How to trick yourself to work (and live) smarter, not harder!

Let’s be honest, working in science means that you’ve got TONS of different stuff to do. First of all, your own research, probably teaching students – both being full-time jobs itself, with many different sub-tasks you have to think about.

Plus, all the little other things you are asked to do besides your day to day tasks….paper reviews, reviewing grant applications, reviewing students thesis’s, applying for grant applications yourself, preparing for a talk, setting up travel arrangements for a field or conference trip, reworking one of your manuscript that got back fro review, asf.. and this is just work! There are usually lots of things you need to or want to get done in your private life, too. Surely, the day often has too few hours!

What can we do to balance all of these tasks, whilst avoiding risking our private life and mental health?

Get all of your tasks out of your head and down on paper. Make a list.

Yeah, I know, that sounds soooo boring. But it has quite an effect to free your head of all the tasks you still need to do (and maybe are afraid to forget). And, honestly, is there anything better than to tick stuff that you have done off that list? Actually, this is a little trick that I use for my personal well-being: Sometimes, if I feel low, I split things to do in really small bits, so at the end of the day I can tick of a lot of tasks that I´ve finished – it works! Even though I’m aware that I’m fooling myself a bit here! But hey, so what, it works, I feel better, stronger, and usually am more productive the next day!

Think about priorities.

Read through your list and check which tasks are the most urgent ones, which will take up the most time, which you really don’t want to do and which are the nice and easy ones. It makes sense to get done with the task you really don’t want to do first, as it’s off the list sooner and you don’t carry around in your mind that you still need to do that. Let’s be honest, most of us fall for that mistake to do things we don’t like at a later point, but it keeps on nagging in your head, and stresses you more than it should.

Make a really detailed plan for every week (and/or month).

Aaah, again, soo boring! But it really helps structure your work schedule, making yourself more productive, and thus less stressed. I promise! There are surely different ways to make a detailed plan, so I just describe the way that works best for me: I have that list of things to do for the month (larger tasks), and every Sunday evening or Monday morning, I sit down and work on a plan for the week. I save e.g. Monday to write the introduction for a paper and important e-mails, Tuesday for reviewing the work of students, asf. So, just a certain amount of tasks per day that you can concentrate on. Schedule some extra time if you have to care about an unexpected urgent task.

The important thing here is that by having the different task assigned to certain days, they are kind of off the list for the day you are working on another task, and your head is free to concentrate on your current task. This might not work perfectly all of the time, but, at least for me, planning my week definitely helped me a lot to be more positive, whilst also being very productive.

If there are very urgent tasks (e.g. a grant application), you might have to spend the whole week working on it – in that case, it makes sense to have a sub-task of that project assigned to every day, e.g. Budget on Monday, Methods on Tuesday asf. You probably know best how realistic timescales are for your projects. Definitely, leave some spare time for unexpected tasks, or if a task takes longer to finish. You can always add another task to the day if you are finished earlier than expected, and still feel like you could work on more. By having only some task a day, it´s easier to have that fantastic I´m done with work feeling.

Integrate private tasks and events in your schedule, too!

It´s easy to get so caught up in work that we decide to cancel a dinner with a friend to get done with all the work. That´s highly unhealthy, probably will make you unhappy and actually more unproductive on the long run. Caring for your mental health is not less important than your work! If you are not healthy, no one can expect you to be efficient at your job. So, have your private meetings and other (less fun) private tasks scheduled, too! This makes it easier to prepare your schedule in a way to integrate job as well as private life in your day and hopefully hinders you to let work overrun your private life.

Review what you have done at the end of the day/ the next morning.

For me, this is a morning routine. While drinking my first coffee, I´ll have a look at my calendar and tick of the things from the list I´ve done yesterday – that´s always a highly satisfying feeling for me. This is also the time where I write down 3 (or more) positive things that happened that day, which helps your brain to focus more on the positive things in your life. This is a really good and positive way for me to get the day started! Last but not least, I check what´s on the list for the day, think about if there´s anything else I have to do, and get to work!

And don´t forget to celebrate your achievements!