Tag Archives: time management

Academic, Know Thyself

So as you’ll know from my last post, this has been a busy few months.  And if there is anything good that has come out of feeling constantly frazzled, behind, and discombobulated, it is a reassessment of how I work.  At first I was frustrated by the need to do this.  I’ve been in the academy for a long time–why I haven’t I figured this out more effectively?  Am I just a slow learner?  But then I realized that my life in the academy has constantly changed: from faculty member to department chair to full-time administrator (who tries, desperately, to keep a research agenda going).  I have also recently said yes to several big projects within the profession and these have definitely added complexity to my work life.

And so, I find myself taking stock and trying to make the chaos more manageable.  And one general observation I’ve made is that I need an inventory of what works–and what doesn’t–in the ways that I order my life and tasks.  Good academic that I am, I have read and researched, and I follow the blogs and commentary of other academics who are trying to do the same.  But in the end, as with so many things, it comes down to what works for YOU.  In other words, know yourself in all of your messy glory and work back from there.

I got lucky and stumbled upon some preliminary answers as I mulled this over for the past few weeks, but to avoid it being a random, undirected process, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:

  1.  Where do you get stuck in your work?  Is there a particular task or time of day that routinely hangs you up?  What can you do to change or manage that?
  2. What are some small fixes that you can make in the short term while you figure out the big picture?
  3. What energizes you and helps provide the momentum to keep you going?

As some food for thought, here are a few things I’ve begun doing that resulted from trying to do a better job of figuring myself out.

Manage Your Bad Habits: In the long term you can work on breaking your bad habits, but in the short term, you need coping mechanisms.  Take my relationship with emails: if I can find a way to put off writing a difficult or complicated email, I will.  Now for the future should I work on a better system of managing my email?  Yes.  Absolutely.  But in the short term, there are emails that need to be written and business that needs to get taken care of.  So here’s what I’ve tried:

  • Tee it up: there are emails that I know I will eventually need to send, but I’m just waiting for a few details to fall into place.  I have started writing those emails in advance and letting them sit in my drafts folder.  Then, once the details are available, I just drop them in, and I’m done!
  • My inability to work on emails is symptomatic of a larger issue with procrastination.  There is a rich literature on why we procrastinate, but in the short term what helps me is to Just Start It.  Whether it’s an email or some other project that’s nagging at me, I set a timer for fifteen minutes and begin working.  The point here is not to go all Nike and Just Do It, because frankly that’s too overwhelming, and I never will.  But if I Just Start It I typically realize it isn’t so awful and I do have a handle on it.  Or maybe I don’t and it is awful, but at least then I’ve begun to figure out what I need to do to finish it.

Finally, digging deep and trying to assess what makes my work life tick has revealed that I need to Make Time for the Good Stuff.  I know this is often easier said than done, but try to identify what makes you happy and then endeavor to do it as often as possible.  Last week I was in a miserable mood when suddenly it occurred to me that two things that typically make me very happy–going for a run and taking time out to write–had both been markedly absent from my week.  I know that these things make me happy, but I don’t always do a good job of making time for them.  Like everything else that needs to get done–meetings, teaching, etc–I need to put these things on my schedule.  I went for a run yesterday, and yesterday I started this blog post.  And already I really do feel more like myself.

Do I hope that I will break my procrastinating habits?  Yes.  I also hope that I’ll get better about eating more vegetables.  But in the meantime, I need to find ways to make my bad habits manageable and to identify what energizes me and do more of it.

How would your work life look different if you dug deep and tried to know yourself a bit better?

Email: Can’t Live With It…

It’s Monday morning and I just opened my work email.  Despite being armed with a ginormous cup of coffee, beginning to scroll through these messages is undoubtedly going to spark a cascade of negative emotions: frustration, anger, exasperation, exhaustion.  And then there will be that daily internal monologue about being behind on my correspondence and how overwhelmed I feel.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have this reaction to email so what follows are some guidelines about how to engage–and occasionally not engage–with email.  Let’s start with the assumption that you’re smarter than your email inbox and that you can find a way to make sense of those hundreds of stockpiled messages.

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How to manage an overflowing inbox.  The upshot: you need a system of folders or task management.  Other folks, far more clever than me, have come up with great ideas.  There are some examples here.  And there are many more if you just Google, “manage your email.”  Because I don’t know about you, but just hoping for the best and saying that at some mythical time in the future I will be “caught up on email” isn’t working for me.

