Episode #30: Tips & tricks on how to finish your academic work on time


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Åsa BurmanIn episode 30 of PhD Career Stories, Åsa Burman returns for a tips & tricks-themed podcast. In this episode, we learn more on why shifting focus from what you are working with to how you are working will increase your productivity. In addition, we are presented with different productivity tools and how you can apply them to your own work situation.

Dr Åsa Burman has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. Amongst other things, Åsa is the Founder and CEO of Finish On Time – a company that helps graduate students, postdocs, and other academics to finish their academic work on time and feel well during the process. So far, over 1000 PhD students, supervisors, professors and researchers have participated in conferences and seminars organised by Åsa and her colleagues Johanna Clausen Ekefjärd and Henrik Levinsson. Earlier this year, she also published her first book: Bli klar i tid och må bra på vägen: Handbok för doktorander (Natur & Kultur, 2017) which is to be translated into English during next year.

Want to know more about Åsa? Listen to her inspiring story how her years as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley paved the way for her career today: Episode #28: Åsa Burman’s story.

Transcript

Hi and welcome to Phd Career Stories! My name is Maria Sjögren and I’m one of the co-founders of this podcast. Every second week, we bring you a new episode of PhD Career Stories – the podcast in which PhDs tell their stories, inspiring you to take the next step towards your dream job.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or on any other podcasting app. You can also find us online on phdcareerstories.com and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

Today, I’m once again joined by Åsa Burman, who has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. In a previous episode, Åsa, you told us about your story going from academia to business and then back to academia again. Today, we are very happy to have you back on the show to provide us with tips and tricks on how to finish your academic work on time.

Åsa: Thank you, Maria.

Maria: You’re the founder and CEO of the company “Finish on time,” a company that helps graduate students to finish their academic work on time and feel well during the process. You’re also the author of the book [in Swedish] “Bli klar i tid och må bra på vägen” [English translation: “Finish on time and feel good while getting there”]. It was released in Swedish earlier this year, but it’s also being translated to English as we speak.

Åsa: Yes, that’s correct.

Maria: How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

Åsa: I think maybe a similar experience to other PhDs. I was struggling some parts of my PhD process. I worked really really hard but I didn’t get quite the results I had imagined, given all the hard work I put in. I was getting worried about the dissertation, thinking of whether I would finish, finish on time, would it be good enough, was I breaking new ground with my research. All these questions one might have as a PhD student. Then I was really lucky to be able to go to a workshop in Berkeley, where I was for some part of my PhD. It was a very popular workshop and difficult to get a spot. I understood why, because during this workshop, the workshop leader basically made a move from thinking about the content of our academic work to the process. She made the shift basically from ‘what’ to ‘how,’ which was a blind spot to me. I and other people hadn’t thought so much about what our work process was like and if it could be improved. As academics, I think we’re very good at analyzing our data and so on, but we might fail to sometimes think about our own work process. That’s basically what I learned during that workshop.

Maria: Is it something that you used during your PhD studies?

Åsa: Yes, after the workshop I felt like I had been in the backseat of the car that was my dissertation work, and then I felt like I was in the driver’s seat. So I thought there was something really important there that I needed to learn. I got in touch with the workshop leader and asked her if I could work with her individually while I was at Berkeley. That helped a lot. She would give me maybe one new tool every month, and I tried it out to see if it was something for me. Some tools I didn’t like at all, others I really liked and used. It all ended up well. I came back to Lund University and actually did complete my thesis on time.

Maria: Further down the road you also made use of your experience by founding your company and writing your book. From your perspective, which part of the work process is important to focus on?

Åsa: There are a lot of different things to think about, but first I would think about a very good distinction to have in mind. We sometimes talk about efficiency, which I would define as performing a given task, whether important or not, in the most economic manner possible. For example, you might be very skilled at answering your emails. You might have rules for how emails arrive in your inbox and how fast you answer them. You might be very good at typing, and so on. But what I think is far more important than efficiency is effectiveness, or productivity. I would define effectiveness as doing the things that get you closer to your goals. To keep these things in mind, for instance that there is a distinction and put even more emphasis on effectiveness, I think is key. If you’re a PhD student and maybe stuck in the writing process, the best thing might be to go and speak with your adviser about it and admit to being stuck. Instead, you end up answering all your emails because you get the sense of completion although it might not be the right thing to do. I think a lot about doing things in the right way, whether or not they are important, and doing the right things, the things that actually move you closer to your goal. Usually we can think even more about effectiveness in that sense.

