Step 3: Cut back anything hindering or distracting you from your impact
In this step, we will think about how you can make room in your busy schedule for impact-generating activities that are based on trusting relationships with the people who might be interested in and use your research.
Time is something that is in short supply for most researchers. That’s a problem if you want to take a relational approach to impact, because investing in relationships takes time. That’s why this step is designed to help you become more efficient and focused as a researcher, so you can make time for relationships with those who are interested in your research (and those other important people in your life, whether or not they are interested in your research!). I have written more extensively about this in The Productive Researcher. Here, I want to summarise some of the key lessons from that book and point you to some additional ideas that can significantly change how you work.
How to prioritise is the single most important lesson I have learned from my reading, interviewing some of the world’s most productive researchers and my own experience. You might think you already know how to prioritise, but the key thing that seems to set the most productive researchers apart from the rest of us is their unusual ability retain a laser-sharp focus on their priorities from minute-to-minute, day after day and month after month. This unusual level of focus comes from the way these researchers set their priorities. These priorities are more than simply preferences; they express the values and identity of the researcher. Priorities that come from this deep place stand the test of time and are deeply felt. As a result, they motivate researchers to retain focus on their priorities, making it easier to say “yes” to the things that are most important to them, and “no” to many of the things that might otherwise have distracted them.
Start trying to be mindful of how you spend your time every day, and to what extent each of the things you are doing connect with your impact goals, and your wider life goals. In this step, you are going to identify at least one regular task or activity that you can either entirely cut out of your schedule or drastically cut back on.
Think about how you work with everyone on your team and whether there are people who might benefit from some of the more minor tasks on your to-do list, for example, getting experience reviewing papers that can help them learn how to write more effectively themselves. Consider getting a virtual Personal Assistant (PA). I have a UK-based virtual PA who has experience working with academics, though you can get more generalist virtual PAs who charge less. What would you say if I gave you the choice of a pay rise (say £300 per month) or a whole extra day per week to do whatever you want (you can use it to achieve more in your work or spread your work out over the week so you don’t have to work so hard — it’s up to you). For most academics, a whole extra day per week is worth much more financially than £300, let alone psychologically. My PA helps me format reference lists, does simple research tasks for me (e.g. how to make a MOOC), writes up notes (including post-it notes and flip-chart paper) from workshops, sets up meetings, organises all my travel and expenses — the list is endless. So next time you get a pay rise, have a think about how you can turn that small amount of extra money into a significant amount of extra time.
Lack of time = lack of priorities
I personally believe that the problem all academics will recognise, of the day never being long enough to do everything we are meant to do, comes down to poor priorities. Lack of time = lack of priorities.
Perhaps you are regularly working evenings and weekends, and don’t have time to think (let alone do anything) about generating impacts from your research? I’ve discovered something interesting over the years, which I’ve recently found have names: Parkinson’s Law and the Pareto Principle.
Parkinson’s Law simply recognises that tasks will swell to fill the time you give them. Therefore, you need to limit the time you give to the tasks you need to do. The strange thing is that the end product is usually as good, but is sometimes actually far better, than if you spent double the time on the task. The reason for this, is that the level of focused attention provided by a forced deadline actually enables you to produce more focused work.
I first discovered this in my teaching when I was told I had to head up a research centre, and had significantly less time to prepare my lectures. Without intending to do this, I ended up regularly preparing my lectures on the day of delivery, and although it was more stressful, I was surprised to discover that my ratings from students increased significantly. Admittedly, I had a fairly good grasp of the subjects I was teaching, but the key difference was that I was now having to rely less on my notes and more on my intuition, and as a result my passion for the subject became far more apparent, and this enthusiasm was infectious. I also did more class exercises rather than boring people with information overload, which meant that the students actually learned more. I did the same with a literature review, giving myself just one week to do all the reading and writing of the first draft. It was a hard week’s work and I made lots of edits and changes before the final version was eventually published. But this is now by far my most cited paper (>2000 citations) and has played an important role in establishing my reputation in that particular field.
What 20% of your working day produces 80% of the outputs you value most?
The Pareto Principle suggests that for most people, 80% of the outputs you value most come from only 20% of the time you spend working. In reality, it is not exactly 80:20, but I believe that the principle holds for most of us. I think that this principle is the source of many researchers’ greatest frustrations and disappointments, because we spend so long every day doing the urgent thing that everyone around us is shouting for at the expense of the less urgent, but far more important things. So that paper or book we dreamed of writing stays unwritten, and we accumulate regret and frustration for the sake of keeping everyone around us happy. I’m not saying that we should stop being team players and be selfish with our time. But if you’ve got a really important goal in your work, try and spend some time on it every day, even if you only manage half an hour, and you’ll be amazed how much more satisfied you feel day after day, week after week. Some people I know get up at five or six in the morning to spend an hour writing or whatever that important task is. I’ve never been motivated enough to do that, but the point I’m trying to make is that you don’t have to spend all day doing the important stuff, but you do have to keep chipping away at it. When you start focusing on the important things, you suddenly realise that many of the urgent things you’re being told to do aren’t actually that important. With this revelation, it becomes easier to say ‘no’ or take a few shortcuts to do a ‘good enough’ job on those tasks, so you can get back to the really important stuff.
