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Easy Steps to Getting Your Academic Life Under Control

Busy Professor Book CoverSTEPS

  1. Rule your e-mail
  2. Make To-Do lists that really matter
  3. Create a highly-structured syllabus
  4. Don’t break your writing appointments
  5. Automate everything (grading, investing, bills, social media, exercise)
  6. Put 20-seconds between you and your vice
  7. Pre-write letters, committee tasks, and grading comments
  8. Every talk or poster becomes a paper
  9. Use Smart Phone Apps to Build Your CV (Lift, HassleBot, Evernote)
  10. Get a non-work life if you want to be more productive at work

Summer is nearly here: What is a busy professor supposed to do?

It seems to me that busy professors exist at one of two extremes here at the end of the spring term. At the end of the school year, busy professors feel tired, and disconnected from their families. Most busy professors “know” that they need rest in order to be motivated to be at full speed by August, so busy professors take time off and don’t think about their job — or busy professors frantically try to read everything, and write everything they need to in a short three-month period to catch up. Unfortunately, both are woefully ineffective.

So, what SHOULD busy professors be doing in summer? Research on time management and productivity is pretty clear that the way to have really creative ideas is to write a lot. Busy professors who want to be clearheaded with lots of ideas need to spend at least an hour every day writing — 750 words, five days a week, will do magic, but most busy professors won’t do it, because they either think it’s too much, or not enough. As it turns out, 750 words really isn’t very much.

But this leads to another quandary. How do busy professors stay disciplined and on-track when the kids are out of school and the weather is warm? Ben Franklin was right about being early to rise. The most productive busy professors get up early… Even on vacation. A recent book called “The Miracle Morning” gives clear instructions about how to spend one hour a day when everyone else is asleep to become the most productive person you can be. After getting up early, a busy professor has from 7 AM onward to do whatever you want to do, and you have still sharp and your brain and being productive.

In the end, the most important strategy any productive busy professor can have is a routine. The most productive busy professors know ahead of time what they’re doing at 6:30 AM every day, and what they will be doing every day at 11 AM, and they also know what they’re doing every day at 3:30 PM.

Don’t break your writing appointments with yourself

pen-calendar-to-do-checklist.jpgWhen constantly comparing a Busy Professor’s life with a busy professor’s life, I might have mistakenly given you the impression that busy professors are lazy people, or somehow they are not dedicated to their jobs.  This is not my intention, and nothing could be farther from the truth.  In fact, I would suggest it is quite the opposite.

My sense is that busy professors are incredibly busy with the minutia of their jobs, being sure that everything that can be done gets done.  They work early in the morning, they work late into the evenings, they work on weekends, and they even work during vacations, if they take them.  Moreover, because many of the busiest professors can easily point to a long list of completed tasks following in the wake behind them and a long list of will certainly get done tasks coming up on their horizon, busy professors might even be quite happy and generally satisfied with their lives overall by seeing value in the shear volume they have accomplished.

What I am pointing out here is that Busy Professors actively plan their lives and spend their scarce time purposefully, whereas the unifying characteristic of busy professors is that they are reactive and most often choose to do whatever task is most urgently in front of them.  With the best of intentions, my experience is that both kinds of professors do actually set aside time in their calendars for important tasks without deadlines such as reading in the library, writing grant proposals, or reviewing instructional materials to improve next year’s class.  What is different is that when scheduled, Busy Professor’s always choose to do what is important, rather than what is urgent.  And, there is always something urgent begging for your attention.

Don’t break your writing appointments

Imagine for a moment that in your calendar you’ve allocated Friday mornings from 9-1030am for undisturbed creative writing undisturbed in a nearby coffee shop.  You know this is a reasonably good time choice because many of your colleagues are teaching in this time band, so the chances you will be asked to attend a Department meeting are reduced.  What will you do if the Department chair requests for you to attend a College-budget meeting during this time?  What will you do if a student begs if they can meet you during this time for help on a homework assignment?  Unquestionably, this situation challenges the very core of what it means to be a professor who really does have the privilege of being able to choose how to spend their time each day.

