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While multitasking is not a desired trait unique to academia, it's something that seems particularly important for graduate students and new faculty. I've had many students ask me how to multitask effectively, and I'm curious to know what the collective wisdom of this forum would be.

what are good practices to manage multiple distinct academic activities effectively ?

To make this more focused and relevant, I'll limit academic activities to

  • Taking (or teaching) classes
  • Working on multiple research projects
  • Writing grant proposals (or applying for fellowships)
  • service responsibilities
  • a healthy lifestyle with outside hobbies
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    flagged to make CW if the mods feel it necessary – Suresh Apr 15 '12 at 3:30
  • I actually have a counterargument. In my personal experience (and also cited by a bunch of articles that are freely available on google scholar), I belong to the school of multitasking being counter productive. However that doesn't quite answer you question, If I really have too many things on my plate, I do end up being less efficient. I either try to limit my involvement or drop low priority tasks temporarily. – dearN Apr 15 '12 at 4:19
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    BTW, here productivity.stackexchange.com is a SE dedicated to personal productivity. – Piotr Migdal Apr 15 '12 at 12:49
  • @Suresh: In general, we do not want to make questions community wiki. However, this question is precise enough that it makes sense to see if there are academia-specific approaches. – aeismail Apr 15 '12 at 14:46
  • My professor once told me, if you are multi-tasking then probably something is wrong. – avi Nov 5 '13 at 6:52
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I have three answers to this question; I'll put them all here for you.

  1. Don't.

    Multi-tasking is a necessity when there are many tasks that demand your attention all at once. The people who most need these skills are either managers, whose work demands that they divide their attention among their subordinates as necessary, and those working in a highly collaborative environment, where interaction with colleagues happens regularly.

    As a graduate student, this will almost never happen. Your responsibilities will typically include coursework, teaching assistantships, and research duties, and writing. Even your collaborations will happen at a slow pace. You'll rarely be in a situation where you need to get in touch with someone within the hour; almost all your issues will be able to wait a day. Considering that almost all research shows that multitasking decreases productivity, consider yourself lucky.

    To that end, if you can train yourself to focus on a single task at a time, your work will benefit from it.

  2. Pomodoro technique

    I recently (~6 mos) read about this technique online, and I've found it very useful for certain tasks. The concept is ridiculously simple. Before you start working, write down the task you're about to start on a piece of paper. Start a 25 minute timer and work until it runs out. Take a 5 min stretch, put a tic next to the task on the piece of paper, and then repeat until you're done. If you need to switch to something else, write it down on the paper as well, and switch every 25 minutes. This way, you always have at least 25 minutes to do each task, and you can set up your multitasking in 25 minute chunks. (As an added benefit, you're taking stretch breaks every 5 minutes, which is good for your health.)

  3. Getting Things Done

    There's an answer below that mentions this, but doesn't do it justice. I've been using this for years and it's a wonderful way of keeping track of what you need to do. At it's simplest, the technique just advocates that you make a to-do list of everything you need to do. The useful part of this technique is how he separates tasks; he puts them into "contexts", which you can think of as "environments". Some tasks will be done at home, some at work, some wherever you have email access, etc. By breaking up tasks like this, you can easily see what you need to do at any given time by simply consulting the correct list.

    This technique has gained immense popularity, and because of that many to-do lists online feature "GTD compatibility". This basically means that they let you make lists of your to-dos.

    This method comes with a catch; if you don't do it rigorously, you may as well not do it at all. As soon as some tasks aren't on your lists, then you'll stop checking the lists, and then the whole thing goes to pot. However, if you keep the lists current, then it's an immensely helpful technique. For forgetful people like me, the to-do concept is a veritable necessity, and the context idea is a good way of segmenting what you need to do.

  • nice ! regarding the first point though, I'm intending this not just for students, but also for faculty. Even for students, they often work on more than one project. – Suresh Apr 27 '12 at 4:32
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    @Suresh - My point in the "don't" section is that multitasking it typically more productive when you dedicate large chunks of time to a project, on the scale of days or weeks. Trying to advance a number of projects at a time is difficult, and it's often better to just work on one thing at a time. If you need to switch, try (2) or use (3) to keep track of what's what. – eykanal Apr 27 '12 at 13:11
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Different people would have different techniques. What I found very useful for me is to have a list of the 5-8 most important things I need to do.

I don't use any specific tool, just a simple text file to write my tasks down (always adding tasks so I will not forget anything), but keep the most urgent 5-8 tasks at the top.

I found out that the sole existence of this list is what helps me to focus. I don't follow the list item by item; I do jump between tasks; I start one task before I complete the the other. The important thing is that I keep looking at that list several times a day, recalling what else I still need to do, and trying to see the 'big picture'. Each time I look at the list I allow myself to re-prioritize tasks. Sometimes just to see the tasks written down is enough for one's mind to be able to arrange the day in the most effective way.

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In writing papers about finished projects, it is important to take breaks - write something, and then get back to it next day (re-read what you wrote). So multitasking could be beneficial.

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