Time. It is an elusive and fickle beast. We all need more of it, and it never fails that the moment you think you have a breather, you’re sitting in your office at the end of the day, scratching your head and wondering where on earth the hours went. Time management is a surprisingly difficult skill to master, but even gradual improvement in your time management skills can pay enormous dividends once you get in a groove and apply a relatively simple and powerful method commonly known as the critical path method.
Consider all the things that need to get done over the next day, week, or month. It’s a lot, isn’t it? The first step in this method is to examine their connections. Which task needs top priority? How are the tasks connected or related? Which tasks are dependent on the completion of another? By answering these questions, you will learn to quickly assemble the critical path necessary to guide you through the swampy marshes of despair to the promised land of productivity.
In graduate school, there were times I felt insurmountable pressure; between the innumerable and ceaseless experiments, a full schedule of teaching appointments, daily tutoring sessions, and my own course load, there was so much to do that it was difficult to figure out where to even start. Left out of check, I would have dug a hole so deep that my friends, family, and roommates would have been a distant memory. After a quick tour through the aforementioned swamplands of despair, I quickly realized success was a few minutes of organization away. There were instances where I could set up several experiments in parallel while some experiments had to occur in a specific order, so I quickly planned out an experimentation plan that followed a simplified critical path. While those reactions proceeded to run, I utilized that same time to clean up glassware, navigate the library in pursuit of an obscure Russian journal article, and set up meetings with mentors to discuss life and the pursuit of chemistry. The few minutes I had invested into prioritizing and organizing had paid me back exponentially.
A few minutes of my focused attention up front revealed that each and every task, experiment, and activity had an inherent set of dependencies. While others demanded completion in a consecutive series, others could be accomplished in parallel time or in an order that made sense to my critical path of actions. This simple methodology helped me power through many tough days and, ultimately, allowed me to truly enjoy my graduate school experience while accomplishing vital work in a timely and efficient manner.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself drowning, again, within the dark murky waters of “new hire” life within corporate R&D. I wanted to use the same methodology that worked in the past, but would it work this time? Everything was different: tighter timelines, higher pressure projects, foreign procurement protocols….. And, call me crazy, but I truly hoped to have a life now that my graduate school training was over. By analyzing, understanding, and implementing a critical path methodology, I established a professional cadence that quickly built momentum early on in my career. I identified where “free time” existed within my normal workload, and subsequently found time to participate in extracurricular activities ranging from professional networking to investigating scientific curiosities that could bring additional value to my company.
I continue using this process to this day, as it allows me to balance the demands of my professional career with my desire to spend ample quality time with my family and participate in volunteer organizations like the ACS. I truly believe that this approach has paid for itself by “creating time” that I would not have had without it.
In life, you may be overwhelmed by the vast amount of work set upon you. I believe that with a disciplined application of the critical path method, almost all people break out of the debilitating shackles of improper time management and empower themselves to reach their full potential. So what are you waiting for…the clock is ticking!