October 9, 2020

How I manage my time and stay organised as a data scientist

As a data scientist, my work has many layers. I need to keep track of project requirements, demands from stakeholders, code development and new ideas I have that I want to try out. On top of this, I would also like to stay on top of new things I want to learn.

It's easy to see why if you don’t have a plan that works for you, things might get out of hand. Luckily, my boyfriend is a productivity teacher. I get a lot of advice and support from him when it comes to setting up a working structure that fits my needs.

At first, I thought it would be too much work to set things up. Though I have to admit, now it saves me so much time to not spend hours trying to figure out what I should work on next or be miserable feeling lost and confused mid-development. I suggest you set up a system that works for you and stick with it. In hopes of inspiring you and showing you some alternatives, here is how I stay organised and manage my time.

I make sure that I can see all upcoming events on a single calendar. This includes my work events, personal appointments and calls I have for So you want to be a data scientist?, meetings, doctor appointment. Basically, anything that makes me physically or mentally occupied. Seeing it all in one place helps me understand how much productive time I have in a day to do focused work. And that helps with setting my expectations for each day.

It also helps me divide my day into different contexts as I will explain more with context-switching.

I use a task manager to keep track of everything I want to do and all my projects that are in different parts of my life. The task manager I use is called Things. 

This could be a very personal thing of course. As I said my boyfriend is a productivity teacher so I was able to get his help on setting up the best system for me. You can find out his advice on his YouTube channel.

On the task manager, I have my projects written down. These don't have to be work projects only. Filing taxes, applying for a residence permit or create a sales page for my new course are all projects. I write down everything I need to do in order to complete that project, assign a deadline if necessary and thus have everything I need to do documented in one place.

This way I always know what my outstanding tasks and responsibilities are.

I review my tasks once in a while (ideally every week) to see how much I progressed, what I haven’t solved yet and what I can already wrap-up. I use this time to reflect and to plan for the coming days. This way when I start a new day, I already know more or less what needs to be done.

I block hours of time to focus. Because when working with other people it is possible to get interrupted with meetings or with casual chats. I guess it’s a bit less so now that everyone is working from home but there is still the danger of getting sucked into your phone.

For this, I make sure to block time on my calendar where I’ll be offline and will be working on my main tasks. This includes setting my computer to do not disturb, quitting all the applications that might pop any notifications, putting my phone away and putting on noise-cancelling headphones.

You’d be surprised to see how much you can get done with just 2 hours of uninterrupted work every day.

I try to be mindful of not overloading myself. We all have dreams and aspirations and we all want to get to them quickly. But I figured that it’s better to be smart about planning my time than to try to get every last drop of productivity out of myself. I realised through the years that pushing myself too hard comes with consequences. First of all, I become too stressed chasing the deadlines I created for myself, secondly, I start resenting my work for taking all my time and not having any time to spend on myself or to just relax. Then it is only a matter of time before I start missing deadlines and things get out of hand. 

One solution I found is to give myself relaxed timeframes. If I know a task is going to take at least 2 hours, I do not assign it to a 2-hour time slot. I assign it to a 3 or even 4-hour time slot. And if at the end of the day I still have time or energy to work on something else, I can always take it on. And that brings me to my next point.

I'm aware that it’s not only a matter of time, it’s also a matter of energy. Just because you have more time during the day, doesn't mean that you should spend it working. Sometimes things might be too chaotic, there might be personal troubles like a loved one needing you or happy things to deal with like maybe you fell in love. No matter how big or little, I realised everything around me requires some energy from me throughout the day. I make sure to be aware of how much energy I can spare to work on my tasks for the day. This helps me decide how to plan my days; more packed or more flexible as I see fit... 

I plan my days to require as little context-switching as possible. This is one of the key things that keep me productive on my most busy workdays. Context-switching is changing the domain of the task you work on. This could be working on Project A or Project B at work. It can also be the difference between doing work-related things and dealing with personal admin sort of things.

I realised for me this takes significant time and energy. I often find myself needing a breather between working in two different contexts. That’s why I try to limit how many times I need to switch contexts during the day while I’m planning my day. 

Looking at my calendar, if I have a meeting related to Project A in the morning, I dedicate my morning to thinking and doing tasks related to Project A for as long as I need/can. And if in the afternoon I need to deliver something I make sure to dedicate the hours around that time to that certain project.

I document my thoughts and keep it organised. As I said at the beginning of this article, a data science project comes with a lot of layers. It’s not only my code and the coding tasks that I need to keep an eye on. I also need to keep track of the new ideas I come up with during the development, requirements on the project and many other things.

For this, I make sure to create notes with easy-to-find names on my note-taking app if the project is a somewhat smaller scale. If it’s a bigger project with multiple client meetings and various stakeholders, I create a dedicated folder, keep all my related documents there. And once in a while, I make sure to take time to stay on top of the organisation of this folder. It feels counterintuitive to stop the momentum you have to organise your notes and files but I think on the long run it helps me be more productive and progress faster.

I also keep a notepad or a note app at hand to jot down any new ideas that I have. Though it’s harder to stop and take notes while coding so one workaround I found was to leave notes on the (Jupyter) notebook I’m working on. I use keywords I came up with such as #ATTENTION or #TODO to note down things that I can’t do or think about now but I want to as a next step.

Staying organised and being productive does not have to be challenging. The main things I go for are being nice to myself, being aware of my limits and taking time to think carefully about my plan. Hope the things I mentioned in this article give you some idea about how to approach your productivity challenges.