Maria: So prioritizing?

Åsa: Yes, getting clear on what your goals are and focusing on those. Doing a few rather than many things. Basically finding the key drivers of your work, what’s driving your work forward, and daring to prioritize that.

Maria: You talked about some tools. Do you have any that you can provide?

Åsa: Yes, there’s one tool that I thought was really strange when I heard about it, and thought it would never do, but now it’s one of my favorite tools. I think a lot of PhD students whom I work with have similar experiences. It’s called the ‘unit method.’ It’s a simple tool. One unit is 45 minutes of time, but it’s uninterrupted time. You don’t have people running into your room, check your emails, receive text messages and so on during this time. It’s highly focused time during which you aren’t interrupted. Then you try to do four units of what I call ‘A’ tasks per day. Basically the intellectually most challenging work. Maybe you need to figure out how to set up a new experiment, write up parts of your paper or read others’ complicated work. So I would distinguish between ‘A’ and ‘B’ tasks. I would try to accomplish four units of A tasks per day and then add maybe one B task.

Maria: Was this hard (to achieve)?

Åsa: Yes, because altogether it’s little time. So the question is whether it works, and if so, how you can do it. I think it’s important to provide some background to the idea, which I learned it at Berkeley and have used for a long time. The background is that if we look at our daily work as knowledge workers, which all academics and many others are these days, 2 hours and 15 minutes are interruptions. It means we lose 28% of our work day to different types of interruption.

Maria: How many hours did you say, two? That’s a lot!

Åsa: Yes, it is, but I think you should look at the unit method in the light of this background. People have also investigated the types of interruption which make up these hours. It might take 20 minutes to get back into the work you were doing when you were interrupted. So we basically have what we can call ‘time bandits,’ things that can be ignored with little or no consequences, which is one type of interruption. The other type is called ‘time consumers,’ which are repetitive tasks that need to be completed but interrupt the high-quality work. I would think about the time consumers as the B tasks. They need to be done – like responding to emails – but they also interrupt your A tasks, the most important intellectually challenging work. I think we somehow need to deal with time bandits and consumers, and the unit method is one way of doing that.

Maria: What about time bandits, do you have any examples?

Åsa: Good question! From the research that has been done, a few different categories have been defined. I think many people recognize the first two: answering unimportant emails, that’s number one, and (number two), aimlessly surfing the Web.

Maria: ‘Aimlessly,’ I love that! You don’t do that, do you?

Åsa: Oh no, never! Attending unproductive meetings and performing tasks possible to automate (are other types of interruptions). But I think we should be fair and nice to ourselves. I think we do surf the Web aimlessly – when we’re tired and need a break – though it’s not a real break to surf the Web since we still use our brain capacity. So I would say, try to eliminate these time bandits of going online when you feel tired. Instead, answer an email you might not have to answer or go for a 5 to 10-minute walk.

Maria: To freshen your mind, get some new input and maybe clear your head. But what about these emails, can you just ignore them? How do you handle emails that you don’t need to answer? I suppose you get a lot of them.

Åsa: I get some, but most of them are deleted, like commercial emails. I get a lot of other emails, which I would call time consumers. They are important emails, but they would also interrupt my writing if I were to answer them when they came in. So, I have this batching approach which I really like.

Maria: Yes, tell us about that!

Åsa: We can use a metaphor to describe it. Think about a printer. If you were in charge of it, you wouldn’t print business cards, switch to printing posters and then back again to the business cards and finally a book. It would just be too costly to keep switching back and forth. I think we’re a little bit like that with our work sometimes. We write and then someone comes into the room, we answer emails and then we write again. I think the best solution is to batch, which means that you wait until you have a large amount of tasks of the same type, for instance emails. Then you answer them all at a predetermined time during the day. For instance, I’m a morning person. I love doing my A tasks in the morning, without checking my emails. At 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I will admit to not being at top level energy and that’s when I answer all my emails at once. It’s my B task for the day.

Maria: So you don’t have any pings on your phone or computer telling you that you’re getting emails? You kind of save them all for one time slot?

Åsa: Yes, I’m very strict about the interruptions. I put my phone on flight mode and close the door to my office when I work. I don’t have any beeps from my email, I don’t even have them downloaded to my phone. I take away all interruptions. I think it’s rare to have that in our world, so if you manage to start getting into this, you will notice a difference quite quickly. So I would say the unit method is about aiming for four A units per day of uninterrupted time. In-between the units, you take a break. I define a real break as something you don’t have to use your brain capacity for in the same way as when you do your intellectual work. I think the best type of break is to go to the kitchen and speak to a colleague about something else than research, wash your coffee cup, or go outside for 5 to 15 minutes.

