Monday, February 16, 2009

Time management for junior faculty

At SEAS this term we've been holding a professional development seminar for graduate students, basically an informal series of lunchtime talks in which faculty talk about issues like doing a job search, giving a talk, academic writing, and so forth. It's a great idea and touches on a lot of issues that I wish had been brought up in a more formal setting when I was a graduate student. Last week, Vinny Manoharan and I gave a presentation on time management, and this got me thinking about effective techniques for managing one's time, many of which I only learned as a new faculty member.

Of course, I continually struggle with managing my time, especially with distractions like e-mail and reading Digg while trying to get "real work" done. But in the last few years I've developed a few tricks that I find pretty helpful in terms of structuring my day.

The first is to protect my "deep thinking" time, namely, the mornings, when I get my best thinking (and writing) done. I generally disallow any meetings on Monday-Thursday before noon. (Fridays end up being my one back-to-back meeting day.) Not only does this give me a long stretch of uninterrupted time to work on papers or proposals, but it leverages the mental clarity and lexical eloquence that I only seem to manage first thing in the morning. During this time, I focus on writing and thinking, and avoid any kind of administrative distractions, preparing for class, or meetings. Those I save for the afternoon when I am generally mentally fried and the context-switch overhead is less detrimental.

The second is to carve out one full day of the week -- Wednesday in my case -- and have no meetings that day. Though I am only successful in this about 30% of the time, having a whole day with no meetings means I can really dig in deep into projects that I have been putting off, such as starting a new paper or -- gasp! -- actually doing some hacking. I really look forward to Wednesdays and they also give me a chance to catch up on things that pile up during the week.

The third big change in my schedule has been to think twice before agreeing to do something, whether it be to join in on a grant proposal with some colleagues, write a book chapter, or give a talk. Individually, these things might be great, but when I find myself with too many balls in the air my life gets really miserable and I end up thrashing just trying to stay afloat. Before I started at Harvard, Margo Seltzer gave me an invaluable piece of advice: learn how to say no. Although it's hard to imagine as a grad student, as faculty everyone wants a piece of you -- whether it be for sitting on university committees, helping to write a grant, serving on a program committee.... the list goes on. I've since learned that saying no is essential to keeping your sanity.

Lately I have been actively cutting back on my list of projects, and generally saying no to new projects (no matter how interesting they might be), unless they directly dovetail with something I'm already working on. I'm also saying no to any PCs at the moment since I'm cochairing Sensys 2009, and expect that to take up a significant chunk of my time from now until July. (Also, I somehow managed to find myself on five separate PCs at once not long ago, and that was a world of hurt.) It is very hard to do, since I don't like letting people down, and I actually really like having lots of varied things to work on. But having less on my plate means I can go more deeply into each project and hopefully keep tabs on everything without getting pulled in too many directions.

Of course, I told myself for a year or so that I wouldn't start blogging because the last thing I needed was another project... well, aren't rules made to be broken?


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Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.