When I pose this very real quandary to professors in my Busy Professor time management and productivity workshops, the most immediate response is to acquiesce to the request—just this once—and move the allocated writing time to another slot in the calendar.  Such a solution seems reasonable on the surface.

However, just to be certain we are considering all possibilities, what if you did not have writing on your schedule during that particular time slot, but instead were teaching?  Would you cancel your scheduled class so that you could attend a budget meeting or meet with a struggling student?  Of course not.  There is really no decision here—you would say, “I’m sorry, I’m teaching during that time” and no one would question you.

In this case, you’ve made a value judgement that teaching is the most important thing on your calendar.  One can reasonably argue that scheduled teaching slots are immovable and writing slots are flexible and can be easily rescheduled.  While this is true in theory, what happens in practice is that a non-CV building activity replaces a CV building activity and that writing time gets lost in the whirlwind of academia and never replaced, or worse replaces evening or weekend time when you should be healing yourself and enjoying the other half of work-life balance.  If you want to live a balanced life and have spent your limited time doing what you think is important, then don’t break your writing appointments.

In the end, there is a far more important reason to schedule and keep regular writing appointments with yourself.  Many professors really struggle to get words down on a blank page.  It has been suggested that academic writing most often looks like, “write four paragraphs, erase three, and declare victory.”  Regardless if true or not, what is definitely is true is that the more you write, the easier it becomes.  People that write just a little every day end up being able to write more words per day in just a very short time frame than people who do not.  Moreover, the research is pretty clear that the act of writing stimulates even more ideas in your head.  The end result is that the more you try to write, the faster you become and, best of all, the more you write the more ideas of what to write about will pop into your head.  Busy Professors that make sure they write at least 1,000 words each morning end up with some many ideas floating around in their heads that they have an overflowing well of ideas to write about for which they will never have enough time to get around to. In other words, the simple act of writing causes your brain to generate ideas. If you find yourself having nothing to write about, and a daily journaling regime doesn’t get you unstuck in just a few weeks, find a prolific Busy Professor who will partner with you, because they have plenty to write about and ideas to share for collaborative writing.

pexels-photo-669986.jpegUse your calendar as your navigational logbook

I find the concept of accurately sailing across the ocean from point-to-point, far from being in sight of land, a simultaneously fascinating and terrifying concept.  A ship’s navigator has the life-and-death task of keeping track of a ship’s location, based-largely on where it has been and where it is going.  Traditionally, these records of where a ship has been and how fast it has been moving was kept in a logbook.  A logbook gets its name because ancient mariners would toss a wooden log or chip of wood off the back of a boat that was tied to a rope that had pretied knots at regular intervals.  Sailors would count how many knots passed through their hands as the ship sailed away from the floating log to determine the ship’s speed, and thus carefully its distance from its last known position.  The logbook is critical in all of navigation because if you do not know where you have been, it is impossible to figure out where you are going.

A Busy Professor’s logbook is the real-time data and evidence needed to reflect on how their day-to-day, week-to-week academic life is going.  Whereas an annual CV-update or annual performance review lists solid, summative milestones like number of pages published, number of journal articles reviewed, amount of extramural grant dollars awarded, it provides scant formative information that is immediately actionable.

Imagine serving as a Department head and formally informing a junior, third year assistant professor they need to publish more and do less service if they want to be promoted someday.  For an unmentored, novice faculty member, this crushing news is usually interpreted simply as, “work harder and work more hours.”  This interpretation is mostly meaningless.  Given that there are only 24-hours in a day, the best solution here is to help that junior academic understand which time-consuming activities are helping the move toward building a promotable CV and which time-consuming activities are interfering and respond accordingly.  This can only be done if there is logbook data available.

Busy Professor’s use their calendar—electronic or paper-based—as both their planner and their logbook.  As a planner, the Busy Professor’s calendar provides a reliable and easy-to-use for hard scheduling Gotta-do tasks, like teaching classes, going to the gym, hosting collaborative group meetings, unavoidable committee meetings, and deadlines for conference and grant proposals.  As a tool for collecting day-to-day activity data, the Busy Professor’s calendar provides a reliable and easy-to-use diary for reflection and reassessment.

pexels-photo-261622.jpegWhen learning how to better manage money, the first task money mentors give to their clients is to carefully track every penny one spends for a week.  The consistent result is that people are amazed, even shocked, at where their money went.  The initial goal of most improved money management programs is to build an individual’s awareness of where their limited money goes so that they can start to make rational decisions about a scarce resource.

