productively handling structured and unstructured time as a scholar

In this post, I want to follow-up on my previous posts about conducting research by discussing the thorny issue of time management.  One challenge of academia involves completing work under schedules that incorporate both structured and unstructured time, with both unclear ends (what does one want/need to accomplish?) and means of reaching these ends (how does one achieve that goal?).  People must learn to self-manage the processes of undertaking a dissertation or research project and preparing publications along with other responsibilities.

During the school year, class preparation and grading, committee work (i.e., admissions committee, curriculum committee, hiring committee, etc.), service to the profession (i.e., reviewing manuscripts or conference papers, committee work for professional associations, etc.), and other commitments structure schedules.  For some, research, writing, and publishing all get squeezed into the remaining time.  Thus, periods such as the summer, winter break, and sabbaticals usually start with a long list of best intentions of how to spend “unstructured” time, which can feel overwhelming.

What to do?  This post is devoted to examining several Jedi tricks that increase the likelihood of accomplishing research projects during both structured and unstructured times.

Use deadlines

As part of class requirements, I used to assign my students two two-page long journal entries to help them understand the link between theory and phenomena (say, how routines help direct workers but may have undesired consequences).  The deadlines for these assignments were open-ended as students could pick whichever readings they wanted to use to analyze their organizational experience.  The assignment was due the same day that the reading was due.

Although a few students submitted their work on time, most students struggled with selecting their own deadlines and waited until the semester’s last week to turn in their journal entries.  A few didn’t submit any entries at all.  After a couple semesters, I tried another tactic: I made the first of the two journal entries due by the semester’s midpoint.  Student turn-in rates improved during the first half, but students still had problems with turning in the second journal entry.  After reading behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s description of his experiments with having MBA students set their own deadlines for turning in assignments versus setting deadlines for them (the MBA students at his elite institution apparently did no better than my undergrads in setting their own deadlines), I finally replaced this requirement with regular homework assignments with set deadlines.

Such experimentation shows how setting deadlines can be helpful, even if the deadlines are arbitrarily imposed.

How to set deadline prods:

– Understand prioritization

For scholars, juggling multiple responsibilities often means that projects that lack hard deadlines or immediate reinforcement can fall by the wayside.  It’s too easy to prioritize not particularly important deadlines for obligatory service commitments or bureaucratic paperwork simply because these have set deadlines while other, often more important or consequential responsibilities do not.  Or, some may find that the instantaneous gratification of teaching or mentoring students can trump the often-lonely, seemingly thankless task of writing up research and responding to reviewers’ comments.   These “pulls” can derail research productivity, particularly during long projects where deadlines are self-set – for example, submitting journal or book manuscripts for peer review.

For those of you who enjoy making 2 by 2 typologies, time management guru Stephen Covey suggests writing down projects and responsibilities in an important vs. not important and urgent vs. not urgent table to assess how you are allocating time.

– Routinize large projects into small incremental tasks

Based on his research comparing the writing and publication productivity of faculty who wrote in spurts versus regular, steady writing, Richard Boice recommends setting up small, incremental deadlines.  Rather than “binging” on intermittent writing bouts, he suggests regularly writing small amounts.  Some people assume that they have to be motivated first in order to be productive – instead, productivity is like a waterwheel: productivity elicits productivity.

– Follow a preset template

Wendy Belcher published an excellent guide to how to submit and publish journal articles according to a set schedule.  Her chapters cover topics such as how to write letters of inquiry to editors and how to respond to reviewers’ comments.

– Use other external deadlines

Some scholars find that presenting at conferences helps with getting initial drafts done, with the possible bonus of getting useful feedback during the review process or presentation.  If you’re writing journal manuscripts, check out calls for special issues, which usually have hard deadlines.  These also have the added advantage that reviewers have to get back to submitters by a set date.

