Often, when I begin working with clients we find that it’s not just their statistics knowledge holding them back. Sometimes we need to scale right back and look again at their research question. Other times, it’s helping them to find the time amongst all their other responsibilities to focus on their own research by increasing their productivity.
Helping health researchers to progress in their careers is a real passion of mine. So many of us get caught up with helping our teams complete their research, that our own takes a back seat.
So, this blog is all about helping you to get back on track with your own research. These are my top tips for carving out the time and the focus you need to increase productivity and achieve your goals.
1. Set goals that mean something to you
Setting goals that you feel attached to is vital for keeping your project moving, taking you one step closer to where you want to be. Knowing what you want to do with your day will help you to keep those important goals at the front of your mind. Making sure these are things that are important to you is another way of making sure you feel empowered to do the work.
I advise my clients to set just 1 or 2 goals per day. Having a long to-do list means you are unlikely to get around to completing all of them. This could lead to you feeling demotivated, and worrying that you’ll never be able to achieve everything you want to. That’s the opposite of what we want!
2. Set time aside to work on your goals
When you’ve got your goals set out for the day, the next step is to set aside time specifically to work on them. I like to do this first thing in the morning, before I get sucked into other work, meetings, or the hustle and bustle of the day.
Spending half an hour on your goals before you even open your emails is a great way to ensure they get done. Avoid setting time aside at the end of the day: it’s likely to get swallowed up by other tasks overrunning.
Finally, keep track of your goals and the work you’ve done towards them. Having them listed out each day means you’ll know you’ve had a productive day when you a visual of what you’ve got done.
I love to use tools such as Trello to track my progress towards my goals. It’s an easy-to-use, modern tool that helps me to keep on top of my to-do list.
3. Break it down
If you look at the whole picture of what you need to do then it’ll feel overwhelming. You’ll probably either keep putting off starting or just keep flitting from one goal to another.
Instead, work on one thing at a time, and make your goals small and manageable.
For example, if I’m writing a paper, then I usually write it in this order: results, methods, introduction, and then discussion. I also break it down into subsections within those sections when it comes to writing, so one of my goals would usually be just to write one of those subsections. It all adds up surprisingly quickly into a finished paper!
If it helps, you could break each goal down into a list of smaller tasks. This means you’ll be able to see what steps you need to complete to achieve each goal, and you could take one or two of them as your daily goals. I usually just have a mental running order of what I want to do so that I can switch it up easily as things develop.
4. Set a timer
Once I’ve got the smaller set of tasks roughly clear in my head, I focus on one at a time using pomodoros. If you’ve not heard of pomodoros before, it’s a way of sprint working. Most people do 25 minutes of working followed by a 5 minute break, though some people prefer a 50 minute/10 minute split.
Your tasks should be small enough to do in a 25 minute sprint. Today my first pomodoro is writing a draft of this blog! But then my next one is going to be pulling together a results table for a paper.
You’ll get to know roughly how much you can do in 25 minutes, and you’ll be surprised at how much more effective you are without time to stare out of a window!
Even if you just do one 25 minute sprint of goal-oriented work a day, you’ll be amazed at how it adds up over the weeks.
5. Remove distractions
When you work in a busy laboratory, it’s virtually impossible to remove distractions completely. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do your bit to reduce them as much as possible.
Many of my clients find that emails are one of their biggest distractions while working. So I simply tell them to close their emails during their pomodoro sprints. Another technique is to have set times of the day when you check your emails, and keep them closed for the rest of the day. It can feel scary not to be contactable at all times of the day, but actually this is vital for maintaining focus on your tasks.
Keep in mind that if someone has something really urgent, they could call you. Once the pandemic is over and done with, they could even walk over to your office!
I have an out-of-office set so that people know I’m not constantly checking my emails, and with details on how to contact me for an urgent query. This takes out a lot of the worry about not constantly checking your emails!
By removing as many unnecessary distractions as possible, you allow yourself to really focus. Before long, this becomes a habit, and your productivity will improve along with it.
6. Write or edit, don’t do both
If writing your paper is one of your goals, don’t aim for perfection the first time you sit down to do this. Aim to get down the core of what you want to say as a s**tty first draft, then edit later. I find switching up writing and editing pomodoros works well because it keeps me fresh for both types of work.
If you’re writing the first draft then get the words down however works best for you. That might be directly onto a computer. If I’m stuck for words then I find it much easier to write with pen and paper then I edit when I type that up.
You might even prefer to dictate what you want to say if you find it easier to talk through things. There’s lots of free apps that will transcribe as you speak, or some phones just have an app that does this in-built now.
7. Create an environment that you love working in
I’ve found that the environment I’m working in has a significant effect on how focused and productive I feel. The difference between this and working in a chaotic environment full of distractions and interruptions is huge.
My perfect working morning looks like this:
A hot drink and a 2 litre bottle of water for my desk.
Some uplifting music playing in the background.
I light a candle (I always feel calmer with a lit candle!)
Writing down an affirmation and one thing I’m grateful for.
A list of my 3 most important tasks. I make sure I do at least one of these before I open my emails.
As a logically-minded statistician, the mindset stuff is probably the most surprising thing in this list. But mindset shifting has honestly been the biggest game-changer for me.
Plus, I’ve never been your typical statistician anyway!
What would your perfect working environment look like? What could you do today to take your desk a bit closer to this ideal?
I hope this blog has inspired you to take control of your productivity and your goals. I know that I couldn’t do what I do without following this advice.
I’d love to know: which of the productivity tips is your favourite? And do you have any additional tips you’d add? Let me know in the comments below!