Saturday, 9 June 2012

Give me a little more time...

A few weeks ago, one of our PhD students, Amir Kamsin, was awarded 3rd prize in the student research competition  at CHI for his research on how we manage our time, and tools to support time management. Congratulations to Amir! The fact that it has taken until now to comment shows how difficult I am finding it to do things in a timely way. Many books and blogs (e.g. ProfSerious') have been written on how we should manage our time; it's difficult to even find the time to read them!

Some years ago, Thomas Green and I did a study of time management, and concluded that "what you get is not what you need". In that paper, we were focusing mainly on diary / calendar management and highlighted important limitations of online diaries, most of which are still true today (e.g. ways of marking meetings as provisional; including travelling time as well as meeting time; and making entries appropriately interpretable by others). In contrast, Amir is focusing on "to do" management. There are many aspects to his findings, of course. Two of them particularly resonate for me...

The first is how much of our time management is governed by emotional factors. It has long been a standing joke in my research group that you can tell when someone is avoiding doing a particular (usually big) job because they suddenly get ultra-productive on other tasks. The guilt about the big job is a great motivator! But I've become increasingly aware that there are even very small tasks that I avoid, either because I don't know where to start or because the first step is daunting. I've started to mentally label these as "little black clouds", and I'm gradually learning to prioritise them before they turn into big black clouds -- not necessarily by doing them immediately, but by committing to a time to do them. No "to-do" management systems that I'm aware of makes emotional factors explicit. Even their implementations of "importance" and "urgency" don't capture the fluidity of these ideas in practice. There's much more to managing tasks and projects than importance and urgency.

The second is how much "to do" information is tied up in email. Not just simple "hit reply" to-dos, but also complex discussions and decisions about projects. There are tools that integrate email, calendars and address books, and there are to-do management systems with or without calendars. But I really want a project management tool that integrates completely seamlessly with both my email and my calendar. And is quick and easy to learn. And requires minimal extra effort to manage. Anyone know of one?


  1. A realistic and colorful article which gave me many ideas.Great representation!
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  2. Thanks -- let me know when you implement good ideas!