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  • Cathy G

“Oh but it’s urgent!” Dealing with the demands of others constructively

As a lone researcher with straight-forward linear tasks, diaries, lists and calendar tools may not appeal to you. But as you work in bigger teams, or start to manage others, then your time and tasks will overlap with others’ time and tasks. Add in the complexities of life – illness, weddings, children, time to relax with friends, elderly parents, community contributions, spiritual life etc. et, then the cognitive load of all this can add up to a big pile of stress, due to cognitive overload. You will need better ways of dealing with the load.

Write it down

It is accepted that writing things down reduces cognitive load, which in turn reduces stress. To be more productive you need to do more than write things down, you need to manage and track what you have written, especially if there is a requirement for action.


Write it down so others can see

I have heard people proudly stating that they never plan and never use a diary. I confess that I feel a stab of envy; but when these people are clearly in positions of responsibility and manage people, this turns to a stab of annoyance. Are these the very people that drop tasks on you at the very last moment, claiming urgency? Perhaps you privately get frustrated by people who claim priority on my time and attention because they have failed to manage their time effectively. There are conversations that go like this;

Please can I have your contribution to the paper that I’m writing?

Yes, I’ve got some time on Monday afternoon.

But the deadline is this Friday! I’m sorry, I only found out just now. Can you do it tomorrow?

The common response by the conscientious work is ‘Okay, yes’, (but I’ll have to postpone writing my own paper). The request is clearly urgent and it is part of your job to help your juniors achieve more papers, and you can’t say no to your boss can you?

Unfortunately this culture just perpetuates itself. Why did they only find out just now about the deadline? And why did they think you would say yes to their request for help?

Perhaps they’ve noticed something

·       When a request is expressed as urgent, most people (including you) are more likely to respond with help

·       There was no need to think about deadlines because they always work right up to a deadline; their work is their hobby and they haven’t kissed their kids goodnight ever – work is the most important thing and their family knows it.

·       They looked in your public diary and it was empty

There is an appalling culture in some research teams of disrespecting other people’s time. (Perhaps we are even guilty of doing this ourselves). This especially affects people who have caring responsibilities, (who are disproportionately women and older researchers). It might not matter if you are being asked to drop everything and run that extra gel, finish that section of the funding application, etc. etc. but if that means you’ve missed your turn preparing the family meal again, then it’s a serious issue. Or it might be that meeting with your friends (that keeps you sane), that you feel you have to postpone – it doesn’t have to be morally good; you have a right to a life beyond work.

So what have you noticed about how you communicate your availability and attitude to deadlines; do you respect other people’s time and deadlines?

Your team mates, your students, your boss – none of them are mind readers. In the case above, why was your diary empty when you had planned to use that time to work on your own paper? How do expect people to make calls your time? How do you set boundaries to what is acceptable? What good or bad practices are your juniors picking up from you? Do you wait for things to become urgent before you ask for help?

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound judge-y; work place cultures are powerful and difficult to resist, so what can you do?

Help others to help you to help them

I will often advise new researchers that they should provide information so that others can help them effectively (like putting the name of their department and their contact details in their email signature block). Now that you are managing others, you will have to help them, to help you, to help them. One example of this is effective use of your public diary. I’m not fond of others being able to see my every move, but I recognise that if I don’t protect my time it will be filled with other people’s priorities rather than my own, so some honest headlines of task is important. Caution. I’ve known some colleagues respond to a public diary or calendar by blocking out the entire diary, there-by rendering it useless as a public tool. Sigh! I suspect that this may be in resentful response to sweeping managerialist commands to use official diaries. I get it. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be to leave some blocks publicly viewable. Use generic headings if you want.

Use your diary with other planning tools to break down your long-term goals into medium term tasks and weekly tasks. You don’t have to make details public, just indicative titles. The more realistic your diary and planning is, the more useful the tools become, but like any tool, they need practice. Make sure your time is used for your priorities, and that your team know when they can rely on help without causing stress, or resorting to emotional blackmail.

You might like to watch this 2 min video on spaces in your diary that are not really spaces and the importance of QTFM (watch the video if you’re not able to guess what that means).

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