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Tips on how to improve research productivity and time management

How a proactive approach and blocking out time in a busy schedule will help you to maximise your output while effectively managing the finite resource of your time
Illustration of woman viewing a clock and time demands

How a proactive approach and blocking out time in a busy schedule will help you to maximise your output while effectively managing the finite resource of your time

One of the biggest challenges facing researchers is managing productivity. Nurses and healthcare researchers juggle research with a range of other roles, including clinical practice, teaching loads and personal lives.

To maximise productivity, it is important to reflect on what the obstacles are and to take a proactive approach to time management. In this commentary we discuss some useful tips to think about when reflecting on research productivity and time management. While the same strategies might not work for everyone, all researchers will benefit from reflection on their practices and consideration of how to maximise their

How a proactive approach and blocking out time in a busy schedule will help you to maximise your output while effectively managing the finite resource of your time

Illustration of woman viewing a clock and time demands
Image: iStock

One of the biggest challenges facing researchers is managing productivity. Nurses and healthcare researchers juggle research with a range of other roles, including clinical practice, teaching loads and personal lives.

To maximise productivity, it is important to reflect on what the obstacles are and to take a proactive approach to time management. In this commentary we discuss some useful tips to think about when reflecting on research productivity and time management. While the same strategies might not work for everyone, all researchers will benefit from reflection on their practices and consideration of how to maximise their output.

Block out dedicated writing time

We all have finite time allocated to working a clinical shift, teaching a class or attending to domestic responsibilities such as collecting the children from school, yet we wonder why we have trouble finding time for research. The first tip is to use your diary to allocate specific time to undertake research and writing tasks. Having time set aside in the diary like you would for any other appointment can give the researcher confidence to decline other activities as they already have a commitment locked in. It is not necessary to elaborate on what this commitment is but rather just that this time is already taken.

Think about how you might react if someone asked you to do something at the same time as you had a teaching or clinical appointment. Usually, it would be easy to say no as there is something already scheduled. If something essential comes up, consider what else can be moved or removed to maintain this committed time.

Accept that you will never be ready to start and just do it

When thinking about complex research or writing tasks people can spend a lot of time getting ready to start. They may be waiting for a busy period to be over, their schedule to become less hectic or a colleague to be ready to engage. The reality is that these things rarely result in greater readiness to begin and often are only the precursor to another impediment.

At a more basic level, the researcher can make their coffee, sharpen their pencils and then need to check their email before commencing work. An urgent email has probably appeared that must be dealt with and the coffee has now become cold, necessitating making another one before beginning. The reality is that the only way that they can be ready is to just start the work.

Putting any words on a page provides an important opportunity to edit and rearrange thoughts. Until the words hit the page this is not possible. Sometimes just starting out with a brain dump or a ten-minute solid writing session where everything that comes to mind is written down can provide a great starting point.

Understand the principles of time

Time is not an endless commodity; it is a precious and finite resource. No matter what we do there are only 168 hours in a week. While we can shift what we do in these hours, we cannot create more time. In his productivity workshops Hugh Kearns uses the example of the week being a cylinder in which a number of variously sized balls are fitted representing the different activities, roles and jobs that we do in a week. As more balls are added to the cylinder they first become compressed to fit within the available time. At some point, squashing the balls will not allow more to fit in the tube and balls will start falling out. This visual example highlights how trying to do too many things in a finite period initially results in reductions in quality as the activity (represented by the ball) is compressed. As the balls fall out, things simply don’t get done.

Given that each week has a finite number of hours and only so many tasks, roles and activities can be achieved in these hours, it is vital that researchers become skilled in saying ‘No’

Consider which balls are most important and vital to be contained in the tube of your week. These may be, for example, sleep, family commitments, work and research tasks. The rest of the week should then be filled with strategically chosen activities that address priorities, including those activities that support self-care.

It’s okay to say no

Given that each week has a finite number of hours and only so many tasks, roles and activities can be achieved in these hours, it is vital that researchers become skilled in saying ‘No’. Quite simply, when reflecting on the balls in the cylinder analogy, once the cylinder is full the researcher needs to say no to additional things. Regardless of how great an opportunity is presented or how shiny the ball is, when the 168 hours of the week are full there is simply no room to do anymore without removing something.

For some people the word no is difficult and can be a challenging conversation that they would prefer to avoid. For these reasons it is often useful to have some comments in the back of your mind that convey a no message in more gentle language. For example, if asked about an additional task that you cannot fit in, a softer reply could be: ‘Thank you for the offer but I would have to confirm how that would fit in my current workload.’ Alternatively, you could defer to a manager by responding with something like: ‘Thank you for this opportunity, I would need to discuss it with XX before committing.’ Thinking through a range of these kinds of statements in advance can help prepare you to respond in a way other than saying ‘yes’.

Consider productivity as a team sport

Working in isolation is difficult. It is important to consider research productivity as a team sport and work with others to enhance motivation, provide accountability and promote action. For example, attending a weekly group writing session can encourage people to commit that time to writing, be encouraged by others in the group about the task ahead and prompt people to feel accountable to goals they set. Working this way with others also highlights that it can be a struggle for everyone to maximise research productivity. Opening conversations with others can help to share experiences and strategies for improving time management and productivity.

Optimising research productivity is not easy and often cannot be achieved as a one off exercise. Getting it right takes practice, dedication and regular critical reflection. Even the most productive researchers need to regularly maintain their awareness of how their time is spent. Taking time to reflect and plan, however, can pay real dividends in increased productivity, stress reduction and an enhanced work-life balance.