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Students: How To Get a Ph.D. and Have a Life, Too

Richard E. Baker

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Did you ever wonder how you can get more done in less time? How can you get your assignments completed, meet with your study group, spend time on research, complete the exercises, write the required papers before the deadline, and continue to develop your dissertation? Where will you find time for your job with all the necessary courses, research, and documentation? If you have a family, how will you fit time for your spouse, children, and home life into your already busy schedule? Where do you find the time for shopping, cleaning, fixing, running, and most importantly, time with the children? Lastly, how will you possibly be able to relax and get some rest?

The answer is effective time management.

Time Masters

After many years of observing individuals in industry and academia who have successfully mastered the art of time management, the author wished to share with other students some of the more effective techniques. The one covered here is a combination of the most commonly used techniques. The central theme of success for time masters is the ability to juggle the many demands on their time with the limited time in their schedules.

Everything we do is a function of time management; whether we schedule it or another does. Everything that happens is a function of timing, whether ours, someone else's, or just a function of nature. Time is the logical river in which we live and it flows continually, unstopped by any dam. It has become a personal and psychological medium within which each of us experiences our own internal time and an external time imposed by society, schedules, deadlines, work, and academia. (Ventura, 1995). One method by which we can be freed from these demands is to withdraw from society to a log cabin in the woods -- or we can become adept at time management.

Why Time Management is Important

One of the most prevalent, but underestimated, problems for graduate students is time management (Quilty, 1996). Demands on one's time seem to increase while the available time to accomplish things seems to decrease. The idea, of course, is to never let the demands for time become equal to or greater than the time available. Occasionally, however, this does happen and your prowess as a time master will be tested. Your ability to manage your time will greatly influence your future success in academia, industry, and society.

Factors of Time

The pressures to manage time have not always been a factor in society. Before the railroads began to run over one hundred years ago, time was not as important as it is to people today. Before this, local time in New York did not relate to any particular time in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tokyo, or even in London. It was not important to have everyone on a coordinated time. (Ventura, 1995). As our society has become more industrialized, our focus on time has become more intensified. Today, in our technically advanced and networked world community, time is essential to the coordination of meetings and events of all kinds. Almost everything we do is set to a time schedule. The result: people who feel that they are being driven by the schedule instead of setting it. (Nickerson, 1992).

Getting Control

How can you identify yourself as an ineffective time manager? If you experience any of the following, you may have time management problems: constant rushing, frequent lateness, low productivity, low energy and motivation, frustration with schedules or deadlines, impatience, chronic vacillation between alternatives, difficulty setting and achieving goals, or procrastination (Covey, 1989).

Everyone is allocated the same number of hours in a day. Yet how do some people feel like 24 hours is not enough while others manage to get their work done and still have time left over to enjoy themselves? People who effectively manage their time have learned to put a little discipline and structure into their lives. They focus most of their time and energy on what is most important to them. They minimize the time they spend on activities they see as personally unimportant. Essentially, by putting a little structure into their lives, they have learned to manage themselves (Covey, 1989) and focus their available time on the activities which they see as important. Their greatest tools are planning, setting priorities for activities, juggling the demands into an overbooked schedule, defeating procrastination, and keeping focus on what is important to them.

The Key is Planning

The key to effective time management is planning. This involves a series of goal and priority setting. Time planning is an exercise in matching the activities you either must accomplish or wish to accomplish with the time you have available. The first step is in setting the overall goals and determining the steps or activities you need to accomplish to reach the goal. Once the activities are identified, priorities can be assigned to each. Then, using the priorities, match the sequence of activities to the allotted time in your schedule. This allows a managed approach.

Effective time masters use a combination of time plans; short term and long term, daily, semester, and academic career. The short term plans should supplement or assist the achievement of the long term plans. Then, by focusing their energies on the priorities of the tasks in each plan, the larger goals can be met.

