I felt like I had spent the whole summer working without a vacation, and still my to-do list seemed endless. After spending a few days feeling frustrated and stressed at my lack of progress, I started reading up on how people manage to get it all done. It turns out there are a few tricks for managing your workload that I found very useful:
Take baby steps. When faced with a large task, I used to try to find a big block of continuous time to complete it. It was a challenge to block out such long slots in my schedule. Even when I managed to find the time, after a few hours I would get tired and lose concentration. This made the task take longer and caused me more stress. A better technique is to plan to do a smaller portion every day, and assign multiple sessions to the task. That way, you’ll come to your work with fresh eyes and operate at peak efficiency each time. Tasks get done faster with less mental pain!
Figure out your prime working hours. I find that if I work late into the night, I make more mistakes and wake up tired and cranky, so there isn’t much point in imitating my night owl colleagues. For me, the best time to work is immediately after I wake up, when I feel the most refreshed and focused. Figure out when you can concentrate best and do the most difficult or important work at that time.
“Open the file.” Sometimes I simply cannot motivate myself to complete an unwanted or boring task, so I procrastinate too long and get into trouble. Often, the hardest part is just getting started. This approach aims to address the problem. The idea is that if you get yourself to metaphorically “open the file” and jump into the project, you tend to work on it. Before you know it, you’ve made some progress.
Stop firefighting. I found that I was constantly dealing with tasks marked “urgent” and could not get anything done on other projects that were important to me. Color-coded, prioritized lists and turning off my email helped somewhat, but I needed more. To that end, I found the Eisenhower Decision matrix really useful. It helped me learn to prevent long-term projects from reaching the “urgent” state, and focus on what really mattered to me. It introduced an element of strategic thinking into my planning process.
Take a walk. Sometime the stress from work or other tasks can seem overwhelming. It becomes difficult to find energy and motivation, every task seems harder than it should and even ideas for research seem to dry up. You need inspiration and fresh air! Timely breaks, especially those spent walking or exercising outside, can wake your brain and freshen your mind. It helps calm the nerves and sparks creativity.
Arti Agrawal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.