Tag Archives: Time management

On Time Management and Life


Some days ago, I got an email from a colleague asking whether I could suggest a book or course on time management that he could share with his students. On the spot, I did not know exactly what to reply other than sharing some techniques which have been useful for me.

But then I remembered a story I read once and I suddenly realised that that story probably holds the secret for accomplishing what is really important to us. And in so doing, it also reminds us of the things that really matter in life.


One day a wise teacher was speaking to a group of his students. He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

Everyone in the class said, “Yes.”

“Really?” he asked. “Let’s see.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. Looking carefully from face to face, he smiled benevolently and asked again, “Is the jar full?”

His class was catching on quickly. “Probably not,” one of them answered.

“Very good!” he replied. He then reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. When he was finished he once again asked, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted.

“Excellent!” he replied. Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and poured it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Once again looking intently into the eyes of each student, he asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”

“Aha, that’s very good!” the teacher replied, “But let us look a bit deeper. This illustration also teaches us a higher truth: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never get them in at all!”

(Author unknown.)


As the year draws to a close, I hope you may find some time to reflect on your ‘big rocks’ for the new year ahead. Is this something you want to accomplish, maybe finish off your PhD thesis, or submit that long-due paper? Is it re-gaining your physical fitness? Is it learning a new skill that would be useful for your next career move? Or is it starting a journey of personal growth? Or simply spending more quality time with your loved ones?

Whatever your priorities are, my wish for you is that you may treasure this story and find a way to put your big rocks first, before any pebbles or sand.

The Productivity Code Video Series


Very often people think that being a researcher is all about excitement, discoveries, and success. And while some of this may eventually be achieved, the day-to-day reality of it is rather different.

We often struggle to keep up with running a lab, taking new data, analyzing them, writing papers, applying for grants. And all of this while also trying to have a full and fulfilled life!

Some of us may also constantly battle with negative thoughts:

“what if this is not good enough?”

“what if I don’t manage to make good progress?”

“why did I not do this earlier when I had more time?”

No wonder, we often feel exhausted, overwhelmed and just simply run down.

I have been there myself. And I have personally discovered what a huge difference it can make to just follow the advice and support of those who have been there and have found a way to succeed.

In fact, soon after becoming a mom, some years ago, I realized I needed to set new priorities both at work and in my private life. That’s when I started working with Olga Degtyareva, a friend and former colleague of mine.

Olga has become an expert on productivity and she has already helped many students and researchers all over the world to make huge progress in their careers without feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, or stressed out.

The good news is that Olga has now put together a great free training series to show you exactly how to overcome overwhelm, become more productive and stay productive for good!! Over 150 people from around the world have already joined in this training. You can still register to access the full training series at the link below:

FULL SERIES: The Productivity Code Video Series

(make sure you also download the handouts by clicking on the link below each video)

But that’s not all!

Olga emailed me the other day to let me know that she is going to release one more video today!

BONUS video #4… it’s all about you moving forward on your path. And she’ll be telling you about two biggest problems that most researchers come across.

Also, towards the end of the video, she’ll give you the details about the Productivity Code Quick Start Online Course and Coaching Program.

So, if you are struggling with making progress with your work, don’t miss out!

Registrations are opening up TODAY (11th of September) at 12:00pm London time.


PS Oh, and remember that the free training will remain available only until September 18th!


How Long Does Your Writing Take?

Let me ask you a quick question. Do you normally read in bed before falling asleep every night? If so, how long do you read for?

candleI certainly do. Yet, I only manage to put together five or six pages at most before abandoning myself into Morpheus’ arms. The whole process probably takes me 15-20 minutes every night and, as a positive side effect, I have noticed that the quality of my sleep is far better than if I tried to fall asleep without reading.

But I am digressing…

So, here is my point:

I have managed to read lots of books in my life, just by spending a few minutes every night reading only a few pages!

This is remarkable for me because all too often I have a strong tendency to wait for the perfect circumstances, the perfect settings, the perfect time, before actually getting a start on what I want or have to do.

Say, for example, I have to prepare a talk for a conference. I typically wait to have a whole half-day free from any other commitment before even thinking about making a start.

Guess what?

The perfect time never comes. I wait and wait and wait… and then I have to rush through preparing my talk at the very last minute when I cannot procrastinate anymore.

Sounds familiar? Maybe you do the same with your writing.

You wait for the right time, the right context, or the right inspiration.

The trouble with this approach is that we seldom get anything done and end up feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and guilty.

Admittedly, finding large chunks of time to devote to one single activity is often difficult in our busy lives. Yet, we can still accomplish a lot by using whatever 15 minutes we can find here and there. That’s how I have read hundreds of books. And that’s how I have written some of my papers.

