How to make the most of your time

One of the things I love about my job is the freedom I have to organize myself as I wish. I can come into the office whenever I want. I don’t have a boss constantly looking over my shoulder. And I have the ability to adjust my work hours to suit my needs and preferences. That said, this freedom makes time management a challenge, especially when one is under pressure to be very productive. In this post, I give 5 tips that help me focus on my priorities and work in a concentrated way.

1. Start your day with your Most Important Task (MIT)

It’s the best way to make sure you do it. As the day progresses, new and urgent tasks will likely arise and the time you have available for your MIT will continue to diminish.  In addition, the more you progress through the day, the more tired you become and the less cognitive resources you have to focus on demanding tasks. Early in the morning, your mind is still fresh and more efficient. So, starting your day with your MIT allows you, in the long run, to be more productive on the things that matter and, in the short run, to feel the satisfaction, early in the day (at 10 or 11 o’clock), of having accomplished your most important task.

To identify your MIT, ask yourself the following question: What is the one thing I could do to help my career (or any other important goal you might have)? For many of us, the MIT is writing an article or a grant proposal. But it depends on what stage you’re at. If you’re beginning your Ph.D. thesis, your MIT might be creating the material for your study. 

How much time do you need to allocate to your MIT each day? It’s better to set aside a short amount of time and to be sure you’re going to achieve your goal than to be overly ambitious and not manage it. If you are very busy or if the idea of working on your MIT makes you panic, I would advise aiming for 25 minutes. 25 minutes isn’t much, but it’s enough time to accomplish short but important tasks. In 25 minutes, you can make a list of the points you want to address in your introduction, find 3 articles relevant to your thesis, write an e-mail to your co-authors, etc. Moreover, 25 minutes is enough to get you started. Getting started is often the most difficult part. Once you have started, it is easier to continue. 

2. Set yourself small goals each day

It is useful to have long-term goals. They work like a compass that points the way. However, in everyday life, big goals are often frightening and overwhelming. So once you know what mountain you want to climb (i.e. what big goal you want to achieve), forget about the summit and focus on the path ahead. Setting small goals helps you focus on the task at hand, and because they are more numerous and easier to achieve than big goals, they offer regular and immediate rewards.

Start each day – before or after you work on your MIT, as you wish – by evaluating how much time you have available to work on your tasks after taking into account meetings, lab work, or other appointments you have already scheduled. Make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish during this time and estimate the time needed for each task. If a task takes more than 2.5 hours, break it down into smaller tasks. Prioritize all your tasks and start with the first task on the list.

3. Work intensively for short periods and take regular breaks

The best way to make the most of your time is to work in a focused manner. It is difficult to maintain concentration for long periods of time, but it works well for short periods of time. I like to work in sessions of 25 minutes followed by a break of 3 to 5 minutes. I use my daily goal list to give myself a clear objective for each work session (for example, my session goal now is to write this section) and I don’t allow myself to do anything else until the 25 minutes are up. Every two hours, I take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. 

Breaks are not only necessary to focus on work, but they also improve mental well-being, creativity, and provide an opportunity to spend time with other people. Breaks are particularly effective if, during this time, you engage in an activity that does not strain your cognitive resources and takes your mind away from work. During short breaks, you can go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, stretch out, look out the window, or go to the balcony or the garden if you have one…  During longer breaks, you can go for a walk, do sports, eat a healthy snack, socialize, enjoy a quiet moment, listen to music, meditate…

4. Monitor your activity

To manage your time effectively, you need to know where your time is going. So try to keep a daily record of the activities you do. For that, you can enter your activities in your calendar or use a time tracking application.

I use Atracker and I love it because it’s easy to use and cheap (this post is not sponsored; I really love it). Atracker works on both iPhones and Android phones. There’s a free version as well as single cost and monthly cost versions. In the application, I have a category for each project. I press the category button as soon as I start working on it and I press it again when I stop. The application records the time spent on each project and provides daily, weekly and monthly summaries. Pressing this button and knowing that I am accumulating hours of work has become a ritual to get me started. And I feel so happy at the end of the day when I look at the summary and see that I’ve managed to do a lot.  If Atracker is not your thing, there are many other time tracking applications, such as Timeular or Hours. However, I cannot recommend them, as I have never used them. If you know these time tracking apps or other good ones, please feel free to share your experience in the comments.

An alternative to time-tracking applications is to take a few minutes each day to write down in an Excel sheet the activities of the day (e.g. data analysis, writing, editing, organizing…), the projects you worked on, what you accomplished during that time (e.g. how many words you wrote), when you started working and how long it took you. It’s easy, free, and it allows you to easily analyze your time allocation.

Tracking your activity enables you to know where your time is going and to estimate the time needed for each task or project. Tracking your activity is useful for goal setting because it provides an accurate measure of the number of hours or days you need to complete a certain task (for example, write the first draft of your introduction). It is also useful for analyzing your productivity. How many words (or lines of code) have you written this month? How many studies have you completed? Are you more productive in the morning or in the afternoon? Are you more productive on certain days of the week? Using objective data to analyze your productivity greatly helps demystify some of the preconceived ideas about what you need to be productive and improve your workflow.

5. Accept the fact that there will always be more work to do

You can work a lot, you can be very efficient, there will always be more to do. There will always be more papers to write, more great ideas to test, exciting new collaborations… It’s endless. So, rather than feeling sorry for it, I try to accept this fact and be happy with all that I’ve already managed to do in one day.

These tips are the five habits and attitudes I try to build on in my daily work to make the most of my time. I hope you find them useful. What are yours?

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