April 16, 2012

Task Mapping and Time Management for Academics

Last week we talked about goal setting and defining tasks. Since this is a challenging topic for most of us, I thought I'd break it down a little more. The idea of task mapping comes from business, but we can apply it directly to our academic writing tasks. The general idea is that you select a very defined segment of time and then think about what task or micro-task you can do within it.

The beauty of this approach is that by focusing in on one tiny task per half an hour or 45 minute session, you minimize the anxiety surrounding the enormity of the task at large. Chances are that you decided to do academic work because your mind likes to solve problems. Put that strength to work by giving it lots of little, defined, workable problems, rather than a nebulous general to do list.

For instance, instead of 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. “Work on chapter 3” or even “Work on chapter 3, section x”, try really mapping out your time:

  • 2:00 – 2:45: Draft two paragraphs on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 2:45 – 3:00: Break (Get up and stretch and walk around the room—don’t check email!)
  • 3:00 – 3:45: Draft two more paragraphs on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 3:45 – 4:00: Break and write down action steps for the next day’s work

If you like to work in pomodoros (segments of 25-30 minutes), you could try breaking it down even further:

  • 2:00 – 2:25: Write 50-100 words on the effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes
  • 2:25 – 3:00: Break (Get up and stretch—get a quick beverage, no email!)
  • 3:00 – 3:25: Find reference for effectiveness of small tutorials in writing classes and see how it fits into the section

If you don’t have drafting tasks that day, you can still use this approach for your other dissertation related work. So instead of “draft one paragraph of Chapter 3, section I,” maybe your task will be “Read article x and take notes” or “Read article y and see how it fits into the introduction of Chapter 2.” Or “Address adviser comments on Chapter 3, pages 1-3.” See how specific these tasks are?

If this is too micromanaging for you, you can try being a little looser and more freeform (like Benjamin Franklin with his schedule in the image above), but at least try doing the micromanaging approach for a couple of sessions just to see how it works. You might find that it feels more comfortable that it sounds, and that you get a lot more done.

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