From there you need some rules and structure: all emails answered within 24 hours, setting aside blocks of time when you only work on email, etc.  I know that for me, simply scrolling through the new ones each morning, responding to the really urgent ones, and then forgetting about all the others is not a good system.  So I flag (literally, my email program lets me do this and then I can sort by flagged messages later) the ones I need to come back to that require some time and attention.  Beyond that I’m experimenting with setting aside two or three 15-minute blocks of time each day when I work through the flagged materials.  Setting a timer and saying that I will only work on email focuses me and reduces the temptation to just scroll through all the emails and be overwhelmed.  But choose a discipline that will work for you.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

Once you do start responding, a different set of guidelines kicks in.  Let’s start with the email that makes you so mad you can barely see straight.  Go ahead, write the angry response.  Say everything you need to say.  Don’t hold back.  But then put it in your draft folder and DO NOT SEND IT.  Let it sit there for at least 24 hours.  Then go back to it and revise accordingly.  Having had the chance to vent will help, but 24 hours later your emotions (hopefully) won’t be running as hot, you can exercise some discretion, and send a measured response.

Let’s continue with that really important email you’re composing where you need to communicate some really critical information.  Don’t bury the lede.  Put the important stuff first.  Think about a list of bullet points, rather than embedding all the material in a series of prose paragraphs.  Highlight the meeting time, date, and place or the deadline you want everyone to adhere to–or put it in bold or italics.  Make it jump out.  If you really want people to pay attention and read the whole thing, keep the overall message as short as possible.  Remember how you don’t have time for your email?  Everyone you send an email to is in the same boat.  So make sure your emails get to the point quickly and don’t require a lot of reading.

And let’s not forget the basics.  Use “reply all” carefully.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your RSVP for the meeting?  Probably not.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your trenchant comments about a thorny issue that you were, in fact, invited to share with everyone?  Yes.  Don’t be that person who disrupts the group conversation by mistakenly replying only to the sender.

And finally, sometimes it’s okay to avoid email.  I have a rule that I am getting better at following and have talked about here before: I don’t do work email after 6pm.  No good can come it, unless you count not sleeping well as a good thing.

This is just a start.  What other rules or practices do you have for making email manageable and handling your responses?

Starting Over, Back to Basics

‘Tis the season–back to school!  Even through I worked through the summer, August is that time of year when I fall under the happy spell of the promise of a new year and a fresh start.  The classroom, the office, the lab all seem shinier in the fall than they do at the beginning of a spring term. I recently got a fresh start with something else.  After being sidelined by a stress fracture, I started running again this week.  It is a humbling, sometimes frustrating, experience to return to something I love without the stamina and (relative) speed that I had twelve weeks ago when I had to stop.  But, starting over has also given me the chance to think about and fine tune various parts of my running regimen: my form, speedwork, what kind of an event I want to train for (a half-marathon, perhaps?).  In other words, I’m trying to take advantage of being back at square one.  How might that lesson translate into beginning a new academic year?  What can you do differently or fine tune in this season of fresh starts?

1.  Mapping the campus.  If you’re a department chair or other middle management administrator, chances are you’ve been around the block a few times and you know the lay of the land.  Or do you?  I find that the org chart and personnel at my university are constantly changing.  Suddenly, the office of International Programs no longer reports to Admissions, but instead reports to the Provost; this will change how we handle study abroad.  There’s a new person in charge of graduation applications; this changes my contact for questions about graduation.  Not to mention offices that have moved.  I had no idea Counseling Services was in a different building; now I can refer students to the right location.  You get the idea.

2.  Mapping your day.  After five years of being in the office most days of the week for 6-8 hours each day I have discovered that my powers of concentration evaporate between 1 and 3pm.  So this is NOT a good time for me to do anything detail oriented or to read for class.  It is a good time to finish relatively mindless bits of paperwork, to sort through the ever-increasing number of piles on my desk, and to answer simple email inquiries.  This also means that the hours between 9 and 1 ARE good for reading and writing documents that require focus.  There are some things I can’t change about my workdays: my teaching schedule, regularly scheduled meetings, but I can take the times that are my own and use them as productively as possible.