Take a few minutes to write down your goals for your academic student career. This can probably be stated in one or two sentences. Then, write down your goals for each academic period to help achieve your career goal. Then, write down your necessary goals or activities for the current academic period in chronological order, everything you must accomplish as exercises, assignments, papers, tests. Next, write down the activities or goals for the current week. Some of the items on the current period list may be included if they fall into this week.

Lastly, write down your goals or activities for the day. This is the first step in learning to juggle your time demands. Make sure to include all the tasks you need to perform today. Remember to include the family, work, and social events. Now, assign times to these tasks.

Obviously, there will be days in which the activities fill more time than is available on your timeline. So, one must set priorities: what must be completed; what is good to have completed; and what can wait until another day. As stated above, concentrate on the important activities and accomplish tasks according to priority.

Setting Priorities

Perhaps all your activities are important. No one ever has the ability to do only the ones they please. But, which to do first? To help define priorities, review each task and decide its manner of importance to you and the urgency with which it must be accomplished (Covey, 1994). Then assign the task to one of the following priorities: 1, 2 or 3.

A Priority 1 is a task you must accomplish today. It is important to you and it is urgent (Covey, 1989). Sometimes, other people will impose these tasks upon you. Sometimes they are simply a carry-over from a previous day, but the task's deadline is near. For example, a forgotten assignment that is due; or, your spouse cannot pickup the children after work; or, one of the children is ill and needs to go to the doctor. Priority 1 tasks must be accommodated into your day and often make you feel as if you are in crisis management. Obviously, you should work to eliminate Priority 1 tasks from your list whenever possible.

Priority 2 tasks are items that are of greater importance than urgency (Covey, 1989). Priority 2 tasks advance you toward your greater goals. They are characterized by your planning, balance in your schedule, and discipline toward accomplishment. For example, all tasks toward your overall goal of completing your dissertation should fall into category 2; plan time for doing your email and phone messages; spending time with that special someone in your life or with your family; and, vacation is a planned and important activity. The effective time manager's goal is to always work with Priority 2 tasks.

Last is priority 3 tasks. These tasks are usually not important to you; but are urgent for someone else. This is the priority where tasks go that are due to a lack of planning by someone else. Their lack of planning does not justify an emergency for you. Priority 3 tasks are typified by ringing phones with solicitors, inane email, and unproductive meetings. Work priority 3 tasks into your daily list when you have extra time (maybe never).

Plan your Daily Schedule

One of the best tools is the individual's daily to do list. Write down a list of the activities you must accomplish today. This is usually all the items in Priority 1. Then, review your list of Priority 2 and 3 tasks. Add any of these that must be accomplished today, or for which you have planned time, to the list. Next, assign times to the activities and place them in chronological order for the day. Assign times by priority and begin compromising with schedule, location, importance, and the many other factors with each activity. This planning activity is the juggling. The final list becomes the planned timeline for the day.

Review the list for any changes in priority. Priority 1 tasks should not be carried over past the completion date; they should be finished. Priority 2 items should be on the list and completed by their planned day for accomplishment. Consider deleting Priority 3 items from your list when you are sure they will not become Priority 1.

Use a Mind Map

The daily list is usually accomplished at the same time of day each day. Most time masters do it at the end of the day so they have the evening to review the activities in their minds and mentally prepare for the next day. Some do it early in the morning so they have the timeline fresh in their minds as they begin the day. This is building and using a mind map: a logical view of the activities, their sequence, and locations for accomplishment of the next day. It helps time managers prepare themselves, prepare their resources, and meet the challenges of the busy day just a little more effectively.

The next step is to work your planned schedule. However, the time master is always prepared for interruptions or changes (Ventura, 1995).

Review the Goal Lists

Keep the long and short term goal lists you created earlier. The first list, your academic student career, should change only slightly before you graduate. Major changes will be in research area, not necessarily in major discipline. The second list, the academic period list, will change only to reflect your changes in study or research. The third list of the current academic period will change to reflect any new and important activities you add to your family, social, work, or academic calendars. Make sure to plan them appropriately as Priority 2 tasks. The weekly list will change more rapidly and will often be dropped after the time master becomes comfortable with using the daily lists in conjunction with the academic period list. The daily list becomes the action plan to execute the larger, multi-week plan of the academic period. Thus, the time master really works from two lists, the daily and academic period, and keeps the others as a long range planning maps.

