PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Manage your energy, not your time
This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.
These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.
If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!
Here is Auntie Eva again with a post about planning or time management, I can hear you say with a sigh. But today, I’ll focus on one specific element of time management: you need to learn how to manage your energy (essentially, yourself – your raw material) if you want to be able to manage your time.
Why is this so important, you ask me. Because knowing yourself and being able to figure out what works for you is an incredibly important skill to learn. And you need to do the work yourself – nobody can come and tell you what your optimal way of managing your time and energy looks like.
If you’ve read some of the interviews on my “How I Work” series, you will find that there are no two academics with a similar way of working and managing their time. Of course, there are similarities between the answers. Some people work similar hours. Some people focus on the same priority (such as writing) first thing in the morning. But finding our optimal way of working depends on ourselves and our boundary conditions.
To explore how you can better manage your energy, I invite you to reflect on the following questions:
At what time during the day do I find it more difficult to concentrate?
Schedule lighter activities for the times of the day when your energy levels plummet. If your schedule allows, don’t work during those hours, but run errands or exercise instead. You’ll be able to return to work with a fresh mind. Try this method to see if it works for you. If your boundary conditions (for example, daycare hours) do not allow such experimentation, then schedule easy tasks for the time of the day when you are low on energy.
If you find it difficult to tell when your energy levels drop during the day, write down when you get distracted more easily, when you feel like reaching for coffee or something sweet, or when you simply are progressing more slowly.
Which amount of time is optimal for you to work on a task?
Some people prefer to dedicate the entire workday to one specific task, others like to use time slots during the day to juggle different tasks. See what works best for you. Try out different methods to evaluate these, and try them out for long enough time to have a fair comparison. If chunks of time work for you, figure out the ideal amount of time. For me, around 2 hours of time blocked in my planning, which often results in effectively 1,5 hours of time on the task, is what works best for writing. For other tasks, the length of the ideal time slot is different.
Do you prefer early mornings or late nights?
If your institution allows you to set your own schedule, see which schedule suits you and your energy best. Does getting up early and making a head start to the day work for you? Do you prefer to work late into the night if necessary? Of course, here you need to consider your boundary conditions again. If it isn’t safe for you to return from the lab in the middle of the night, then don’t do this. If you want to work late at night, arrange your tasks so that you can perhaps work from home.
When are you forcing yourself?
I like the idea of working a split shift (adding a few hours in the evening after my baby is sleeping). However, I’m often too tired to do any useful work at night. I’ve spent a lot of time with my laptop on my lap, not achieving much at all. If this sounds familiar to you, then admit that what you are trying to do is not working for you, that you are forcing yourself, and that you should find another solution.
What energizes you?
If you hit a difficult moment during the day, what works for you to recharge? Do you feel better and refreshed after a chat with your colleagues, or just the opposite? Have you tried going out for 15 minutes to walk around to a juice bar for some fresh green juice (Instagram-worthy, but not something I do)? Have you tried doing a few exercises (say, a few pushups or squats) to get your blood flowing?
What drains your energy?
Which activities distract you and drain your energy even more? How do you feel after scrolling through your social media accounts on your phone – with a head full of chatter or ready to return to your task? Is there a time during the year or day when the working conditions in your office are not ideal (noise levels, heat/cold…), and can you arrange your activities around this limiting boundary? Can you concentrate after a long meeting and return to your task, or do you need to “air” out your brain first?
Once you’ve been able to reflect on these questions and try out some different approaches to your day, you’ll have a better understanding of what works for you, and ultimately of yourself. Remember that what works for you changes as you change and as your boundary conditions change. Never stop making course corrections and adjust your way of working as you find it necessary. Consider this skill similar to learning how to find your voice in your writing – find your voice and what makes you unique in the way you work best and manage your time.