The same is true for mentoring professors about time management.  If you track how you spend every minute for a week, you will be likely astounded where you spent your limited time.  The thinking here is the same that if you are fully cognizant of how you are spending your scarce minutes every day, then you can make more rationale decisions about how to move forward professionally by investing your time in things that really matter and avoiding those time-sinks that quietly suck your time away, giving nothing in return.  You calendar is the best way to purposefully plan your time and how to gather information for later reflection about making changes to how your life your academic life.  Busy Professors keep their calendar within reach and log every activity in 30-minute or 60-minute blocks and review it weekly.

Improving Time Management at Your Desk


 

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

Have you ever heard people say that they have their best ideas when in the shower, or driving in the car?  Perhaps you yourself have said, “I think best when I’m walking around the building, far from my desk.”  This notion should strike you as incredibly odd because you are not actually being paid to shower, or drive, or walk; in fact, you are being paid to be productive at work.  Of all the places in the world to be creative and productive, it should be at your desk.  Such a situation desperately begs the question, why not?

download (1)     Your desk should be the single best location where you have everything you need to be productive at your immediate disposal.  Your desk is supposedly where you have best access to your calendar, your computer, your files, your books, sticky notes, index cards, pens, a cell phone charger, highlighters, and a stapler.  Most offices have a telephone and immediate access to one’s peers and support staff who are inarguably an often critically important resource. Some people go as far as adding attractive plants, family pictures, an inviting bowl of candy, comfortable chairs, their favorite music, nuanced lighting, and inspirational awards on the wall.  Yet, with all of these accoutrements, why do so many people “think” better elsewhere?

Time is an incredibly important and limited resources and most productive of us are masters at successfully managing their time.  At its core, effective time management is about two things: doing the most important job first, and eliminating distractions that keep you from getting that most important job done.  Unfortunately, we too often set up our offices to instead welcome distractions that keep us from getting our number one prioritized task done.

download     The first step toward redesigning your office to be most productive is to clearly identify what specifically distracts us from getting our most important tasks done.  Just like a scientist keeps a lab notebook of observations, it is well worth committing to a week of making notes of what distracts you from getting the task at hand done.  Because barriers to effective productivity sneak up on us over time, it often takes an active and purposeful effort to figure out what distracts us.

The table below describes some common office desk distractions and a possible time management hack to improve the situation.


 

OFFICE DESK DISTRACTION

TIME MANAGEMENT HACK

Email Allocate two blocks of time to respond to email, & turn it off otherwise
Text Messages

 

Put your phone charger out of reach of your desk on other side of room & silence it
Papers to Grade

 

Put distracting papers & mail in a box with a lid out of sight to grade when scheduled
Chatty Colleagues Place stacks of paper on your chairs & remove any candy bowls; hold headphones in your hands ready to reinsert when they take a breath
Social Media Put 30-min on your calendar each day to engage in social media & get a timer
“Just need a second” Place sign on closed door that says, “writing with headphones on, please knock loudly” for 2 hours each day
Noisy hallway Ask for noise-reduction headphones for birthday (your friends think you are hard to buy for anyway, so help them out)
Too messy to find anything Clean your desk on Friday afternoon calendar, when you are largely unproductive anyway

The best time managers among us spend the first five minutes of each day planning out their day.  They know precisely what time they will start working, what they will be working on at 10am and 2pm, and perhaps most importantly, they know precisely what time they will be going home.  Sure, interruptions will happen, but an effective plan takes that into account: If you have meeting after meeting scheduled every second of the day, you shouldn’t have writing a paper on your daily plan, because that isn’t going to happen. Moreover, before they go out the door, successful time managers take five minutes to note what they will do first thing tomorrow morning, that way they don’t have to worry about work all evening, interrupting valuable rest and family time.

     The most important advice I was ever given was that every day, you need to find time to work on at least one thing that does not have a deadline this week.  If you spend all day every day working on tasks that have quickly or imminently approaching deadlines, you will being highly successful and productive to be incredibly difficult.  This is particularly important for professors who are pursuing tenure or promotion.

Very little of what earns professors tenure or promotion are tasks that have specific deadlines: refereed journal articles; collecting research data; developing innovative teaching approaches; successful student recruiting & mentoring; collaborative research projects with other faculty. Do something today that has no deadline that moves you forward professionally!

images (1)     When you get good at time management, you get to spend more time doing what you love about your job.  No professor gets promoted by filing committee reports, attending meetings, grading papers, or balancing research budgets.  Sure, these things are important, but not as important as doing what you love about your job: writing more, reading more, spending more time in a research setting, more creative teaching, and working more closely with students and colleagues.


 

Do you have an “urgency addiction” to address?

Have you ever said, “Let me just glance at my email real quick before I ….” ?  You might have an “urgency addition.  This happens anytime your subconscious thinks, “Maybe there is something that just came in that I can respond to so that I can feel like I’ve accomplished something ….…instead of what I was supposed to be doing”

Remember this:  It’s completely unfair to the person who took time to send you email to just “dash-off” a quick response…REALLY

RULE: If you don’t have time to have manners (Dear Pat.. Thanks for your email, by the way, you did a nice job on that presentation last week, I appreciated the time you took to find that data ….) – then you don’t have time to check your email

TRY IT:  Try signing your emails NRN (No reply necessary, I just wanted you to be in the loop on this information) when you don’t want to get a response email.  Its a GIFT!

The Busy Professor Guidebook- Now On Sale!!!

It’s finally here, THE BUSY PROFESSOR’s book is now available for purchase on Amazon….check out:  https://amzn.to/2pQ7l9d 

 

Busy Professor Book Cover Faculty are busy—busier than ever. No matter what your institutions’ size, focus, or location, there is simply more to be done every day than can be.  There are students to be taught, papers and reports to be written, and meeting and service commitments to attend to.  All of this while you are supposed to be innovatively creative and lead a balanced reflective and supportive personal life.


If you are going to get out of the whirlwind and be more productive at work while successfully maintaining a healthy home life, you need some tried and true time management strategies that actually work for successful professors.  With the right mindset and a tuned toolbox of time saving techniques, you can successfully manage your email, get more writing done, innovate in the classroom, be more responsive to students, be prepared and on time for meetings, and  enjoy the intellectual lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.


 

If you’d like to schedule The Busy Professor to come speak to your group, please contact us on the web at TheBusyProfessor.com or via email at TheBusyProfessor@CAPERteam.com

Do Busy Professors Post on Social Media?

pexels-photo-267350.jpegPersonally, I am torn about the importance social media should play in your professional life.  I am not torn, however, about the role of social media in our personal life.  There is absolutely no place for social media in a Busy Professor‘s personal life.  The tiny bit of good out there, like seeing updated pictures of your grandchildren, is far overshadowed by the negative aurora consuming social media.  Scholarly work by Martin Seligman and others shows that people feel depressed after looking at social media either because they see happy people who seem happier than they themselves are or they see unhappy people and unnecessarily feel empathy for them.  The rapidly growing research base on happiness is rather clear.  Happiness comes from ongoing relationships, extended engagement in projects, and meaningful purpose that comes from serving causes bigger than ourselves—and absolutely none of this happens in the cesspool of social media.

Professionally, there are perhaps some benefits to being on social media, mostly in the realm of self-promotion.  We haven’t talked about self-promotion much here because academics generally shun self-promotion, even though academics seem to engage in the practice frequently.  There is a mythical illusion that academia is a meritocracy, and that the people doing the best work should automatically rise to the top of notoriety.  The pathway that this false narrative recommends is for professors to downplay, or even loudly mention, one’s professional successes.  This make-believe storyline is complete baloney as nothing could be farther from the truth.  Busy Professors strive to do good work, and they do not hide that good work from their colleagues, even though jealousy is certainly to arise in the most surprising of corners.  Social media is one way that Busy Professors should distribute the results of their work, because you won’t be invited to give conference lectures or be nominated for academic awards if people do not know of your work and having at least some online presence is required these days for this to occur.