More than that, setting aside just 15 minutes may be far more productive that setting aside 3 consecutive hours (assuming you have them!).

So, if you are struggling to find the time to do some writing, here is an excellent way to making a start:

  • You schedule one 15-minute session in your diary (ideally at the same time every day, just to get into the right habit)
  • You protect this time from external invasion (this is essential or you’ll let any excuse distract you)
  • When the time comes, you set your timer (any timer would do!) and just write. For 15 minutes. Every single day. A few sentences a day. A figure. A table. However small, it’ll be more than you had yesterday. Just do it, day in day out.

After a few weeks (apparently it takes 21 days to establish a new habit) feel free to increase the time (not by much!) and keep going.

It does not matter if the quality of what you write is not good at first. You can always revise later once you have put together enough content. Your aim here is to get into the habit of writing and to stop procrastinating.

And remember: if you start today, even for as little as 15 minutes, you won’t have to start from scratch tomorrow. And writing tomorrow will just feel a bit easier.

I have done it. And it works.

Ok. Enough said. I’d better go and make a start with that talk of mine!

Do You Also Say “Yes” When You Actually Mean “No”?

I certainly do (in fact more often than I am willing to admit). And judging from what I hear, other people do too.

You know? The kind of situation when somebody asks you to help out in the labs and you think “Oh yes, why not? It’s going to be fun”. Or when a colleague suggests you as a marker for his student’s project and you agree (the deadline is so far away anyway) only to regret it later when eventually your calendar has filled with commitments that are – let’s face it – more important to you. That’s when you start wondering “Why on earth did I agree to do this?!”

Life as an academic is busy, but you do not have to be a full time faculty member to face requests of your time from all sides.

Recently, I got an email from a PhD student asking for help. For the past two years, this student had been only too keen to say “yes” to continuous requests of his time to prepare materials for conferences, meetings, and papers.

The student was eager to offer his help. After all, it was a great opportunity for him to learn new skills and be seen as a collaborative member of his group and a reliable fellow in the department. Unsurprisingly, various other people started landing more tasks on his desk. Not being able to say “no” to any of these, the student had ended up with loads of extra work, little time to do any reading of his own, even less to move on with his own project, and barely able to prepare for exams. Sadly, neither his supervisor nor his fellow scientists had ever acknowledged his work, which of course did nothing to mitigate the student’s frustration.

The email ended with a laconic “what should I do?”.

I know from experience how hard it can be to say NO to a colleague or a friend. But when the asker is your superior or someone who holds authority over you, saying NO can be next to impossible.

Yet, learning to say NO when appropriate is vital to our well-being.

It seems that the two most common reasons why we feel compelled to say YES even if we mean NO are: sense of guilt (in saying no), and need for approval (whether conscious or not). So, clearly, dealing with these issues may be necessary to stop trying to please everyone.

On a more practical level, however, there are a few things that we can do to put boundaries to other people’s requests of our time. Here, I share some useful techniques that I have borrowed from Olga Degtyareva and Christine Kane.

Take time

Often, we let people approach us at any time of the day, in person, by email, on the phone. Because we may not be in the best frame of mind when put under the spotlight of an unexpected request, we may end up re-acting rather than acting on the call. This means we rarely check whether what we are being asked is something we actually want to do, or whether we are able to, or whether we have time for it. So, a useful tactic here is to take time. Say that you need to “think about it”, or to check your calendar, and you will get back to them as soon as possible with a yes or no answer.

The pro-active NO

Another approach consists in developing and rehearsing a set of useful phrases to say NO in an assertive way. For example:

  • I need to focus on writing my thesis at the moment
  • I have already committed to another task
  • I am not taking any new responsibility for the time being (or until I finish…)
  • I am working on several projects and I do not have any more time in my calendar

Think of more examples to fit your specific circumstances. You may have fun with this one 🙂

Is this in line with my priorities?

Before agreeing to take on board any new task, ask yourself if this brings you any closer to your goals. If the answer is yes, go ahead. If not, simply and politely refuse. Using one of you pro-active “no” will help you decline gracefully.

Bargain and compromise

Sometimes, saying NO is not appropriate (e.g. you are asked to do something that is part of your job description), but you may still try to negotiate. Can you claim some free time at the end of your assignment? Can you delegate someone else to do some of the other tasks you are doing so that you can make time for this new request? Go a step further and be explicit about exactly what you would like to have in return and try to put yourself and the other person in a win-win situation. Of course, be prepared to hear a NO in return! 🙂

In general, remember that:

  • if it is not an absolute YES it is a most likely NO
  • when you say NO to others, you say YES to yourself
  • you can say NO without explaining as long as you are clear about your decision

Saying NO will feel awkward at first. But with some practice you may even enjoy it!

Let me know how it goes!