Self-management skills are important for researchers at all levels of their careers. They often must juggle time between research, teaching, outreach - and their own personal lives. No matter your career level, here are some important tips and advice to succeed at balancing your many demands.
What is self-management, anyway?
Self-management is defined as “the ability to consciously manage thoughts, behaviors and emotions productively” (2). Self-management is also related to emotional intelligence, self regulation and self-awareness (2).
How self-management skills can help you
Self-management skills help individuals follow through on work, set achievable goals, and maintain calmness under pressure. An individual demonstrates effective self-management skills through their reliability, trustworthiness, adaptability, conscientiousness and ability to manage both time and stress.
Why self-management skills are important for researchers
Research careers comprise the pursuit of knowledge (1) and typically involve collaborations with other researchers and meaningful contributions to science and society. Researchers often follow self-directed career paths with high workloads (1).
Career demands vary greatly from early-career researchers to mid- and late-career researchers. No matter your career level, self-management skills are crucial for researchers. It helps them become successful and effective in their careers.
Early career researchers are typically working at the sub-tenure level. They are under pressure to avoid underpowered studies, perform reproducible studies, and maintain high methodological standards (1). They are also working toward tenure and managing teaching and advisory responsibilities.
Mid- and late-career researchers
Mid- and late-career researchers, on the other hand, have significant experience and are often leaders in their fields. They are usually tenured and have more flexibility with their career and more time than less experienced researchers.
Important self-management attributes of successful researchers
Commitment to research
Researchers are naturally curious. They are driven to seek knowledge, as well as answers to complicated problems. They usually require no external source to drive their commitment to their research (4). A strong commitment to research is a core characteristic underpinning the work of successful researchers.
Self-motivation is the ability to take initiative and finish important tasks. Researchers can anticipate and plan for tasks required to complete significant assignments or solve ongoing problems.
Self-motivated researchers are internally driven by their interests and desire to achieve. Thus, they are often more productive and more successful at achieving their goals.
Prioritization, organization and preparation
Important tasks and activities as well as achieving goals in research require minimal distraction and a strong ability to focus (4). Researchers define and prioritize the most important responsibilities and focus on these; they also minimize distractions.
Researchers develop organizational systems, wherein they find effective ways to manage their time, streamline daily activities and keep important information and items handy.
Finally, they prepare for tasks at hand. They arrive at meetings, classes and presentations early. They plan for the next day before leaving for the day. And they assess projects early. Additionally, because multitasking negatively impacts performance efficiency and quality of work (4), successful researchers often focus on one task at a time.
Strong time management skills allow researchers to prioritize tasks, avoid distractions, and maintain focus. These skills are helpful for setting and meeting deadlines, working on one task at a time, and appropriately delegating responsibilities (1).
Those with time management skills optimize their work by considering new or different ways to get a task completed, like writing research using the buddy system.
Time management is also important for setting and achieving goals. Researchers are typically working on goals related to research, writing and teaching. Thus, managing time well can aid in a researcher’s success. For more information on goal setting, please see the AJE article, “Goal Setting for Professors of All Levels”.
Adaptability, responsiveness to change and flexibility
Researchers deal with tight budgets, changing university or workplace policies, student needs, family obligations and more. Even with proper and careful planning and preparation, unexpected changes and challenges often crop up.
The ability to adapt, respond positively to change and be flexible are necessary for success as a researcher.
Self care, stress management, and work-life balance
Self care and stress reduction can include a healthy diet, an exercise regime and proactive engagement in activities, such as hobbies, meditation or yoga. Management of stress allows a researcher to remain calm, particularly under pressure, as well as manage emotions and maintain professionality.
Burnout, characterized by overwhelming fatigue and lack of motivation, may arise for some researchers due to long hours of intense focus and mental activity over several weeks or months of work (3).
Solving hard problems and completing difficult tasks comprise some of the most rewarding moments in a researcher’s career (4). But hard tasks are hard, which can result in stress and anxiety due to the weight of the problem and any related frustrations (4).
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance, self care and stress management are key to avoiding burnout and alleviating anxiety related to difficult tasks.
How to improve your self-management skills
Here are some key items to note as you work to improve your self-management skills:
Know thyself. Know who you are and are not. Work within your particular set of strengths.
Keep your promise. Do what you say you’ll do, which creates trust. Additionally, be careful what you say yes to.
Plan strategically. Know what needs to be done and the steps you are going to take to get there.
Set priorities. Determine the tasks that need to be completed first and work on them before other tasks.
Be self-aware. Assess your thoughts and feelings to control your behaviors and regulate emotions, which impacts performance and how you are perceived by others.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your physical, mental and emotional health, know your boundaries, maintain a good work-life balance and take breaks as needed.
Avoid multitasking. Focus your attention on one task at a time.
Be persistent. Repetition is key in changing behaviors. Your persistence will ensure you keep practicing those behaviors that will improve your self-management skills.
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- (1) Natalia Z. Bielczyk, Ayaka Ando, AmanPreet Badhwar, Chiara Caldinelli, Mengxia Gao, Amelie Haugg, Leanna M. Hernandez, Kaori L. Ito, Dan Kessler, Dan Lurie, Meena M. Makary, Aki Nikolaidis, Michele Veldsman, Christopher Allen, Adriana Bankston, Katherine L. Bottenhorn, Ricarda Braukmann, Vince Calhoun, Veronika Cheplygina, Catarina Costa Boffino, Ece Ercan, Karolina Finc, Heidi Foo, Ali Khatibi, Christian La, David M.A. Mehler, Sridar Narayanan, Russell A. Poldrack, Pradeep Reddy Raamana, Taylor Salo, Claire Godard-Sebillotte, Lucina Q. Uddin, Davide Valeriani, Sofie L. Valk, Courtney C. Walton, Phillip G.D. Ward, Julio A. Yanes, Xinqi Zhou. Effective Self-Management for Early Career Researchers in the Natural and Life Sciences. Neuron 106:2, pp. 212-217. April 2020. ISSN 0896-6273. doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2020.03.015.
- (2) Munro, Ian. Why self-management is key to success and how to improve yours. BetterUp. February 2021. www.betterup.com/blog/what-is-self-management-and-how-can-you-improve-it.
- (3) Powell, Kendall. Work–life balance: Break or burn out. Nature 545, pp. 375–377. May 2017. doi.org/10.1038/nj7654-375a.
- (4) Badre, David. Tips from neuroscience to keep you focused on hard tasks. Nature, Career Column. March 2021. www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00606-x.