Making time for your research

One of the hoariest chestnuts in the fireplace of research productivity is the issue of finding time.

A common lament that greets many of my suggestions for personal research development plans is “I don’t have the time!”.

This is almost always true; we’re all busy people with multiple, often competing demands on our time. Just about everyone in academia seems to be over-committed, and being asked to do more with less.

What is also true, though, is that things can change.

The albatross of lost research time doesn’t have to hang around your neck.

As well as cheesy metaphors, this post offers suggestions for ways of finding more time for your research; they’re all things I’ve found to be effective and well worth pursuing.

1. Block out regular time to focus on your research.

This is a foundational part of any successful time-management. Ideally, we’re talking about a full day at least, or several half-days, to allow momentum to build. Trying to carve out an hour or so here or there isn’t the most useful approach because doing serious research and writing requires a certain depth of immersion in the literature, data, and thinking space. To this end:

  • Consolidate teaching times/days. Try to organise your teaching, prep, and student hours to be across as few days of the week as possible.
  • Only attend meetings that are constructive and where it is essential that you are there.
  • If you work best from home, try not to have any reason to be on campus during research time. Similarly, do not do any housework/errands during your research time.

 2. Engage with extracurricular stuff that stimulates thinking + writing.

A cohort arrangement (such as Shut Up and Write) can be extremely effective for regularly urging one’s project or writing forward. It also counters the debilitating isolation that comes with writing up your research work. Other forums that might work for you include research cluster get-togethers, monthly lunches with collaborators or mentors, your active school seminar series or public lectures, or academic association events.

A regular shot of sociable productivity that keeps research on your radar is a healthy thing.

 3. Be vigilant about the ways in which you waste time.

If you’ve got a PhD, chances are that you are also a master procrastinator. You may find that freeing up your day means cutting loose from the constant drip-feed of distraction offered by the interwebs and your nifty little phone. In saying this, though, I’m not opining that you must cut yourself off from social media or email; if these are tools that help you move a project ahead, or plan fieldwork, or collaborate on an article, use them as much as you want.

What needs to be separated out is time that is wasted, such as when you:

  • Find domestic or administrative chores to do because you can’t face the blank page of a grant application or article.
  • Answer irrelevant-to-your-research-emails just because they are in your in-box. Or leave your phone turned on when you’re not expecting a call that’s relevant to your research.
  • Invite distraction with an open office door (just shut it; you are not ‘hiding’ from your colleagues, you are prioritising your research).
  • Browse what conferences or locations you might get to in the next year or so. I know, I know, this rarely happens…
  • Get yourself caught up in academic or institutional politics that don’t have constructive outcomes.

 4. Use deadlines that work.

If you have discipline, self-set deadlines can work beautifully.

If, like 98% of us, you tend not to have a consistently effective amount of discipline, you can lean on external triggers for finishing drafts, applications, or proposals. You can use a friend who won’t let you get away with fudging a due date, or promise things to journal editors and senior colleagues; avoiding shame can be a constructive research endeavour (partly joking here…partly). Working to deadlines can be very liberating when writing up your research. You can’t endlessly faff around. You have an end date set, and your job is to get the piece of writing as good as it can be by a particular production timeline.

If possible, cultivate several items at once. For example, have one piece for which you are working on the literature review, one near finalisation, and another going through peer review or submission. Knowing that you have pieces of work moving through all these phases of conceptualisation, writing, and publication offers a gratifying momentum, one that also serves you well for the track-record sections of grant applications.

The most effective element of planning your deadlines (self-set or externally triggered) is that they are realistic. There’s no point setting yourself up to fail. Look at your weekly schedule with a pessimistic eye and work out how much time you’ll get each week (at a conservative maximum) for your research once you’ve blocked it out. I’m always overly optimistic about how long writing an article will take, yet can be pleasantly surprised at being able to put together a conference presentation in half the time I’ve allocated. I  plan for more time than I think I’ll need. This is especially true of getting grant applications to submission.

5. Beware the time-sucks that can masquerade as research work.

There are some research-related tasks that can take over your world if you let them. They’re harder to judge at times because they are pertinent to your research. Sometimes, though, you can fall across the line between doing your research and stumbling into a time-suck. Make sure you’re not:

  • Fiddling endlessly with your referencing database, and thinking it’d be great to rejuvenate it for the nth time.
  • Building up spectacular piles (or files) of articles, books, and book chapters that you never read.
  • Talking with peers about your research all the time but not actually doing any of it.

It’s rare that a person can’t find any time at all to set aside for their research. It’s more often the case that there’s a need to re-prioritise your working week, and to have a consistent approach and clear plan as to how you will use precious research time.

An important thing to remember is this:

Your research days should never be considered ‘free time’.


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