Leveling Up Your Game: Time Management Strategies for Researchers

In the world of scientific research, how we handle and manage our time can be crucial for achieving our research goals and meeting deadlines. But it can get tricky: there’s a lot to do, and we are often working with limited time and resources, which can be overwhelming and take a toll on our mental and physical health. That’s why learning how to manage and organize our time is the key, not just for scientific productivity, but also for keeping a healthy work-life balance. By developing and applying different strategies such as prioritising tasks, using a calendar system, learning how to set goals, utilizing our productive hours, and making sure to take breaks, we can achieve our full potential as scientists. Being organized isn’t just about day-to-day productivity; it’s a habit that sticks with us and affects various parts of our lives in the long run. Here, we present a step-by-step guide on how to start and how to apply different time-management strategies and show you different useful productivity tools and platforms designed so you can keep track of your projects and time to level up your game.

1. Analysis of how you spend your time
By scrutinizing daily activities, you not only identify inefficiencies but also gain a profound understanding of your personal work habits and tendencies. This self-awareness is a powerful tool for refining strategies and making intentional choices about how time is allocated. The process of prioritizing tasks and optimizing schedules is not just about efficiency; it’s about aligning actions with overarching goals and values. Additionally, understanding task durations and preventing overcommitment fosters a healthier work-life balance, thereby reducing the risk of burnout. The synergy between aligning productive efforts with peak energy hours and implementing personalized productivity techniques will amplify overall effectiveness.
Continuous reflection and adaptation to changing circumstances not only improve day-to-day efficiency but also contribute to long-term success by ensuring that time management strategies remain relevant and effective in the face of evolving goals and responsibilities. In essence, the meticulous analysis of time usage serves as a dynamic and transformative tool for individuals seeking sustained productivity and success in their endeavors. A few ways of how this can be achieved are mentioned in detail in the points that follow below.

2. Clear Goal Setting
No one can climb Mount Everest in an instant, but you can start by planning your route and putting on your shoes. The same principle applies to your scientific goals. If your goals are not well-defined and overly ambitious, you may be left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Here, we want to emphasize the S.M.A.R.T. technique for goal setting. This technique was first introduced in November 1981 by George T. Doran, a consultant and former director of corporate planning for Washington Water Power Company in the USA (Doran, 1981).
The S.M.A.R.T. acronym serves as a checklist for setting objectives and goals. The “S” stands for specific. You should precisely define what you want to accomplish; answering the who, what, where, when, and why. Be as precise as possible. The letter “M” represents measurable. How can you quantify your progress? This will help you stay on track and maintain motivation during your work on your goal. “A” is for achievable. With this point, assess how manageable your project is for you. Do you need the experience or expertise of someone else? The “R” stands for relevant. Does this project move you toward your desired direction? Are the required experiments necessary? Overall, the project should align with your overarching objectives and aspirations in your scientific work. Finally, the letter “T” stands for time-bound. The key here is to set realistic deadlines to provide a framework for the project. This creates a sense of urgency and helps prioritize tasks.

3. Making use of a calendar system
It is obvious that having a calendar system is beneficial for enhancing your scientific performance and organizing experiments, writing your papers and other tasks. However, do you truly have the most efficient system for yourself? There are numerous digital planner systems available, as well as the traditional pen-and-paper version of a calendar. You may have also heard of the Bullet Journal, essentially a customizable notebook that you can fill in according to your needs, serving as a calendar, notebook, brain dump space, or any other purpose. Hybrid forms are also an option, such as digital reminders for group seminars or tasks requiring regular intervals and a classical notebook for daily planning.
Regardless of the method of choice, a calendar system can help automate routine tasks and boost productivity. This reduces the pressure on you to rely on memory. Additionally, it proves valuable for managing project deadlines by providing reminders and a scheduled plan for completing specific tasks. It can also help in creating buffers for upcoming deadlines. Underestimating the time required for certain tasks is common, so be prepared and allocate sufficient buffer time to avoid last-minute rushes or all-nighters.

4. Prioritising your daily tasks
Losing your head in a pile of tasks raining down on you daily is a common challenge. The key lies in prioritizing effectively. This technique might help you: gather the tasks you wish to accomplish and think about their importance. This approach allows you to identify the three most crucial tasks for the day. Ensure these are realistically manageable (refer to point (2) for guidance on realistic goal-setting). Upon completion of these top three tasks, you should be able to call it a successful day. Minor tasks can be handled in between or shifted as needed. This approach prevents you from getting bogged down by insignificant tasks that do not contribute to moving you forward.
In the course of exploring effective time management strategies, the phrase “eat the frog” appeared again and again. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve literally consuming a frog to enhance productivity. Instead, it originates from a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”. Twain suggests tackling the most urgent but often less enjoyable tasks early in the. This approach allows you to face the remaining day with a sense of accomplishment and reduced stress, thereby boosting motivation and preventing procrastination in your daily schedule.