3.  Breaking bad habits.  As a runner, I am really bad about stretching after a workout.  As a chair, I am really bad about organizing my electronic files.  I use Dropbox and tend to just “throw” files in there, willy-nilly, reasoning that I will go back later and sort them into folders, etc.  This strategy has not served me well.  Time to change it.  Also time to stretch after a run.

4.  Mixing it up.  Look around your workspace, wherever it is.  Could it be organized more effectively?  Would moving a chair or a bookshelf or hanging a bulletin board somewhere else contribute to better work flow?  Or what about changing things just for the sake of change, just to make it look different as a way of signifying a fresh start?  Hang that poster on a different wall, put down a throw rug, buy yourself a new coffee mug.  Do something with your workspace that says this is the beginning of a new academic year.

The Myth of Balance

Balance.  Elusive and, frankly, mythical.  Consider the following from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, posting on her Facebook page, where she speaks out against what she calls the “subtle tyranny” of the concept of balance: “To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever.”

But if you’re like me, I suspect you continue to hunt for balance.  For those of us in academe, it’s that mythical balance among teaching, research, and service (never mind, trying to carve out some time for hobbies and exercise!).  Let me propose a different way of framing the problem: rather than searching for the elusive state of balance, instead be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.  One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s never the same day twice.  A meeting may get canceled, a student may miss an advising appointment, and suddenly an hour opens up.  And at least  a couple of times a year a new term/quarter/semester begins and we have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.  All of this requires recognizing that there will rarely–if ever–be an uninterrupted block of several hours when you can Work on the Book or Plan the New Course or Finish the Curriculum Report.  You will need to capitalize on the unexpected hour or anticipate when there will be some brief grading lulls during the semester.

This is what I mean by anticipating or seizing openings and opportunities.  Rather than beat yourself up because you didn’t do something related to your research today, see if there’s an hour or two in the coming week when you could write 250 words or enter some material into your database.  Taking this approach will also necessitate breaking the work into smaller pieces.  You may know what the finished product should be (The Book, The Course, The Report), but work your way back from that endpoint and then break that big project into its constituent parts (I should add that I’ve found this to be a good strategy for battling procrastination, too.  Once a project seems more manageable, I’m more likely to work on it).  That way, when you find that spare hour you have a clear sense of the tasks at hand, and you’re ready to dig in and make some progress.

Balance in all its illusory forms–work-life (a false dichotomy anyway), teaching-research-service–should not be the goal.  Its holy grail-ness will just keep frustrating us and making us feel inadequate.  In the place of balance, we can put planning and preparedness that will allow us to see those pockets of time that lurk within our existing schedules or appear unexpectedly, and make the most of them.

The Fine Art of Delegating

Delegating.  Put it at the top of the list of things I do badly.  After five years of being chair I know this about myself and still haven’t figured out a way to do it better.  So in this period of slowed-down summer timetables, I offer the following reflections on why academic chairs need to delegate and some strategies for how to do it.

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The most obvious reason for delegating is to reduce or at least redistribute your workload.  Even though we all know that we can’t do it all, we consistently behave otherwise.  Call it micromanaging, call it control issues, but whatever you do, call an end to it.  I doubt any of us need more to do.

Another reason to delegate is that your colleagues need to be both cognizant of and invested in the work of the department.  If you do everything, magically and behind the scenes, you risk creating a faculty culture of disengagement where faculty don’t know, for example, the work that goes into identifying and recruiting students for the departmental honor society.  Or the logistics of organizing an event with a visiting speaker.  And what happens when you’re not chair anymore?  There will be a profound lack of institutional knowledge and memory that will make your successor’s job that much more difficult.  Further, as we know from our best classroom practices, the more students participate, the more they are invested in their education.  So, too, with faculty.  Delegating will help to create a participatory and engaged department culture.

Delegating also signals your confidence in your colleagues.  Managing everything yourself may make others think that you don’t trust them with certain responsibilities.  Even if that’s not the case, you don’t want to mistakenly foster that impression.

So, there are clearly benefits to delegating.  But doing it should be purposeful and directed.

