Making time to communicate research
Thoughts and approaches to productivity for academics — that could also work for the rest of us!
You’re busy. We’re busy. Everyone is busy and getting busier all the time. That’s a given in today’s professional world — and it’s a reality that needs to be accepted in order to be properly addressed.
But if you are serious about building an exceptional research career, at some point you need to find a way of carving out some time to dedicate to communication, alongside journal publishing and research itself.
It takes time and energy to create good communication material. It involves thinking and writing about your work from a different point of view, with your ideal research target audience in mind, and this takes some context switching from your everyday work.
In this post we take a look at some of the ways you could make some time in your week that can be set aside to work on communicating your research.
Let’s dive in!
Accepting your dance card is full
Firstly let’s assume that you can’t actually add more hours to your workday — you already get just enough sleep and won’t do well with any less; you can’t get to work any earlier or leave any later due to personal and family commitments, or travel limitations; and you can’t add any extra time for work at home, including at weekends.
If you can make any sustainable changes in any of those areas without burning out or sacrificing commitments and hobbies that you are not willing to affect, then please consider doing so — though it is unlikely for most people.
So for the purposes of this article we’ll assume that you are at capacity in terms of time available, the only logical solution is to evaluate what you are doing with your work hours and start spending less time on certain activities.
Let’s also agree that the major responsibilities in your daily work are set in stone — the commitments you have made for research projects, teaching, organisational duties, internal training, open office hours and so on are all confirmed and not subject to change.
First we can take a look at which of those responsibilities are the most important.
Selecting the most critical activities
To assess how you spend your time, let’s identify the most critical tasks to your career.
Remember that high quality research is irreplaceable. Try to ensure that this activity is never sacrificed.
To factor this in we need to identify which are your biggest priorities.
So, without reference to your schedule, choose the activities that are most important to your career — both in terms of your day job and your future plans. For example, your key priorities could be:
- Fundamental research
- Journal publishing
- Departmental management
- Professional society activity
- Peer reviews/editing
These are the activities that you should try not to affect when changing your schedule.
There are also priorities that crop up from time to time which take precedence over everything else. You might be familiar with them — they’re known as emergencies…
Let’s face it, if your laptop gets infected with ransomware you aren’t going to spend two hours writing an article — you’ll get it fixed.
If there’s a problem with your tax code and you need to speak to HR or you won’t get paid on Friday — you are likely to put off starting a 4-hour data analysis session and give them a call!
You can’t plan for emergencies of course, but they will crop up and they will knock your schedule out of balance. This is just a fact of life and is something to bear in mind!
Categorise your other responsibilities
Alongside your most critical activities you also probably carry out lots of other tasks in your role that, while important, aren’t quite as crucial for your career.
Before we take a look at your specific schedule, spend a little time thinking about how to categorise those different tasks so that you can more easily understand the full extent of your role.
These categories could, for example, be:
- Internal training
- Departmental organisation
- Tutorials and open office hours
- Assisting colleagues
- And so on…
It is not that the tasks in these categories should be avoided, but being aware of what you are actually spending your time on will help you to make better use of it.
Next, we need to look at how you actually spend your time on the various categories of task identified.
Record your weekly schedule
To get a full picture of how your time and energy is allocated, carry around a notepad (or use your phone) for a typical week and note down how each block of time is spent.
Make sure that the week you choose to do this is a typical week however. If you pick the only week of the year that you’re at a conference then you won’t collect meaningful information.
You may well think that there is no such thing as a typical week in your role — that is often the case with research cycles, the ebb and flow of publishing activity, and teaching term times. But try and estimate as well as you can.
There’s no need to get too detailed and note down every minute; working out your timings down to the level of a 15- or 30-minute block should be sufficient.
You can also try and do this merely from memory of course, or by viewing your diary and calendar entries. and then extrapolating accordingly.
But nothing will replace a real-life, accurate accounting of where your time and attention is used up to inform a better approach to your work.
Tweak your working hours
With a clearer picture of how you spend your days and an appreciation of which tasks are non-negotiable (and for which you’d like to allocate more time) — next we can look at how to optimise your schedule.
This isn’t easy.
Everybody thinks that they are being as efficient as possible at work and, at first glance, can’t see any way it would be possible to rearrange their priorities.
And it may be that you genuinely can’t, but try to carry out an honest assessment of what you are doing in your working hours that could be reduced or removed altogether, and see if the update would better reflect where you want to take your career.
Ensure the critical tasks are prioritised, while limiting (or even removing altogether) the time given over to categories of activities that aren’t as crucial.
In fact, try to give yourself more time for original, fundamental work as part of this audit if possible.
You might be familiar with Parkinson’s Law which states;
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
If you are able to reduce the blocks of time set aside for certain tasks or responsibilities you can claim back some of your time while your output and performance remain unchanged.
Do more in less time
It isn’t rocket surgery, but you will “gain” time if you can complete tasks faster.
Of course, everyone’s pressures, objectives and schedules are different, and there is no one-size-fits-all advice in this area.
Many companies, consultants and authors have made successful careers out of helping businesses optimise their productivity and with good reason. Getting more done in less time leads to higher profits.
