This is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, and answers several questions that I field regularly. The most common of these is ‘how do you have time for that?’ (usually followed closely by ‘I just don’t have time for that’) but I also often get asked how I keep my inbox so small or manage to get stuff done quickly. So, in the interests of demystifying, I thought I’d rough out a few of my MOs here.

Disclaimer: I don’t have kids. However. I know plenty of people who do have kids and still manage to get much awesome done (@biancah80 springs to mind) and plenty of other people with no kids who never manage to get anything done, so I don’t believe kids are in influencing factor here.


I have to credit an old boss of mine with my email management technique. I’ve been using it ever since she explained it to me (I used to be a normal ‘inbox of thousands’ type) and it hasn’t let me down since, nor has my inbox ever been over 10 for more than an hour or two. The rules are:

  • Address all email as soon as possible after it lands in your inbox
  • If it’s not relevant and/or doesn’t require you to take any action, delete it. Right away. Probably 90% of emails I get go this way – marketing emails from services I use, mailing list fluff, stuff from people who should not be allowed to use reply-all etc etc.
  • If it doesn’t require you to take any action but you need to keep it, file it. Inbox =/= filing.
  • If it requires you to take action, leave it in your inbox (unless it’s a calendar date, in which case, bung it straight in your calendar then delete it)

This means that your inbox effectively functions as your to-do list, and is always short and manageable (rather than having big, infrequent cleaning sprees). I swear by it.


Perhaps one of the biggest I-don’t-have-time-fors I get asked about. Functionally I don’t do anything special about it, I just use the standard Twitter apps. However. Twitter for me is about priorities (as is everything, really). I prioritise checking that little blue bird icon frequently because a) it only takes a few seconds each time to skim my feed, and b) it is so useful to me and the way I work I would be an idiot not to prioritise it. It allows me to keep on top of news and events (not just in edu but world events too), find new things relevant to my research, make and maintain relationships with fabulous colleagues from pretty much anywhere, and find new ideas and opportunities. An @ reply only takes a second to fire off, and interesting links can sit in browser tabs until I’m ready to read them. If you think you don’t have a few minutes each hour you can use for this, you’re a bit nuts IMHO.


Another great I-don’t-have-time-for. I blog (either here or on my other research blog) during work hours. The half hour or so I spend writing a post once or twice a week helps me chew over and solidify new ideas for research, helps improve my practice, maintains my professional profile and sparks provoking conversations. No workload is so huge that I can’t take an hour or two for this each week.


My reasons for using RSS are similar to Twitter, just in a non-interactive extended form. It’s my way of keeping my pulse on the world. The way it fits into my day is over lunchtime – eating lunch without reading something just seems inefficient and frankly boring to me. I use Reeder on my iPad and trawl feeds ranging from edu-blogging colleagues to journal feeds (although tbh most of these fail at the concept of RSS) to cooking/baking/music blogs to xkcd, Damn You Autocorrect and I Can Has Cheeseburger (humour and fun is a hugely overlooked aspect of most peoples’ days). I can get through a feed of around 100 posts in a half-hour lunch pretty easily (skipping any that don’t interest me that day).


This is probably the thing that people understand the least of everything I do. Most people assume gaming is addictive and you can’t do it without spending 8 hours a day glued to a screen or console. Which is, of course, bollocks. I play for maybe an hour a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, usually either after work or after dinner. What I find strange is that the ‘I don’t have time’ crowd often watch TV in the evening without doing anything else, but that’s several hours you could be doing something awesome with. It’s not unusual for evenings at our place to consist of Dr Who or something ABCish on in the background with me playing WoW and Steve practicing guitar. We get so much more benefit out of this than just rote TV-watching.


Invariably, every time I take something I’ve baked into work, someone will ask me how I have time for it. My answer? I make time. Again, it’s about using the time other people usually spend watching TV, and it’s also about relaxation. Occasionally my more ambitious baking projects get a bit stressful, but the other reason I do it is because it’s a great way to make people happy en masse. Additionally, my cupcakes raised several hundred dollars for charities last year. It’s a pretty decent trade-off for making the decision to get off the couch and go bake something.

What gives?

I do have some secrets for getting some extra time to devote to the above. I only have one scheduled one-hour meeting per week, for one. I am very careful about what administration I spend my time on. Meetings are very rarely productive, especially those of the ‘everybody report on their progress’ types, so I avoid them if at all possible. I don’t use voicemail (world’s most ridiculous waste of time), and almost never use the phone (I have people mostly well-trained to email me instead of calling so requests can be triaged as per email system above). I use text chat in preference to voice chat whenever possible as it fits into a multitasking workflow much more easily. I don’t often do trivial tasks sent to mailing lists that turn up in my inbox – a while back I thought I’d see what happened if I just deleted such emails instead of doing whatever it was asking (nothing, if you’re curious). I delegate help requests heavily – I used to let myself get bogged down with helping people because I could, not because it was my job. These days I’m much more likely to delegate to someone whose job it is (generally, tech support). I also prioritise really heavily – if someone asks me to do something that won’t take me long but will benefit from efficiency, I bump it to the top of the list and do it right away. It seems obvious but apparently many people don’t do it, given how many people are surprised at my ‘efficiency’. I don’t always win this way (my Masters is currently languishing towards the bottom of the list, for instance, hence why #universityofawesome has been quiet for a while now), but to my mind being known for efficiency is a good trade-off. ‘Gets shit done’ is pretty high on my list of things I’d want people to say about me.

So. There you have it. Essentially, it’s all about priorities and finding out what productivity-sinks you’re currently doing that you can dump. It by no means makes me a genius or a guru, but it works for me, and some of it might work for you too.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s occurred to me that I haven’t commented on the fact that our department tries to make time for social activities – every month or so we run an event where I bake cupcakes, our web dev becomes a barista, we put some music on and we spend an hour or two raising money while chatting over good coffee and cake. Many see this kind of thing as a productivity black hole, but IMHO including fun, social aspects in work is essential for productivity. Happy people are productive, and equating screen time with productivity is generally completely misguided.

Categories: Asides


(@malynmawby) (@malynmawby) · March 11, 2012 at 11:00 pm

some good ideas on efficiency, productivity & time mgmt “@sthcrft: Got a minute? ” Make time for what’s impt to you

Chris (cfellows65536) · March 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Your ‘what gives’ is eerily similar to mine. It is a bit rough on the people assigned to chase me up to do those trivial tasks that turn out not to be trivial after all, but otherwise… 🙂

    Sarah · March 11, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I figure that’s a small price to pay :). Doing everything just in case it turns out to be non-trivial is a terrible model.

Chris Betcher · March 17, 2012 at 12:39 am

Great advice, I agree with pretty much all of it.

It is amazing just what a non-creative, time-sucking, productivity sink television is. If we all turned off the TV for just a couple of hours a week and did something – anything – in that time, we’d all be better off. Go make something, bake something, walk the dog, read a book, write a blog post, make a phone call… anything will do, and be overall better for you than whatever was on TV during that time.

As someone once said to me, you weren’t put on this earth to watch television. You were put on this earth to BE on television.

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