1. Introduction

Time management is a never-ending topic, and while there are lots of articles on the internet focusing on work-life balance, early career professionals (ECPs) seem to have some unique challenges in comparison to their more established counterparts, this is further amplified when an ECP works in a start-up environment.

To my fellow ECPs, sometimes we are labelled as the millennials, Gen Z or the ‘slash’ generation who are passionate about creating an impact on the global scale outside of our jobs. We are not satisfied by the traditional scope of work (the full-time job) and life (family, friends and hobbies); we are also interested in building communities and creating a cultural change towards a more inclusive world around us, while continuing to develop ourselves personally and professionally to advance and/or future-proof our career. 

Taking myself as an example, on top of my full-time job at Baraja, I am the secretary of the Baraja Culture Council, a member of two SPIE governance committees, as well as a co-organizer of the Sydney Photonics Industry Network. These involve attending regular meetings (some of them at very inconvenient hours), meeting agenda planning and event organization. To work on my professional development, I attend conferences and online courses, read research articles and other technical materials, and catch up on the latest industry news on a regular basis. For my personal development, I read books and articles, and listen to podcasts on topics such as emotional intelligence, vulnerability, and sexism and racism in the scientific world. Meanwhile, for my career development, I go for topics on leadership, and start-up and workplace challenges. On top of all these, I take on interesting side research projects from work that can further fuel my curiosity about our products that are outside my work scope.

Not all the above fits into the traditional ‘work’ or ‘life’ scope. In fact, my ‘life’ scope can be described in two sentences: my hobbies include hiking and weightlifting, and I have a husband and a house to look after as well. My parents and siblings are overseas and so I catch up with them mostly online currently since international travel is still not fully back to normal.

I used to be able to handle all of this quite well before joining a start-up because of the true nine-to-five nature of my previous corporate job. However, after moving to Baraja, the vastly different pace of start-up life, the dramatic increase in personal responsibility and ownership on work meant something needed to be compromised, namely most of my readings, fitness routine, my share of the housework and my mental health.

After almost two years at Baraja, I think I’ve finally got the hang of it again. My time management process and methods have become more efficient and sustainable, so in this article I would like to share my lessons learned and ideas to go forward.

2. Self-awareness

Work-life balance is not about how many hours we put into our work or non-work life, but how we distribute our attention to the different parts of our life in a way that is most satisfying to us. For example, some people would rather spend most of their time trying to solve a work problem that they are interested in as they find it fulfilling, while others would prefer to invest their non-work hours in sports and their social life as mental relaxation. Therefore, I believe that having self-awareness is the first and most important step to a satisfying work-life balance. By understanding the way we work, like understanding how a machine/program works, means we can actively put ourselves into situations that make us most productive and happy. 

2.1. Set priorities

To be more self-aware, there are a few things I recommend. First, we should create and understand our personal mission statement: ask yourself what are your inner values and how do you want to live your live? After having the high-level core values and goals in front of us, we can start setting our priorities.

One piece of advice I read on prioritizing our goals was to do the following exercise in these steps:

  1. Write down the top 25 goals you have (it’s hard but do it).
  2. Circle the top five.
  3. Now, stay away from the 20 not circled as much as you can and focus on the top five.

Often we try to do a lot of things, but if we distribute our efforts across all of them, we will likely lose focus and perhaps partially achieve most of them instead of fully achieving any of them.

We could also do something similar for some of the smaller or shorter-term goals that fall under the high-level goals, or for each life section, such as family, friends, hobbies, work, community service, etc.

Once we have the priorities set, every time we are overwhelmed and want to do everything, we go back to the list and do what’s most important with the limited time we have. We often confuse urgency and importance; something that is urgent isn’t necessarily important, so we should also be mindful when we get overwhelmed with deadlines. The book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, describes this concept and uses a time management matrix to illustrate how to prioritize tasks [1]. I have put the matrix into practice since reading about it during my Ph.D. and it has helped me many times throughout my career, so I highly recommend this book for everyone.

2.2. Energy management

After getting clear on our goals, the next thing is to understand when and how we work best. Some of us are early people and have to switch off after 5pm, while some of us think most clearly and are most energetic when the sun has set whilst needing to live on coffee before lunch.

By understanding what time of the day we work best for different kinds of tasks and what kind of activities generate energy for us or burn our energy fast, we can try to plan our day accordingly to make it more energy efficient. We should try to do the most brain draining tasks when we have the most energy and can focus well. For example, if you focus best early in the morning, then instead of checking emails first thing when you get into work, you could spend the first half of the morning tackling the most difficult task for the day before you get distracted by emails. Similarly, if you tend to get food coma after lunch, go for a walk or catch up with colleagues on the less attention-demanding tasks so you can remain productive during your less focused hours. On the other hand, if you are an introvert like me, where talking to people or having a simple discussion can also be very energy draining, you could try to schedule meetings and these conversations in the late morning so you can then spend the lunch hour recovering while not interfering with your solo focus time. Alternatively, if exercising energizes you and you tend to have low energy after lunch, then perhaps going for a jog or playing a social sport game during lunch could bring your energy level up again for the afternoon. The blog article, Why Energy Management is Greater Than Time Management by James Tynan, details how to manage energy better and steps to identify the suitable style for each of us [2].