– Participate in a writing group or colloquiums

Writing groups or colloquiums where members regularly present drafts for feedback can be great prods for productivity.  Depending on what your needs are, writing groups need not include only members from your own discipline – often, those from other disciplines can offer writing feedback that extend beyond substantive content, or they can suggest alternative perspectives which can be very helpful for cross-fertilizing with other fields.  Your university might even have a program led by a trained facilitator who will set up guidelines for a group.

– Intermix different types of deadlines

Sometimes deadlines for smaller projects can feed larger project deadlines by supporting substantive knowledge.  For example, if you are asked to write a dictionary entry or review a book related to your research topic, you now have the opportunity to distill your knowledge of existing literature.  Successful submission can set up conditions for entrainment – that is, meeting a small deadline might provide the impetus to pursue a larger deadline.  The tricky balance is not to take too many small projects at the expense of a larger one with a bigger impact.

– Use carrots and sticks

To meet deadlines, some colleagues have used carrots like a non-refundable vacation or moving to a new job.   A stick might be running out of funding – a “natural” end to a project.

– Work with collaborators

If you’re the type of scholar who prefers company, you might find that the stimulation of working interdependently with others is more appealing than working independently.  However, this can be a double-edged sword if the collaborators (or you) are overly optimistic about abilities to expend time.   Most likely these will involve frank conversations about authorship and responsibilities upfront, as well as adjustments along the way.

– Spend regular time with friends and family; participate in a hobby

Finally, some might feel tempted to eschew “distractions” until a big project is over.  However, scheduling in hobbies and regular downtime with friends and family – even a deceptively mundane task such as a walk with a pet – can help motivate scholars over the productivity hump.

Other resources

Randy Pausch’s recorded talk on time management

A handy guide to how research progresses (or not)

Add your recommendations to the comments…


Written by katherinechen

August 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Good advice, Katherine. I remember being summoned into the office of one of the leading scholars in my field just after he (and others) had reviewed my dossier for mid-probationary (3-yr) review. He expressed doubt that I would be tenured if I kept on my current trajectory, where teaching outcomes dwarfed research outcomes. His quote: “Every day the bell rings to start teaching in the classroom. The bell doesn’t ring for research. One must have a much greater self-discipline to do research, particularly if teaching is easy, fun, or rewarding.”

    It took me a long while to develop that self-discipline.



    August 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm

  2. I have found it very helpful to move to an online to-do list system rather than the scraps of paper, word documents, and emails to myself that I used to use. After all, the most essential element of setting deadlines is to actually choose and remember the deadline! Regularly reviewing what is due in the next week and the next month make it much more clear where my energies should be directed and decreases the risk that I will spend time on interesting but not urgent tasks.



    August 3, 2012 at 12:00 am

  3. […] at Orgtheory and Slate aim to help with this goal. At Orgtheory, Katherine Chen talks about the challenges of handling both structured and unstructured time, focusing primarily on the use of deadlines (both external and self-imposed). Two of these […]


  4. The most freeing moment to me was when I started to make meetings with myself. Some people call this “blocking out space” to write/read/revise, etc.; however, I always had a pit in my stomach when a student would want to meet to discuss their and I had blocked-off the time to write. “A quick harmless meeting,” I would think. Sometimes they were, and sometimes they were not. Either way, it slowly but surely chipped-away at my time. Now, with meetings with myself, I can just tell the student “I’m in a meeting at that time” and I’ve never had any complaints (and, of course, it aids in productivity considerably).


    Nicholas Rowland

    August 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  5. […] productively handling structured and unstructured time as a scholar […]


  6. Randy, you were lucky to have a colleague who was willing to help re-prioritize your efforts!

    Mikaila, by online to-do list, do you mean like an application like a google calendar that can sync with a smart phone?

    Nicholas, great idea. I hold office hours right after class while I am decompressing from teacher’s “high” (high emotional energy) when I know it’s difficult to get writing done. Writing is reserved for the mornings when possible.



    August 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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