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Time Management for User Researchers: Tips for Sanity, Productivity, and Impact

Here's an approach for dividing and defending your time while wearing the many "hats" of user research. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

When I started as a user researcher, I was star-struck. I held a hall pass for a variety of meetings:

  • Daily stand-ups? Check.
  • Roadmap planning? Yup.
  • Design critiques? There!
  • Marketing & copy strategy? Absolutely!
  • Company strategy? A hundred percent!

I could dip my toes (and fingers) across an organization and extend my impact as far as it would go. I felt important. I used my voice to represent the customer in so many different instances. I helped teams make better and more informed decisions during sprint planning and even quarterly roadmap planning. I even had a seat at the table when it came to company strategy and pitching personas and journey maps as an integral next step.

Being involved in these meetings was empowering, but I quickly realized the downside of “being involved.” I barely had any time to do research. I started to schedule research sessions after or before work hours, ate lunch during meetings, jogged between meeting rooms (quite amusing for others to watch), and managed to do some heads-down work on the subway.

Despite my attempts to squeeze everything in, I failed. The juggling act fell apart and was not sustainable in the long-run. I had to pick-and-choose which meetings were necessary, which meant I had to take a step back from knowing everything about everything. I had a serious case of FOMO, but I knew it was impossible to keep going at that rate—which would lead to burnout.

The funny thing is, I still do this. At every new job I join, I dive headfirst into multiple activities and areas of impact. I get so excited that I seem to forget the painful memories of being overwhelmed. Since moving to a remote setting, which has compounded meetings and screen time, I have set up strategies to divide and defend my time more closely, making me happier and more productive.

Dividing your time: What is most important?

At first, knowing everything was essential to me. I wanted to be a part of every meeting, hear information first-hand, and be a part of each decision-making process. However, that quickly became impossible. Unless I figured out a way to time-travel or create clones of myself, I would not sustain the “seven-meetings-a-day” lifestyle.

Instead, I set out to understand what was most important to me for each week and what I would tackle. Here is the approach I now use to get through each week:

  • Have a weekly objective. The Friday before each week, I set a weekly goal. I ask myself, "what is the most important work I need to get done next week?" Once I answer that, I write that down as my weekly objective and spend most heads down time on that goal.
  • Make a weekly list. Once I create that goal, I break down the tasks I need to do during the week to achieve that larger objective. I like to split my days into themes. For example, if my larger objective is to create a report, I will block off which days I can do deep work on this report, and then each day will have a theme, such as "coding the research," "creating the content," and "designing the report." That way, I can look at my day and know exactly what I should do during work time.
  • Set up your calendar. With this in mind, I create my schedule for the next week. I put in whatever blocks I need for the following week and review any meetings I'm invited to. At this point, I put in my heads down time wherever I can and include what I will be doing during that time. For example, I will put a block of two hours and in the title say "heads down time - creating report content." If I put the work I am doing in the title, people are less likely to book over it.
  • Determine your work clock. I am a morning person, so my brain works best and is most awake and creative in the morning. If I start my day with many meetings, checking email, or doing more admin work, my brain shuts down, and I become unproductive. Learn your body's natural rhythm of work and work with it. For example, I try to do deep work in the morning, take a break for lunch, have meetings in the afternoon, and end with admin work.
  • Turn off notifications. I turn off all my notifications during deep work, including my work chat and any messages I can get from friends. I also close the window with my email and put my phone on charge (usually in a different room). The only window I have open is the one that I am working on.
  • Use breaks to switch. If you have a few things to tackle in a day filled with deep work, consider using breaks to change topics. I find it very difficult to go from one big task to a completely different one without a break in between. Instead, finish the task you are doing, take a 15-30 minute mental break, and then dive into another task. By the way, a break does not mean checking email or catching up on admin work; it means stepping away from your computer!
  • Have open office hours. To mitigate spreading meetings across the week, I hold open office hours for my colleagues to come to me with any research questions or concerns. I like to have these in the afternoon because, if no one comes, I can usually do some admin work during these hours.

Keeping time for yourself

In a world where there are many meetings and extra work that we can do, it's hard to keep time for yourself. But, if you want to be happy and grow, you have to be in control of your calendar and protect your time. Here are some ways I make sure to carve out time for myself:

  • Book mental breaks. Even just 15 minutes away from your computer can help regenerate your mind! Take a few deep breaths, make a cup of tea, meditate, go for a walk, do jumping jacks--anything that takes your mind away from work.
  • Have lunch away from screens. I am guilty of this, but try to have a proper lunch away from screens and checking emails. It gives your brain a chance to reboot and also re-energizes you for your tasks after lunch. If I eat lunch away from all my screens (including my personal emails, messages, etc.), I am so much more productive during the day.
  • Talk to your team about having shared heads down or no meeting days. If there is a systemic problem with booking heads down time and you are consistently unable to, talk to your team or manager about this. I know a few teams who all agree to have heads down time during specific slots. Usually, they have one space for morning people and another for afternoon/evening people.
  • Make time for personal development. Yes, you should be learning as you do your job, but personal development can also come in the form of reading articles and books, going to conferences, or taking the time to be creative with your craft. I always encourage myself and others to take about two or three hours a week to learn.
  • Take time off. I sometimes hoard my vacation days, but that can mean I don't get a break for quite a long time. If I don't recharge (and the weekend is often not enough), my productivity and happiness greatly suffer. I have started spacing out my vacation days more and being okay with taking a three- or four-day weekend instead of trying to take an entire two weeks off at once.
  • Let the day be over. In the world of remote working, it can be hard to switch off. Make sure to have a distinct end to your day. For example, I end work at about 5:30 pm, when I shut down my work computer, light a candle to relax, and close my eyes for five minutes. This ritual is my equivalent of commuting and separating from my workday.

One hack that I can no longer live without is auto-decline on Google Calendar. I make all my heads down blocks, lunches, and mental breaks auto-decline any meetings that get booked over them. At first, I was nervous about doing this, but I knew how important it was for my productivity and sanity.

Thoughts on "priorities"

I never understood why priorities became plural. Why do we have to have so many priorities? Karen Martin once said, "When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority." Think about this for a minute. How often do you hear, "what are our top priorities? What priorities should we focus on?" I'd reckon you hear that quite often.

When we focus on too many priorities at once, we get nothing done. We context-switch to the point that we can't delve into any one aspect of work. I used to (and sometimes still do) context-switch more than five or six times a day. I got nothing done, was firefighting all the time, and felt like the dog in the "This is fine" meme.

Now I have one priority per week. This priority consists of the one main objective I need to get done that week. I then break that into smaller tasks. That way, if I have some free time in between meetings, I don't have to make a big decision on what needs to get done. Instead, I can look at my objective and lists of tasks and pick one.

Although it requires some planning and forethought, going through this process has enabled me to be a more productive employee, a better manager, and all-around a happier person. With this structure in place, I can do my full-time job, run a business on the side, and enjoy my (although limited) free time.

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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