We cannot talk about energy management without talking about sleep and physical exercise. Having enough sleep will improve learning, mood and energy levels [3], so it’s important that we try to get the recommended 7-8 hours a day of sleep to help us function best during the day and also for long term health benefits. I personally haven’t been able to consistently get 7-8 hours of sleep during the week like most of the engineers and academics I know, so while we can try our best to get that amount of sleep, another thing we can do to increase feelings of energy and reduce feelings of fatigue is chronic exercise [4]. Exercise comes in many different forms, it could be the daily walks to and from the train station going into work, a 15 minute morning yoga session, a half hour lunch gym session, or a 90 minute after work social sport game. We should be able to find an activity that is suitable for our own fitness level and lifestyle. By exercising a suitable amount regularly, we would have better energy overall and perform better in all areas of life.

Lastly, it’s important to listen to our body and know when we HAVE TO take a break. Whether it’s physical tiredness or stress level that is affecting our mental health, it’s crucial that when we are getting close to the limit, we take time off so we don’t injure ourselves physically or burnout. Many of us can see the signals when our physical health is declining, but sometimes it’s hard to do the same for mental health and it could result in burnout or even clinical depression if we notice too late. For better understanding of what burnout looks like, I recommend reading the article Burnout: Redefining its Key Symptoms by G. Tavella et al. [5]. Remember that it is OK to take a break, and sustainable high performance is more valuable in the workplace and in life than a one-off peak performance which then breaks us. 

2.3. Set boundaries

The last piece of self-awareness is setting boundaries. We need to know what we can and cannot accept, and live by it. One common example is that people who are nice tend to offer help a lot and therefore get a lot of requests. As time goes by, they start spending an unreasonable amount of time and energy on helping others, meaning they have to work overtime or feel guilty for rejecting a request.

To effectively manage time, one thing I had to learn was to say no and push back on my colleagues and even on my manager. There is always more work we can do and often there will never be enough time to do everything, so we need to be selective; set some rules and say no when it’s off limits. What these rules are is up to each individual, but they should link to your priority list and core values. For example, if you have decided you will spend no more than one day on work on weekends every month so you can spend time on sport training and family events, then if you are asked to work on consecutive weekends to support a non-critical function, perhaps you should say no. 

I would like to note that I am not saying we shouldn’t help others on things that are outside of our scope, but respecting our own boundaries and explaining them to others will make others respect our boundaries better, so we should stick to them as much as we can. 

Other than better management of my time, benefits I have experienced from setting clear boundaries include fewer conflicts and hard conversations with colleagues and managers, so I see it as one of the best things I have learned.

3. Interpersonal relationships

Section 2 was all about ourselves, but we don’t typically live and work alone, so we should also pay attention to the people around us as they can also influence the time we spend on executing a task. It is particularly important in a start-up environment where a lot of work is predominantly teamwork and involves discussion across technical disciplines.

While we naturally focus on those who we interact with more, such as our direct manager and peers in our team, my experience says that those we interact with less, but have interdependent relationships with us, are the people who tend to come to the rescue when we least expect it, such as the company senior management and the support teams (facilities, IT, people and culture, etc.). Therefore, it’s important not to lose sight of the people we see less often and check in regularly with them.

To enhance our personal relationship with these groups, with the side benefit of helping us manage our work (and hence time) better, there are several things we can do and/or work on as described below.

3.1. Ask for help when you need it

One of the most common misconceptions ECPs have is that we perceive not knowing something and needing to ask for help as a sign of weakness because of the education system where we are only rewarded for getting things right. In reality, we are not expected to know everything across all the disciplines in the workplace, especially in a start-up where things are moving fast and questions and problems are generated and discovered more quickly than we can answer and solve them, so we need to get comfortable in saying we don’t know and/or ask for help when we are in doubt. The key is we should be listening to what people teach us and how they guide us to the solution, then learn and apply the next time we come across similar problems. People are usually happy to help if they see that you listen, put your heart into learning and appreciate their help. Occasionally we might get a no when we ask for help, but this is no different from not asking, so there is really nothing to lose and we should be more open to asking for help. When we do get help from others, not only does it accelerate our work, it’s also a relationship and trust building activity with the people who offer help to us [6]. 

3.2. Build trust

Remember the time when you were new to a job and no one had enough trust in you on anything? Being skeptical of each other’s work and feeling the need to check over everything or convince others that you have done your due diligence can be time consuming. 

