Scholarship is required for promotion at many academic institutions, and academic physicians have a multitude of competing demands on their time. This article reviews strategies for organizing time, focusing on scholarly tasks, increasing scholarly productivity, and avoiding distractions.
The “To-Do” List
Most successful people plan what they need to accomplish. It has been demonstrated that having a written plan of action increases productivity.1,2 Studies looking at the effect of writing down a list of things to do date back to the 1920s and an Eastern European psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik. The so-called “Zeigarnik Effect” demonstrated that the act of planning activities through “to-do” lists actually reduced executive burden on the brain by freeing the brain from having to worry about unfinished tasks.1 More recent studies confirmed the Zeigarnik Effect by finding that when people were not allowed to finish a warm-up activity, they performed poorly on a subsequent brainstorming activity.2 The implication is that people are more effective when they are able to cross off the first thing on their list. It allows them to go on to the next thing.
There are multiple ways to keep track of things to do. The traditional to-do list is created with a pen and paper. There are also multiple electronic to-do list applications for computers, tablets, or smartphones.3 Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,4 describes a method of setting goals and then prioritizing tasks within those goals. He recommends prioritizing to-do lists into urgent and not urgent, important and not important. For faculty who are writing scholarly papers, breaking down each task into smaller tasks will help make the to-do list more effective. For instance, instead of putting “write paper” on the list, you can itemize each individual component, such as “write introduction” or “make tables.”
Finding a Balance: Learning to Say “No”
Once your to-do list is organized, it is time to focus on the actual tasks you need to do. Since each day has a limited number of hours, it makes sense to spend these hours on important tasks. Using time wisely includes limiting your workload to activities that are directly related to career goals. In doing this, you may be required to say “no” to certain requests for your time.
Saying “no” can be difficult for several reasons. The first reason is the inherent desire to help out colleagues if possible, so the first inclination is to say “yes” to a new request for help. However, saying “yes” to a project, committee, or work group that is not interesting or not aligned with career goals will potentially not allow enough time to complete work that is in your area of interest. Second, being a team player is important and saying “no” may be thought of as selfish, or may jeopardize a relationship (table 1). Finding the right balance between aiding colleagues by saying “yes” to some requests, while also protecting time for your own work, can be challenging.
There are several ways to say “no.”5 Most time management experts recommend never saying “yes” or “no” on the spot.6 It takes practice, but is ultimately very helpful to always say something like, “Thank you so much for asking me. I'm going to look at my other work and see whether I think I can give this project/committee/work group enough time to do a good job.” Another option for junior faculty is to consult their mentors before saying “yes” to a request. Obviously, if a request is exciting and closely related to your area of interest, saying “yes” seems obvious, but consider the request first. Can you negotiate to get something else off your plate so that you have adequate time for the new project? Can you negotiate for administrative support or time away from clinical duties? Even if what you want your answer to be is obvious to you, spend a day or two thinking about it. The trick is to have a clear idea in your head of what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you are required to do. Then, saying “yes” and “no” can be based on that, in conjunction with work responsibilities (box).
Does the request fit with your career goals?
Would the work use your skills?
What is the long-term benefit of this work? Could it lead to other work that is more closely related to your goals?
What is the timing of this work? Does it need to be done within a week, a month, or can it be done more long term when you may have more time?
Can you be involved in part of the work but not all?
Are you able to give up another responsibility in order to take on the new request?
Is the requestor someone who is your supervisor or who can influence your career?
Would saying “no” jeopardize other parts of your job or career goals?
Increasing Productivity by Making Everything Count Twice
Faculty can demonstrate a scholarly approach to patient care and teaching by developing scholarly products based on clinical or educational work. For example, if you enjoy taking care of patients with a specific disease (X), you may collect patient cases and focus your educational material on the presentation, management, and follow-up of patients with disease X. Making your clinical interests into scholarly products may involve using the lectures you have put together on disease X and writing a review article for a specialty journal. You may also involve trainees in developing posters and presentations on different aspects of disease X to present at meetings (table 2).
To be more productive, we need to focus. Multitasking is a misnomer because our brains can really only focus on 1 task at a time. When we think we are doing 3 things at once, our brains actually switch back and forth from task to task. In a 2006 study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to document the activation of different parts of people's brains as they went from one activity to another, only 1 area was activated at a time. The researchers also documented what they called a “bottleneck” at a central area of information processing, which allowed only 1 thought through at a time.11 Other research has shown that it takes 30 to 60 seconds to refocus on 1 task after transferring attention to a second one. The more complex the task (ie, analyzing data or writing an abstract) the longer it takes to refocus. It has been estimated that multitasking can reduce productivity up to 40% and actually decrease intelligence quotients up to 10 points.12
Finding a time to write a paper is challenging when clinical or other standing duties are ever-present. We all struggle with issues or habits that distract us and make us less productive.13,14 It is important to identify the specific causes of procrastination and learn techniques to minimize time spent on unimportant tasks that distract us from pursuing our scholarly work (table 3). Some successful academic physicians designate time each week as writing time, to limit the number of clinical phone calls and interruptions that they receive.8 Faculty members who write regularly are more productive than those who “binge write.”15 Furthermore, avoiding interruptions of academic work by e-mail, Internet searches, or text messages will lead to more focused academic time and increased scholarly productivity.9
Academic faculty are very busy, and often wish for more hours in the day. Developing a plan of action, learning to be efficient, and limiting requests for time that do not align with personal career goals should help faculty members accomplish more in the same amount of time while boosting scholarly productivity.