By Melanie Mills, Research & Instructional Services Librarian, Western University
[This morning, Melanie – a longtime colleague and LIFE SAVER – visited my 20th Century Theatre class in order to offer some preliminary support around the time management exercise we are doing in conjunction with our research essay task this semester. More on that task forthcoming! Meanwhile, however, I’m thrilled to reproduce Melanie’s excellent blog post for our class website here… loads of cross-applicability for students and faculty alike. Enjoy!]
Time management is a tricky thing. Many of us – myself included – have managed to cope pretty well without any formal time management training or skill development. We keep track of where we need to be and when (e.g., scheduled lectures/tutorials, shifts at work, volunteer commitments) and somehow manage to cram all of the rest of life’s ‘stuff’ (e.g., school work, exercise, groceries, socializing) into the nooks and crannies that surround our fixed commitments. But wouldn’t be nice if we could do better than just ‘cope’ or ‘survive’? Wouldn’t it be kind of awesome to thrive? That is, to set yourself up to do your very best and to show others what you’re truly capable of? All without routinely pulling all-nighters or feeling guilty or embarrassed when you let someone, namely yourself, down?
Good time management involves setting goals, developing strategies to help you achieve those goals, identifying the tasks or activities that will help you enact the strategy, and prioritizing your time accordingly. It sounds like a lot, but it can be pretty straight-forward. Especially when you have the right tools to help.
This morning, we watched Oxford University’s Short Guide to Managing Your Time where we learned about the fixed (i.e., ‘rocks’) and fluid (i.e., ‘sand’) activities that make up the stuff of our lives. We also learned about the perpetual challenge of trying to fit it all in a finite amount of time. If we think about the work that entails academic research and writing, fixed elements might include: your assignment due date, essay length, and the minimum number of secondary sources you have been asked to use. Other fixed elements that may not be as obvious might include: the availability and demand for research sources (especially physical books in the library) and access to research support services (e.g., Research Help hours of service; Kim, Meghan, and/or Melanie’s time and availability for one-on-one support and guidance. The more fluid elements of academic research would include things like: when you decide to do your preliminary research and reading; how much time you decide to dedicate to these activities; and access to research resources and supports that are readily available at point of need (e.g., online, anytime), such as e-books and online journal articles. Generally speaking, you’ll have more ‘play’ with the fluid bits and much less control, if any, with the fixed elements.
If you think you could benefit from a bit of guidance identifying the various components of the research process, and how much time you might want to dedicate to each task or phase of the process, I would encourage you to consult Wilfrid Laurier University’s Assignment Planner. This tool essentially reverse-engineers the research process and provides guidance on how and when to engage in specific tasks and activities. This may be helpful to some of you, or not at all useful to others. I’ll leave it to you to decide and do with it what you will.
Now back to that video for a second…
The kind folks at Oxford also introduced us to something called a ‘priority matrix’. You may recall that after the video concluded, we plotted some of the discreet activities related to the Research Essay assignment for this course along the urgency and importance axes on the whiteboard at the front of the room. (For more information about the priority matrix, which is derived from something called The Eisenhower Box (Covey, 2004), Hekedemia.com has a pretty decent blog post on the subject here.) The goal of that exercise was to get you thinking about the relationship between and the time required for the various components that together comprise academic research. The ‘sweet spot’ on the priorities matrix grid is the upper right-hand quadrant: activities that are important but not urgent. If you can focus your energies and attention here, most of the time, you’re more likely to find that both your productivity and mental health will improve. (Caveat: this is my own, non-time-management-expert and anecdotal opinion only.)
I encourage you to use the concept of the priority matrix to help you plot and prioritize the research tasks that are ahead of you in the coming weeks. I know I’m going to use it…starting now!
Other handy tips from the aforementioned video to keep top of mind:
- One Diary (or, Journal, or Online Calendar) — “Plant all your big rocks into your diary, and let your sand just fill in around them“. See fixed vs. fluid activities, above.
- Timeblock — Assign a finite amount of time to each task. This will help keep you to keep focused, and will facilitate the all important balancing of multiple and competing priorities.
- Cluster — Schedule similar activities at the same time. E.g., library research, reading, on-campus activities, etc. You’re likely to be efficient if you do this.
As I mentioned in class, the research process is iterative. As you begin your preliminary research and reading, and uncover more about your topic, your knowledge will increase and your own thoughts and ideas will shift, evolve, or even metamorphosize entirely. This is normal! In fact, this is one of the most rich and rewarding aspects of information discovery and original research. But. It. Takes. Time. Good researchers not only allow for this time, they plan for and vehemently defend it! This is something to take into account when you’re thinking of the various tasks associated with planning for and conducting academic research. I would highly recommend setting aside dedicated time over the course of the coming week or two and to prioritize your preliminary research and reading, as well as define your thesis. But then, you already knew that, because you’ve mapped it out on your priority matrix. Right?! 😉
I hope the above serves as a helpful refresher to what we covered in class this morning. Remember, time management is about taking responsibility for yourself, your goals, your actions and their subsequent outcomes.
You got this! 🙂
Melanie Mills is a Research & Instructional Services Librarian at Western University, where she has worked since 2004. Actively engaged in teaching, research, and service to the University, Melanie is a status-quo contrarian interested in the now and future role of libraries and of librarians in institutions of higher education.