To begin with, delegate strategically.  Simply going into a faculty meeting and asking for volunteers to work on various tasks or projects may not always be the best strategy.  You may not get the best people for the job.  Instead, try to match people well–play to the strengths and passions of your faculty.  It’s no good assigning someone with poor organizational skills to a project that will involve managing complicated spreadsheets.  Someone with a talent for chatting and conversation is the one you want to send to the open house for freshmen who are choosing a major.  Such maneuvering can even be a way to get otherwise reluctant faculty to take on projects.  If Dr. X has consistently expressed concerns about the declining number of majors then maybe Dr. X could work on designing an outreach program.

Next, build in some accountability.  Delegating makes me nervous because it means releasing control of a task or project.  I do much better when I release it with expectations like “Report back to me by such and a such a time,” or “Bring me a draft of the document in a week,” or “Please be prepared to make a report at the next faculty meeting.  You get the idea.

Finally, be prepared for delegating to fail sometimes.  Even the most strategic and deliberate delegation with clearly articulated expectations may flop if there is a failure of responsibility and follow through.  And the buck does stop with you, so you will need to pick up the pieces.  Try to figure out what didn’t work in that particular instance and apply it to future decisions.  In all, the benefits of letting go will outweigh those instances where it doesn’t work.

Time Well Spent?, Part I

A recent study of how professors spend their time, “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus,” attracted significant attention.  Many of us were gratified, if not happy, to discover that our colleagues also spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings and squeeze their work in at all hours of the day and night, with no real divide between weekends and weekdays.  Despite research being the coin of the realm, it appears that we all struggle to make time for it, wedging it in around the legitimate, but time-consuming, demands of teaching and service.  The report probably contained very few revelations for members of the academy.  And overall, I suppose, we felt validated in our common misery.

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Overlooked in all the reposting, tweeting, and commenting, however, were the serious questions at the heart of this study about productivity and accountability.  A sympathetic dean at Boise State had helped fund the project  as a result of an interest in understanding “how work habits played into variable outcomes across faculty and departments.”  As someone at a university where individual colleges just went through a tumultuous round of revising workload policies, I am interested, too.  Our work may be long and lonely (though I would challenge the use of the word “lonely”–and will in a future blog post), but what are the consequences of this?

One of the most striking findings of the study is that we spend a lot of time in meetings (ranging from student advising to committee work), approximately 17% of our workweek to be exact.  Much of this work is necessary and some of it, like student advising, is not really negotiable.  And in the short term, the committee/service burden of faculty is unlikely to change radically.  But I do think there are ways to make this work more manageable.

First, how might we be more strategic about the committee work we agree to?  Rather than making decisions based on when we receive the request (have we already agreed to too much?  are we in a bad mood?  do we like the person asking us to serve?), we could prioritize those eventual decisions, in advance, based on any number of factors.  I decided a few years ago, for example, that working on curricular issues was important to me.  So instead of agreeing to serve on committees devoted to budgetary issues, student life, etc., I respond to requests linked to curriculum.  It is also worth considering, before you say “yes,” whether or not this committee will provide the opportunity to change or improve something that you care about.  Holding true to my commitment to curriculum, I landed on a committee evaluating our GenEd program, only to discover that this committee (due to leadership and other issues) was not going to accomplish anything productive.  I have since resigned.

* Moving from individual decisions to broader concerns, how might we change the culture of meetings at our institution?  We all have, I suspect, a horrifying collection of anecdotes about the endless PowerPoint presentation, the meeting that isn’t really a meeting but is an occasion for people to talk at us, or the agenda-less conversation disguised as a meeting.  We can’t always control the format or structure of meetings, but when we can we should insist on a focused use of our limited time.  We need, for example, to start flipping meetings.  Need me to digest the information in the PowerPoint?  Send it to me ahead of time and then we can have a productive conversation about its contents during the scheduled meeting.  Walk into a meeting where an agenda has not been distributed or articulated?  Indicate that you want to this to be a good use of everyone’s time, and ask what the objectives are for your time together.  Insist, whenever possible, that meetings not last longer than 1.5-2 hours.  It is the very rare meeting that produces meaningful results after 2 hours.

Studies like the one cited here may point us in the direction of other ways that the culture of the academy needs to change to allow its members to do their best work and serve their students, research, and institutions well.  But in the short term, it would be time well spent to make strategic decisions about our committee work and to manage our meetings more productively.  I welcome your thoughts and comments on how to do both.