It is nearly one year to the day since I officially committed to the Sgro Lab here at BU. One year since I in earnest started in on my project. One year of working and learning and doing experiments and reading. And in this past year, I feel like I have made maybe one month’s worth of progress.
I gave myself a lot of excuses over the past year for why I didn’t feel like I was making much progress: I was starting a new project in the lab, I was working on an organism no one else in the lab was working on, we were a young lab and had not built up a lot of institutional knowledge, I was starting to mentor undergrads, I started TAing. While maybe these quelled some week-by-week anxieties about progress, part of me always knew they were excusing I was using to justify my lack of progress to myself.
As the fall and winter rolled by, I saw my lab mates making slow but real progress on their work, getting enough data to start going to conferences, while I was still working on validating the initial direction of my project. I started to wonder what I was doing wrong compared to them, I started to wonder why I was doing so poorly at grad school.
After some tough but helpful conversations with my advisor (kudos to her for her patience and persistence with me), I started to come to the realization that my time management and how I spent my time was getting in the way of making real progress on my work. I was initially in denial during these conversations because I thought I had always been good at time management. In undergrad, I balanced a full course load, the time-demanding job of being an RA, multiple clubs and organizational involvements, and still had time for going to fun and interesting events around campus. I had used calendars effectively since high school and always got my work done on time; I was a time management master!
The realization those conversations with my advisor helped me get to was that, in fact, I was not an effective time manager. This was because in undergrad, my time managed me. With all of the involvements and responsibilities, I had few windows to do the work I needed to do, and so I efficiently used that time. In graduate school, with few assigned blocks of time and potentially whole days of unstructured hours, my time no longer managed me. I got lost in sea of unscheduled time because for the first time in my life, I actually had to manage my own time.
Over the past few weeks, I have been trying new strategies to figure out how to effectively time manage while in grad school. There are challenges of knowing when to hone in on one project thrust and when to back out and support a full portfolio of thrusts, of scheduling experiments around lectures and office hours and seminars, and how to leave time for paper reading and more unstructured brainstorming, and I am nowhere near feeling fully productive with my use of time. But I feel like I have turned a corner in this realization of my lack of time management ability and the need to develop tools and strategies to get me on track on making real progress in the lab.
The realization I was not effective at managing my time was step one and trying out time blocking is step two of a longer journey towards being able to make progress. While this realization was a humbling experience and knowing I have a long way to go on just managing my own time is more humbling, I have the reassurance that this, this managing of a whole project and my own time, is part of what I came to grad school to learn. This skill will make me more effective in my professional future but I think also in my personal life going forward, as the demands of friendships, relationships, and family will continue to build as life goes on.
And of course, there is no one way to effectively manage time. As I have come to see, there is a whole rabbit hole of productivity and time management literature out there. And as I have taken the first couple of tentative steps on this journey, this piece by Adam Grant came out in the Times the other week, striking down time management in favor of attention management. Grant argues that overscheduling ourselves for peak productivity kills the most productive instinct of all, to follow our intellectual whimsy and to pursue the things your brain wants to pursue.
So how does this fit into my path towards being a more effective researcher? Right now, I can’t tell you, I may need to schedule in some time to think about it this week, or maybe it’ll come to me in the shower or on a run.