Time management: Finding the balance between energy, inspiration and just getting shit done

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

To be honest: it’s not always that easy to combine a fulltime job in a non-academic organisation with a PhD project. Or the other way around. Instead of one (PhD) project, I manage five team members, working on eight (international) research projects. All of these projects come with their own partners, tasks, and deadlines. Nevertheless, so far I survived 3,5 years, with satisfying results and progress. Currently I’m in a period of transition. After five years at the National Foundation for the Elderly, a charity combatting loneliness among vulnerable older adults, I’m about to start at Leyden Academy, a knowledge institute on the topic of ageing. In this transition, time management turned out to be a welcome skill. Although I have already quite some experiences, the course I followed did make me realize once again how important it is for a researcher to keep this skill on point. I’m happy to share my take-away’s with you. 

1.     Priority over time

“’No time’ normally means ‘no priority’”, a friend of mine uses to say – which in Dutch sounds even stronger. This course made me realize again that spending my time on things with priority, provide me energy whereas spending – or should I say wasting? – time on things without priority lead to stress and unhealthy pressure. I was already familiar with the matrix supporting to decide whether a task is important and/or urgent. The course triggered me, however, to define what important actually means to me. I started to recall my goals for this month– I monthly define my main focus – and checked whether a new task would contribute to these goals or not. Additionally, distinguished whether something was important in general, or for me personally. Sometimes the job was important, but not necessarily for me. 

2.    Itrinsic motivation over mood

This take-away is related to my first learning. When I define my yearly or monthly goals, I always start to reflect on why I exactly started all this in the first place. In my case this is particularly important, as I don’t do my PhD project for the university or anyone else: it’s all my own motivation and I could easily quit if I’m not motivated anymore. So, when I doubt my motivation, I start to recall myself: ‘Starting my PhD was my dream and gives me the great opportunity to specialize in the fascinating field of older adults and to valorise all the work I do.’ Luckily, I’m not often in this mood. But getting the bigger picture clear, helps me to stay motivated. Not only about the non-attractive PhD tasks, also in my ‘regular’ job. My regular job is also part of how I would love to conduct my research. Sometimes I rather would spend all my time on my PhD but I’m aware that a fulltime PhD position wouldn’t have satisfied me as much as this double role. Yes, and that also implies writing assignments on Saturdays every now and then.

3.    Pragmatic over Perfect

 ‘Ask someone without time to do the job and you can be sure it’s getting done’, is a saying I love. And I often even apply it to my own research project: planning a task when I don’t have so much time. Although I’m not the type of person performing very well under pressure, for some tasks this is the best way. Some jobs don’t need so much time and inspiration, they just need to be done. For instance, writing a proposal (or assignment / preliminary analyses / looking up some literature…) in order to get access to my data is obligatory, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I should spend all my time, inspiration and energy on it. Yes, in the end it was a useful exercise to get more insight in my own research, but some steps of the process felt rather bureaucratic. 

4.    Inspiration over Discipline

I’m happy to be blessed with a sufficient dose of self-discipline – I need it a lot in my full agenda. I have all types of routines and schedules on when, how, and where I work to get my tasks done. This discipline is not only displayed in my work, also in my leisure time. I only rarely skip a Monday morning run. During the course I realized how important these moments are – although I also feel guilty sometimes if this is at the cost of work. But is the latter actually the case? Sitting behind my desk early every morning doesn’t guarantee inspiration or productivity. The best ideas (with regard to the set-up of a study protocol, the title of a paper, the response to a colleague who annoys me) pop up during my runs. Especially as these on the road time has decreased in lock-down (no train, no bike to work), I really need to keep this space. Another learning: sometimes I totally planned to work on a certain piece of a paper, but suddenly get the inspiration for something else. I learned that’s it’s okay – even a must – to be flexible. Especially when I’m able to mainly work on important non-urgent tasks, it’s okay to postpone a task to do something else first. 

Last but not least

Plan in only 80% of your time – was recommended during the course. Earlier this month I read something similar in a blog on time management: Plan your tasks and then double the time planned for this. Both reminded me to be more realistic in what to achieve. Especially with the take-aways in mind, this will definitely help me. Not only to be more productive, but also to be more relaxed. I’m writing this blogpost on a Saturday. Because I’m intrinsically motivated, I have the inspiration after a run through the snow this morning. It contributes to my goals and I’m pragmatic: it just want it to be done, today. And yes, it was on my to-do list yesterday as well. But that list was not realistic. Instead of 80%, I planned in 120% of my time. Now I realize this, I’m fine with it and with my own time management skills – including the pitfalls.  


Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

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