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Time Wasters: Managing Your Most Precious Resource

Time management ? Now there's a popular topic for authors, speakers, and consultants! There must be a stack a block long in the Library of Congress on how we can optimize our days and learn to plan and organize better. Personally, I've avoided writing about time management in "Tooling Up" because I stick to subjects that I know. And I must confess that managing my time has always been a problem for me, as it is for many busy people (particularly job seekers!).

Over the years, I have read books and asked advice of experts in this field. Universally, they have recommended analyzing who or what manages my time and how I spend it. And yet, it took me several years to actually try this. (Procrastination will be covered in a future article. ?) Because I have recently begun billing my time for each project I work on, I have been forced to analyze the way that my day is spent. I learned quite a lot about myself and about the process of good time management as a result.

My Time Journal

Whether you bill your work or simply want to know where to squeeze in more job-search networking hours, keeping a journal can help you discover your own personal "time wasters." As long as I was making accurate records, I thought that I could also use the daily journal to organize my time for maximum efficiency. But I needed something to remind me to record my activities, so I purchased a small timer that attached to my belt which goes off silently at regular intervals.

Each time I felt the vibration at my waist, I would jot down my current activity and make note of what I had been doing for the previous 15 minutes. It worked great: I became very efficient at billing my time accurately. But it was quite disturbing as well--the time journal clearly illustrated how much time I was actually wasting over the course of a week. I am ordinarily a frugal person--I get concerned if I lose a quarter on some purchase--and here I had discovered that I'd been losing my most precious commodity--time.

The Four Types of Time

As I studied the topic further in an effort to turn around my problem, I found that most experts agree that we live with four types of time during our working hours. These four are Boss-Imposed, System-Imposed, Self-Imposed, and Subordinate-Imposed time. Of these types, I had a problem with self-imposed and system-imposed time. In other words, I was continually caught up in paperwork (system-imposed) and time wasted on the Internet (self-imposed).

Although we can't get into a discourse on time management solutions in this short column, I would like to stress that so much of successfully optimizing your time involves being aware of where your day goes. Whether you are developing a time log or just paying closer attention to the clock, consider each of these four categories, and like the people in my examples, work to make some improvements in each of them:

Boss-Imposed. Joachim waited outside the door to his boss's office. He had a 9:00 a.m. meeting with Susan, the principal investigator and department head. Unfortunately, Susan hadn't quite finished up her session with another professor, and Joachim was forced to sit outside and wait while the earlier meeting dragged on. It was always like this, he thought. No matter what time he was called aside for a meeting, formal or impromptu, there was always some wait while Susan finished up. Joachim decided that he had two options. For one, he could talk to Susan and get her to realize how inefficient these meeting times had become. Alternately, he could bring his laptop with him and get some work done in these little chunks of time. It took him only a moment to decide to bring the computer next time. ?

System-Imposed. Darren was making considerable progress on the project he was selected to oversee. He had established a reputation as someone who knew how to maximize every minute of the day. Darren knew that the real reason he succeeded was that he would put in extra time just to handle the paperwork. Like every other scientist in the program, that part of the job drove him crazy. Last month he did a time analysis and he found that he was spending more than 40 hours each month on paperwork instead of doing science. That's when he decided to automate some of the repetitive stuff. He grinned as he filled in the first of the templates he had come up with. "What a time saver," he thought.

Self-Imposed. This one has been my biggest problem. I often find myself drawn into the Internet, when a search for more information about a new drug brings up movie reviews for example. It is so easy to get off track, and it took my time log to really drive this point home for me. I found that more than an hour a day fell in the category of "off-topic Web access." Just recognizing that problem allowed me to become more productive and have less stress with the truly important things on my desk. This can also be a problem in the laboratory. How many times have you lost track of time wandering the Web? Simply setting a laboratory timer for a 10-minute Web surf can keep you on track. In other words, time your surfing, just as you time the steps in your experiments.

Subordinate-Imposed. Shelly was headed to a Postdoc Association meeting when she ran into her labmate, George, who asked to discuss a problem. He described an assay that had been working fine but was suddenly yielding unexpected results. Seeing the look of expectancy on his face, Shelly knew what she was in for. She'd had questions like these before from George and the other grad students in her lab. She wouldn't be able to answer him on the spot, but she was obviously qualified to work on it. "I'll think about this and get back to you later today," she told George. As they parted company, Shelly realized that once again she had taken on a problem from someone who would be better off solving it himself. She promised herself that in the future she would empower the grad students to solve their own problems, instead of allowing them to add to hers.


Everyone is busy today. Because of this daily rush, we aren't able to find the time to plan and strategize our career development. Job seekers who are in this mode make the mistake of simply relying upon a CV mailing to do the job for them, instead of finding the time to develop a list of networking contacts or attend an association's local event, for example.

If you wonder where your time went when you finally get home tonight, perhaps you should consider analyzing your day the way that I did. Although you will never free yourself from the demands that other people place on you during your workday, there will still be ways that you can find more time for the truly important tasks. Have you considered what you might do with an extra hour a day, or more? Try it!