Defeat Procrastination

A few simple words about the time manager's greatest enemy: procrastination. These simple words are: do it now! Use a few tricks to help yourself stay away from the desire to put it off. Schedule nasty jobs for specific times and reward yourself upon completion with some special treat. Think about how good it will feel to have the job completed instead of dreading to do it; and then having to work overtime to complete it. Sometimes, students become overwhelmed by the size of the overall job. If the job is too big, break it into manageable pieces. Once it is in manageable sizes, the individual parts can be addressed and worked into an overall plan of action.

Help Yourself

Ask yourself this question: "Is what I am doing at this time moving me towards accomplishment of my tasks?" If not, stop wasting time on it. Time is a non-renewable resource and is flowing constantly. Why waste this valuable resource on things that do not aid you? Keep your focus on activities that truly help you accomplish your short-term and long-term goals.

An often overlooked item is one's prime time of day. Select your prime time of best operation; whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening. Use this time to your best advantage because it will be your most productive. A time manager often utilizes this portion of the day to accomplish most of the tasks on their daily list. It will be to your benefit to know when you are most effective.

When possible, set aside dedicated time periods each day to accomplish routine activities such as e-mail, study, and time with the family. This allows one to focus while keeping routine matters from expanding to fill the entire day.

One of the largest contributors to time management failure is overly aggressive planning. Setting overwhelming lists and accomplishing only a small percentage of tasks will make you feel depressed and unproductive. Instead, set conservative plans so that accomplishing some major percentage of the tasks will allow you to feel productive and eager to meet the challenge again the next day. A sense of accomplishment helps you to feel in control of your time.

Flexibility -- the Most Important Attribute

As everyone knows, no plan is executed without some change. So will be your action plans. Effective time masters always allow for change. They build extra time into their action plans for unplanned interruptions. As a fact of life, everyone has them so you need to plan accordingly. There are always those little interruptions such as: your dissertation advisor; the dean called; your family has an emergency; or any of a multitude of other events of daily life.

The critical success factor to time management is flexibility. You must be able to set goals and priorities; and, then build an execution plan with schedule. Secondly, you need to work that plan to the best of your abilities within the time you have allotted. Lastly, plan for change. Anticipate that some thing or things will interrupt or cause change in your daily list of tasks. Allow at least one half hour for unexpected events and make sure it is part of every day's plan.

A key element of managing the daily plan is the ability to reassess and modify your objectives. By periodically reevaluating the plan, deviations can be minimized and the successes of the day can be assured. Be flexible and modify your plan to still meet your overall objectives. Every day brings you one step closer to your goal.

Conclusion

The author offers this article with the hope that other students will benefit from the experiences of others who have already joined the ranks of effective time managers. The ability to manage one's time and many demands will determine the success of the individual in the future, regardless of path. The time master is the individual who follows a daily plan; never forgets family or work as a major part of that plan; and always allows for interruptions by family, friends, and peers at work. A critical source of support, often forgotten by busy students during their research, is their family and their friends.

Lastly, remember to: Plan your work. Work your plan. Plan for change.

About the Author

Richard E. Baker is the Manager of Human Factors in Computing at Electronic Data Systems Corporation. He is also a doctoral student in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA. His research interest is in the semiotics of information systems. Richard can be reached at bakerri@scis.nova.edu or dbaker@mig.eds.com.

References

Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster Inc.

Covey, S.R. (1994). First things first: To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster Inc.

Nickerson, R.S. (1992). Looking ahead: Human factors challenges in a changing world. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Quilty, S.M. (1996, November). Managing time and workload in college: A weight and balance problem. Flight Training, 48-49.

Ventura, M. (1995, January-February). Prisoners of time: The age of interruption. Networker, 19-31.

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