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[EA#1] Quit Managing Your Time


Once again, welcome to the weekly Edge Academia.

I’ll just start with a bit of honesty: I planned to send these a lot earlier, but somehow I felt not everything was ready.

Should’ve known better of course. It’s never the perfect time to start.

Luckily it’s also always the perfect time to start!

I had many excuses too. But just a little ago I finally summoned the courage to kill my earlier email newletter (The Box, at so it’s now or never!

So let’s talk… about time.

You can probably relate to this one:

There’s Just Never Enough Time

Academics are probably the last bunch of people on Earth still dearly and stubbornly holding on to the hustle culture. Work nights, weekends, work always.

And we take odd pride in it.

But try adding something to that equation, and problems surface. It’s just not a good strategy if you also wish to, you know, have a life?

An example. Three months ago, I was shooting videos for the first Edge Academia course bundle (link at the end of this email), doing my best to supervise people in my group, trying to write some papers on my own, while trying to do a dozen other things. On top of that, I promised myself to hit the gym regularly this year, so that’s naturally taking time as well. First time in my life, by the way!

Anyway, just like so many times earlier I once again found myself in a situation where I had too many things in my calendar, no matter how much I tried to plan the days and weeks.

And yes, I’ve read all the books and ideas about time management. The methods, techniques, tricks and hacks.

Nothing seemed to help. Prioritise this, delegate that, yada yada yada.

No point. Ended up being tired every day, with not-so-low-key anxiety as the work was never fully done. Unfinished reviews, papers you could start, grant ideas, unfinished this and that with just a bit too many unreplied emails and whatever.

Argh! The same old conclusion:

Academic. Work. Never. Ends.

What logically follows from the fact that there’s always something to do is that there’s just not enough time.

Alarmingly, most (especially senior) academics seem to have accepted this as a fact that “just is” and does not need changing. The past March I was in a gala event in Helsinki where we chatted about our workloads over some drinks, and literally everyone said they can’t get their work done in the time they have.

The office day is not enough. Is this seriously what we are supposed to just accept?

And a few weeks after that, in our unit’s monthly meeting, the big director asked participants to raise their hands if they feel like they have enough time for their work. Out of maybe 50, 3-4 people raised their hands.

In the words of King Leonidas (in the family movie 300), this is madness.

Here’s what I feel is true but gets ignored in academia for some reason:

Clock Measures Time; Results Measure Productivity

The clock and the hours don’t measure your output by any stretch of imagination. They are a relic from the past times. And hours as a measure of work must die.

The clock measures time. The clock is boring. Because hours are predictable.

Hours are the same for everyone.

Every Nobel Prize winner or the hyper-prolific Elon Musks in the industry all have the same hours at their use.

You can’t manage something that’s constant. So:

Don’t Manage Time

Time just goes by. There’s no taming it.

But what goes in time can be managed.

In 1955 the naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson coined what is now commonly known as the Parkinson’s Law:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Even so, many people implement time blocks in their calendars for e.g. “working on papers” Or a bit better variation of this is working on some specific paper.

But if work expands so as to fill in the time available for its completion, what happens is you will just spend the entire time block on the same paper or just literally the first section you get your hands on.

It gets worse.

Sometimes it happens for a full day. You set your eyes to work on a paper on that Thursday. And by the end of the day, you have indeed worked on that paper. For the whole damn day. Because work expands to fill in the time.

So let’s try something else.

Following results-focused thinking, you don’t block time. You don’t even think in time blocks.

Instead, think in results.

Think of a typical working week in your life. What are the REAL actual results you must achieve?

Don’t cheat here.

I bet there are not that many of them. And I don’t say this to downplay your responsibilities. I’m sure you have a lot on your plate. But is all of it that important? That’s the big question. Is all of it resulting in something useful?

Or is at least part of it busywork that does not bring home the results you need?

I am willing to bet this is the case.

At least for me, when I sat down and started making painfully honest sense of:

1) what is really required from me, in terms of results I can concretely and accurately articulate, and

2) what everything I do I do just to fill in the day with work

I was… shocked.

There’s way less results to hit than there is work to do.

Manage Results Instead of Time

Okay, here’s how to manage results instead of time in practice.

  • 1) Set a recurring reminder for each Monday to think of and write down your required results during the next week.

I use something called Things 3 on Mac but you can literally use anything for this. You know, a calendar will work just fine. In this list of required results, include things that have a must-do deadline during the week and things that you know move the needle in your specific career stage and ambitions.

In my case, some results I have for the next week are “submit an old paper that has been lying around”, “create first draft of a funding application abstract for Academy of Finland”, “ask every person in the team what’s up” and a few more like that.

In all honesty, that’s all that’s required from me this week. I can get it done in three mornings.

Consider the opposite. Saying something like, “Working on paper X” is not a result, as it will take the whole day and won’t be finished anyway.

You can literally work on it forever and subconsciously feel that 1) you’re doing something smart and 2) you’re busy (which we all so dearly glorify.)

But “finish the first draft” is a result that gets you there faster.

Your desired results will of course be different. But in my case, those are all things that move the needle. And they are things with a concrete shape and form: I know when I have achieved the result. And that’s all that is in reality expected from me next week.

Huh. Suddenly, it feels pretty manageable!

Never include things like “keep an eye on the inbox” – there’s always emails to react to, random stuff that you feel like you need to respond to, whatever invitations to something that does not matter. But guess what? They can wait. They have to wait. They are the things that cause the pervasive feeling of overwhelm among academics.

“Wait Simo are you telling me to become THAT person who never responds to emails and is loathed by everyone?”

No, I’m telling you not to sacrifice YOUR career and sanity for whatever THEY are asking.

I’m telling you to be selfish in a healthy way.

Get your results first, then give a part of yourself to others.

So. Once you have your results list for the week, forget everything else and just hit the results as fast as humanly possible without blocking any required amount of time for them.

Full, deep, undistracted focus on getting one result at a time.

  • 2) Focus fully on a result until you get it.

This is important and cannot be emphasised enough. Dive deep, work fast, get your thing done. Don’t think of time, think of the result.

Ignore everyone and anyone who tries to get between you and your focused work. Once you start, don’t stop.

I find this pretty accurate:

A tiny distraction when you’re working on your result can slow you down a lot.

That’s how our focus mechanisms work.

And there’s no better feeling than getting all you need done by noon.

Then you work on things that are “important but not urgent” to springboard your career forward or build skills.

  • 3) In the afternoon hours, do whatever busywork needs doing.

Respond to emails.

Check all the 10 different messengers you’re using.

Catch up on whatever small requests you have pending from others.

But do that only after you’ve done something that moves the needle for the day.

The first few weeks you do this, you’ll be amazed at how much time you have on your hands.

What do I do With all The Extra Time?

We talked about this already:

  • Read the papers and books that are collecting dust in your reading queue.
  • Take care of your health. Better health = more energy = better work and less stress.
  • Start journaling – by now we should be adult enough to understand it’s not just for teenage girls:
  • Network with your old colleagues. Never a bad idea!
  • Ask how your peers are doing.

Do whatever you think makes your future brighter! Write MORE papers if that’s what you want. Or take longer shots with grant applications!

Make sure you have space to think: downtime. It’s pretty incredible what all you can think of when you have space to think! Here’s something pretty interesting from Google’s productivity guru Laura Mae Martin (source):

Just take it a bit easier.

Sounds good? It’s doable when you focus on results instead of “time spent working.”

1) Define your results

2) Focus on them

3) Relax

This is the way.

About the author 

Simo Hosio  -  Simo is an award-winning scientist, Academy Research Fellow, research group leader, professor, and digital builder. This site exists to empower people to build passion projects that support professional growth and make money.

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