Scheduling my way to success! Time management tips for community managers

In December, we wrapped up the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. We’ll be recruiting for Cohort Two later this year for a start date of January 2019.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to share reflections from the 2017 Fellows on the Trellis blog. In today’s post Allen Pope shares an experiment in which he tries to solve his challenges with multi-tasking. You can catch up on all posts by the Fellows here.

Allen Pope is the Executive Secretary for the International Arctic Science Committee, an international scientific organization pursuing a mission of encouraging and facilitating cooperation in all aspects of Arctic research, in all countries engaged in Arctic research and in all areas of the Arctic region. On Twitter @PopePolar and online at about.me/allenpope & iasc.info.

I started my new job running the secretariat of the International Arctic Science Committee at the beginning of 2017. In the past year, there has been a lot for me to learn, a lot for me to get up to speed on, and a lot for me to do! After wrapping up our large annual Arctic science meetingI realized that I was spending too much time responding to emails and getting small tasks done and not enough time working on longer-term projects and thinking forwards. That might be okay for a little bit, but it isn’t sustainable in the long run.

In our Community Engagement Fellowship cohortI discovered that the time allocation / prioritization problem I encountered is by no means unique. Some of the more experienced members of the group suggested setting aside dedicated time to make sure the urgent didn’t crowd out the important. I was skeptical – but nothing else had worked so far, so I thought I would conduct an experiment on myself.

A new day: what are you hoping to achieve? Image credit: Allen Pope.
A new day: what are you hoping to achieve? Image credit: Allen Pope.

The Experiment: Intentionally and intensively schedule every minute of my working days to be able to actually get done my priority tasks and to make sure the urgent didn’t crowd out the important. For me, that meant having my whole day blocked out into tasks – I broke up my day into chunks no smaller than 30 minutes, each allocated to a type of task (e.g. email) or a bigger project (e.g. write this blog post). I grouped smaller (admin) tasks together to reach a single chunk, and bigger projects took longer slices of time (e.g. creating a workshop structure).

After Day 1: I’m used to always being responsive on email and Slack at short notice, so this was a big change for me. It was frustrating to see things coming in and “not being able” to do something about it. I wanted to keep on notifications just in case high-priority things came in, but it took a lot of mental energy to stay focused. I liked the focus that scheduling brought, but it was a different kind of hard. On the first day, I quickly learned that…

  1. …Surprise! Every task took longer than I expected. I only got my morning activities done by the end of the day.
  2. Despite this setback, I was being a bit too structured in my time. I needed to also allow some flexibility to allow impromptu discussions to happen, or else I wasn’t being a good team member. Especially in a culture of asynchronous work, I find my best collaborations happen when I can harness my colleagues’ attention and enthusiasm in the moment.

For both of these reasons, I was glad I hadn’t fully scheduled day 2 at the week’s outset. My expectations slightly realigned, I continued with my heavily-scheduled rest of the week.

What I Learned: From my intentional and intensively scheduled week, I really did give my priority actions the time I allotted, which is what I would call success! Along the way, I learned that…

  • Things took longer than I thought.I know I’m saying this a 2nd time. But it still amazes me how much time projects can take. This is why I found it REALLY hard to make progress without setting aside time for them! For better or worse, I found myself staying later in the office than I normally would have so that I could finish things and not have them spill over until the next day. This was a conflict in my “clock time” vs. “event time.”
  • I really did get more done.In addition to helping my urgent/important problem, having a schedule to stick to helped keep up my pacing throughout the day and also reduced my occasional procrastinatory urges (which is a whole separate thing).
  • Meetings need followup.It might sound straightforward, but from a practical aspect, I didn’t give myself (enough) time in the schedule to follow up on actions after meetings. To reduce task switching, by the end of the week, I was adding more “immediate action item” time so as to keep up my team’s momentum and not disrupt later.
  • I needed to know my own work rhythm.Despite what some “experts” advise, I like to start out my day with email triage, otherwise I can’t focus. Late morning is good for bigger projects, the mid afternoon to push through admin tasks, and then coming back to big picture at the end of the day. Find a rhythm that works for you.
  • I might have taken it too far.Intensive intentional scheduling could help with my at-home to-do list, too, right?! Well, I tried it with my own personal time – whether specifically setting time to go to the gym, make dinner, do household chores, or teach myself a little Icelandic. Great! Except that at one point I also specifically scheduled myself 30 minutes for Netflix. Like I said, I might have taken it too far – spontaneity is important, too!
  • Planning takes time but is worth it.This was my biggest takeaway. Adding structure takes some planning, but for me it made me more productive and happier with where my time went. And I could prove it with my calendar, too!

After the experiment: Anyone can try something out for a week, but is it sustainable? I really liked how my experiment went, so I am integrating it into my regular work behavior (maybe not so much to schedule Netflix, though). That said, a few weeks on, I’m a little looser with my planning; I still schedule my full days, but in larger chunks. I do more grouping of smaller tasks with reasonable to-do lists, and I still schedule and protect time for certain larger projects. My balance between urgent and important seems to be staying – and the hardest part is still keeping the focus away from things as they roll in. Still, this new scheduling habit might just stick!