Altmetric Blog

9 brilliant productivity tips for researchers

Stacy Konkiel, 7th February 2017

Today’s researchers seem to have less time than their colleagues did in years past. They are burdened with mountains of administrative paperwork, scores of new articles to read per month, and–oh yeah–a heck of a lot of research to do, too!

We recently asked researchers to share their favorite productivity tips and tricks for dominating their monstrous to-do lists. Here, I’ll share some of the best we found. I hope they help you, too!

Use a task manager

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 3.59.02 PMAltmetric (@altmetric) January 4, 2017

First things first: free up your cognitive load by writing down all those stray thoughts you have about things left undone. When you have your upcoming tasks down on paper, it allows that big, beautiful brain of yours to focus on the stuff that truly matters: your scholarship!

There are many systems you can use to manage your to-do list. Simplest is a good old-fashioned paper notebook. Even a stack of scrap paper will do! One researcher recommended using starting Bullet Journal, which is simply a system for organizing the contents of your notebook, no matter the brand.

For those that prefer to keep digital to-do lists, Altmetric’s Sara Rouhi likes to use Todoist, a task manager that makes it very easy to stay organized. Todoist allows you to create task lists based on projects, and also tag your tasks (for example, you can use “#errands” to tag any and all out-of-the-house activities you need to do). I use a high-powered task manager for Mac, OmniFocus, which offers many of the same great features as Todoist.

But really–no matter how you manage your to-do list, the most important thing is to remember to write things down!

Get clear on your goals

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 3.56.49 PMJohn Warren (@john_w_warren) January 7, 2017

Next up: become more deliberate in setting your goals. Consultant Greg McKeown calls this practice “Essentialism”–making hard choices about what you really want to accomplish in life and letting the distractions fall away.

On a daily level, this can mean focusing your time and energy on just a few tasks each day, rather than having a laundry list of things to do (which can often make you feel as though your to-do list is insurmountable). Be sure to make time for the important stuff like reading and writing–if you don’t plan for it, it often won’t happen!

In fact, you can approach all aspects of your professional life in this way, even using goals to orient what you do at conferences.

However, goals inevitably change over time, so be sure to update yours regularly.

Get rid of distractions

Did you know that it takes more than twenty minutes to get back on track after you’ve been interrupted at work?

As Mediomix points out, “Focus is easily lost many times a day between the flurry of activities required of you in the office and at the lab bench.”

That’s why researchers, when asked, say you should turn off your phone and email unless necessary. Kill those notifications from messaging apps, too. In extreme circumstances, consider even turning off your internet access.

Related: don’t multitask. Research has proven that it only makes you more ineffective at the stuff you’re trying to do.

Write better emails

One study found that the average worker spends around 13 hours a week checking email. That’s 28% of their time!

As someone who has worked in academia, that figure seems a bit low. I wonder if they included department chairs in their study? 😉

We can all agree that email is a time suck. Luckily, computer scientist Matt Might has a great list of tips for managing your email, which boil down to:

  • Don’t send an email if you can get a simple question answered elsewhere;
  • Make your subject line informative;
  • Try to write five sentences or less (makes it easier to read);
  • Use bullet points to write and reply to emails;
  • Put the most important stuff at the top; and
  • Use “CC” and “Reply all” sparingly

I’ve adopted these tactics and agree that they help make my email a lot easier to manage!

Eat that frog

Altmetric’s Natalia Madjarevic recommends “eating a frog” first thing each day–that is, tackling your biggest, hairiest, scariest task immediately upon starting work, so you can free up the rest of your day for more enjoyable and easier tasks. This practice is based upon the idea that many people have the most energy and creativity in the morning.

Have more than one frog? Here’s a good guide to prioritizing your army.

Decline meetings that have no purpose

Mediomix explains, “Meetings are a place to brainstorm and encourage people to expand past their tunnel view and contribute to a foreign subject. But if a meeting is only about project updates, this can be handled far more efficiently.”

Here are some criteria you might use to decide whether a meeting is worth organizing or attending:

  1. Have clear goals been set for the meeting?
  2. Does the meeting have a defined agenda?
  3. Is the meeting being set for an appropriate amount of time? (You can often achieve in 30 minutes what some schedule hour-long meetings for.)
  4. Have relevant documents been sent with the meeting invite, so you and your colleagues can come prepared?
  5. Can discussion or updates be managed asynchronously (e.g. via email, Slack, Trello, or Asana)?

Use this list to be ruthless in choosing which meetings to accept.

Automate wherever possible

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 3.53.23 PMDanny Wong (@dannyjnwong) January 3, 2017

Nowadays, there are a lot of research tools that can save you time by automating certain aspects of your professional life. You can create and format a reference list easily with Mendeley or Zotero; set alerts to be notified when you receive new citations or use databases to collect discussions of your work from around the web; and advanced users can even write scripts to automate analysis and formatting for journal articles.

Setting aside time to learn new software can seem like an extravagance, but trust me–it can save you time in the long run.

Take breaks

You may be wondering, “Who has time for breaks?!” You do!

Taking well-timed breaks between tasks has been proving to help clear the mind and renew your focus throughout the day. One researcher recommends using breaks to take a quick walk; research has also shown that movement can help boost your productivity and creativity over time.

Treat yo’ self (for getting things done)

I’ve saved the most enjoyable productivity tip for last: a great way to encourage yourself to accomplish more is to set rewards for yourself throughout the day.

That can mean the promise of a beer if you finish writing two more pages of your thesis; a hot cuppa while catching up on the latest articles in your field; or any other reward that you know will motivate you to do something well and quickly (spa day for finishing a grant application, anyone?).

Experts suggest that even small incentives can make for great motivation.

Beyond the tips shared above, loads of great productivity were shared on Twitter throughout our #altmetricks campaign. Check them out below!

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