WHAT'S A SMARTCUT?

Everyone has probably heard the saying “You have to spend money to make money”. After all, examples of this are all around us. You invest in an education to learn the skills you need for a career. You might take out a loan or buy specialist equipment to start a business. Or perhaps you purchase stocks and shares to earn dividends.

Yet despite time being our most precious commodity, we tend to overlook the fact that we often need to spend time to make time. What do I mean by this?

Well, you can’t create more time simply by hustling. Working harder, working faster, and trying to cram more into the day just isn’t going to cut it.

Instead, it’s that old cliché of working smarter. Sometimes this means prioritising our workload to only focus on the tasks that will have the biggest impact, setting other things aside until later (or putting them down entirely). Other times, it may be intentionally planning to match our energy levels to the task at hand: if we know we get drowsy after lunch, this may be a bad time to work on an important paper, but perfect for a walking meeting.

Or the situation may call for a smartcut: investing a little time and energy now to reap the benefits down the road. Unlike a shortcut, there is no cutting corners or focusing only on short-term gains: smartcuts are all about long-term, sustainable success.

For example, maybe you spend five hours at a training session, then an hour implementing what you learned into your workflow. You might have initially felt you couldn’t afford six hours away from work, but what if it saves you six hours a year—or more—for the next 20 years of your career?

Or maybe you grab a coffee with someone and pick their brain about a problem you’re dealing with. They’ve been there, done that, and have made mistakes along the way: they’re happy to share with you what they would have done differently. That thirty-minute coffee break just saved you weeks of head-scratching and potential stress.

Although there are no shortcuts to academic success, researchers and academics can harness the power of smartcuts to make things a little easier for themselves:

Read (don’t skim) the instructions

This is perhaps the simplest of all smartcuts, but the one that is overlooked the most often. Ensuring that you have a good grasp on whatever you’re doing—grant proposal, conference submission, job application—saves time and effort in the long run because you don’t need to re-do it. It might also boost your chances of success if others haven’t bothered to take the guidance into account.

Recognise what you can control

This is probably one of the most challenging smartcuts to implement: what is actually within your power to do something about? We often spend time and energy worrying about things that are completely beyond our ability to impact. For example, we cannot control the outcome of that grant proposal, conference submission, or job application … but we can control the process we choose follow to complete it. And sometimes we can control more than we think: we just need to take a step back to consider where we can find a bit of leverage.

Plan

Productivity guru Brian Tracy wrote that every minute spent planning saves ten minutes of work. I don’t know where he got the statistic (I certainly don’t recall reading a citation!), but I’ve found that taking the time to plan can help accomplish two things. First, just starting a project can help mitigate the bane of academia: procrastination. Second, planning allows us to create the path we’re going to follow, identify potential obstacles in advance, and feel confident we will end up close to where we want to be. Meanwhile, skipping the plan and jumping straight into a large project is like having to hack our way through a jungle with a machete: it takes a lot of energy and you’re never certain you’re heading in the right direction.

Use the right tools

Beyond lab equipment or consumables, there are a lot of available tools to streamline the work process. Need to arrange a meeting with multiple people? Send a Doodle poll instead of having emails flying back and forth. Want to avoid distractions and focus on your work? Get an internet blocker and/or pomodoro timer. Do you plan better when using lists? Check out Workflowy. Like to see all of your tasks at once? Give Trello a go. If there is something you do on a regular basis, can you automate it? Taking a little time now to look at our daily activities and figuring out where a tool would be beneficial can save a lot of time over the course of months and years.

Build positive habits

In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg highlights that nearly 40% of the actions we perform each day are habits. This allows the brain to save valuable energy because tasks are done on autopilot. Once you find the tools that work for you, the challenging part is then to use them consistently: help them become second nature and avoid slipping back to the default. Identify where you can link new habits to existing ones to give yourself the best chance of success.

Training

In many ways, training is simply another tool to help you get ahead. What skills do you really want to master: Writing a journal article? Presenting? Delivering research via television or radio? Whatever it is, there is bound to be a training course available that will give you the foundation you need to succeed. Just make sure you have a plan in place to implement what you learned once the course is over!

Listen to others

Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have written, “Learn from the mistakes of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Speaking to someone who can tell you in advance about the obstacles and pitfalls you may be facing is a great way to figure out how you’re going to get around them.

Ask for help

It is incredibly common in academia to think we have to do everything ourselves. But instead of demonstrating independence and self-reliance, this is typically a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. In turn, this means that we cannot produce our best work. Consider how the other smartcuts can be used: ask others for advice or consider a training course that can make a challenging task seem less daunting. Use your network for support. Don’t have a network? It’s never too late (or early) in your academic career to start to build one.

Get out of your head

I have found that many researchers have a tendency to keep ideas in their head. I think it’s viewed as less serious than writing things down, but the act of doing—putting pen to paper, typing up random thoughts, or running voice notes through transcription software—is what allows you to stop going around in circles. Instead, you can see your thoughts more clearly and start to refine them.

Get out of your own way

Finally, many of the speedbumps we encounter along the way are actually caused by us. We often tell ourselves the same story so many times that we believe it, even if it’s not true: “I can’t ask for help.”, “I can’t make any mistakes.”, “My work must be perfect.” Recognising when we’re holding ourselves back because of a false belief can not only free up time, but also help reduce stress levels and remove our self-imposed blinders. What opportunities might we see when we’re not so focused on these limiting beliefs?