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.


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

Improving Time Management at Your Desk


Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

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.




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.