Saturday, April 10, 2010

Time Saving Strategies: Part I

I think we all find ourselves at the end of the day wondering why we've not accomplished anything in spite of being busy.  When this happens regularly, we begin to feel overwhelmed because we seem no closer to accomplishing our tasks, yet are exhausted because we've put in 10 or more hours at the office.

I've been thinking a lot lately about time sinks and how to minimize them or avoid them altogether.  Of course, to be successful at this, one must first identify these black holes and then eliminate them. 

For me, these time sinks fall into 3 main categories: 1. electronic communications (phone calls, email), 2. face-to-face communications (work interactions, office drop-ins, meetings), and 3. other activities that take time but don't contribute directly to scientific productivity (reviews for journals, administrative tasks, service).  This post covers the first category:
1. Electronic communications (phone calls, email).  This category covers those communications that involve an electronic device such as a computer or phone.  What distinguishes this type of communication (in terms of time management) is that we have a lot of flexibility in how, when, and where we participate.  We can often postpone or completely avoid some of these interactions if we choose--making this one of the most amenable time sinks to modify.  Many of the calls and email we receive are not important and simply waste our time. There are lots of self-help books out there about time management and how to deal with email. These books often suggest elaborate plans for creating folders and ways of handling email, but the simplest goal to strive for is to avoid the unimportant interruptions and delay the important ones until you are ready to deal with them, preferably all at once.

Here are some of the strategies that seem to work and are simple enough to readily incorporate into your daily routine:

  a. Don't check email constantly (this is a hard habit to break, I know).  Instead, limit checking email to twice per day, just before lunch and around 4 pm. Sticking to these two times allows you to get something productive done in the morning and afternoon and also discourages long email responses due to lack of time.

  b. In the evening or on weekends, don't look at email messages that likely relate to things you cannot deal with until you return to the office. This just sets you up for a night or weekend of worrying--just skip them until you get to your office and can take care of them.

  c. Delete (without opening) those email messages that are mass mailings, e.g., about office recycling, announcements, that don't require a personal response. Get a good spam filter and use it; identifying and deleting spam takes time.

  d. If I get an email that I'm tempted to respond to with a lengthy answer, I wait a couple of days before dealing with it. Often, the urge passes or some other correspondent says the same thing I would have said, but better. 

  e.  Don't answer phone calls from unrecognized numbers or from people who tend to waste your time.

  f.  Set your office phone to go automatically to voice mail and turn off the ringer. Then check your messages near the end of the day and return those that are important. If friends and family call you frequently during the day on your cell phone, turn it off and check messages twice per day (they will eventually stop calling so often).

Some of you probably have other really good suggestions for dealing with email and phone calls. Share them if you like.

Next, I'll talk about face-to-face communications, which require somewhat different strategies.

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