Senior Manager Time vs Researcher Time

Once many moons ago I talked about maker time vs manager time. I’ve also talked a lot, A LOT, about productivity and time and task management. I’ve been both a maker and a manager for years now, and I always try to take my own advice, so I was pretty happy about how well I was balancing those elements of my work and still getting things done.

And then I became a senior manager and my diary went wild. I’m going to talk about what it’s like here, both so you can more effectively work with the senior managers in your team (maybe your supervisor, or a significant administrator), but also so you can have an insight into what it’s like to be a senior manager before you make that step on your own career trajectory.

When I was a PhD student, I had a remarkable amount of autonomy about how I planned my day. Especially when I was in an intensive research or writing mode, I could start when I wanted, sleep when I wanted, and as long as I got the work done in a timely manner, everyone was happy for me to get on with it. I had some big fixed points, like teaching and meetings with my supervisor, but as long as I was present for those, I was all set.

When writing was part of my job, I could plan writing days or go along to sessions like Shut Up and Write. Sometimes I’d have to plan to do other work in my preferred writing times, but I was making the decisions and I usually had some warning about it unless I absolutely needed to jump on an urgent situation.

When writing wasn’t part of my job, I had to be intentional and creative about carving out spaces where I could write, but the strategies that worked for me were predictable. I often stayed back from 5 to 6pm, or would give myself an hour or two over the weekend to put work into my research. I could plan ahead and know that these were going to be times my job wouldn’t need me, so I’d usually be free to read and write and think.

Sometimes my diary has been about being available to other people, like an afternoon of student consultations. This might be a bit chaotic, because people would run late, or cancel at the last minute, and then someone else would want to be squeezed in also at the last minute. But the space in my diary for ‘student consultations’ was all being used for student consultations, and if I had any gaps I could use it for email or writing or anything else as I thought best.

Sometimes I’ve needed to be flexible and have a plan that would work some weeks and not others. But I would usually be able to guesstimate what the week would look like based on the typical pattern of the week or the time of semester I was in, like Orientation or Exam time.

Now I am a senior manager, my diary is a complete mess, and I have very little control over it. And I’ve heard from other senior managers, as well as my wider observations, that this is typical. Other people are always dumping very important, very long, and very last minute meetings into my diary. More senior managers than me have even less control and advance notice than I do, so they keep having to reschedule, too. So then I have to reschedule all my other meetings … and that’s why I have to move my meeting with you. Sorry. My diary always looks super manageable in two week’s time, but by the time I get to this week, my diary is always a congested tangle.

I don’t yet understand why people at the top have the worst diaries. I don’t yet have any solutions for how to fix the whirlwind of senior management meetings. But I do have some tips about how to work with a senior manager who has this kind of diary maelstrom.

  1. Know that it’s not a personal slight, and it’s not intended to send you any coded messages. If they reschedule ‘because a major meeting has just been dropped into my diary, so sorry’, that’s a totally neutral and normal statement.
  2. Don’t assume that the person who has to keep rescheduling is badly organised. The institution is the mess. This will mean, though, that senior managers who struggle with organisation anyway will be impacted even more severely.
  3. Plan ahead a couple of other options that would work for you, especially when you have a tight deadline. You will typically have more autonomy over your diary than the senior manager, so block out some earlier and later slots to be able to accomodate last-minute changes.
  4. If the senior manager has a PA, get to know them! PAs are generally friendly people who care about connecting people. If they know you, understand why your project and meetings are important, and you are a nice person, they will often go above and beyond to find a new time for you in the busy senior manager’s diary.
  5. Don’t give up. It might be much more work to set up and keep a meeting with a senior manager who has to keep rescheduling, but the worst thing you could do is wait until they are less busy. Senior managers are never less busy, but they are willing to make time for you (it might just not be the one you first agreed!)

Diary management is currently one of the most frustrating parts of my new job, so it’s okay if you have negative feelings about other people’s difficult diaries. Acknowledge those feelings, and then learn to ride the bumpy waves so we can do the stuff that really matters: getting that thesis out into the world to change the world for the better.

In the future, I may have an insight into how to fix university bureaucracy. Until then, bear with me, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond is published

It’s publication week for Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond: How to Cultivate a Strong and Sustainable Writing Practice for Life. It’s available as a paperback and ebook on all the big book websites, and via the publisher. As with all my books, I’m delighted if you buy a copy but also delighted if you recommend it to your university library so you get to read it and so does everyone else.

I had the best time writing this book, and the pre-readers have given such warm and delightful feedback. My series editor described the book as ‘your best friend’; ‘it’s personable, relatable, oozing with strategies.. It simply is a gift’. The peer reviewers said things like: it’s ‘calming and supportive’, ‘a useful review and re-thinking of the writing process’ that ‘gives permission’ for you to write, containing a ‘sprinkling of humour’ but also ‘addictively practical’.

Read More

What I learned from tracking my writing for a year

Back in 2021, I tracked my writing for a year. I kept a done diary for 6 months (as I’ve previously written about on the blog), but I also met up every month with an old co-author and we each wrote a little report on what we’d been doing: what was growing in the garden, what we were eating, what was going on in the world, what we were doing to move, what we were reading, but also what we were doing to progress our next writing project.

Read More

Towards a theory of University ‘excellence’

Universities like to say they are ‘excellent’. It’s a buzz word, and when you’ve been around campuses for a while, you realise it’s an adjective that’s applied to absolutely everything, so it kind of ends up meaning nothing. But when we look around universities, we see lots of ways they aren’t great. But recently I worked with another major partner in the global higher education industry (who is not a university) and it helped me see why ‘excellence’ discourse is good, actually.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts

%d bloggers like this: