Research hacks #20: Why it pays to plan your ideal week, and an Excel workbook to help you

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In my last post I pointed out how time logging can help you build an accurate picture of how much time you are really spending on different tasks. That is only half the battle of taming your timetable however. The other half is working out how you want and ought to be spending your time, and that is where an ideal week planner comes in.

Before you laugh out loud at the very idea of an “ideal week”, remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wise words: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Sticking rigidly to pre-conceived weekly plans no matter what is the royal road to anti-social selfishness and perpetual frustration, to be sure. But there is also an equal and opposite danger: If you don’t have an idea of how you want to be spending your time, someone else (or more likely multiple other people, each with their own agenda) will spend it for you.

Another reason to have an ideal week plan is that, as I argued in a previous post, if things don’t get planned they tend not to get done.

To help my own planning I’ve developed an “ideal week” Excel workbook. I use it to sketch out how I want to be spending my time, bearing in mind that no real-life week will resemble the plan in anything like a photo-realist way.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Here’s how to use the workbook:

When you open it you are presented with an empty grid showing every hour of the week, and an empty table with eight categories and corresponding colours (sleep, work, family, exercise, travel, grooming, eating, and workflow). The week is broken down into half hour chunks.

You then take each of the categories, renaming them if you wish, and block out all the hours in your ideal week in the corresponding colours. You should end up with a grid looking something like this dummy version:

As you add colour to the grid the pie chart to the right populates itself with the percentage of total time spent on each activity, and the number of hours sleep appears at the foot of each day’s column.

You also get the totals for each of your categories in the table.

In my experience, planning an ideal week in this way has a number of benefits:

  • It forces you to be holistic. Rather than just saying something like “I want to work on my PhD thesis 5 hours a day”, it sets your choices in the context of your whole week and all your various commitments, and it shows you the knock-one effects of expanding one category for the other areas of your life. This is why it is important to include sleeping hours in the calculation.
  • It forces you to be realistic, and to assess how much time the real you can spend doing this or that, as opposed to the imaginary you without other commitments.
  • It gives you something to aim for, and a way of evaluating whether a given commitment or aspect of your life is getting out of hand.

You can download my ideal weekly planner for free here. You will need to add it to your “cart” and then “checkout”, but despite that nomenclature it’s completely free. The whole cart thing is a quirk of the plugin I’m using to make the file downloadable from my site. It will ask you for your address but you don’t need to enter it. All it needs is a name and an email address so that it can send you the download link.


Do you know how you want to spend your time? Who decides how you spend your time?

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Research hacks #19: Three benefits of time logging for academics, and one easy-to-use time logging app

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Time logging is for executives, not academics, right? It’s for lawyers with billable hours, not for researchers with theses and books that take years to complete. Wrong. I have found that tracking the time I spend on different tasks has brought me three distinct benefits, and in this post I want to share some reflections on how time logging can help academics, along with a recommendation for a free and easy-to-use app that does the hard work for you.

First benefit: a one-off audit of where your time REALLY goes

If you’re anything like me then you know that sinking feeling that can descend on you at the end of the working day: “Where on earth did all my time go today? What have I actually achieved in all the running around and typing I’ve done?”

A good first step to getting more control over the sands of time running through your fingers is to know just where your precious hours are going. So once a year or so I log everything I do for a couple of weeks. Sleep. Travel. Eating. Research. Emails. Exercise. Family time. Everything. The benefit of this exercise is that I get to see precisely how each of the 168 hours in the week are being spent. I can see where my intuitive sense of how much time I’m putting into certain tasks is correct, and where my instinct is mistaken. I can also compare it to my “ideal week” (about which I’ll write in a future post), and see where the largest discrepancies are.

“Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.” Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

It’s a good audit exercise, and liable to yield unexpected results. Seeing the hours you spend on all your weekly activities as cumulative totals gives you a sharpened sense of time (and of time wasting!). Try it and see.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Second benefit: focusing your mind on research or thesis time

Finding out how you really spend your time is not the only benefit of time logging. You can log specific tasks more regularly to get an accurate sense of how much time you are really spending on them, as opposed to how much time you’d like to be spending. For academics, one obvious task to log is research work. We all know that research is one of the first things to get squeezed when the jackboot of admin and bureaucracy descends on our tender neck, and having an accurate log of how much research we are actually doing is the first step towards bringing our actual time expenditure in line with our theoretical time allocation.