So how does a Busy Professor utilize social media to self-promote one’s good works, without getting sucked into the vortex of the worst of social media?  If you are self-disciplined, one solution is to post and schedule future posts without actually reading anyone else’s social media posts.  If you are still building up your self-discipline, then the best solution is to quickly search the Internet for “simultaneous posting to social media at once” and you will be presented with a number of web-based programs that will simultaneously post or post items as scheduled for you.  For example, I work with a team that distributes a quarterly email newsletter of upcoming events and opportunities for academics.  My task on the team is to take those newsletter items and be sure that one gets inserted into the social media stream each week, so that people visiting the group’s Facebook page sees what looks like an active online presence.  It takes about 30-minutes to set up three the next three months of scheduled postings and our group is able to be seemingly present in social media, without any one of us personally getting sucked into that inescapable social media black hole. The same goes for blogging where academics can temporarily post their budding academic ideas and get interactive feedback faster than from a traditional journal, which only works if blogging is a temporary tool to advance one’s intellectual thinking.  Blogging is never the core focus activity of Busy Professors’ and certainly never the end-product.

tumblr_m9wj21hX9M1rpzsjl            This approach of scheduling automated social media posting has the additional benefit of keeping Busy Professors out of the rapid response mistake.  Far too many of my busy professor colleagues who are too busy reading and posting and reading and replying and reading and posting again to publish anything because they have become inflamed about an issue of the moment, brought to their attention by the tsunami or the 24-hour news cycle news-alerts.  Remember that no matter how eloquent a social media response is, no one ever has their political mind fundamentally changed because of what they read posted on social media.  Social media is specially designed to be a den of confirmation bias that serves only to construct easily identifiable, large-scale commercial demographic markets. Because they know this, Busy Professors keep their focus on the production of archival level scholarship instead of engaging in quickly evaporating 240-character social media spars or buried, rarely read, blog posts.

How Busy Professors Manage to Publish More

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, TheBusyProfessor@CAPERteam.com

Almost all of us benefit professionally from successful writing projects.  Unquestionably, if you want to up your credibility and visibility in the academic community, writing is the fastest way to do this.  Whether right or wrong, professors who have more words in print are afforded more credibility than those professors who write less.  Prolific authors are more often those who are solicited to serve on the most productive committees, highest profile national task forces, field-shaping federal agency grant proposal review boards, and for influential professional society leadership positions.  And, what is perhaps more surprising, is that the number of words you get in print is largely a personal decision: Those who intentionally decide to publish more end up publishing more than those who decide not to publish, but go to endless committee meetings instead.

One might mistakenly think that the only writing goals professors should have are to be first-authors on articles in top tier, peer-reviewed, highly-cited journals.  Such is a good goal, for sure, but there are so many other venues where professors’ writings can have abundant influence, perhaps even greater readership numbers than that of a top journal.

I am not at all suggesting that you don’t need top-tier journal articles to advance professionally; however, we sometimes we forget how rarely those articles get read compared to other types of writing.  Moreover, getting an article in a top tier journal means fighting through an editorial wall where less than 10% of everything submitted is published and, even if successful, waiting 18-months or more to see your work in print.  To be abundantly clear, professor need some long, hard won top-tier traditional publications in the CV, but that’s really just not enough to achieve national visibility that comes from frequently having your name in print as a by-line.

Places Prolific Professors Publish

  • Top-tier, peer reviewed journals
  • 2nd-tier, peer reviewed journals
  • Books and book chapters
  • Professional conference proceedings
  • Newsletter contributions for professional societies and organizations
  • Newspaper columns
  • University alumni magazines
  • Magazine articles not intended for your professional peers, but for the public
  • Textbooks potentially read by thousands of college students, and their professors
  • And, of course, Internet web-blogs

maximise-publications-impact1Increasing your publication footprint is embarrassingly simple. The number one stumbling block that prevents professors from publishing more is simply this:  Most publishing efforts have no predetermined deadlines and, as a result, most professors do not find time to publish.  If you want to publish more, then you must (1) decide that your want to publish and (2) allocate time to do it.   Publishing more is, of course, simple in the same way that losing weight is simple—one loses weight when one eats fewer calories.  In both cases, you have to decide it is important and make a commitment to a plan to do it.

