How do I manage multi-tasking?

Last week Monday for me started with meetings with students to discuss on progress on their projects, meetings with fellow postdocs I’m collaborating with on a paper and a grant, own research work, organizational tasks, gym, cooking and a late evening Skype call with our collaborators in US.

My schedules are always pre-and-well-organized and I have quite successfully managed a number of different projects and responsibilities since my PhD. Thus, a question I get asked very often is “How are you so good at multi-tasking? (How do you organize yourself?)” So I decided to share my method and tips that you can follow.

First, here’s an octopus version of my current responsibilities and tasks a couple of months ago:

IDS Strategy Day 2018 - Research Pitches - Amrapali ZaveriSo here’s a list of all what I do to manage all my tasks, deadlines and responsibilities:

  • I rely heavily on Google calendar (it can be any scheduler of course, even a hand-written diary). I *immediately* put all my tasks, reminders, links, deadlines, meetings, ideas in the calendar.
  • All “to do” (action) tasks, according to their priority, get a 1 hour time slot. I prefer to do many different things on one day and over the week.  In this way, I touch upon different projects and there’s progress in them step by step (as opposed to cramming the work before a deadline). Plus the 1 hour time slot ensures that I have full concentration on that one task I have decided to do at that time.
  • Then there are “All day” tasks, which are either reminders or deadlines or tasks that are *high* priority and have not been assigned the 1  hour slot. Each of these are represented differently. For example, some minor tasks like sending a reminder email get to be “All day” events with the letters a, b, c and so on. Most important tasks, especially ones with deadlines, get an “All day” event with the numbers 0, 1, 2 so that they appear above the letters. Then, as and when those tasks are taken care of, I delete them and/or transfer them in the day at the time I actually did them (so that I have a log of them). Its just my thing – I like the “All day tasks” to be empty by the end of the day. If they aren’t taken care of, I shift them to the next day.
  • This is an important one: I specify the exact time slot when I am going to work on that task *in advance*. Say from 9 – 10 am you are going to write one section of a paper, 10 – 11am I am going to work on slides for my presentation in two weeks, 11 – 12 pm I have a meeting with a student and so on. I add each of these time slots before hand in my calendar and name them accordingly.
  • What really helps is not only adding those time slots but also in the description of each of the meeting slots, I add the details of the task *before hand* (while Im planning the schedule). If I have “Write paper” as my 1 hour slot title, in the description I will add “Introduction”. If I have a meeting with others, I will add the agenda and/or things I’d like to discuss during that meeting.
  • All reminders go in the calendar as well. Reminder to send a reminder email to some one, reminder to follow up with students,  reminder to remind me of upcoming deadlines. These are usually the “All day” tasks.
  • I also add tentative tasks for the following weeks as well until the deadline; for reminders that these deadlines are coming up and that that week this task will need priority.
  • Of course, and this question I get asked often as well, what happens when there are last minute changes or tasks that arise that require my immediate attention? Well, yes there is flexibility in my calendar. I do shuffle around tasks for these urgent ones. This is why task prioritization ranging from Urgent & Important to Less Urgent and Not Important is very important. If there are tasks in the current week that aren’t on high priority (the deadline is not soon), I can shift them to squeeze in the urgent last minute ones.
  • It’s not always a do-this, do-that calendar either, there is thinking time, break time, exercise time, relax time – some times its empty,  some times its actually in my calendar to “Exercise” (no, I don’t have a calendar entry for “relax” ;)) .
  • I have a mega list (yup, I am unapologetically a list freak) of *all* my tasks, responsibilities, deadlines – both short term and long term –  and I keep updating it as and when tasks get done, deadlines are met, deadlines are not met and priorities change.
  • My most important tip is “plan plan plan in advance” (scheduled time for planning). I spend my Sunday (or well, whenever I have time) evening planning my entire upcoming week. I  add in the 1 hour slots, add in the details, refer to my mega list and P-L-A-N. Think about what I want to achieve that week and what I need to do. I mark each and every time slot in my calendar, I add all the details in the description with exact, and in as much detail as possible. I look at my mega list, I look at the deadlines and I plan accordingly.
  • Last and extremely important, I re-order, re-prioritize and re-think each week.

Okay and here are those cliche things you have probably heard of in a book or from an influencer talking about how to be successful, that I follow. If you really want to be productive and efficient, besides the practical stuff  I have described earlier, add these to your life’s daily agenda as well:

  • I meditate every day. 15 – 20 minutes of relaxing the body and mind, concentrating on breathing to improve concentration and being in the present.
  • I visualize (during meditation as well) my day, my tasks, my meetings, my presentations. And I think about the project or task while brushing my teeth, while biking to work, while cooking. Just a little (pre and positive) thought goes a long way.
  • I have a Vision board. A visual one where I know what my end goals are for all my tasks, a reminder for what I am working towards. I have my academic goals as well as personal goals on my vision board staring at me all day erryday.

Of course, in spite of being on the go all the time, I do manage some me time where I go for movies or Netflix (watching Bojack Horseman currently – absolutely loving it) or hang out with friends :). You do need to “schedule” some down time as well :).

Let me know which of these tips you actually incorporate and work for you (and also that don’t). If you have any other tips or tricks that you use to be a super multi-tasker, I’d like to hear as well !

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