5. Learning to say no
Consistently accepting new commitments can lead to overload, stress, and burnout. Learning to say no helps you set realistic boundaries and prevents you from taking on more than you can handle. Your time is a valuable resource. Saying no is a way to protect your time and use it wisely. It allows you to maintain control over your schedule, ensuring that you have sufficient time for work, personal life, and self-care. Accepting every new commitment can distract you from your primary objectives. By saying no to tasks that don’t align with your current priorities, you can maintain better focus on your core responsibilities and long-term goals.
Learning to say no involves effective communication. You can politely decline new commitments by explaining your current workload or existing priorities. By being honest about your limitations, you foster better understanding from others. Saying no helps you set clear boundaries in both your professional and personal life. Establishing these boundaries is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and preventing burnout because continuously saying yes to every request can negatively impact your well-being. Learning to say no is a form of self-care. It allows you to reserve time for rest, relaxation, and activities that contribute to your overall happiness. Saying no is empowering. It shows that you value your time and have a clear understanding of your priorities. It positions you as someone who is intentional and strategic in their decision-making.

6. Big picture planning and visualisation
As researchers, we are sometimes so fixated on details that we lose sight of the “big picture” and the broader surroundings. Therefore, it is useful to remind ourselves periodically of the overarching goals and objectives we aim to achieve within a specific timeframe.
In point (2) Clear goal setting, we delved into how we determine our goals. Hand in hand with this is the visualization of your goals on a timescale. We want to highlight the use of Gantt charts for this purpose. This diagram was designed and popularized by the American engineer and management consultant Henry Gantt in the 1910s, in order to track project progress of his employees. The Gantt bar chart provides a visual overview of a schedule over a certain time period on the horizontal axis, usually a year, with tasks represented as bars. This tool has the potential to keep you focused and on track with your yearly goals, with a special emphasis on the time window of your project. This might help you deal with approaching deadlines. This topic was also covered in Maya Gosztyla’s recommendable article on “How to Manage Your Time as a Researcher”.
If you struggle with estimating a time frame for certain tasks, try the Russian doll approach: begin by considering your yearly goals, then break them into monthly, and subsequently into smaller chunks for weekly goals. This approach should prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. For managing your monthly to weekly goals, Kanban boards can be a valuable addition to your visualisation toolbox. They illustrate progress across various categories, such as “to-do,” “in progress,” or “done.” You can use Post-It notes to jot down tasks and place them in the corresponding category. If the status of your project or task changes, you change the position of the note into the next category. The use of a visualization system for your projects does not have to be analogue, as there are also online tools like Trello or Notion that incorporate Kanban boards. Try what works best for you individually.

7. Time blocking and utilising your productivity hours
Time blocking involves scheduling specific blocks of time for different tasks or activities. Instead of a to-do list with no specific timing, you allocate dedicated time slots in your calendar for focused work on particular projects or types of tasks.
Practicing effective time blocking helps you allocate focused and uninterrupted time to specific tasks, minimizing distractions and boosting concentration. By assigning time blocks to different activities, you prioritize important tasks and ensure they receive the attention they deserve. It provides structure to your day, making it easier to transition between different types of work. You are in control of your schedule, allowing for proactive planning rather than reactive responses to incoming tasks. Implementing time blocking to your day-to-day schedule might be difficult but is definitely achievable. Determine your most critical tasks or projects that need dedicated focus. Assign specific time blocks in your calendar for these tasks. Be realistic about how much time each task requires. During time blocks, minimize interruptions and distractions. Turn off unnecessary notifications and communicate your focus time to colleagues if necessary. Group similar tasks together during a time block. This minimizes cognitive load associated with task-switching. Include short breaks between time blocks to avoid burnout and maintain overall productivity.
To utilize time blocking effectively one must be aware of their productivity hours. Your productivity hours are the times of the day when you feel most alert, focused, and energized. Identifying and leveraging these hours can significantly enhance your performance as you are making better decisions and solving complex problems more effectively. Utilizing your most productive hours will help you tackle challenging tasks when your energy and motivation levels are high, reducing the tendency to procrastinate.
By combining time blocking with the effective utilization of your productivity hours, you can create a structured and optimized daily routine. This approach can lead to increased efficiency, improved work quality, and a better work-life balance.

8. Prioritizing proper rest and balance

Achieving a balance between work, rest, and personal life is a crucial aspect of effective time management. Here are some reasons why balance, holidays, and adequate rest are essential components of a well-managed and productive lifestyle: I) Preventing Burnout: Continuous work without breaks can lead to burnout, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Taking time for rest and relaxation helps prevent burnout, ensuring sustained productivity in the long run. II) Enhancing Productivity: Adequate rest positively impacts cognitive function and overall well-being. When you are well-rested, you are more focused, creative, and productive during your working hours. III) Strengthening Relationships: Balancing work and personal life is essential for maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends. Spending quality time with loved ones contributes to overall life satisfaction and happiness. IV) Increasing Job Satisfaction: Employees who have a healthy work-life balance and take regular breaks are generally more satisfied with their jobs. This satisfaction can lead to increased motivation, engagement, and loyalty to the organization. V) Preventing Overwhelm: Balancing work and personal life prevents the feeling of overwhelm. Taking breaks allows you to step back, evaluate your priorities, and come back to tasks with a clearer perspective. VI) Promoting Long-Term Success: Effective time management is not just about working harder; it’s about working smarter and sustaining productivity over the long term. Balancing work with rest and holidays contributes to a healthier, more sustainable approach to success.