Most professors are surprised how little time it actually takes to be a widely published author.  An hour a day totaling about four hours a week is a great place to start.  What does not work is binge writing. Nope, never, neh-eh.  No prolific author waits until they feel like it (no one ever feels like getting on a treadmill either) to write.  No prolific authors wait until they have a three- or four-day weekend to write, or even a three- or four-hour block of undisturbed time.  Those time blocks never really materialize.  So forget about that excuse of needing an undisturbed time block right now because it just isn’t going to happen.

sleeplateMost people think they are “not a morning person” but it turns out that the most productive writers do in the morning.  Mornings seem to work best because one’s mind is clearer after sleeping and waiting until later in the day seems to fill one’s brain with the whirlwind debris left over from daily life.  I try to write 500 words each day before I check my email – because as soon as I check my email, I’ve got some unexpected urgent to do item that will always derail my daily writing goal.

Some professors worry that they really have nothing to write about.  As it turns out, when people start writing, their brains start generating new ideas to write about.  In other words, the more you sit down to write (even if you have to repeatedly type I have nothing to write about, I have nothing to write about), the more writing ideas will pop into your head spontaneously.  (In the time it has taken me to write this paragraph, I’ve had to stop twice just to write down new writing project ideas.)  Look at the table of ideas above and see if there is an easy place to start.

The most obvious place to find something to write about is your most recent conference presentations.  Every conference presentation is a great outline for writing a paper about.  Moreover, if you didn’t give any presentations in the past few years, think about other presentations you’ve heard, and write a well-cited “me too, I (dis)agree” piece.

If you are really stuck, walk down to a more senior professor’s office and say, “I’m stuck on the project I’m working on and need to let it soak for six months; do you have a languishing paper you are too busy for that I could adopt and co-write with you to get it out the door?”  Most of us have things sitting around that need a fresh pair of eyes to get unstuck, and this presents a great opportunity for you to get something new published.

downloadFor me, the best piece of advice I can offer to you this instant is to allocate an unbreakable appointment with yourself to start writing.  Professors often say that they cannot find time to write; but, professors find time to teach class every week, and do not break that appointment.  In the same way, you need an unbreakable appointment to write several times a week.  Now, go find your calendar and make that happen!

Interested in having TheBusyProfessor visit your institution?

Finding Time to Do It: New Lessons in Time Management for Busy Faculty

Timothy F. Slater, Ph.D. University of Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Professor of Science Education

Busy Professor Book CoverFaculty are busy—busier than ever. No matter what your institutions’ size, focus, or location, there is simply more to be done every day than can be. There are students to be taught, papers and reports to be written, and meeting and service commitments to attend to. All of this while you are supposed to be innovatively creative and lead a balanced reflective and supportive personal life. If you are going to get out of the whirlwind and be more productive at work while successfully maintaining a healthy home life, you need some tried and true time management strategies that actually work for busy professors. With the right mindset and a tuned toolbox of time saving techniques, you can successfully manage your email, get more writing done, innovate in the classroom, be more responsive to students, be prepared and on time for meetings, and still have a healthy home life.

About the Speaker: Dr. Tim Slater is an internationally respected scholar in science education. Formally trained as an astronomer, he is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education, has co-authored 14 books, has been awarded nearly $20 million dollars in grants, and has more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles. He is the University of Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair of Science Education and a Senior Scientist at the international CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research. Known widely as the “Professor’s Professor” Dr. Slater has provided workshops on innovative teaching and successful career management to thousands of college professors worldwide. In order to figure out how to do all of this, he has developed exceptional skills in time management, and has just released his next book, The Busy Professor: New Lessons in Time Management for Busy Faculty, available on Amazon in print and Kindle.   Discounted group sales copies are available by contacting TheBusyProfessor@CaperTeam.com

<<if needed, high resolution images of the speaker are available online for download: https://caperteam.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/tim-celestial-sphere2-2009-scaled-1000.jpg >>

Contact Information:

Dr. Tim Slater, timslaterwyo@gmail.com, cell/txt: 520-975-1373