rewarding as TV, video games and the beach.  Now, you need to repurpose them so that the frustrating parts of the job are as entertaining and rewarding as fun parts.

Everyday I make two lists. One: things I want to do. Two: things I don't want to do. Things I want to do usually includes reading papers, and writing code, some errands, grant ideas, sometimes course planning.  Things I don't want to do are typically bureaucratic. Plus I've got a rule that if I've put the same task on the "want" list for three days running, my attitude has outed itself and its actually a "don't want" kind of thing.  Through the day, I go one for me, one for them.  One from column a and one from column b.  And everyday there are a couple of things that I don't want to do, that I've found some way to avoid doing.

I've tried a lot of approaches to bring order to the responsibilities that being a professor entails, the most basic lessons I've learned are these.

1. Write everything down.  I've got a decent memory, but there's no way that I can keep my schedule and the status of each students project and other milestones and what I was thinking about yesterday at hand without a lot of notes.

2. Let go.  Days are not long enough.  When I go to bed, there is always something left undone.  Make sure that it's not something truly important.

3. Do a little bit of soul-sucking work first thing in the morning every day.  This keeps it from building up leading to dreaded days that are totally eaten up by it.  Spending a full day on bureaucratic maintenance to dig out is something that (I sincerely hope) no grad student ever has to grapple with it.  I treat this like the nuclear option; it's a clear sign that I've made a bunch of time management mistakes in the previous week/month.

4. Keep on top of email.  Even when traveling or facing down a deadline.  (See above.)

One thing I'm still trying to get my arms around is managing my time for priorities of different durations.  Handling tasks for the day or week is pretty easy.  Pegging against milestones like paper and grant deadlines, presentations at conferences or grant meetings, is pretty easy. It's harder for me too keep a longer perspective and give enough weight to the task that's not needed in 2 weeks, but one that might have impact in 2 months or 2 years.  This medium- to long-view is harder to maintain and harder to integrate into daily priorities.

Get a little better every day.
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