Nine years ago, I was sitting in a small lecture theatre at Lancaster University, with a group of other young, naïve postgraduates. We were all young, fresh-faced and standing at the bottom of that mountain known as doctoral studies. To assist on our largely mysterious journey through academic research, we were put on various courses intended to give us guidance to help us survive. This would be not unlike Gandalf offering Frodo a few tips for navigating the smoking plains of Mordor on his quest to deposit the ring into that volcano.
So far, we had had three lectures in this series. The first was on time management. The second, organized by a tutor new to the course, gave us a talk on time management. Standing brightly before us, the woman from the Sociology department informed us that she would be giving us a 45 minute talk on… time management.
It still took me five and a half years to get my doctorate, given all that focus on effectively managing my time. I spent three years teaching undergraduates how to do things that in reality, they would never consider, like going to the library and actually being sober. I was a total nerd: a real expert as an undergraduate at planning my time and ensuring that I had plenty of time to research and write my essays.
We used to teach standard tips, like keeping a timetable, to-do lists and such. Whenever I sat in front of my students for our yearly session on “exam revision and time management”, I could see in those keen – or at least moderately compos mentis – faces the truth that there was no way they were going to actually do anything I suggested. I was reminded of Arnold Rimmer in the series Red Dwarf, and his beautifully painted revision timetables.
Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about time management. It was harder when I worked full time, studied full time and also managed to write nine big fiction books over the course of about two years. I just put my head down and worked solidly, I recall. Writing fiction was a break from writing up my research and working. Perhaps the single most important thing I learned in all the years of study, work and writing was that time management is a very personal thing indeed.
You need, to start with, to know whether you’re a morning or a night person. It’s no good all these people saying you should get up at 5am if you’re the kind of person who goes to bed at that hour. We are naturally built to do different things depending on the time of day, and it isn’t the same for everybody. The most effective forms of time management are flexible, and take into account the fact that you have good days and bad days, hours when you’re going to be great for deep concentration and other times that are perfect for physical activity. Although if you work for somebody else, a lot of your day ends up being planned for you, fitting your own activities around that will depend on your own knowledge of yourself. I could have woken up at 5am to write my thesis every morning before work, but I’m at my most creative at night, so I worked late into the evening instead.
Perhaps the oddest thing about time is that the less you have, the more efficient you are. I wrote far more when I was balancing full time work and study with writing fiction. Of course, that couldn’t last because I wore myself out, but creating balance is essential. If you have hours of time every day where you can do anything, you’re likely to end up doing nothing. You get wrapped up in the idea that you have “plenty of time” and it’s more difficult to get on with things that need to be done.
I now run a business so I have a lot of control over my time. It’s perfect, but I know if I have no plan, I won’t do anything. So I schedule time around gym classes when I’m at home. Knowing myself well, I get things like the Amnar podcast done at the beginning of the week and edit in batches when I’m not with my business adviser or working on other things. The real magic behind time management, you see, is to know all about yourself, what motivates you and how and when you work best at what. And to change things around, any time you get bored.