Work tips: Manufacturing structure

Academia is flexible. Both in terms of the prescribed working hours (of which at times there are many, but they can happen whenever you like), and the things you do within those hours. In many ways, this is both a blessing and a curse. As someone who loves organising their own time and hates being told what to do, I mostly consider it a selling point. And the ability to sip my coffee slowly in the morning while my partner rushes off to their industry job is, well, a perk. However, it also means that, since pretty much everything runs off self-motivation and self-inforcement, if you’re in the middle of a motivational dip, even getting to work in the morning, and everything from there, requires disproportionate feats of willpower.

As such, for me, a big part of getting work done relies on manufacturing structure. Sometimes it’s focused around real deadlines, but often it’s arbitrary – I set myself checkpoints and deadlines, and fabricate emergencies, in order to get a reliable work output. The basics of this are pretty universal – breaking things down into smaller chucks, making timelines, assigning clear time limits for tasks I hate (“I’ll do exactly 15 mins of admin, then allow myself to do fun thing x” is better than procrastinating about doing admin all afternoon). The systems themselves have varied enormously though. Since repetition bores me (another perk of a science job: it’s a job in which you’re constantly learning new things, making it habitable for people like me), it means that I will invent a system, use it for maybe a month or two, get bored of it, then invent another system. So, January might be “I handwrite my tasks in the morning on a piece of A4 paper, then tick them off as I go along” month, while March turns into “3 work tasks on a colourful A5 piece of paper, and a smiley sticker for every 20 mins of work I do”. In case anyone’s interested, this month happens to be “Big Word document with all my tasks ever, and I pick out a ‘major’ + a few ‘minor’ things to focus on each day”. However, this month I have some extra help, which is exciting enough to make me dedicate a whole blog post to structure.

I recently came across an iPhone app called 30/30. I declare no conflict of interest, and either way, the app is free (full functionality, no adverts – they make money from selling people cute optional extra icons). The concept is really simple – you assign a set of tasks, with time for each one (e.g. sort email 10 mins, write manuscript 30 min, work break 8 mins), and it cycles through them continuously, sounding an alarm when your task time runs out, and you’re supposed to move on to the next one. I didn’t realise it would make much of a difference to me, since I thought this is pretty much what I do already – I assign time to tasks, then go and do them. However, I’m finding that it’s making a massive difference to my productivity. I think the reason for this is that when I’m ‘self-policing’, a part of my focus is actually dedicated to planning ahead, looking at the clock, trying to make sure I don’t lose track of time, etc. Or, you know, it isn’t, and then my schedule falls apart, and the 10 mins that was supposed to be spent sorting emails expands to an hour. With using the app, there is an external signal that I know will go off, so I can actually dedicate the entirety of my brain to the actual task at hand. This is super useful, since some of my favourite science tasks (reading literature, writing, analysis) are really immersive. And also, since there’s an actual allocated time for things like email, I don’t find myself sneaking a peek at it every few mins during my research time. It’s not meant to be super restrictive – if there’s a task I’m really into, I just pause the timer and go for it. However, for the great majority of the time, structure helps me channel my energy in a productive way, and it’s definitely a safety net for times when things aren’t going all that smoothly. For people without an iPhone or similar, while the interface will be less shiny, the same system can probably be replicated with a piece of paper and a timer.

Since I’m on the subject of productivity in science – here’s an awesome blog about it that I came across recently:

How about you guys? How do you organise your time? What tips do you find helpful?