Monday, May 21, 2007

How to Break Up Your Day

I'm a professor, and much of my time is unstructured. I have a lot to do, but aside from the occasional meeting or class I have to teach, my schedule is open. Which means I have to make decisions about how to spend my time. I have this and that project, but I find myself
thinking about how I can best break up the day at a high-level. Some examples will help clarify.

By Project. I use the method in the book Getting Things Done, by David Allen, and I recommend you do too. Anyway, anything
you want to change about the world is a "project." Writing a paper, getting reimbursed for a conference, doing your taxes, raking the
lawn, etc., are all projects. At school I have several projects. One way to break up the day is to look at the next to-do items on each project, and using the urgency, schedule hours in your day that reflect this. One hour reading for this paper, one hour grading tests, etc.

By Practicality. I've heard it said that a scientist should have "one hand in the theoretical, one hand in the applied." One could break up the day spending some specified percentage of time working on applications and some percentage working on theoretical stuff. I have some problems with this conception however. One is that I most scientists are often funded through public funds, and I don't think taxpayer money should be spent on things that private businesses can take care of. The public money should be maximized to do the long-term
basic research that business is, often necessarily, too short-sighted to do. The other is that I feel basic (unapplied) science is more important, but that's an essay for another day. Suffice it to say that a scientist should have "one hand in the theoretical, one hand in the theoretical." Or better yet...

By Risk. "One hand in the safe, one hand in the risky." In science there are relatively "sure things" or "low-hanging fruit" that will yield incremental results. What I mean by this is that the outcome of the scientific work is not a breakthrough; it adds a bit to what we know but is not revolutionary or, perhaps, even surprising. Some of your scientific time can be spent on this stuff: it's particularly good for your career, which you want to keep to be able to do the risky work. Risky work might not work out-- that is, you have a theory that is probably wrong but, if right, would be a very big deal. Personally, I think the scientists I know should be trying to do more risky work, but in any case, a scientist can decide to break up his or her day according to which projects are safe and which are risky.

By Task. Yet another way to break up the day is by task type. For example, spend some of each day reading, programming, writing, etc. This is a method I've used at points where there are task types that I really didn't like doing, such as reading hard papers or programming.

Can anyone think of other ways to break up the day? I'd love to hear about them, either by email ( or in the comments.

Unlike many of my blog posts, I don't have a firm opinion on this issue. I see value to several, and I can't totally choose one, but at the same time I can't see how to combine them in an effective, practical way. Suggestions?
Photo: This is a fire hydrant outside my house. In Ottawa we have these yellow plastic things rising a few feet above each hydrant so that they can be found when the hydrant is submerged in snow.

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