12 Time Management Strategies for Researchers

Being able to manage our time effectively is a key concern for many of us (Cyril, 2015). This is not surprising given that 28% of our working day can be wasted by interruptions and distractions (Chase et al., 2013).

Reducing these interruptions and being as efficient as possible in the time remaining is essential for being a productive researcher. Although there are many time management techniques out there, it is key to remember that no single technique will work for everyone. Here, we take you on a journey through a diverse array of these strategies to try and find something which works for you.

  1. Pickle Jar Theory
    Perhaps disappointingly, if you’re a fan of pickles, this technique doesn’t actually involve any pickles, or even a physical jar. The jar is instead a metaphor for time that we fill with our tasks for the day (Wright, 2002). We start off with the rocks; these are the big tasks that need to be completed. After these are in, we can fit in smaller tasks–pebbles–around the rocks. We then top our jar up with sand, which represents the quick little jobs that can slot into our schedule at a moment’s notice. And now, even though your jar is full, you’ll still have space for some water, as it can trickle into the minuscule spaces between the stones and sand. This water represents small tasks, like collecting a parcel, which pop up unexpectedly throughout the day. Planning your days like this, so the biggest and most important jobs are fitted into your schedule first, means that you won’t run out of time for what’s important to you. Trying it the other way round, in this analogy by placing the water and sand in the jar first, will make it impossible to fit in the larger rocks. Thus, you’ll run out of time, and energy, for what you need to do.
  2. Task Segmentation
    Writing a thesis, compiling a research paper, and setting up a complex experiment may seem like gargantuan tasks when they appear on a to-do list in their entirety. This can lead to avoidance responses and the inability to gain enough momentum to tackle them. What can we do about this? A simple but effective solution is to break up tasks into manageable chunks that can be dealt with separately. Let’s take the thesis, for example. It can be split into different sections such as the introduction, methods, and results. These sections can in turn be divided into paragraphs, central points of discussion, and visual aids. When you consider a thesis as the sum of its parts, it suddenly becomes less daunting to write. One of the main benefits of using task segmentation is that you end up with small chunks of work that range in duration and difficulty. These can be allocated to your calendar or Gantt chart in such a way that takes into account your energy levels and even your menstrual cycle if you have one (Mysoor, 2018). On the last workday of the week, you would probably be better off drawing a diagram or writing up experiment methods for a manuscript than doing something more taxing like data interpretation. Laura Vanderkam, an author known for her books on work-life balance, writes: “dispensing with strict boundaries between work and the rest of life can make a fuller, less burned-out life possible” (Vanderkam, 2022). Task segmentation is certainly a strategy that makes it easier to integrate your work into your life. It also comes with the advantage of allowing you to track your progress more efficiently and to feel a sense of achievement for every part of the puzzle you complete.
  3. To-do and To-don’t Lists
    Having lots of unfinished tasks on our minds is known to distract us and interfere with our productivity. However, the very act of writing these tasks down can reduce this effect (Masicampo and Baumeister, 2011). This is where to-do lists come in. These lists acknowledge the jobs we need to complete, thereby allowing our brain to cease thinking about them and letting us focus on the present. We might realize the benefits of to-do lists but too often we hear people saying that they’ve only crossed one thing off their list in a day, or that their list gets more tasks added to it than crossed off. This is where making more efficient lists comes into play. Instead of putting all your tasks on one list, try a targeted approach with different lists for different projects or different areas of your life. Try having a specific long-term goal for each list, for instance “getting a paper published,” and write this at the top of the list. These goals will inspire you and help you remember why you are doing the tasks on your list in the first place. It’s also important that the tasks on the lists are specific; it’s much easier to cross off “read one paper that has been published in the last month” than “get up to date with relevant literature.” And the satisfaction of crossing off even a single task will motivate you to start the next one.On the subject of to-do lists and task segmentation, Alison Bently, the Global Wheat Program Director at CIMMYT, Mexico, says that “breaking a complex task down into smaller manageable pieces is not only a way to see your own progress, but can also help to communicate progress to others e.g. I’ve completed the first two sections of the report and will have the final section done by the end of the week.” While it’s all well and good to have a to-do list, if you find yourself being continuously distracted or procrastinating, even the best planned to-do list won’t get finished. This is where the lesser-known cousin, the to-don’t list, can be helpful. Most simply, this is a list of activities that you shouldn’t do, for example “don’t repeatedly look at your phone,” or “don’t check your emails every 10 minutes.” Reflecting on and writing these down can help you be more honest with yourself and identify where your weaknesses lie. Tackling these will help you improve your time management skills. The to-don’t list isn’t only about identifying weaknesses and can also be used to reinforce positive behaviors. Including things like “don’t forget to take regular breaks” or “don’t forget to drink water regularly” can help you build a healthy working lifestyle.
