Posted by: jonkatz | February 14, 2011

Where has the time gone…and where does it go?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. As I told someone the other day, it’s partly because I feel that many of the things I want to post about, I want to post about anonymously.

But I’ve also been busy. So busy, in fact, that I decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while now: track my time to see how I’m spending it. I was not able to find any (good) time tracking software — I’m open for suggestions — so I’m just using a google spreadsheet to track my time. I record my time in 15-minute increments, but not as any exact science: I try to estimate the time I spent when I finish a task, or I reconstruct the time I spent on various tasks every hour or two.

One advantage I’m already noticing is that, by forcing myself to be more accountable for my time, I’m more efficient. If I see that I’m spending more than 15 minutes going through email, I force myself to switch to something else.

I’ve only been doing it for a week now, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions about my usage of time. (I’m planning to provide some statistics after a few months.) I’ll be interested to see the fraction of time I spend on various tasks, especially to see whether my feeling that I’m being overloaded by non-research activities is correct. I’m also curious how much time I spend on any one project: haven’t you always wanted to know how many hours went into a particular paper?

The most interesting thing I’ve noticed so far, though, is how many things I’m juggling at any one time. Over the past week, at various times, I worked on 10 different research projects. These were in various stages of maturity: from initial discussions on a project; to writing the first version of a paper on some newer results; to rewriting a paper for resubmission to a conference; to responding to referee comments for the final journal version of a paper. Still, it’s a lot of context switching. (And that doesn’t include teaching, or being on the faculty-hiring and graduate-admissions committees, or writing grants, or all the various other things one must attend to during the week.) I don’t know if working on that many research projects at once is typical — I guess it must be for people supervising a large group — but I find it to be a bit overwhelming. It is also depressing to see how quickly one’s time gets chipped away.

Is it better for people in industry? I have no direct experience, but my sense is that people in industry are able to focus on fewer things at a time. Maybe it makes sense to leave Harvard for Google after all…



  1. Is the last comment serious? Are you really getting tired of academia? I ask because I am considering my options at the moment, and lately I’ve been hearing a lot of negative signals about the academy.

  2. My recommendation for you would be to speak to someone and find out what academia is really like at the level of institution where you think you’d likely be hired.

  3. 1) Relating to the first sentence of the post, are there any interesting CS-specific anonymous blogs? I read Female Science Professor occasionally, but her writing is about the kind of Science that involves beakers and chemical safety training.

    2) Relating to the rest of the post: I’ll be interested to see those statistics. I’m afraid to try such an experiment myself. This week, my own spreadsheet would be almost completely dominated by changing diapers and washing spit of clothes… Speaking of which, I think I owe you and our co-authors some work on a journal paper. Sigh.

  4. If you are using Linux, hamster applet is a great choice.

  5. Yes, we do need to juggle many different projects at the same time, but we can do this in a much better and less stressful way (althoug I admit that I often do NOT succeed at this task). So here is my main suggestion – learn to say NO.

    This is important on many levels. First, you don’t need to sit on more than one program committee a year, and you don’t need to sit on program committees for conferences that you have never submitted to. Next, and this is more radical, you don’t need to start a new research project, no matter how interesting it is. Sure, you may lose a paper, but you will likely gain sanity, do better work, and feel better about your work in the long run. So, learn to say NO (obviously, without shirking your real responsibilities and while giving to the community what you should). Finally, even if you are on a research project, if you can’t give it the attention it deserves, then say so explicitly to your co-authors, while saying when you can. If you do this all the time, then you’ll lose collaborators. But, if you do it sometimes, it’s OK. Furthermore, when you do have time to work on the project, and then you push off other projects, you’ll be able to do a better job.

  6. It’s been six weeks now. What’s the (early) verdict?

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