Being a successful researcher – either as an established academic, ECR or PhD student – requires you to progress different aspects of your research, at different speeds, at different times. Although I believe in any one week a successful researcher should be devoting time to reading, writing, and thinking, the amount of each will vary. Not to mention the type. And of course, there’ll be other priorities too.
Working with researchers – again at all stages – I can see an understanding of what is a priority. What needs to be done. What should be done. And what is being done.
Thus, the question is not what to do, but what to do first. Or what to do now.
If this is you. If you are wondering what to focus on. Or when to focus on something, take the next few minutes to read, then ask and answer these questions for yourself.
Question 1: What is the period you’re interested in? Is it the next week? The next month? The next quarter? Until the end of semester? My suggestion is to limit the time to something you can manage. A year is far too long. A semester probably works if you teach. Same with a trimester. For my own work, I like focusing on 12 or 15 weeks. That fits with the programs I run and provides a long enough time to make progress and short enough that if I go off track I don’t veer too far away.
Question 2: What are the due dates and deadlines you cannot miss? Grants. Exams. Lectures. Marking. These are all potential examples. BUT only put dates in that you have committed to. For example, don’t put a grant due date in if you are not required to submit. Don’t put optional teaching or marking in. Just put what you MUST do. Now, block out time necessary to do those things well - e.g., lecture preparation; time chatting to students; time spent with your research team. Some people might call these urgent activities. Things you must do, but they are driven by people other than you and your priorities. For me, these are deadlines clients have for work. Because I offer programs, those delivery times and preparation are also included. As well as the complementary workshops I run each week.
Question 3: What would you like to do? So, above we put it what you must do. Now we’re getting to what you’d like to do. This question is central to your priorities. This is where we think about grants. Journal articles. Projects. Data collection. Data analysis. Some of the tasks might be annoying – e.g., ethics applications in order to collect data; writing grants to fund your research. Others might be more fun and directly relating to the work you want to do – e.g., collecting data; analysing data; reporting findings to peers. Put these dates in your diary. Again, block out time to do them well. If it takes 40 hours to write a grant, block out that time. If it takes three days to collect data, block out that time. If you like to chat with your team members for an hour each week, block it out. If you want to chat with them individually every fortnight and there are five members of your team, block out five hours every fortnight. For me, these activities are the programs I run. But they also include writing blogs, recording videos, calling prospective clients, meeting with prospective clients. Because some of these activities are flexible day-to-day, I make a point to keep blocks of time free for meetings. As well as keeping some days each week meeting free.
Question 4: When do you work best? A lot of people say they work best in the morning. And that probably means they work best just after they wake up. But their response is often to get up earlier in order that they have more morning. Instead, they should be putting the highest priority tasks first. So, if reading is a high priority, do that when you wake up. If writing is a high priority – do that. If just thinking about your work is a high priority – do that. Of course, you need to work when you work best. And that might be by making a plan, and then documenting what you actually do. That way you’ll be able to see when you work best and when you get distracted.
As part of the WYTI15W program I encourage participants to plan and track their week. In a recent meeting one participant noted they tended to stick to their plan in the morning and break their plan in the afternoon. So, instead of being annoyed with themselves, their response was to schedule the important things first. The implication being the afternoon could be spent doing activities that weren’t in today’s plan.
Question 5: How will you know you’ve done a good job? Too much of our work as academics is assessed by others. Peer review is awesome in some cases. But it is a terrible way to live day-to-day. Instead, you should have your own measures of success. Indicators that tell you have done a good job. So that might be streaks of days or weeks where you have read every day. Or written every day. Or given yourself time to think. Or where your plan and your actual work aligned. I measure myself by streaks. And the streaks I focus on are reading (20 min. a day); writing (a blog a week); engaging (calling or emailing people on my contact list).
Question 6: What will you do to celebrate victories? What’s the reward for completing a streak, or sticking to your plan? Is it a special meal? A special outing? The joy of reflection. I like tech and gadgets. So, my rewards are often purchases. Ones that enhance current gadgets or brand new ones. Sometimes the price is quite low (e.g., a few dollars). Other times the price is quite high (e.g., a few hundred dollars). And it could be an app, peripheral, spare part or an entirely new device.
Let me know how it goes.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research, and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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