Maria: Don’t look at your phone?

Åsa: No, don’t get all these emails, text messages and stuff. Just leave them and have a real break so that you get refreshed. Then you go back, work intensely again and have another break.

Maria: How about the A sessions, do you decide on them beforehand and plan ahead for the next day? Do you plan for a week or how do you go about structuring your work?

Åsa: Good question! As a management consultant, I learned that three is the magic number. You would always have three conclusions or three whatever things. I have three goals for every week, which means I do a weekly plan. I have a pdf on that which you can put online if anyone would like to use it, it’s a weekly schedule. Basically, I start by setting three goals, and only three goals, not too many. I try to make them ‘SMART’ goals. They should be Specific, Measurable, Accepted, like ‘I like them, I set them myself,’ Realistic and Time-limited. Once I have the goals, I backtrack from them and think about when I should do what in order to achieve them. I also always schedule my A tasks in the best time of the day for me. Once you start to notice when is the best time during the day to do different things, it makes a big difference. For me, it would be in the morning. So if I have a meeting, I try to have that in the afternoon and so on. So I’m quite specific about my time, I really try to adjust my schedule to make the best use of my morning hours.

Maria: Do you have an example of a goal that you could share with us?

Åsa: Yes, definitely! I usually think in terms of both process goals and content goals. So this week I would have process goal of writing for ten units, so basically two units every weekday in the morning. Because I’m starting a new article and then it is very hard for me to see how long will it take, how many pages will I get. But then I have a process goal instead. Another goal could be that if I’m finishing up an article, submitting this article would be a content goal. And it is very clear if I’ve done it or not. Have I done ten units on my writing or not? And have I submitted the article? And then I also play tennis so I have some exercise goals as well, of playing enough tennis.

Åsa: One thing that I would like to add Maria, is one thing that i learned from my colleague that is a psychologist, and that I really like. She puts in a reflection unit each Friday in the afternoon. So the last thing you do during your work week is actually to reflect on the week. Think about how do I feel?, what was this week like?, and if you’ve fulfilled your goals, I will also add, why is that?, what did you do right? And if you didn’t fulfill your goals, what can you learn for next week? I actually also use that time to also plan the next week. So that is a procedure for me to close down the week. Every Friday, I have this reflection unit and then I close down, and coming in the Monday, I’ve already planned for next week so I know where I will start.

Maria: This is fabulous advice! Do you have any other favorite tools that you would like to share with us?

Åsa: Oh, there are so many! I really like end product focus. Having a clear view of what the final product should look like. So if you are for example to present at a conference, of course you know the time slot you have, but how many slides will you be able to show during that time slot? I usually map out these slides on beforehand, before I start to think about the content for the talk. This tool I also used a lot actually in my dissertation work and when I work with PhD students. Get a nice binder, a binder that the like, and then think about how long will your dissertation be. How many pages? And then you put in 228 empty pages in that binder, that now represents your final dissertation. And when you start to write and you have something that is say 80% or more completed, then you take out the empty pages and you put in the written pages. This way, you get feedback on your dissertation work that otherwise can be quite invisible and abstract at times.

Maria: So then you can go through the binder and you can really get a sense of how far you have come?

Åsa: Exactly! So you get feedback, you get a much clearer sense of where you are and I think it also does very good things to the part and the whole. Because you constantly work with the parts and the whole of your dissertation by putting in the pages. It gets more consistent in that sense, you get a higher level of the overall project.

Maria: I really like your tips, and these tips, they are also available in your book as well?

Åsa: Yes, those things are in the book. The books is both about academic productivity tools I just shared with you here today but it is also about stress management tools, preventive stress management tools. What can you do ads a PhD student or as an academic to have positive stress instead of negative stress.

Maria: Do you know when your book will be available in English?

Åsa: I’m hoping until January 2018, but it could also be September 2018.

Maria: During next year at least?

Åsa: Yes, during next year for sure.

Maria: I think a lot of our listeners are really looking forward to that!

Åsa: Thank you Maria!

Maria: Thank you so much Åsa! We will provide the link to the pdf file that you mentioned with the weekly schedule.

Åsa: Sounds perfect!

Maria: Thank you so much Åsa!

Åsa: Thank you Maria!

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