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Time Management: A practical approach and philosophy

November 2002

"There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way."

(Christopher Morley)

You have and must take primary responsibility for managing your time and career. Although nobody "wants" you to fail, the innumerable demands placed on you by division chiefs, department chairs, spouses, and children may make it seem impossible to succeed. So how do you do it all and keep sane? Is it possible to achieve "balance" in the workplace, let alone between work and family? This month, we will give an overview of issues relating to time management as well as discuss some strategies for analyzing how you actually spend your time and how to begin to take control of your time. Remember, time is your most important commodity. Setting your priorities and taking the initiative to organize your time can not only result in increased productivity, but also lead to decreased stress and a sense of optimism towards work and life.

A story

"I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, "Okay, it's time for a quiz." He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. "How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?" he asked.

After we make our guess, he said, "Okay, let's find out." He set one rock in the jar...then another...then another. I don't remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, "Is the jar full?"

Everybody looked at the rocks and said, "Yes."

Then he said, "Ahh." He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, "Is the jar full?"

By this time we were on to him. "Probably not," we said.

"Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, "Is the jar full?"

"No!" we all roared.

He said, "Good!" and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, "Well, what's the point?"

Somebody said, "Well, there are gaps and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life." "No," he said, "that's not the point. The point is this: if you hadn't put these big rocks in first, you would never have gotten any of them in!"

Covey, S.R., Merrill, A.R., and Merrill, R.R. First things first. New York: Simon & Shuster; 1994, pp. 88-89.

Some practical philosophy

  1. Don't let your time be nickel and dimed away. Time is precious, perhaps our most precious commodity. We tend to spend too much time on short-term urgent matters, even important ones, that do not contribute to the quality of our work. That leaves little or no time for reflection and long-term thinking essential to personal and professional success. Do the most important things first! You need blocks of time, measured in hours, to think about what you are doing, to plan for the future, to write the all-important papers and grants.

  2. Is "balance" an oxymoron? Not if you think of balance as a dynamic process, like an ongoing chemical reaction between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements in your life, where the rates of reaction in both directions can vary. Most junior faculty have three major tasks to perform: teaching, doing research and writing, and service. Add to that the 24 hour a day responsibilities for child- and elder-care, in addition to maintaining a sane, emotionally and intellectually satisfying private life and you have a recipe for potential chaos and certain stress. It is extremely easy to become discouraged and lose self-esteem, feel isolated. Balancing the functions of collaborative colleague, productive scholar, and effective teacher is extremely difficult, but can be done by focusing on their coordination and timing. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and desperate, try to stay calm and work for balance.

  3. Think about how you organize your workweek. At work, make sure all three functions receive quality investment. No one function or part of your life, such as research and writing, gets put on the back burner (unless research and writing are not viewed as essential for the professor, department, and / or campus). Try hard to prevent "negative spillover" of your professional duties into your family and private lives. Protection of your private personal space and commitments is very important.

  4. Be flexible. Just remember, at any given time, one part of your life may take precedence over another.

  5. Know the difference between excellence and perfection. Most of us are overachievers. Balance is possible when one is striving for excellence but not if your hidden agenda is perfection. Striving for perfectionism can quickly cause you to become a frenetic workaholic and lose balance and perspective. Realize that you may not always succeed. Do not become discouraged when you fail.

  6. Do not complain about your lot in life. You may not have control over your work or family responsibilities, but you can choose your attitude. "There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way." (Christopher Morley). It is important for your own quality of life that you enjoy your job. If you know broadly what you like and dislike, you will be more able to move your job towards doing things that you enjoy. This is important, as you are much more likely to do your job effectively if you love it than if you loathe it. Note that almost every job has tedious or unpleasant elements to -- it is important that these parts are done properly. It is up to you over time to minimize this.

Some practical advice:

  1. Find out where your time really goes (at work, at home, or overall).

    A. Make a list summarizing how you actually spend your time, e.g.,

    time demands estimated required time/day %waking hours
    1. childcare 4 hours 25%
    2. work 8 hours 50%
    3. household chores 2 hours  
    4. playing with kids ??  
    5. personal time ??  

    B. Make a piechart.


    C. Identify your priorities.

    D. Is there a discrepancy?

  2. Take charge of your time.

    A. Set priorities--define tasks.

    Examples: Quandrant I: crisis (e.g., family member ill)

    projects with deadlines
    (including family, personal issues)
      Quadrant II: relationship building

    increasing skills

      Quadrant III: school bake sale

    some meetings (will e-mail or phonecall
    work just as well?
      Quadrant IV: junk mail


    some phone calls

    Your goal is to spend as much time performing tasks in quandrants I and II. Most people spend time in quandrants I and III. Constantly driven by time pressures, they feel out of control and stressed. Quadrant III is where you can make the most impact in re-organizing your time-by allowing you to say NO, delegating or using shortcuts (e.g. buying instead of baking cookies for the school bake sale) for tasks in this quadrant, you can free up time for more significant activities in your life.


    B. Set limits.

    Department chairs and division chiefs have their own list of obligations that they must fulfil. It is their job to delegate out the myriad administrative and clinical responsibilities needed to keep the organization running. Unfortunately, many of these tasks, although vital to the well-being of the hospital or division, do not necessarily buy you points at promotion time. In fact, they take away precious time from functions (e.g., research) that are crucial to success. Still, you need to be seen as a good citizen of the department. Doing so means you are going to feel a tension between speaking up or going along. Many times you need to put your oar in the water with everyone else, but there are times when the courage of your convictions, well presented, can add important dimension to your chief's or colleagues' understanding of your contribution to the department.

    C. Negotiate deadlines.

    D. Delegate.

    E. Make time for personal time.

    Close your door. It is imperative that you give yourself "quiet time" during which you can think, plan and write.

    Take your vacations. No one notices when you don't. Everyone will notice when your work or temperament suffers because of overwork and stress.

    F. Do double-duty wherever possible.

    Combine your work with graduate students and directed studies courses, with the kind of research you are doing. Go to conferences and come out with names and research ideas. Bring speakers to campus; it gives both of you visibility and it gives you a good future contact. While many interpret service in terms of participating on departmental, campus, and professional organization committees, service brings the added benefit of networking. This means building positive relationships with colleagues on one's own and other departments, working up collaborative projects with colleagues next door or continents away, and expanding one's professional support system first begun perhaps in graduate school.

    G. Create an accordion file folder with the following files (delegate this task to an administrative assistant!!): planned goals and developments, teaching activity, teaching evaluations, clinical activity, bibliography/scholarship, university service, public service, honors/awards.

    Try to add something to your CV every month. Doing so forces you to think about what you have accomplished and to look at the kind of story you want to tell about your career. Every time you perform some professional activity, make a note and throw it into the appropriate file. This can serve as an invaluable resource and save you a tremendous amount of time as you prepare your file for your performance appraisal.

    Tip: Keep track of your teaching evaluations! In many institutions, you are responsible for seeing that these evaluations are available for review by the promotions committees. Explain to students at course evaluation time the significance of what they are about to do in your promotion and tenure process. Many students and housestaff have no idea that their evaluations matter. While you shouldn't solicit support for your application for tenure, it is important for students to realize that what they say can have a real impact on your future. It can be extremely difficult to track down students to obtain evaluations from after they have graduated and moved on!