Trust is key to effective group work: a good starting point to create trust with colleagues around us is to build our reputation by doing reliable good work and genuinely caring for others. The book, The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey [7], describes building trust at different levels and I encourage everyone to have a read if it is something you want to improve on.

Personally, below is a list of key qualities and behaviors I learned and/or practices that have helped me develop good working relationships and build trust quickly after joining Baraja:


  • Respect
  • Humility
  • Punctuality
  • Responsibility
  • Empathy
  • Honesty


  • Active listening
  • Walk the talk
  • Stand up for others
  • Avoid gaslighting others
  • Quit saying “I don’t mean to interrupt”, “I don’t mean to offend you” or the like. (Just don’t interrupt or offend people instead.)

By having the trust of my peers, project lead and managers, I have been able to complete my work at a speed and quality that exceeded expectations because I was able to get help when I needed it, as well as not needing to spend a lot of time to convince others that I knew what I was doing.

3.3. Get buy-in from your manager

If you have a lot of out-of-work development you wish to do like I do, such as my involvement in the photonics community, getting your managers’ buy-in will make your life much easier.

For example, when I organized the Sydney Photonics Industry Network event, I got the support from our CTO, who not only invited some key speakers for me, but also gave me the permission to use the company space and access to other hardware and human resources. I could not imagine doing that on my own and how much more time I would have had to spend on it.

Similarly, with my manager’s support, I was able to travel to San Francisco for the SPIE Photonics West conference to attend my governance committees’ meetings and invited talks, and paired it with some work responsibilities. This arrangement meant I could work, travel, connect with my international network and build my international professional profile all in one week. The same kind of impact would have taken a lot longer to achieve if I had stayed in Sydney and spent time on LinkedIn and Zoom calls.

I don’t have many wise suggestions on how to get our managers’ buy-in, but I would say that showing managers how passionate we are and securing our own funding for these trips and events can be a game changer. Taking a step back, we should also make sure that our employer’s values are aligned with ours during the interview process before we take up a job offer, especially their attitude towards family priorities, diversity, physical and mental health, community service, or anything deemed important to your out-of-work life. If the company’s values align with yours, you are already a step closer to getting your managers to support what you believe in.

4. Manage time like business management

One thing I have gratefully learned at Baraja is how projects are run. Our projects always have seemingly unrealistic timelines (like most deep tech start-ups do) but the management team has put together structures to help us, which I think can be very useful for other areas of life. Some of the tasks within the structure are: 

  • OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) setting
  • Re-prioritization when needed
  • Weekly and quarterly planning
  • Retrospective/Feedback/Reflection sessions
  • Time budgeting
  • Filling roles with the right talents

I won’t go into the details of each of the bullet points as these are typical business management tools, but I see a friend applying a similar structure at home with his family, and I can tell his time management and life satisfaction is perhaps one of the best in the company.

A start-up is basically a structure where a few people (founders and co-founders) leverage other people’s (employees’) talents to build their dream in a couple of years instead of learning every single discipline of science and engineering to develop their own technology in a hundred years, while everyone gets something they want out of it.

I see this as an analogy of how to spend less time to do more and greater things.  We can only do so much on our own in a finite amount of time, so we need to understand leverage and the difference between time investment vs time spent.

4.1. Understand leverage

Learning to leverage in this context is to use something in such a way that a small amount can create great impact. 

One of the core values of Baraja I resonate a lot with is Build the machine that builds the machine. This is exactly what leverage is. To practice this in our day-to-day life, we should think about what we can automate. How can we record, generate and process many similar data sets without repeating the same process manually every time? Can we automate our measurement tools and data analysis in Python or LabVIEW? Sometimes we might perceive a simulation or experiment as a one-off task, however, more often than not, in my experience, spending time scripting up these processes such that we can execute them automatically or semi-automatically can save us so much time in the long run, even though it might take us longer the first time.

Secondly, as the famous proverb states, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If our goal is to make sure this man has a fish every day, we don’t want to make giving him a fish a task we do every day for the rest of our lives. We would rather teach him how to fish and then we go on to do something fun. Therefore, we should be open to, or rather actively transferring our knowledge, and training others to pick up our skills if it’s beneficial for the project and the company. It certainly takes longer to train someone new to do something we are very skilled at instead of doing it ourselves, but only when others can do what we normally do can we progress onto learning and doing the next thing. When more people know how to do a certain task, it’s easier to find help and therefore save ourselves time the next time we are overwhelmed with responsibilities and tight deadlines.