9. Finding a buddy tandem partner or accountability buddy
Finding a tandem partner or someone who checks in with you regularly can be a valuable strategy to improve time management. This accountability and support system can provide motivation, feedback, and an external perspective on your goals and progress. Knowing that someone is aware of your goals and deadlines can significantly increase your sense of accountability. The fear of disappointing your partner can be a powerful motivator. Establishing a routine for regular check-ins provides a structured way to review your goals, plans, and accomplishments. This consistent feedback loop helps you stay on track. A tandem partner may have similar goals or face comparable challenges. Sharing experiences and strategies can create a sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding. An external perspective from your tandem partner can offer insights and suggestions you might not have considered. They can provide constructive feedback and help you identify areas for improvement. Encouragement from a tandem partner can serve as a motivational boost, especially during challenging times. Celebrating small victories together can reinforce positive habits.
Remember, finding the right tandem partner may take some time, and the effectiveness of the partnership depends on mutual commitment and communication. By establishing a supportive and collaborative relationship, you can harness the benefits of accountability to improve your time management and achieve your goals.

10. The importance of celebrating milestones
It is tempting to immediately move on to the next project upon completing the current one. However, at times, it is crucial to take a momentary pause to contemplate your accomplishments and assess how far you have come. Reflect on the lessons learned and personal growth experienced during recent tasks.
It is important to acknowledge that constant success is unattainable, and therefore, celebrating failures becomes equally significant. Failures often provide valuable learning opportunities, offering lessons that are going to be helpful when tackling future endeavours. Viewing failures as stepping stones to success can transform setbacks into powerful tools for personal and professional development. By understanding the reasons behind a failure, you equip yourself with insights that can be applied to future challenges. This reflective process not only contributes to continuous improvement but will also strengthen your resilience.
On the contrary, acknowledging and celebrating achievements is equally vital. Recognizing your successes boosts motivation and prevents the feeling of being trapped in a monotonous cycle. Whether small or significant, achievements serve as markers of progress and provide a sense of accomplishment. They propel you forward with positive momentum.
In essence, a balanced approach to acknowledging both successes and failures in science creates a dynamic cycle of growth and improvement. Embracing this cycle allows you to navigate the intricate path of personal and professional development in your scientific career with resilience, and self-awareness, and will create commitment for continuous learning.

In conclusion, developing and putting into practice organizational skills is key to succeed professionally and personally in the scientific world. Throughout this article, we presented several strategies and techniques that you can use to enhance your productivity and improve your well-being, productivity in the lab as well as your work-life balance. By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you will create habits that last forever. Remember, that not all strategies can fit a person’s goals and lifestyle, so it is ok to start practicing those skills that best suit your needs. In this regard we can highly recommend exploring another article on this blog on the same topic, maybe you will find another useful strategy for yourself or combine it with the strategies we mention here.


*The figures were created using the Concepts App for iOS (Version 6.9.2, TopHatch, Inc. (Turku, Finnland)) and edited using AffinityDesigner (version 1, Serif (West Bridgford, UK)) by Ann-Kathrin Rößling. 


References and recommended sources

  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). There´s a S.M.A.R.T. way tow rite management´s goals and objectives.
  2. How to manage your time as a researcher, Nature Career Column article by Maya Gosztyla, 2022
  3. “Atomic habits” by James Clear
  4. “The power of habit” by Charles Duhigg
  5. Stress and uncertainty drag down graduate students’ satisfaction, Nature Career Feature by Chris Woolston, 2022
  6. “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
  7. Corsini, A., Pezzoni, M., & Visentin, F. (2022). What makes a productive Ph.D. student? Research Policy, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2022.104561
  8. Brischoux, F., & Angelier, F. (2015). Academia’s never-ending selection for productivity. Scientometrics (Vol. 103, Issue 1, pp. 333–336). Kluwer Academic Publishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-015-1534-5



About the Authors

Ann-Kathrin Rößling is a PhD student at the University of Freiburg in Germany, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She is researching intracellular mechanisms using confocal microscopy in Arabidopsis roots to gain a better understanding of vacuolar morphology. In addition to her scientific pursuits, she enjoys reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and is passionate about illustrations and artwork. You can find her on X: @AK_Roessling.

Nibedita Priyadarshini is an algal biologist, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She has a passion for turning the world into her personal petri dish! When she’s not busy peering through microscopes or waxing poetic about the wonders of plant research, you can find her charming everyone with her quirky sense of humor and an uncanny ability to make phytohormones sound like the coolest party in town. You can find her on X: @nivi_pri

Isabel Pochet Pimentel is a PhD candidate at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. Her work focused on the characterization of important genes related to plant associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, using physiological and transcriptomic approaches. You can find her on X: @isabelpochet.