  4. Rewards
    Motivation is key to completing challenging or tedious tasks. You may be in the field of plant science because you have a truly unquenchable passion for plants and the scientific process. In this case, your passion alone may be enough to make you get up in the morning and blitz through your work, no matter how difficult or repetitive it is. On the other hand, you may be on a plant science career pathway because you prefer to specialize in this field over others like accounting and medicine, or even for the simple reason that it pays the bills. In these cases, it may take more effort to keep yourself motivated to work and meet deadlines. Time is managed more efficiently if you have rewards to look forward to after meeting a goal. These can range from sweet treats, a nice walk outdoors, playing video games, to holidays abroad. It is important that you take the time to properly celebrate every one of your achievements, no matter how small, and to give yourself rewards that are proportional to their magnitude.
  5. Apps
    It is very easy to procrastinate while you are meant to be doing an important task. One minute you’ll be writing or reading away, and the next a notification has popped up on your phone and you’re scrolling through the news or social media. There are many apps available to try and prevent this, for example Freedom, Donut Dog, and Focus Plant. One particularly wholesome app is the Forest App, which was developed by ShaoKan Pi and is available on both iOS and Android. First released in 2016, this app lets users plant a seed that will grow into a tree. Each time you focus and use the app you’ll plant a new tree allowing you to create your own little forest. But beware, if you use your phone while your tree is growing it will wither and you’ll end up with dead trees scattered among your growing forest. And it is not only your virtual forest you’re building. By focusing and growing healthy trees, you’ll earn credits that can be used to plant real trees around the world!
  6. Pomodoro Technique
    If you haven’t come across this technique before, you might be wondering what the Italian word for tomato has to do with time management. It all goes back to the Pomodoro kitchen time, which Francesco Cirillo owned in the 1980s (Cirillo, 2013). He would set his timer to 25 minutes, spend this time focused on a task, and then take a five-minute break. He would repeat this a further three times before taking an extended break. By focussing intensely for short periods, Francesco reduced procrastination and was motivated to complete a task within the time frame, thereby leading to increased productivity (Zahariades, 2015). While 25 minutes might not be enough time to complete a complex experiment, this technique comes into its own in scientific reading and writing. For instance, you could give yourself one Pomodoro time period to make a figure or write a paragraph for your paper.
  7. Time Management Buddy
    You may have come across a version of the quote “Happiness is only real, when shared” (Krakauer, 1996). While this phrase could easily generate a long philosophical debate, the crux of it – that feelings, emotions, and states can be intensified or eased when they are shared with others – is probably true. If you are struggling with motivation or with implementing work strategies, it may be worth appointing someone you trust to be your time management buddy. Their role would be to provide passive and active support by being a point of contact when you need to unburden yourself or share successes, and checking in with you regularly to ensure you are meeting your targets. How do you go about choosing a good buddy? There are two important qualities that you should look for: good communication skills and empathy. Imagine being asked every other day, “are you done with that experiment yet?” or “have you finished writing your thesis?” It would be irritating at the very least. A good buddy asks more specific and open-ended questions like, “how did you find writing the paragraph about ABC?” or “what progress do you aim to have made on XYZ by the end of the week?” These types of questions create a dialogue. It is also best if your buddy is not your supervisor or line manager. Their reaction to a detailed account of your dips in productivity and struggles with time management will likely be vastly different to that of a colleague or someone unaffiliated with your workplace and could exert extra pressure or stress on you. Not all bosses are understanding or have managerial skills to motivate others. Asking a friend, mentor, family member, partner, or neighbor to be your buddy are all safe options. And pets? Can they be time management buddies too? Well, if you find comfort in reflecting on your work with your furry, scaly, or feathered friends, then by all means! (But consider a human buddy, too.) Alex Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, comments on how he combines the Pomodoro and Time Management Buddy techniques, “I stage regular ‘writing retreats’ for my colleagues, using Pomodoro for some focused work. Within the 10-minute break we debrief on the successes and challenges over the last 50, allowing effective reflection on our performance. I find this collegiate approach to individual work really promotes focus by maintaining a slight pressure and healthy accountability.”