Thirdly, we should get to know as many people in the company as possible and understand their expertise and responsibility. There have been several occasions where I found the right person to help me on a one-off task that would have taken me a week to learn and do, and they did it in a matter of hours because that’s what they have been doing every day in their job or even previous jobs. If I hadn’t known there were people with a skill set from whom I could ask for help, I would have dragged out the timeline of the project by a significant amount. Therefore, we should build a mental map of who is good at what, and can help us accelerate our work and better control our timeline.

Lastly, as a remotely leverage-related topic, we should also leverage different communication tools and asynchronous communication to help us plan our day better. For example, here are some questions I ask myself when I get a meeting invite that is scheduled during my focus hours:

  • Can the meeting be an email?
  • If the meeting doesn’t have a clear agenda and goal, will I end up wasting my time to participate? Should I just wait for the meeting summary and minutes to be sent out?
  • If it’s a meeting I’m expected to be actively participating in, is it at a good time for me? Should I ask for rescheduling?
  • Is the meeting purely informative such that I can just listen in while doing some menial tasks in the lab or watch the recording during my commute?

By learning to leverage the different tools and people around us and their talents, we will be able to do more in a shorter time and spend less effort to complete a project collectively.

4.2. Understand time investment vs time spent

Being able to leverage is ultimately a calculation of opportunity cost. We need to judge whether it is better or more beneficial to spend the time on a particular task now or spend the time elsewhere, and complete the task in a more suitable time, in another way, or not complete it at all.

The tasks we do with ‘time spent’ might give us some instant gratification, but it might not help us save much time in the future. Whereas if we spent the same time on investment type tasks, such as building capabilities, then even though we might not see the instant benefits, they will give us better returns in the future.

The best example we all know is that spending half an hour on moderate exercise every day has a good return on investment on our health in the years to come. Even though it could feel like ‘time spent’ when we are sweating and feeling sore after the workout, we will be saving money and time from visiting the doctor and physiotherapist in the future.

Similarly, in a professional context, building networks and sustaining professional relationships don’t give quick returns, but we never know who we’ll need help from or who can point us to the right person for an issue we are having for faster fixes. Remember too, 70% of jobs are not advertised and 80% are filled through personal and professional connections [8]. For a guide on networking, I recommend the book Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers by Christina C.C. Willis [9].

Other than going to people we already know can help, spending time talking to others about each other’s work and bouncing ideas around can also give new insight into problems we are not consciously thinking about. Alternatively, by sharing our work with others, others might be able to catch our mistakes so we can rectify the problem before it’s too late.

My advice is that we should always think of better ways to do things or prepare and upskill ourselves to do things more efficiently. We might not make the best judgment call every time, but as we practice differentiating time spent and time investment for different tasks, we will be able to refine our decision-making process and get better at time management.

All in all, time management to me is really life management, so we need to look at it holistically and find a way that works best for ourselves across the different areas of our lives.

5. References

[1] S. R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, London, England, UK: Simon and Schuster Pocket Books, 2004, pp. 146-182.
[2] J. Tynan, “Why energy management is greater than time management”, SquarePeg, https://www.squarepegcap.com/
(accessed 28 Dec. 2021).
[3] M. P. Walker, “Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss”, Sleep Medicine, vol. 9, Suppl 1, S29-34, Sep, 2008.
[4] T. W. Puetz, “Effects of chronic exercise on feelings of energy and fatigue: A quantitative synthesis”, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 132, no. 6, pp.866-876, Dec, 2006.
[5] G. Tavella, et al. “Burnout: Redefining its key symptoms”, Psychiatry Research, vol. 302, no. 114023, Aug 2021.
[6] B. Brown, Dare to Lead, London, England, UK: Vermilion, 2018, pp. 228-229.
[7] S. M. R. Covey and R. R. Merrill, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, London, England, UK: Simon and Schuster Pocket Books, 2008, pp. 125-232.
[8] J. F. Fisher, “How to get a job often comes down to one elite personal asset, and many people still don’t realize it”, SNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/27/how-to-get-a-job-often-comes-down-to-one-elite-personal-asset.html (accessed 2 Jan 2022).
[9] Christina C. C. Willis, Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers, Bellingham, Washington, USA; SPIE, 2020.

6. A bit about the author

Katie Chong completed her B.Sc. (Hons) in Physics at the University of Otago in 2012. She finished her Ph.D. at the Australian National University in 2017, where her thesis focused on magnetic light interaction with dielectric nanomaterials. She began her career at Finisar Australia as an R&D engineer on the design of wavelength-selective switches. Katie joined Baraja in 2020 as an optical engineer, designing and testing the next generation automotive LiDAR for autonomous vehicles.

Katie actively volunteers in the photonics community. She was an inaugural editorial board member of the SPIE Career Lab and in 2020 co-founded the Sydney Photonics Industry Network. Currently she is a member of the SPIE Early Career and Student Subcommittee, and the Education and Outreach Committee, where she strives to inspire and coach students in optics and photonics.