You are defined by what you deliver and when you deliver.
Always have a plan – Productivity and planning are inseparable. If you want to do productive work, you need to have identified first which work you need to do, and when - otherwise everything will always be chaos and source of stress.
Plan the goal for each week. The goal should define the big milestone in the projects/papers/proposal you would like to complete in a month/fortnight/week. This helps to define individual tasks and prioritize the task that needs completing each week and every day. Never plan for a goal with a duration of more than 2 weeks, or at most a month. It is often difficult to precisely estimates the duration of tasks requiring more than 2 weeks. Break these tasks to smaller more manageable goals that can be achieved each week. This helps you plan, schedule, and priorities if tasks do fall behind. Write down the goal for your week, if possible share it with others, this helps you stay focused on the task at hand.
Quantify your goals – Make sure your goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. Use a task manager like (Asana/Todoist) to keep track of your tasks and deadlines.
Creating a task – Each specific task should have an estimated time for completion (typically in hours), a priority and a deadline. It is good to have a detailed description of the task. Remember to be specific about the task you would like to complete. Instead of task titled “work on MPM scaling paper”, create a specific task “Write about dynamic load-balancing implementation in MPM for dam-break simulation”.
Have subtasks if your main task is going to take more than 6 hours. It is harder to estimates tasks that take longer than 4 hours.
When planning for a task, consider only your actual productive time for the task. Suppose to run a simulation that will run for 10 hours on a supercomputer, before queuing for 5 hours, but you need 1 hour to create an input file and another 30 minutes for post-processing the results, the task should have an estimated duration of 1.5 hours and maybe additional 15 minutes of buffer. Do not use a task duration estimate of 17 hours (which is the total duration). It’s good to record the total duration in the description, but plan for the duration you will be working (and not the computer). It is useful to know the run-time and queue time to estimate a deliverable date, but not when planning for a task.
Be Realistic About Your Commitments and time estimates. Expect the Unexpected. Plan to have an hour a day for unexpected commitments and tasks.
Break projects into manageable tasks: It is crucial to work systematically to ensure progress on a regular basis. Start each week with a plan for the week, and the task you need to accomplish every day to achieve the weekly goal. Although this may sound simple, it is a critical step toward completing an ambitious project. Develop the skill to identify and prioritize important tasks within a project, as well as the discipline to meet the daily goals. Break your goal for the week into manageable tasks and assign expected duration for each task and a priority. Schedule your week to ensure the primary goal(s) of the week are achieved.
Publicly promise your goals and provide updates on your projects. Conveying your goals to others makes your goals and tasks and your commitments more realistic. This gives you extra motivation to achieve your goals. At the start of the week say 8 AM on Monday, let everyone know, preferably in a public Slack channel of your group called #updates, what are your goals for the week. At this time think about what you would like to achieve on the project you are working on and create a milestone. Every project should have milestones. These are manageable task units that can be finished in 2 weeks to a month at most. Milestones should be set in the Asana project tab. The goal of the week and milestones help you to have a singular focus for the week. This is your highest priority for the week and helps you to not lose focus on what you are supposed to work on.
Daily and weekly updates: At the end of each day (say 5 PM), let everyone know what you worked on that day, it helps build a community and convey to others what you have been working on. At the end of the week, visit your projects and provide a status update. Write down if a project is “On track”, “falling behind”, or “off track”. This helps you to prioritize your tasks for the following week. You could do this in your project management tool like Asana.
Plan your day, and set priorities to avoid distractions. Every hour in the day should have an allocated task. Stick to the task planned for that hour, don’t let the day dictate the tasks, but assign and stick to the schedule you created.
Always have a 30 minutes buffer between 2-hour focused deep work block. These can act as a buffer or an overflow if your current task is running longer than expected or time for less intensive smaller tasks. You may do your emails and other communications in this buffer zone. Do not schedule back-back tasks to fill your whole day!
Take breaks – Schedule breaks, it could be taken in the 30-minute window between 2-hour scheduled deep focused work or follow the Pomodoro technique and take a 5-minute break after completing a task for 25-minutes. Repeat this task-break cycle for 3-times to complete a block of deep focused work.
Schedule longer uninterrupted deepwork blocks – avoid 10 and 15 minutes blocks, try to schedule longer uninterrupted 1.5 to 2-hour blocks to do focused work. Studies have shown that multi-tasking and getting distracted by notifications will take 20 minutes to refocus and get back to the task at hand.
Schedule no more than 4 - 6 hours of deepwork a day. We are not robots, we can’t be productive 24/7. Research has shown we cant do no more than 4 hours of focused work per day over the long-term. For continuous long-term productivity aim for 4 hours/day. If you have completed your 4 hours of productive work, you are done for the day! Go ahead and do something more fun and creative.
Schedule the most important and difficult task for the day when you are most productive. This could be early mornings, in which case start the day with the most important task. If you are a night owl, do the difficult task when you have the most focus. Schedule less intensive works during afternoons or slumber times.
Define your productive work – this is the work you do in your focused deepwork blocks. Productive work is the one that directly affects your career. Productive work for researchers includes running research simulations, writing code, writing papers and proposals, summarizing research work. It does not include doing homework, creating lectures, meetings - these are important but is not how you are evaluated as a researcher. Focus on productive career work and prioritize these tasks in the focused deep work blocks, rather than other tasks.
Invest in your writing – At the end of each day spend at least 15 minutes to summarize the tasks you have completed, write out the results from each task in a document. This helps you plan new tasks and help create new ideas.
Avoid distractions – Disable notifications on your phone/laptop when doing focused work. Fullscreen applications are useful to avoid distractions.
Focus on one task at a time – Do one task at a time with full attention, do not switch between tasks, we can’t multitask, we can only context switch. Context switching is way less efficient than doing one task with a full focus. Schedule a fixed duration for your task and work on it without distraction, you know you have a break coming up shortly to check other things, so you can focus on the task at hand.
Get bored! It’s important to get bored, we live in a world of distraction economy. Boredom stimulates your brain to have creative thoughts. Next time you think about getting your phone out of your pocket to check on the news or social media updates, resist the urge (if possible delete those apps on your phone or use a blocker like StayFocuses / Leachblock). Go for a walk, let your mind wander, this will stimulate the more creative self in you.
Check emails/slack only at scheduled times during a day. Avoid starting your day by opening emails / Slack – you’ll then spend the rest of the day responding to others. If you don’t schedule your day, others will schedule it for you – this is an enemy for deepwork. Restrict emails / Slack communications to at most three 20-minute intervals during the day (after your first productive block, noon, and just before you finish the day). Open your email only after you have completed at least one focused block of work.
Prefer asynchronous long-form communication compared to synchronous real-time chats and meetings. Cluster meetings to one day a week if possible to enable time for longer focused work. Never agree to do a meeting without an agenda. Allocate time to respond to communications from others. If an email/communication requires more time, create a task and assign it a specific time.
Always measure the time it takes to complete a task and compare it with your estimate. Record the time taken to complete a task in the task description. This gives you an idea about your estimates and plans. Don’t worry if your initial estimates are way off, you will eventually get better at estimates once you understand and measure how long a task takes for you to complete.
Categorize your tasks and record the time to complete different tasks. Toggl is a good tool to record time. Categorization of time-taken allows you to understand what tasks you spend the most time on, such as the percentage of time spent on preparing lectures vs writing proposals or papers or codes vs running some simulations or doing homework projects. Weekly reports are good to understand what you thought you were spending your time on to what you actually spent your time on!