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When I was an undergrad student I used to procrastinate a lot. I managed to get things done in the nick of time by staying up all night before exams, and so on. Not very different from what Tim Urban talks about here. That's why I know this is not my problem any more. During my PhD I managed to stop procrastinating by virtue of having no other option: it was impossible to finish up everything I had do to on time unless I worked on it steadily (including until late at night and sometimes on the weekends).

During my short career in academia (I'm now into my 4th year of postdoc) I have always expected my work load to start decreasing at some point. Reality speaks a different truth: my work load has steadily increased from day 1 of my PhD until today.

Now I have to work on my own research, supervise students' research, write grants, do peer review, prepare conferences and seminars, and some teaching. With the added weight of lack of job security (even in the short term).

Even though I work long hours, I just literally don't have enough time to do everything I need to do. I always find myself working on a priority basis: try to get whatever has its deadline approaching nearest done first. Just by looking around I can see this is a systemic problem, some of my colleagues have it even worse than me.

I find myself on the brink of burnout. What are effective strategies to both avoid burnout and optimize time management in academia, having as a premise that it is literally impossible to wholly fulfill all of one's commitments?

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I find myself on the brink of burnout. What are effective strategies to avoid burnout and optimize time management in academia, having as a premise that it is literally impossible to wholly fulfill all of one's commitments?

  • Find a therapist. Really. There is no shame in getting help when dealing with a difficult life situation. This won't reduce your workload, but a therapist should be able to give you custom tips for better managing it.
  • Learn to say no. Fundamentally, if your workload has been ever increasing, this is a good sign that you are bad at saying "no" to tasks. This is an extremely important skill to learn, and a therapist may be able to help you learn it if you can't do it on your own.
  • Start delegating. In addition to saying "no" to tasks, start delegating (parts of) the tasks that you still agree to carry out. Remember how you as a PhD student sometimes needed to help the senior people in your team with organisational varia, reviews, literature searches, etc.? You are now one of those senior people. Don't be shy to ask the students you help supervise to lend a hand with your tasks.
  • Accept that sometimes there is too little time to get everything done (or: accept that sometimes some things can't be done well in the time that is available). Many of us have this little perfectionist in us that requires us to (a) come through on everything we promised at some point, and (b) do everything in the best possible quality. In real life, there is usually just enough time to do some things well, and the rest either not at all or in mediocre quality. This is not your fault, and it is best to accept that sometimes you will give a presentation that's not very well prepared, or be unable to submit to this workshop even though you promised the chair a month ago.
  • Be aware of your priorities. Relatedly, be aware of what you personally really value and want to do right. For me, being badly prepared for teaching is a no-no. For you, it may be skipping a major paper or grant deadline. Note that I specifically said your priorities, not necessarily the priorities of your postdoc advisor or students. While in an ideal world you want to take their preferences and needs into account as well, if push comes to shove you can't consistently ignore your own priorities over the needs of others. Four years into your postdoc you should easily be senior and independent enough that you can push back if your mentor wants to force her/his own agenda onto you (if this is not the case, I suggest getting the heck out of there).
  • Thanks, I think this is sound advice. I have trouble both delegating and overlooking the details (the perfectionism you write about). Ironically, I have considered therapy for some time now, but have postponed seeing a therapist because "I don't have the time". I will wait for other answers before accepting this. – Miguel Dec 16 '16 at 10:25
  • +1. Instead of a therapist, a coach may be called for - your university may even offer such coaching. And/or a good book on time management and prioritization. I personally like Getting Things Done. Either one will require some up-front time investment, though, but it's better than burnout. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 16 '16 at 13:19
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    Delegation is particularly important; you need to make sure your time goes primarily to the tasks that you are uniquely situated to address. I view these tasks as leadership oriented (identifying research questions, designing experiments, communicating results), and teaching others to handle the responsibilities that can be delegated will give you more time to do the tasks that the lab can only get from you. As you advance upward your time gets more valuable, it is unfair to both yourself and your lab to not spend that time contributing in the most beneficial way you can. – Adam Bosen Dec 16 '16 at 17:36
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One thing that really helped me through grad school was learning to focus on energy management over time management. There's a whole school of thought on this practice, but I rather like this quote from HBR:

The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story. Defined in physics as the capacity to work, energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals—behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.

So, in academia, learning to optimize your energy might take the form of minimizing the number of decisions you have to make on a daily basis. I wholly concur with the above suggestions to delegate, prioritize, and accept that things won't always be perfect.

The main one that I'm going to add is to automate where possible. Software can be a miracle worker for academic productivity, but it can also be it's own vacuum if you spend more time fiddling with an app than letting it help you. So choose wisely. Any tool you select shouldn't be based on the most bells and whistles available, but rather what's going to easily fit into your workflow to automate the little decisions you have to make. The idea is to save your energy for the big stuff, the fun stuff. Here's a few places you might think about simplifying and automating:

  • Your email inbox. Streak is a GREAT tool here if you use Gmail - check out some academic use cases here). Scheduling interviews for a research project? Automate the follow-up. Writing a book? Automate the invitations. You get the gist.

  • Your reading list. The way you keep track of "what to read next" will probably depend on how you like to read, but for me, adding something to my reading list should never be more than a Chrome extension away. Consider Pocket, Google Keep, or something more multipurpose like Evernote.

  • Your collaborative projects. Please don't waste time emailing versions of a paper back and forth. In 2016-going-on-17, collaboration with your academic colleagues should be real-time (even if they're still insisting on using Microsoft Word). Ain't nobody got time for version control. Google Docs, Authorea, ShareLaTex etc. are all great options for working on academic papers and other projects with collaborators.

Whatever you can do to optimize the energy you devote to your academic work, the better positioned you will be to both manage your time and avoid burnout. And remember somewhere underneath all the craziness this is actually supposed to be fun!

  • Thanks a lot for pointing out to Streak. It really helped out cleaning the mess scheduling seminars caused in my mailbox. – passerby51 Jan 19 '17 at 5:30

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