Big Data

5 time management tips for busy data scientists

Most data scientists have a service mentality, which is great for their team but may not be good for their own stress levels. These time management strategies might help.

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Advanced technology is supposed to make our lives easier, yet for many people, including most data scientists, the opposite is true. It seems like there's a never-ending list of problems to solve and crazy ideas to explore. And although problem solving is fun and challenging, when you throw in unrealistic deadlines and a constantly flowing funnel of new tasks, it can become overwhelming.

I've been coaching analytics for decades on how to keep it all together. Here are my top five tips for managing a busy schedule.

1: Be comfortable saying no

Most data scientists have a service mentality. When any request comes in, your first inclination is to service the request. This is a very good quality; however, everyone has limits.

When you're in high demand (which most data scientists are), it's extremely rare that you have free time to accommodate a random request. When saying no is appropriate, you have to be okay with it. If you say yes to every request, you're educating people that you're willing to take on more tasks; if you communicate no sometimes, you're educating people that you know your limits and boundaries. It may sting at first, but they'll eventually appreciate the feedback.

2: Know how you spend your time

You should always know what you're working on, and how your time is spent. There are three basic categories of activity: processes, projects, and problems.

  • Processes are operational in nature: anything you do on a routine basis, like regular meetings and status reports.
  • Projects are one-time efforts that have a start and an end — even small jobs that may only take a day or two.
  • Problems (in this context) are the unannounced annoyances that crop up during the day.

I suggest keeping a journal where you regularly record timestamped entries. This will give you a sense for how you're spending your day. At the end of every day, review your journal, and make a rough estimate on the hours you spent on each project, process, and problem. Knowing exactly why your plate is full makes it much easier to say no to something new.

3: Hold your manager responsible for your priorities

Your manager is responsible for setting your priorities — do not let them off the hook. In an informal culture, sometimes managers aren't held accountable for resolving conflicting priorities. It's allowed to happen because people don't speak up when their plate is overloaded. Don't let this happen to you.

If you have enough to do, and one more thing is hovering around your plate, before it lands there, you should ask your manager if the new task is more important than anything else on your plate. If it is, the new task should replace an existing task, not overload an already full plate.

4: Get good at estimating your time

Time estimation is crucial if you plan to succeed at managing your busy schedule. Data scientists are notorious for underestimating how long something will take. They'll say something should take no more than a couple of days, when it actually takes a couple of weeks. Habitually overestimating isn't cool either, because no one will trust you.

Getting estimates right isn't that hard. When you get a new task, estimate what the pure work will be (i.e., if you had nothing else to do and no distractions, how long would this take?) and log this number in a notebook. Then, keep track of how long the task actually took to complete.

When you divide the actual duration by the pure work, you get a load factor. Over a short period of time, your load factor should normalize. When estimating a new task, just consider the pure work estimate, and then apply your normalized load factor.

5: Go slow to go fast

The most efficient people I know set aside sacrosanct time each day to plan. I have a daily morning routine that I go through religiously every single workday. I use this time to figure out what will get done, and when it will be worked on. As you may suspect, my calendar doesn't always go as planned, but I rarely miss my highest priority accomplishment for the day. I suggest you do the same.

Pick a time in the morning when you're not expected to be available, and then make sure you're not available. This is your time to ensure the rest of your day goes as smoothly as possible.

Summary

It's nice to be needed, but if you let the requests get out of control, you'll live a life of anxiety and disappointment. Teach people how to treat you by saying no when appropriate and speaking up when you have too much to do. Get a good handle for how your time is being spent, and whether it makes sense for you to take on something new.

Workload anxiety is self-inflicted pain. I'm sure you have enough to endure, without causing yourself undue stress.

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About John Weathington

John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom.

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