So what 20% of your working day produces 80% of the outcomes you value most? Write a list of everything you did yesterday, and if possible estimate how long you spent on it. Be brutally honest about how long you spent replying to emails, on social media and doing other things that yielded very little tangible outcome. For me, this isn’t necessarily about cutting these tasks out — you’re not going to be popular with your students or colleagues if you stop replying to emails. But it is well worth considering how you could be more strategic.
What could you cut?
Here’s a list of the things I have drastically reduced time on, which might inspire you to consider what you could cut:
Social media: I no longer try and read everything in my feeds, and limit myself to a 30 minute ‘news’ window every day which I receive and read in Twitter. In addition to mass media outlets, I’m following a targeted social media strategy designed specifically to help me achieve impacts through my research. Now I’m not blogging into thin air — I’ve got a strategy to drive traffic to my most important research outputs and to engage with specific audiences around key messages that link to the impacts I want to achieve.
Email: I do a scan of the most important and urgent emails in the morning and only reply to these, ignoring the rest till the afternoon, often after lunch when I’m feeling most tired. If necessary, I will send a holding email, acknowledging the email and explaining that I’ve got a busy morning and that I’ll reply later in the day. If I’ve got a writing deadline (even if it’s self-imposed), I will put an out-of-office reply up, explaining that I’m working towards an important deadline and not checking emails for the rest of the week, so please send me a text message if it is urgent, otherwise I’ll get back to them as soon as I can.
Reviewing: none of us can escape this; it is part of our duty to review others’ work in as timely and constructive a way as we would hope others would review ours. However, I think we sometimes feel a false sense of duty to review more than we need to. I personally feel that I have met my moral obligation to the academic community if I review around three times as many manuscripts and grant proposals as I submit myself (on the basis that most of the papers and grants I submit will get three reviews each). In addition to only reviewing papers that are in my subject area, I will only review papers from which I think I’m likely to learn something useful or new (based on the abstract). This rule also has a handy way of ensuring you don’t end up reviewing papers for “predatory” journals.
Committee meetings: there is usually someone absent at each committee meeting you go to, and no one really minds, as long as they aren’t always absent. What would happen if you decided to make your apologies for every other committee meeting or shared the role with a colleague so you could take turns? What would actually happen? Would the meeting cease to function? If you missed out on a key piece of information or decision, would there be no other way to find this out or influence that decision? Obviously it is wise to check the agenda and if you’re chairing the committee then this won’t be possible, but if you’re not chairing it, do you really have to be at every single one?
Chat: it is incredible how much time is wasted, just chatting in the corridors, or with people randomly passing your office door who want to say ‘hello’. Rather than leaving your office door open with an invitation to be interrupted, make yourself fully available to anyone by appointment, and then stack all your appointments into a single day or a couple of days in the week. This doesn’t mean that you need to become a hermit and avoid all social contact, but now you can be strategic and targeted in who you actually invest time with, whether professionally or as friends, by taking these people for coffee or lunch, where you can have quality time together. Since my PhD, I have always worked primarily from home, coming into the department on selected days, for meetings and to socialise. The rest of the week is for being productive and focused.
Those are just a few of the things I’ve done over the years to increase my productivity. I’m not suggesting you should cut back in the same areas, but hopefully this list gives you a flavour of the sorts of things that might be possible.
Do less to do more
I think that many of us think somehow that the world will end if we stop doing some of the things that all other academics do. But stop and ask yourself the question: what will actually happen if I stop doing this? Really? Think of your worst-case scenario, and then consider if you could reverse, cope with or recover from that situation. If you’d manage to cope with the worst-case scenario, then go ahead and cut it. In almost every case, that worst-case will never actually come to pass.
We all know that there will always be many more things that we ‘ought’ to be doing every day, which we run out of time for. The art of being a successful academic with some semblance of work-life balance,is more about what you choose not to do, rather than what you do. The more time you give to your work, the more tasks will fill up that time. That’s why since my PhD I made the decision to never work weekends, and only to work evenings when my wife or I was travelling (typically two evenings per week). I feel rested and refreshed on a Monday morning and I don’t resent my work. That simple act of constraining my time is, I believe, one of the reasons I have been able to be so productive.
My message is this: do less to do more. Limit your tasks to only the most important, so that you shorten the amount of time you have to work. Then, shorten the amount of time you have to work, so that you are forced to limit your tasks to only the most important.
If you want to find out more about how to become more productive, take a look at my book, The Productive Researcher. In this book, I show researchers how they can become more productive in a fraction of their current working day. I draws on interviews with some of the world’s highest performing researchers, the literature and my own experience to identify a small number of important insights that can transform how researchers work.
Tasks for this step
Make a list of everything you did during your workday yesterday (or your last typical day in the office), and how long you spent on each task, including menial and non-work tasks during the workday.
Commit today to removing one thing from your schedule to make room for impact-generating activities. If you can, commit to removing as many other things as you can, so that in addition to being more productive, you can get a better work-life balance (which of course, will make you more productive in the hours you do work).
Good luck with your tasks this week. Be brave! I'll see you back here again next week to start getting specific about the impacts you'll acheive by the end of this programme and the people who will be able to help you get there.
Have fun till then
Read about the principles that underpin this step and find tools you can use to achieve more impact in The Research Impact Handbook. I will be publishing the second edition soon, and I am giving away exclusive free access to the majority of the new content to those who join my mailing list, if you are interested in subscribing via the link on my contact page. Also check out my resources page for free Research Impact Guides, templates, examples of good practice, my podcast, magazine and good practice library of pathways to impact from grant applications.