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How to efficiently plan your work considering uncertainties of research environment?

Struggling with time management and project delivery? Learn how to efficiently plan your project and manage your time considering the uncertainty of research.

Has anyone ever told you what is the most exciting and, at the same time, the most challenging aspect of working in research?

Would you venture a guess?

From the recent discussions with you, my students and colleagues I can conclude that the fact that, as academics, we work at the edge of our knowledge is both, the most exciting and the most challenging for most of us.

It’s exciting because we create or discover something completely new; something that no one has ever done before.

It’s challenging for the same reason. We need to come up with research procedures that can prove (or disprove) our hypotheses and are scientifically sound. It broadly means mostly means that other researchers should be able to repeat what we did to verify our conclusions.

Yet, there is another challenge that many of us struggle with, but we rarely discuss it. Because of the uncertainty of our work, we tend to underestimate the amount of time we have to spent on specific activities to deliver our research.

So how do you manage your time to ensure that you deliver high-quality research on time?

Here are some best time management practices you can implement straight away!

Estimate activity duration for efficient time management

As I discussed in my previous article, if you want to get things done and stay motivated, you need to set goals. Magda shared her experience and tips on how to set SMART goals for your work on our blog too. Make sure you check these out!

Setting specific, measurable, assignable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) goals is a must for each researcher. It’s crucial to efficient time management in your research.

Let me unpack the last component of a SMART goal. Each of your activities in your research project should be time-bound. It means that you need to set a specific deadline for completion of this specific activity. Knowing how long each activity is expected to take will help you to manage your time more efficiently.

understanding uncertainties in your research can help you estimate the duration of your activities, it is important for time management

But how do you set a specific deadline for an uncertain research task, especially if this is an activity that you haven’t done before?

Here’s a procedure you can use:

– consider if the design of the experiment or your research plan will give you a sufficient amount of data to test your hypothesis

– consider how much time do you need to complete a specific task should everything go smoothly (i.e. ideal conditions)

– conduct “what-if” analysis to identify potential delays (i.e. what to do if the PC breaks?; what would be the associated delay?)

– add extra time for unexpected delays (i.e. illness, accidents)

– determine the expected duration of the activity, considering any delays

Having estimated the duration of the activity, considering any delays, it is good practice to add some extra time for unforeseen circumstances. The amount of this extra time will depend on the actual duration of your activity, but as a rule of thumb, you can add up to 10%.  

Set milestones to track progress against your research plan

Once you’ve estimated the most likely amount of time that you’ll need to complete a specific piece of work, it’s time to come up with a way to measure your progress. Tracking your progress is a fundamental aspect of time management.

efficient time management depends on how you set the milestones to track your research

In my academic experience, I found that regular review of progress and reflection have significantly improved my productivity and motivation.

Why?

If you have a set of milestones, which can be defined as significant events in your activity or project, it is much easier to keep track of your progress compared to using just a single goal. Let me give you an example.

Imagine you’re writing a research grant proposal.

Your SMART goal will be: To prepare a high-quality 1000-word research proposal on energy recovery for the Foundation call by 1st January 2021 

Your goal defines the deliverable that you need to prepare (a high-quality 1000-word proposal on energy recovery), the target audience (the foundation) and the deadline (1st January 2021).

But if you use this goal to measure your progress, you may feel overwhelmed and demotivated. It is because you could only say that you’ve successfully achieved your goal when you submitted the proposal.t

Instead, define a set of milestones that will help you track your progress, ensure you’re on the right track, amend your approach if necessary, and feel that you’re achieving successes as you go along.

The milestones for the example above can include:

  1. Complete introduction section that provides context to energy recovery (200 words) by 1st November 2020
  2. Complete research novelty, objective and aim section (300 words) by 14th November 2020
  3. Complete research and programme description section (500 words) by 14th December 2020
  4. Get reviews and proof-read application by 20th December 2020
  5. Submit the application before 1st January 2020

I trust you see the value in setting milestones for your SMART goals now. These give you a sense of completing work as you go along with your task, not just at the end of your task.

Visualise your activities to manage your time better

In your work, you’re probably handling several activities at the same time. The best way to keep track of them is to visualise them! Therefore, most of the time management tools utilise visualisation to help us track our progress.

If you’re managing a project with several deliverables, the most common way of representing the project activity is to use a Gantt chart or project board.

visualise your research plan using gantt chart to track your progress and for efficient time managmenet

These will represent all activities you’ve got to complete in your project, their interdependencies, deadlines and milestones. Such tools will help out to keep a high-level overview of your project and to track the progress of your work on a weekly or monthly basis.

As I mentioned in my previous post, setting daily goals can help you get things done and stay motivated. To efficiently manage your time, it’s a good practice to set and keep track of daily goals.

I recommend using a standard calendar, like the one in Google, Outlook and so on. You may want to use a standard notebook and write your daily goals down. The latter is something I do myself.        

Using other visual tools, like, such as impact-effort or action priority matrix, can help you to prioritise your work and stay on track with your project. 

Reflect and amend to improve time management

Once you’ve visualised and prioritised all your activities, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get down to work. Using your Gantt chart, which you can stick to your wall over your desk, you’ll immediately know where to start and what to do next. 

However, as I discussed above, the discovery research can be unpredictable, and the outcome may not only depend on your and/or equipment availability. 

Even though you’ve accounted for extra time to consider any expected and unexpected delays, what happens in real life may be way different than the best possible estimate. 

Therefore, when developing your project, it’s important to incorporate some flexibility that will allow you to reflect and amend your project plan. Importantly, don’t be afraid to amend your project plan – make sure, however, that your supervisors, project managers and/or stakeholders are happy with your proposed changes.

Remember that time management is not supposed to place restrictions on your research. It’s a skill that helps you efficiently manage your time and navigate through the uncertainty of research. It means that you can amend your research plan, considering the research uncertainty.

A final word…

Time management, prioritisation and setting project plans are crucial skills that each researcher needs to master to succeed in academia. 

The challenge is, however, that your research may be very difficult to predict because it’s aim is to discover something completely new.

Luckily, some tools and techniques can help you plan and track the progress of your research project, and efficiently manage your time.

How are you managing your time and accounting for uncertainties in your project plan? 

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Dawid

Dawid

Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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