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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

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.

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!