  8. Efficient Calendar Use
    The modern way of everyone having their own publicly available online calendar can be great as it means that meetings can be arranged with efficiency and ease. However, it can mean that you arrive at your desk in the morning and find that you have meetings scattered across the entire day with limited time to actually get into the lab or read that paper you’ve been meaning to read all week. One strategy to stop this is to use your calendar more efficiently. Limin Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of plant and microbial biology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, recommends that “rather than attempting to fill your calendar to the brim, consider creating a reasonable schedule that you can achieve. By ticking off your daily accomplishments, you’ll feel more accomplished and motivated. Sometimes, reviewing and rearranging your schedule at the end of each day can help to improve your overall efficiency.” Another strategy is time blocking. This is a common method and a recent survey conducted by Timewatch® found it to be the most popular time management strategy (Timewatch, 2022). This is a relatively simple technique where you devote a set amount of time to a set task, or tasks, and put it into your calendar. For instance, you might create an event in your calendar between 9-9:30 for answering emails and then have a second event between 9:30-10:30 for a dedicated task, such as making a figure for a paper; this is known as focus time. You can continue with blocks of focus time and other tasks for the entire day with the option of leaving gaps, or setting your status to available, when you want meetings to be scheduled for. It is possible to take this even further by looking at your calendar across the week and reorganizing it to group together similar tasks, for instance admin activities. This is known as time batching and can prevent flitting between tasks, making us more productive. Associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Fernano Geu-Flores uses time blocking and time batching to manage his time. “I’ve started blocking at least 1 full day a week for writing. This way, my muse is more likely to visit and inspire me, compared to the occasional one-hour slots interspersed throughout the week that I used to use for writing before,” he said.
  9. The Bullet Journal
    The Bullet Journal® is a pocket-sized tool that can help you manage your workload while having a positive impact on your mental health. In essence, bullet journaling involves using a notebook and pen to record tasks, deadlines, events, and miscellaneous thoughts plucked out of the mind. The bullet journal is more than just a collection of lists, though. It has structure. Its users benefit from a yearly, monthly and daily overview of ongoing work, allowing them to prioritize home and life activities. Bullet journals usually begin with a contents list followed by different sections. The yearly log is spread over four pages that are divided into 12 parts using ruled lines. These represent months and are populated with bulleted lists of major projects. For a plant scientist, these might be lab experiments and fieldwork. The monthly log is set up either as a grid (calendar format) or as a list of days written down the page margins. Here, events such as celebrations, appointments, and deadlines can be viewed at a glance. The task list is quite self-explanatory. Each month has a dedicated one that the user skims through to select tasks for their daily log. Uncompleted tasks get carried over to the next day’s daily log. Finally, we have the brain dump, a safe place to store and keep track of sudden ideas including topics for research papers, potential scientific collaborations, and recipes to try.Although the Bullet Journal was popularized by New Yorker Ryder Carroll, it has been greatly developed by its community of users. Its power as a tool lies in the fact that it can be personalized. Other sections commonly included in it are the habit tracker, whose format allows you to record things like addictions, hydration, and health; the gratitude list where you write down one thing you are grateful for each day; and the highlights list where you write down one thing that made your day. The process of writing these down by hand can be therapeutic and can make you feel more in control of your life, thus, reducing anxiety and procrastination. Alan Wanke, a research assistant (and Plantae Fellow alumni) at SLCU, UK, has been using the bullet journal technique for over a year now and says, “Bullet journaling has helped me to declutter my mind. Once I deposit a thought or an idea into my journal, I know where to find it, which helps me focus on the actual daily work. Furthermore, a highlights section filled with all the small professional and private success serves as a motivational charging station in stressful times.”