For a researcher — although your objectives and ambitions are different to a business, the fact is that once your schedule is at capacity and re-organised around the priorities that matter most to your career, with other classes of activity clearly understood and categorised, the only way you can then carve some time for communication is to get your tasks done faster.
Start small by choosing a category of task that:
- You believe you realistically could get done faster, without affecting your other responsibilities (e.g. yes you could cross campus 3x faster to get to your next meeting — but nobody is going to want to sit by you if you do!) and
- Isn’t of vital importance — i.e. it won’t matter too much if you negatively affect results by trying to get it done faster.
If you can save small amounts of time across several categories of task in this way you could accumulate enough spare capacity to set aside for a session on research communication.
If this isn’t enough however, you may want to consider a deeper overhaul of how you approach your work.
Going pro — productivity systems
There are a variety of different systems and framework for personal productivity out there that can help you achieve more.
It’s beyond this article to discuss these too thoroughly, but here is a short overview of some of the most popular:
Getting Things Done — a time management approach created by productivity consultant David Allen which involves setting up a simple process for capturing and organising tasks to save you having to think about them until needed.
Bullet Journal — a note-taking concept that uses a simple pen and paper notation system, in any notebook, that makes it faster and easier to organise tasks, events and notes over various different timescales.
Inbox zero — a rigorous email management approach that aims to eradicate the distracting activity of working in your email inbox by processing and organising new messages in as efficient a manner as possible.
The Pomodoro Technique — a very simple approach that basically means you spend 25 minutes on any given task, giving it total focus and undivided attention, and then take a break of at least 5 minutes.
Don’t Break the Chain — an even simpler technique; pick a generalised task that would help your career (e.g. writing new material for my research blog), set a minimum daily goal (e.g. write 300 words) and then mark with an ‘X’ on a notepad or calendar each day when you complete this goal. After two days in a row you can join the Xs with a line — now you have a chain. Don’t break it.
Any of these systems can work for you, whether applied fully or partially.
Note that these concepts and approaches can be used in combination too. It will probably take plenty of testing and tweaking to find an approach that is right for you but ruthlessly prioritising is always the best decision-making tool to fall back on.
You might find it more achievable to iteratively apply a new productivity or time management system while at the same time taking steps towards achieving your research communication goals.
For example, if you wanted to start applying the Bullet Journal technique to organise your work while also developing a new series of articles on the policy implications of your research for a university blog, you could alternate tasks such as:
- Learn about the Bullet Journal technique
- Brainstorm at least 5 policy-related article topics
- Get a journal and do the first three steps of the Bullet Journal approach
- Select the best article idea and plan out the content
- Apply the next 3 steps of the Bullet Journal approach
And so on…
In this process you will both make progress towards your goals and improve the system that will enable you to make faster progress tomorrow.
Further reading on productivity for researchers
Two books that could help you become a more focussed and productive researcher (and hence free up some time for communicating your work) are:
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Written by Cal Newport, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and creator of the popular blog Study Hacks; this book discusses how and why to focus better and work more deeply to carve out time for your most important priorities, and uses Cal’s own academic career as an example in the text.
The Productive Researcher
By Mark Reed, Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Director of Engagement & Impact in the School of Agriculture, Food & Rural Development at Newcastle University. This book explains how researchers can be more successful in their working day and accomplish more work in less time.
Professor Reed is an experienced speaker and trainer who has worked with many researchers and projects on improving the impact of their research, so this is advice that also comes from real-world experience. He is also the founder of Fast Track Impact which has a range of useful resources for researchers.
Organising your communication work
The final piece of the puzzle is to ensure that when you do have time to dedicate to research communication, it isn’t wasted.
It will help you enormously to have a simple plan in place that determines:
- What you are going to work on next (e.g. a blog post, improving your research website, contributing to a report etc.)
- Who it is for — which of your chosen target audiences
- What sources and material you have already developed for this
- What aspects and sources of your research you want to link or refer to
- How long you have to spend on the task
- Where your files are stored and backed up
Again, it is easier to build this plan step by step — perhaps start simple with a notebook or file on your computer where you can add a few words on what you are working on.
Another good productivity tip for writing (because most content creation and communication work usually relies on writing) is to end a work session by completing a sentence and then deleting a few words.
If you make sure that the words you removed are easy to remember, the next time you sit down to write you can type them back in and it can help kick-start your progress.
Give it a try! You might be pleasantly surprised.
How much time you are ultimately able to extract from other activities and put into communicating your work and building personal impact will be one of the key variables in your ability to develop an exceptional research career.
However, if you get focussed and organise your work, you can see some level of success on even a few minutes a day.
Real life will always get in the way too of course; your scheduled 3 hours of ‘audience-building time’ this week will become 15 minutes next week, then zero the week after, then 6 hours and so on.
But stay committed to your own individual goals and accept that schedules will change — you will hopefully be able to adapt to them as needed by creating an approach to communicating your work that can be scaled up and down as time allows, and does not place unrealistic ongoing demands on your time.
Best of luck!
Originally published at http://communicating-research.com on March 1, 2020.