A pleasant side-benefit I have experienced from logging research time is that I am less likely needlessly to check email or distract myself in other ways if I know that the research clock is ticking.

Third benefit: proving to yourself, and to your employer, how much time things really take

We’ve all been there. We are told that the new admin job we’ve just been given will only take an hour a week. Three weeks in, we find that it is taking half a day. In order to address this mission creep it can be useful to log all the time we spend on certain tasks over a period of time (say a semester). That way we can report back to the boss with more than a vague “this took longer than you said”, and give her dates, times and total hours. I haven’t used time logging for this purpose myself yet, but a colleague employed it to achieve a fair acknowledgement of, and recompense for, the time she was giving to a particularly onerous admin responsibility.

Toggl: a great free time-logging app

So those are the main benefits I have gained, or seen others gain, from time logging. But how should you do it? There’s the good old pen and paper way, but that leaves you having to add up hours manually. You could use an Excel spreadsheet, but then for the logging to be accurate you need to have access to that spreadsheet wherever you go, and you need to work out all the formulas and calculations for yourself.

The easiest solution I have found, and the one I currently use, is Toggl. It’s a free web-based time logger also available as an app for iPhone and Android, so you can quickly log your time wherever you are, regardless of whether you are in front of a computer screen or not.

Rather than explaining the app myself, here are a couple of Toggl’s introductory videos:



Do you log your hours spent on different tasks constantly, sporadically, or never? What benefits have you found in doing so?

CC Image courtesy of cea+ on Flickr.

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Research Hacks # 13: The power of planning your research project

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Today I want to share one of the earliest research productivity hacks I ever learned, and one that has served me faithfully over many years. The principle behind it is simple: planning increases productivity, and things that get planned get done more often than things that don’t. By and large, and allowing for all necessary caveats, what you get done is what you plan to get done.

I first learned this lesson when I was taking my GCSE exams aged 16 in the UK. Mr Barlow, my wonderful history teacher at the time, ushered all the GCSE students into the school gym (I think it was) and gave us a lesson in planning our exam revision over the Christmas break.

  • He told us to break each day into three parts: 1) from after waking until lunch; 2) from lunch until dinner; 3) from dinner until bed.
  • He told us, where possible, to plan about four hours of revision for two of those three slots each day, and to write in a chart on the wall which subject(s) we would revise in which slot.
  • The unused slot each day was to be taken as time off.
  • Finally, he told us to draw a picture of a Christmas pudding in the three slots for December 25th.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Mr Barlow’s system was simple but effective. I got up each morning knowing exactly which subjects I was going to revise that day, when I was going to revise them, and when I was going to have time off. It helped me to work hard while I was working and play hard when I wasn’t. I always knew how much time I had left in the day to work. I didn’t feel guilty about not working, and I didn’t overwork.

I’ve subsequently used versions of the Barlow plan for revising for A-levels and parts 1 and 2 of my university Tripos exams, for writing my PhD, for planning my last university OSP (Sabbatical leave), and for book projects.

For articles and books I break the task down into reading, writing and refining, and give each task a number of slots on the calendar. Sometimes, I drill down further and schedule time for reading specific books or writing specific sections. Although I use Outlook as my calendaring tool these days, I tend to keep the Barlow plans in a separate Excel spreadsheet and pin them up on the noticeboard in my office. That way I can track my progress daily and see whether I am behind or ahead of schedule.

Long gone is the time when I could unproblematically divide the day into Mr Barlow’s three neat periods, but even with complicated work and family responsibilities it is still possible to use a variation of his plan.

I have experience of writing both with and without a Barlow plan and I can testify that, without exception, planning has on every occasion made the process more productive and less stressful, has increased my motivation to push forward with the project (so that I meet the Barlow plan deadlines), and has yielded a greater sense of satisfaction at the end. It also helps me to see, in the planning stage, whether a project deadline is too ambitious, about right, or too slack.


How do you plan your projects?

CC Image courtesy of Erik bij de Vaate on Flickr.

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