Is this what your days look like? Do the minutes of every hour literally seem like they are going down the drain? If you’re like me, you start your day, raring to go, with your to-do list in hand. With many people making demands on your time, it can be hard to prioritize what to do when, and your to-do list doesn’t get the attention it needs. By 9:30 am, you’ve got 15 e-mails to answer and 5 voice mails to return. Then you’re in the middle of a meeting with a big project to attend to and an emergency crops up, just as you finish your meeting at 10 am. You’re lucky if you finish one item on your to-do list. Days and weeks become a blur of activity without the results you expect – and need. What can you do?
Time Management for Research Administrators (and Everyone Else)
- Tame Your To-Do Expectations: Each day, pick three items on your to-do list you must accomplish in order to be successful that day – that’s all. Then work to accomplish just those three items. They need to be three things that are the highest priority items, that you must have completed. This exercise forces you to focus on what is highest priority, and also to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. If you can accomplish another item on your to-do list, great. Start with three items. (I’m lucky if I hit all three.)
- Anticipate the Unexpected: I love this one, because it means we embrace everything we HATE about our work, and make it better. Yes. The investigator that always turns things in at the last minute, or the colleague that we work with that forgets the form or doesn’t understand the rule, or isn’t good with numbers…in other words, the unexpected takes many forms, but it usually comes to us in similar packages. Plan for it to minimize its impact on your time. It will happen, it’s just a question of how long it takes you to deal with it.
- Maximize Your Peak Time: Everyone has a peak energy zone. If you can, try to maximize what you can do in that time, and steer clear of other activities. If you work in an environment where others can help you to do this, see if your team can get in the zone together!
- Use Technology to Your Advantage: There are tremendous time management apps and tools now to help manage time and workflow to keep teams and individuals on track. From project management software like smartsheet and 5pm, to social media aggregators like Flipboard, you can manage your time more efficiently and keep your team on track.
- Schedule Your Projects from Start to Finish: Use checklists, calendars, meeting dates, deliverables and other project management tools to schedule your projects (and keep your teams and PI’s) on track with deadlines. Having external deadlines to keep the team on track helps to maintain momentum until the project is done.
- Manage Up, Down and Sideways: Managing people is a skill and an art form. Managing your team members and keeping your managers in the loop is an important and time-saving skill that is worth cultivating. Miscommunication in the workplace can lead to a lot of time lost in getting things done. It is possible, and dare I say a vital skill to “manage from the middle” to move a complicated and multi-layered process forward. Watch others who do this well – practice your skills and ask for feedback.
- Hold the Line (As Best You Can): We are skilled professionals in a supportive role. It’s natural to want to give 110% and we do that as best we can, but we are working under marathon conditions – while the individual investigators we serve are sprinting to the finish line with a single grant, or progress report. We need to ensure compliance, and that the proper rules and processes are followed to protect our institutions, and quality work can be produced for each investigator that we serve. There are times (granted, only a few) when we cannot meet our investigators’ expectations. “Please produce this budget for an application that is due in two hours.”
- Go to Your Zen Place: You know it happens. Your favorite investigators take you down to the wire, making changes up until the application is due. I put a post it note on the corner of the computer screen and flip my desk clock over. I take a deep breath, and pretend that I have all the time in the world to finish, that it is not the day that the application is due. I send all my calls to voice mail, and tell myself it’s Saturday. Find your happy place to clear out that adrenaline.
- Use your Smart Phone: I use my smart phone alarm and Outlook calendar to remind myself to leave the office by a certain time each day (a terrible alarm goes off), and to schedule regular activities to see that I’ve accomplished them. I always have my phone with me if I’m in a meeting, so its an effective way to make sure I’m staying on track.
- Feel a Sense of Accomplishment: Addressing external issues and requests that come up in a timely and efficient way is a GOOD thing! Keeping items off your to-do list is superb time management. Make sure you capture your accomplishments for reporting purposes and celebrate your efficiency.
The work of research administrators is complex and highly interdependent, relying on inputs from department colleagues and central offices. Keeping on track and managing time is essential, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Having a realistic sense of what can be accomplished each day can help to make the work we do more satisfying and a bit less stressful.