A central tenet of many time management and personal productivity systems is that you need to spend more of your time doing those activities that are more important for reaching your goals, and less time doing those things that are less important. For instance, The Power of Focus, by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Les Hewitt, suggests “You must invest most of your time every week doing what you do best, and let others do what they do best.”
These authors go on to offer the “4-D Formula” for sorting through your tasks in any area of your life:
- Dump It: decide not to do it at all
- Delegate It: figure out who else could do this task
- Defer It: schedule a time to do it later
- Do It: move forward now on tasks that contribute to your most important goals.
David Allen offers his own version of this in chapter 7 of Getting Things Done, suggesting that delegating some of your tasks to other (perhaps more qualified) people can free up your time and energy to pursue your highest priority goals. For instance, you might choose to hire an accountant rather than prepare your taxes yourself, thereby freeing up a few hours of your time and perhaps reducing stress. Of course, each of us has to figure out the value of one’s time versus the economic cost of hiring someone to do yard work, home repairs, and so forth.
But even if you don’t currently pay to have someone else change the oil on your car or fix the leaky faucet, you probably understand why some people do. Such arguments in favor of delegating lower-priority or support tasks make sense in the realm of domestic life. But for many academics, delegating professional tasks to someone else just isn’t an option. Most time management books have a strongly corporate or entrepreneurial focus that assumes work contexts that include support staff and professional tasks that involve collaborative teams. In contrast, most faculty perform their own clerical support tasks and don’t have colleagues who can take care of the less exciting work.
So, how can you delegate? By delegating to yourself: your tired self, your less motivated self, the self you know you’ll be at some later point in the week or later in the semester (unless you’re superhuman, in which case you’re probably not reading ProfHacker). Here’s how:
- Identify small tasks
- List and group them
- Track your progress
Identify small tasks that will contribute to your priority goal.
In order to delegate appropriately to yourself, you have to figure out which tasks both need to be done and could be done on less brainpower. If a task doesn’t really need to be done, then by all means just take it off your list.
Most of us instinctively already group together some of our small tasks — doing several errands on one afternoon, or waiting to walk over to the library until we need to pick up more than one book — and you probably already do those things when you’re not at your peak performance. (After all, why go to Target right now if I could be writing a few pages?)
But with a little reflection, you can probably identify several small tasks that would help you move forward on your highest-priority project but that don’t require your highest level of energy. For instance:
- checking citations
- requesting items from inter-library loan
- entering data
- running bibliographic searches
- scanning or photocopying research material for your files
- skimming the table of contents of recent journals in your field
List and group these small tasks.
Designate a specific list or notebook for keeping track of these small tasks as you identify them. Getting in the habit of adding to your list while you’re working at your higher level will help you to stay focused on your priority task. For instance, while I’m writing, I often come up with etymological questions that don’t need to be answered right then. I can jot those down on my list for later, satisfying both my brain’s need for distraction and my writing’s need for focus. Later, when I’m tired, I can go to the OED and take some notes for the next day’s writing session.
Grouping similar tasks like scanning, database searches, and so forth, will help your brain-tired self work through the list. Make it easy for yourself, just as you would for a novice research assistant. Some people find it helpful to jot down an estimate of the time it would take to complete each task, or to group tasks into 5-minute, 10-minute, and 15-minute categories. You want to make it easy for your future tired self to pick up the list and just choose something to do.
Track your progress.
One of the challenges of academic work is that your day-to-day schedule may vary widely, as well as your week-to-week schedule. Especially at the end of a long day of teaching or at the end of the semester, as meetings and grading pile up, it can be difficult to keep your priority projects in view and to feel like you’re making progress on them. Rather than only delegating tasks that contribute to lower-priority projects, like photocopying the handouts for next week’s committee meeting, I suggest that you also make a point of delegating tasks that contribute to your highest priority research project. That way, even when you are not able to sit down and write brilliant prose, you can still make some progress towards your larger goal and gain a sense of accomplishment.
Tracking your completion of these small tasks by crossing them off your list, keeping a daily log, or simply putting a check mark on each calendar day in which you worked towards your priority project, can help you see your incremental progress. Working on small tasks on a busy day when you won’t be able to fit in any high-quality writing or research time can help you stay connected to your larger project. Your subconscious mind is always working on your priority project, even when you’re sitting in meetings; feeding it a little extra information by filing some notes, gathering some citations, or even just rearranging some books on your shelf can help it work on the larger questions and problems you’re solving, so that when you sit down for your next session of high-energy, focused work, you might have made more progress than you even knew.
Make it Easy For Yourself
One of the fundamental principles of Getting Things Done is that you should match your actions, or tasks, to the context of available equipment and available energy. But when you are already tired, you’re less able to make clear distinctions and decisions. Delegating your future self a list of clearly-defined tasks means you won’t have to scan a list of tasks when you’re tired and try to decide which one would be easiest. It makes it easier to use those small blocks of time more productively if you don’t have to think too much about them.
And, finally, be nice to your assistant, whether you actually have one or fulfill that job for yourself: after completing a few things on the list, give your tired self some down time, so that you can get back to your priority project another day.