Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Time management self checklist

A lot of students have problems in doing work efficiently. One root cause is on bad time management. The following talk video by Randy Pausch could be useful to watch:

Here are the slides and materials for the talk:

If you complain about you don't have enough time in getting your work done, do a simple book-keeping on how you spend your time: handling emails, handling text messages, handling IM chats, browsing through or commenting/status-updating at facebook, twittering, watching TV, doing actual real work... Then sum up the portion of time allocated on each type of activities, you could find out some insights and figure out what do to to fix those issues...

Walking through the key points mentioned in Randy's talk, I make the following check list for reflecting what I have done well and what I have done badly. They may be boring to you (if so, stop reading them:) but writing the list down actually helps myself to reflect my time-management habits.

++ I don't have a messy desk (I used to have in my first year of new faculty life)
++ I can find things easily (heavily relying on google but knowing what appropriate search keywords to use, indexed in my mind)
+- I don't miss appointments unless sometimes they are in too early morning (don't arrange your defense in early morning unless you send a reminder to me the night before!).
++ I am normally prepared for my meetings (but the critical factor is my students need to be prepared when meeting with me).
-+ I sometimes am tired/unable to concentrate (but there I often drifted my thinking to some great research ideas)
++ I do planning (more precisely, I am deadline driven)
++ I have a todo list being my "Tasks" in my gmail but there I list only long-term tasks and I treat the emails in my inbox as my todo list)
- I need to do better on "Covey’s four-quadrant TODO": I tend to focus on things due soon (no matter important ones or not)
+- I do touch each piece of email once but I indeed consider my inbox as my TODO list (not seeing too much the negative side of it)
+ I don't call that much so the issues on reducing call duration don't apply to me.
++ I have a comfortable office (not messy and not with a soft comfortable chair)
-- I too much rely on my email inbox for my todo list and I don’t make time enough for important things.
+ I learn to say "No" reasonably well.
- I don't easily find out my creative/thinking time (maybe being late at night). But I don't tend to use such time to do creative thinking. I do creative thinking often when meeting with students; the meeting times may not overlap with my creative/thinking time but I do call students to my office for meetings whenever I like (of course when they are in the lab) rather than arranging fixed time.
- I don't easily find my dead time (maybe morning) so I don't do specific things during it such as scheduling meetings, phone calls, and mundane stuff.
-- I have big problems with interruptions with email "ding" arrivals; I still don't want to turn it off.:( So I rarely have too long blocks of time in devoting to things without email interruptions unless the deadlines for the things are immediately upcoming.
-- I don't tend to cut things short like when chatting with colleagues unplanned at hallway or my office. I do have a desk clock on my desk but the time there is not accurate and I rarely look at it.
-- I don't have a time journal so I cannot analyze it. But I do think about and focus on what things I could do but others couldn't easily (or are not good at). I do often think about how to do things more efficiently.
-- I don't have work-life balance (yet) -- more precisely not much life yet.
-- I am not too much on procrastination but I am a last-minute person (very likely because my todo list is often not short).
+ I am doing fine with delegation such as letting students manage group matters and take group roles, not to say training them how to write papers and carry out research (being maybe a type of delegation of paper writing or research development?). But I am a bit cautious on delegating some tasks to my students unless they get fair recognition/benefits that they deserve.
- I don't have too many meetings with colleagues but I do have frequent meetings with students (where students need to have an agenda beforehand and need to to have a todo list for upcoming period as meeting outcomes).
-- I read frequently my emails over "vacation". Need to stop that!
- I watch TV while working before my laptop for some time at nights. I still don't want to cut off my TV watching time, which is not much each week (I need some time off anyway).
- I don't normally turn money into time (after all, I don't have that much money while still having some spare time). Instead, I may pursue more on turning time into money.:)
+ I normally eat well, sleep well, and exercise ok (but I need to keep it up regularly.. now it time for me to go to gym since I am reaching the end of my blog entry)
+ I normally keep up my promise.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Don't rely on only examples to describe what you have in mind

During my one-on-one meetings with students from time to time, I found that quite some students don't have good skills in describing things clearly (either in spoken or written English). Here I would like to ask students to do a self-check: when you find out that your listener didn't understand what you said, you may tend to say "Let me use an example (to be drawn on the white board) to explain to you."

My advice to students is that don't immediately fall back to use an example to explain what you have in mind (especially during your meetings with your advisor during which you have golden opportunities to improve your skills). If you keep immediately falling back to use an example, you will never be able to explain yourself clearly with your direct description of things. What you need to do is to revisit what you just said and ask your listener on what he or she doesn't understand, and then you will be able to diagnose "bugs" in your initial descriptions, and try to avoid these "bugs" in your future descriptions.

For my weekly one-on-one meetings with students, I demand students to propose new ideas to me and recommend/describe other researchers' papers to me. In this process, students get opportunities to exercise their skills in verbally explaining clearly new things to the listener (i.e., me).

At the same time, students get more opportunities to exercise writing things more clearly by iterating their writing with me over their research development process. See my earlier post on technical writing. In technical writing, one similar pitfall to watch out and avoid is to explain your proposed approach via only examples without direct and clear description of what the approach is. Keep in mind that examples are just sample points in what your approach covers, and often the time readers don't get to know precisely what your approach is by reading only limited sample points covered by your approach.

Don't get me wrong. I in fact encourage students to use examples to help illustrate what they have in mind in their spoken or written English. But students shouldn't rely on ONLY examples to explain things, without being able to explain things directly and clearly up-front.

To help explain things clearly, students should consider to adopt the top-down way. More details can be found in my earlier post on "Advice to Students on Mastering Communication Skills"

In a one-on-one meeting with me, when a student explains an approach in a paper to me, it is better for the student to use the top-down way. The student needs to first explain the problem being addressed by the approach. To help accomplish this goal, besides the direct description of the problem, the student could explain the inputs to the approach and the outputs of the approach, without first getting into details how the approach does it. A common pitfall for students is that students tend to immediately explain what the approach actually does without first giving me any ideas on what problem the approach targets at or what the high level inputs/outputs of the approach are.