I usually reserve a few work-free days at the beginning of the year to set some large, visionary goals. Now that the exuberance of those new, lofty goals has dissipated a bit, I’m left with the unfortunate reality that executing those goals is harder than dreaming them up.
Responsibility is inversely correlated with free time
The more I attempt to do in life, the more I realize that I don’t use time wisely. It’s like when you start your first year of college, you think, “Gosh, I had so much free time in high school! Why didn’t I use it better? Now I’m so busy!” Then, you start your first year of graduate school…. then you start a job… then you have a baby…. then you have a business…. With each progressive taking on of responsibilities and goals, you realize that your previous phase of life had “so much more” free time.
Well, I suppose there’s no real solution except to start using our time as productively as possible. I’ve been brainstorming and implementing some new systems in my life, and I’d like to share them with you. It all starts with tracking your time.
Allot a specific amount of time for each portion of your project.
Parkinson’s Law states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this. If you have three months to write a term paper, do you ever complete it in less than three months? Of course not. If you have two years to write a dissertation, will you complete it in less than two years? If you get an extension, will you use the full extension? Yep.
If you begin a task, knowing that you only have a certain amount of time to complete it, you’ll work more efficiently. Remember, giving yourself more time will not necessarily mean the finished product will be any better, it’ll just be later.
How does this work in real life? If you’re writing an academic paper, you’ll need time chunks for reading related literature, collecting data, analyzing data, writing up each section of the paper, finishing the first draft of the paper, editing, re-writing. How many hours you assign to each task could vary greatly. I’ll give an example of how this might look, based on a classic research paper:
- Read related literature, taking notes along the way (60 hours)
- Write a preliminary literature review (10 hours, usually about an hour per page)
- Collect/code/transcribe data (100 hours)
- Analyze data (40 hours)
- Write the methods section (10 hours)
- Write the findings section (10 hours)
- Write discussion (4 hours)
- Write the conclusion (4 hours)
- Writie the introduction (2 hours)
- First edit of the paper (10 hours, 5 if you’re very proficient at editing)
- Re-write the paper (10 hours)
- Second edit (5 hours)
- Re-write (3 hours)
- Proofread (2 hours)
It’s more than a little intimidating to see all those hours written out. That’s my intention. :) And, yes, I am saying that it could take up to 70 hours to actually write the paper, from start to finish. When was the last time you budgeted 70 hours to write a research paper? Well, maybe that's why you finished at the last minute on New Year's Eve! Sadly, the paper was probably in not as good a shape as you would have liked, too. But this is a new year, with new possibilities.
You have a lot of work to do, and it’s not just aimlessly sitting down at the computer to “work on the project.” Each section of the project must be completed, and each section takes time, a lot of it. But, you know if you don’t limit the amount of time on, say, reading related literature, you could spend years reading related literature before you write a single word.
Time chunk with your calendar.
Plug chunks of time into your calendar, and identify what you plan to work on, with the next action. Wednesday morning, from 8-10 am, you might plan to read related literature, and you’ll identify at least one article or book that you will start with. Or, if you’re collecting data, you could schedule Monday 2-5pm to transcribe interviews or code data. With each phase of the paper, plan what chunks of time you’ll use for each part of the process.
Track your time!
Last year, I tracked every minute of my day for a full week (read about the good reasons to track your 168 hours, and take a peek at my surprising 168 hours). This exercise was invaluable for the insight it gave me in how much time I actually spend with miscellaneous chores, working, playing with my kids, relaxing, and sleeping. I highly recommend this exercise.
This year, I don’t feel as much need to track every minute. Instead, I’m going to focus on tracking my time for major projects. I do this already for clients, but now I’m also tracking the time I spend writing blog posts, on Facebook, on Twitter, creating YouTube videos, strategizing in my business, and planning future content.
I use a web application, Harvest. (Nope, that's not an affiliate link; I just think it's an awesome app!) The monthly fee is $12, but it’s completely worth it, if you’re serious about holding yourself accountable to how you spend your time. Here’s a screenshot of my Harvest page today. You can see that I’ve put in about three hours of work this morning.
Imagine leaving your desk for the day, feeling like you didn’t achieve much. You look at Harvest, and, sure enough, only 3 hours were tracked for that day. Well, then, tomorrow you’d best stay on task.
You can run reports on how much time you track, daily, weekly, monthly and on what specific tasks. So, each month, I could tally up how much time I spent blogging, how much time I spent on social media, and how much time I spent planning the business.
Think that paper is taking forever to write? Instead of relying on your emotional feeling of “a lot of time,” you’ll know exactly how much time you’ve spent so far. There’s a 30-day free trial, if you want to give Harvest a test run.