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CAREER ADVICE

Why academics need to focus on structuring their time

It may well be the single most important predictor of well-being in academia.

By BRAD ÆON | April 25, 2017

When I started my PhD, the most frequent complaint I heard from senior PhD students was the lack of time structure. Incoming students were also terrified by the prospect of not having a fixed schedule after the coursework phase. This is not just a PhD student thing; the apprehension of temporal irregularity is shared by most human beings. Sociologists such as Eviatar Zerubavel have long argued that without time structure our lives would be far too unpredictable and fraught with anxiety. That’s why the first thing Robison Crusoe did after getting shipwrecked was etch marks on a wooden cross to create a calendar.

But many people don’t have what I call the Crusoe reflex – the habit of structuring one’s time. And that is the crux of the problem, for three reasons.

First, lack of time structure makes life much more unpredictable, and unpredictability causes anxiety in many people – studies show that people who structure their time are less likely to feel anxious and helpless. In the same vein, longitudinal research shows that unemployed people who structure their time have much better mental health compared to unemployed people who don’t.

Second, lack of time structure makes you work more. Without a clear schedule of activities, people can’t set reliable boundaries. When do you get off work – when you’re exhausted? When your colleagues are done? That’s probably a bad idea, according to Elizabeth Grace Saunders:

“People often stop when they feel too tired to continue or they observe their colleagues stop. But these signals aren’t helpful. Working to exhaustion means you’re less productive when you are working – and it can also mean you don’t have the energy to enjoy your time outside of work.”

Third, lack of time structure can make your social life miserable. We rarely think about it this way, but time, like Facebook or the telephone, is a network good – if you’re the only person in the world with free time (or a Facebook account or a telephone), you’re going to feel pretty lonely. That’s why we need to coordinate.

So what’s the solution? It’s (relatively) simple: if your organization doesn’t structure your time, then do it yourself. Treat your own schedule as if it were externally imposed, as if your job depended on it. (To a large extent, it does.) Having your own time structure will do wonders for your stress, anxiety, and work-life balance. Here’s a few concrete steps you can take to structure your time and reclaim control of your life:

  1. Adopt a fixed-schedule system. One of the most crucial insights I gleaned from my research on time management is that it’s better to assign time to tasks than to assign tasks to time, because time is finite, but the number of tasks you could potentially do is infinite. And the first step in assigning time to tasks is taking stock of how much time you actually have. That’s why I love the concept of fixed-schedule productivity, a system developed by Cal Newport, an MIT-educated computer science professor. His system is extremely straightforward:
  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

For example, my fixed schedule is 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; if there’s something I can’t squeeze into my schedule, I assume it’s not worth my time. I love this system because it shows you how much time you really have, and when you realize you don’t have a whole lot of it, you cut back on trivial tasks. It also makes my life more predictable because I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to get off work – no matter what happens I’ll be out by 4:30 p.m.

  1. Time-block your day. You’ve probably heard of the time management adage “If it’s not on your calendar, you’ll never get it done.” It is true. Research shows that people are more likely to get things done when they plan their tasks ahead. But besides its motivational power, time-blocking is the ultimate time-structuring technique, one that can turn chaos into harmony, stress into peace of mind, poor relationships into healthy work-life balance. You don’t have to plan every minute of every day; all you need to do is allocate a certain amount of time to broad, generic activities. When I’m writing a paper, for instance, I don’t plan to write the conclusion from 9:30 to 10:18 a.m. Instead, I dedicate a couple hours every morning to “paper development.” The most important thing to remember about time-blocking is that carving time for an activity means assigning a starting time but also an end. I always stop writing papers at 12:00 p.m., come hell or high water. I know it may sound rigid but at least I know what to expect, and that gives me peace of mind. As Kevin Kruse pointed out in his Forbes piece: “There will always be more to do; I will never be done. Highly successful people don’t just burn hour after hour trying to cross more items off their to-do list. Instead, they think through their priorities, schedule time for each, and then enough is enough.”
  2. Structure your time around social hours. Research shows that – surprise! – the hours you spend with other people are more enjoyable than those you spend alone. So, as much as possible, try not to work during what researchers call “unsociable hours.” Remember, the key to having a decent social life (especially for 21st century urbanites) is to synchronize your schedule with those of people close to you. You don’t have to be a certified project manager to pull that off. You can start by simply adopting a fixed schedule (see above) that works for you, your family, and your friends. If you’re more tech-inclined, there’s a plethora of digital tools out there, developed specifically to share and organize your schedule with people close to you. If you’re more of an all-in-one-system type of person, you can also share and synchronize multiple schedules with friends and family via a Google calendar. On top of improving your social life, time structuring can also benefit your loved ones. According to new research, children who grow up in families with regular, predictable schedules have better time management skills and lower attention problems later in life.

Structuring your time is the single most important step you can take to alleviate your anxiety, preserve your mental health, and allow yourself to indulge in friends and fun activities. We academics are blessed to have a flexible schedule, so take advantage of it and make it work for you.

Brad Æon is a PhD researcher at Concordia University. He studies the science of time management.

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  1. David / May 4, 2017 at 12:24 am

    I find structuring my time is a bit like cleaning and organizing my room. For a person like me, it provides me with a sense of order.

    If I’m working on a project, I find having a window of time I’m going to work within (let’s say 2 hours at a time) is much more conducive to a more controlled, orderly lifestyle as opposed to a project that gets away from me, where I don’t set any time limit whatsoever, and end up working for hours at a time. That almost always ends up with me as an anxious mess!

    Good article. I’ve not seen these thoughts put into words before but I certainly believe the idea to be true.

  2. Laura Servage / May 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Unstructured time doesn’t only have consequences for individuals — it effects organizations as well. As much as looooove having the flexibility that I do with my time (don’t we all) I’ve also seen it lead to collective inefficiency and even dysfunction when academics won’t or can’t coordinate their time for common projects, committee work, and department meetings. And many (again I’m guilty) also end up too busy because when you don’t know how you are spending your time, it’s easier to say yes to everything.

    While flexibility and independence are core to academics being able to do their thing, it seems to me that hyper-individualism and the ubiquity of communication technologies have made collective actions (and collectively enjoyed rewards) — both socially and professionally — that much more difficult to achieve.

    Related, recent article here: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Our-Hallways-Are-Too-Quiet/239406

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