  10. Shuffle Method
    There are many time management strategies that rely on categorizing jobs based on their importance and timescale for completion. The success of these strategies is dependent on how honest we are to ourselves, as it is very easy to think that all our tasks are very important. Sophien Kamoun (The Sainsbury Lab, Norwich) has tried to overcome this with his shuffle method (Kamoun, 2022) by simplifying the categorization process into just two categories: non-optional and optional. The non-optional category contains the tasks that must be completed, even if you don’t enjoy doing them. It could include making a presentation for a progress review meeting, writing a paper, or conducting a crucial experiment. These tasks might be boring or tedious but have to be done, so we should aim to complete each job as quickly and efficiently as possible. Anything else that is not compulsory falls into the optional category. The most important thing about this category is that it should contain fun activities whether that is attending a cool seminar, having lunch with friends and colleagues or doing some reading. Crucially, if there is something in this category that you don’t currently fancy doing, you don’t have to, and there is no need to feel guilty about it. Once you have your two categories set out you are then ready to shuffle between them; that is, integrate your fun, optional activities between the tasks you have to do. When Sophien introduced this method on his blog, he argued it is good for mental wellbeing as you build in time (he recommends at least 2-3 hours a day) for fun stuff which is otherwise easily overlooked. These fun activities can have additional benefits, too, as they can relax and calm you, so you are ready for when you need to tackle the non-optional tasks.
  11. The Post-it Note Board
    To create a simple Post-It Note board (a.k.a. Kanban board or AGILE task board), all you need is a piece of paper divided into three columns, a pen and a bunch of – you guessed it – sticky notes. “Dynamic” is the word that best describes this technique. First, you get your paper and label the columns with the following headings: Tasks, In Progress, and Completed. Next, you write out manageable tasks on the sticky notes. Finally, you stick all the tasks onto the Tasks column and move them along to the other columns after you begin working on them. The advantage of this technique is that you are able to clearly see what you have completed at the end of the day and bask in your achievements. To make the board more complex, you can have sticky notes in different colors to signify categories of tasks (e.g., admin, work in the lab, work in the greenhouse, writing, etc.) and you can have more columns. If you are using the board often, you might also want to laminate the paper. Alex Watts, a second-year PhD student in the School of Biosciences at the University of Sheffield, UK, came across this method when he was working in a brewery lab. He says, “If you are like me and easily feel overwhelmed by juggling lots of different tasks, a post-it note board is great for tracking them and monitoring their progress. My post-it note board sits just above my computer monitor, so when I come to start the day I can easily access all the tasks I need to complete.”
  12. Task Delegation
    Feeling overwhelmed with things to do? In environments where a strong emphasis is placed on competition and the individual, it can be easy to overlook the simple technique of task delegation. Sometimes asking your peers or colleagues for a little help to complete tasks on time is the wisest option. This should not be seen as a sign of weakness but should be celebrated as a show of leadership and an opportunity to strengthen the bonds within your team or community. Work in academia, particularly in the field of plant science, can come in waves. One day you may be waiting for your plants to grow large enough to be inoculated with a pathogen or for some seeds to arrive in the post; the next you may be dealing with a pot experiment harvest while teaching on two modules and preparing for a conference talk. At times when your workload is high, it is useful to identify tasks that can be delegated to others who may have some spare time on their hands. Why not get a fellow postdoc to count the siliques on your 10 Arabidopsis plants? Why not get a PhD student to water your Medicago seedlings when they go to the growth chamber to water their wheat? If you are mindful of others’ workloads and in return offer to help when they are inundated with tasks, then this will no doubt create a very supportive and pleasant environment around you.


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About the Author

Besiana Sinanaj is a postdoc at the School of Biosciences in the University of Sheffield, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. In her current role, she is investigating the function of plant-fungal symbioses under various abiotic conditions; outside of work, she plays sports, dances, cooks for pleasure and runs her own art company. You can find her on Twitter at @BesianaX.

Rose McNelly is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She trying to uncover novel genes involved in endosperm starch formation in wheat. You can find her on Twitter at @Rose_McN.