Time management tips

by John Q on October 20, 2004

If you’re reading this, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re in need of time-management tips[1]. On the other hand, the idea of a blogger giving time management tips is problematic, to say the least. Undaunted by this contradiction, I’m going to offer a few. The details reflect my main activity, which is academic research but may be more or less adaptable to other kinds of jobs.

First, the best way to avoid a piled-up in tray is to deal with jobs immediately, either by doing them, or by deciding never to do them. This won’t work for every kind of job, but the more types of jobs you can handle in this way, the better. So to implement this tip you need a way of classifying jobs. One way is by the time they are likely to take (see tip #2). IF you take this approach you can decide to do all 5-minute jobs immediately, or not at all. I prefer to focus on discretionary jobs where an immediate decision not to take the job is feasible. For an academic, refereeing for journals is like this. I try to deal with requests for referee reports in the same week I get them. If I have free time, and the job looks straightforward on a first reading, I try to do it within two days. Editors who are used to waiting for months really love a quick turnaround like this, and I live in hope that it will build up good karma for my own submissions. If I can’t manage a report within a week then, unless the paper looks to be very important, or I am obligated to the journal in question, I reply immediately that I’m not available. Editors usually don’t mind this, especially if I can suggest someone else.

My second tip is that the average 5-minute job takes about half an hour. This is an example of asymmetric risk. If all goes well, I might do a five-minute job in three minutes, saving a bit of time. But when things go badly, a job that should have taken five minutes cascades into a series of tasks that chew up an hour or more. The person you had to call doesn’t work there any more and when you eventually find their replacement it turns out that you’re missing some crucial piece of documentation, and while you’re searching for it the computer crashes and so it goes on. So, if I’ve accumulated 8-10 jobs that ought to take 5 minutes each, I find that setting aside an entire morning is usually realistic.

My third tip is particularly relevant for people prone to distraction, which obviously includes all of us here. My core business is producing academic journal articles (and the occasional book). In this business, it’s easy to drift along, reading lots of interesting stuff, making notes, and imagining you are making progress, but not actually getting anywhere. So in homage to Taylor and Stakhanov, I discipline myself by setting word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on. Blog posts don’t count, of course, though occasionally I can get myself an easy day by reworking blog material into academic output. This may sound crass, and it’s not appropriate if you’re a creative genius, but it works pretty well for me, and I think would work well for others in similar circumstances.

fn1. The obvious one is “Get back to work!”, but that wouldn’t do much for our pageview counts.



Russkie 10.20.04 at 11:08 am

Visiting blogs and leaving the occasional comment doesn’t necessarily impact work productivity. Most people have periods when they are very focused and other times when they absorb, assimilate, synthesize etc.

The productivity-killer is reading stuff that really makes you angry.


Doug 10.20.04 at 11:11 am

4. Don’t ever comment on blogs.

Tip #3 actually puts you in good company. I think Thomas Mann wrote at about this pace. On the other hand, it’s a question of finished prose. If your first draft is good enough for publication, you’re in the sweet spot. If you have to rewrite substantially, 500 a day is problematic.


Frank 10.20.04 at 12:04 pm

A time-management blog that builds on this idea is called ’43 Folders’. Its inspiration is a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. You’ll have to sort through the Mac programming threads or you can go to the ‘Life Hacks’ section:



abb1 10.20.04 at 1:18 pm

Once you’ve done everything that needs to be done – and you’re still required to be sitting at your desk for hours – what do you do then?


Juan 10.20.04 at 2:04 pm

Structured procrastination
is the way to go.


Kieran Healy 10.20.04 at 2:06 pm

Read Crooked Timber.


abb1 10.20.04 at 3:23 pm

A friend of mine worked as a computer programmer at AT&T in NJ once, about a dozen years ago, I guess.

According to him, it was extremely dehumanizing job: endless rows of cubicles, no human interaction whatsoever. Once a week a secretary would show up in the aisle of his cubicle-block pushing cart with the weekly assignments. That was a thrilling moment – work, meaningful activity! He would open the envelope (his hands shaking) and read: IN THE REPORT XYZ4567 MOVE THE COLUMN “12-month-overdue” 2 CHARACTERS TO THE RIGHT. Wow! Famous XYZ4567 report! For the first few days he wouldn’t even touch the assignment – just knowing that he has work was exciting. Then he would fix the report.

That was back in the dark pre-internet ages, kids.


Shai 10.20.04 at 6:35 pm

“Visiting blogs and leaving the occasional comment doesn’t necessarily impact work productivity”

my rule is to read them all at once during a well defined break, otherwise I end up suffering from “homework fatigue” every 15 minutes.

Quiggin’s writing quota is good, but I think it’s important that it be the first task you do before anything else. Otherwise you’ll end up overestimating your future motivation and/or underestimating the time required to fulfill the quota (which will vary). But it’s tricky when you have to pull together a lot of research, requiring rules about the scope of the writing task and very strict rules to discourage busywork (e.g. photocopying articles, making lists of references, background research that has little utility, etc).


HP 10.20.04 at 9:24 pm

Abb1, after consulting for several years, I finally broke down and took a salaried position. At first, I treated it like a consulting job–show up, get the work done, and get out. I took to requesting extra assignments just to keep busy (while colleagues appeared to struggle to keep up). Sometime after my project manager ran out of assignments to give me, I got called on the big boss’s carpet. She asked if I had any issues I wanted to bring up. “Not really,” I answered. “I could use some more work to do.”

She said, “Well, I’m concerned that you’re not spending enough hours in office.”

Shortly thereafter, I discovered the internets.


Al 10.20.04 at 10:45 pm

Once you’ve done everything that needs to be done – and you’re still required to be sitting at your desk for hours – what do you do then?

Do these jobs exist?

BTW – this comment is key: “4. Don’t ever comment on blogs.”


Mark 10.20.04 at 10:50 pm

In my last job, one of the worst I ever had, I had nothing to do for weeks on end so I would read the internets.

In my new job I have lots to do, but I still read the internets.

The difference is that in the first it was all I had to do, which made it dull and ennervating. Now that it’s recreation the internets are a nice break and a refresher.


barney 10.21.04 at 3:34 am

The one thing I fear in sending back referee reports for journals too quickly is that it will only encourage the editors to send even more papers to review my way. Still, it is nice to get them out of the way quickly — saves the time needed to excavate the piles of paper (or e-mail messages) that the articles inevitably get buried under.

Reviews of grant proposals, of course, get sent back to the beneficent agencies as rapidly as possible.


abb1 10.21.04 at 12:21 pm

I took to requesting extra assignments just to keep busy…

This is how you get in trouble. You shouldn’t hassle your busy boss and create additional headache for him/her by asking for extra assignments. They’ll hate you for that.


Nathan McDonald 10.21.04 at 12:28 pm

The productivity-killer is reading stuff that really makes you angry.

This is very true.

But you should all take a look at The Virtue of Idleness:

“It is a sad fact that from early childhood we are tyrannised by the moral myth that it is right, proper and good to leap out of bed the moment we wake in order to set about some useful work as quickly and cheerfully as possible.”


Giles 10.21.04 at 4:16 pm

500 words sounds ok but how do you count algebra? 500 “words of algebra” is normally enough to prove anything.


John Quiggin 10.22.04 at 2:11 pm

I have a separate, informal, algebra target, which can roughly be stated as “prove something new every week”. I tend to miss this target a lot.

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