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The When: Setting realistic timeframes for your research

In the first two articles of this series, we explored The What: Defining a research project and The Where: Constructing an effective writing environment. In this article, we are focused on The When: Setting realistic timeframes for your research. Discussion from this TweetChat event focused on accurately estimating the amount of time necessary for completing writing projects and strategies to better manage the time commitments during the writing project.

Q1/1a: Do you regularly track the time spent on research efforts? When planning a research project, do you tend to accurately predict, overestimate, or underestimate the time required?

If you aren’t tracking the amount of time you spend on research efforts, it is difficult to accurately predict the amount of time a new project will require. Even if you aren’t tracking your time yet, you can still assess how accurately you are estimating the time requirements of your writing projects.

Eric Schmieder admitted during the TweetChat that failing to track time on projects results in a tendency to underestimate time requirements for other projects. “I tend to underestimate the time requirements – probably because I do not track the time on projects very well.”

Chase Reeves shares 5 Tips to Help you Estimate how Much Time a Project Will Take as follows:

  1. Double your estimation
  2. Plan with an accountability partner
  3. Reverse engineer a truly minimum viable product
  4. Keep a daily productivity journal
  5. Rediscover why you are doing this project

According to a paper titled Five keys to estimating, presented at PMI® Global Congress 2008, John Stenbeck claims, “In the realm of project management, nothing is more valuable than estimates that accurately reflect reality, motivate their fulfillment, and facilitate rigorous accountability.” He further explains that estimating is both a science and an art.

If you find that your to-do list is forcing you to make unrealistic estimates or is otherwise overly ambitious in your commitment to academic writing projects, Jane Jones offers five principles for making a better to-do list as follows:

  1. Be honest with yourself
  2. Set boundaries
  3. Say no
  4. Decide on a pace
  5. Schedule according to the peaks and valleys in your semester

Q2/2a: What challenges do you face in scheduling time for research activities and writing? What strategies do you have for overcoming those challenges?

For Schmieder, the challenge is “Balancing those activities [research and writing] with other obligations such as family, work, volunteer efforts, etc.” Balance is essential.

According to Cassie Premo Steele who offers 4 ways to work-life balance in 4 minutes, “The thing about balance is that each person has to define it for herself. What works for one person may not work for someone else. What helped you at one point in your life may not be helpful now.” But how do we find the balance that works for us now?

Susan Robison says, “Don’t manage time, manage goals”. In managing goals, she says there are five things you can do:

  1. Anchor your tasks to a sense of meaning and purpose
  2. Prioritize which tasks are worthy of your resources of time, talent, energy, and attention
  3. Allocate tasks across units of time
  4. Account for the results of the allocation
  5. Build and broaden your resilience and happiness while you do the above things

Meg Keeley of Bucks County Community College echoes this mindset, saying “As you look at how you spend your time, ask yourself if this matches your priorities.” in an online resource titled Managing Your Time and Study Environment. She then offers seven tips to using your time wisely:

  1. Clear your schedule. Don’t overextend yourself.
  2. Get motivated.
  3. Prioritize.
  4. Make sure you understand the task.
  5. Break down the task into chunks.
  6. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  7. When you really hate it, try to make it as enjoyable as possible.

Q3: What tools or resources do you use to improve your time management?

Kirstin O’Donovan states in a Lifehack article, “If you’re not taking advantage of one of the hundreds of time management apps and tools out there, you’re definitely missing a trick.” In the same article she shares 18 of the best available.

MindTools has a curated list of 62 time management tools in their list, but regardless of the tool, the purpose remains the same – track your time and know where it is being spent and what is available for the projects you’re working on.

Schmieder relies on a shared calendar approach to balance projects with family life. “I maintain a shared calendar with my wife through Google where all events are shared so I can find time between the planned activities for the research and writing efforts”, he said.

Q4: How can working with others impact your ability to maintain a realistic schedule?

Schmieder commented that “being dependent on the schedules of others and coordinating time for review and discussion can add to the challenges of predicting and maintaining a project schedule.” That dependency and additional scheduling elements introduce complexities beyond individual control.

Another interesting factor worth considering is the way each collaborator views deadlines. In a study conducted by Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, she found that “people tend to choose impractical and ineffective approaches to tasks and deadlines” and “misperceptions of deadlines [and] urgency influence time management and performance.”

Q5/5a: How does the size of the project impact your ability to set realistic schedules? How do you manage large projects to better manage the time necessary for smaller pieces?

As projects increase in size and scope, it is naturally more challenging to estimate the total amount of time necessary for completion. After all, there are more places for schedules to change – for better or worse.

According to Meggin McIntosh, “academics have between 20 and 50+ writing projects at any given time, but ‘people don’t do projects.’ Projects can be broken into hunks, but you don’t do hunks. Hunks can be broken into chunks, but you don’t do chunks. Chunks can be broken into bites. You do bites!” For more about breaking a project into bites that can get done, read the TAA article, How to actually complete your writing projects: One bite at a time.

In addition to simply breaking down a project into smaller pieces, Schmieder stated, “Larger projects are easier to manage when the smaller pieces are considered in relation to one another. Items that are dependent on earlier steps must account for the time to complete the other steps as well.” Project management software and principles can help determine the interdependency of smaller pieces of a large project and ensure that things are completed in an optimal order.

Q6: How can you best balance your time when working on multiple research projects at the same time?

Schmieder shared that “often multiple research projects have some overlap due to discipline and research interests. Finding that overlap and focusing time where you can collect or review literature for multiple projects at once can help overall.” Dr. Janet Salmons agreed, suggesting “look for efficiencies and overlaps, so use time to accomplish more than one goal.”

Cited in a TAA article, Time management strategies: Take a time inventory, William Weare shared “one of the strategies he has used to become more productive is taking a time inventory to visually see where his time goes.” In conducting the time inventory, the focus is on granularity, so he suggests tracking everything you do in a day. “And he means everything: I get to work; I logged on; I put my milk in the refrigerator; I unpacked my stuff; I checked the weather; I checked in with my staff; I went to the restroom.”

Noelle Sterne suggests that meditation and mindfulness may be helpful in accomplishing your academic projects. Before ruling this idea out, consider the responses to “five big excuses for not practicing meditation or mindfulness and suggests how to overcome them” presented by corporate training consultant Karen Exkorn and summarized by Sterne.

  • No time” means you haven’t made the time. Even three minutes works (your timer again).
  • “Too busy” means you don’t have to add special time for the practice. Use mindfulness doing what you’re doing, only more consciously (dishes, diapering, grading papers).
  • “Too stressed”? Focus on doing one thing with full consciousness. Exkorn uses eating Hershey Kisses. You can use anything—a banana, driving, listening to a student pleading for an extension.
  • “Tried it”? For how long? Give it a fair chance, like any new habit.
  • “Too New Agey”? As Exkorn points out, mindfulness was featured on a January 23, 2014, Time magazine cover and in a New York Times article. Mindfulness has been praised and regularly practiced by actors, professional athletes, sports teams, and business leaders. And mindfulness and meditation are used by staff at Google, General Mills, Twitter, and many corporations. Recently, a PBS special aired titled “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.”

Salmons added, “I am not a clock-watcher, and setting time limits/goals doesn’t work for me. We each need to find own strategy!”

Whatever your individual strategy, we hope that these resources help you to better manage your writing projects and set realistic timeframes for completing them.