In a previous post, I described how reading How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing proved to be beneficial to me, a fairly skeptical scientist, in increasing my writing productivity. (A brief summary of my post: the book recommends scheduling writing time and participating in a writing group. Do it. It works.)
I also alluded to the fact that reading the book has boosted my productivity in other ways, which I’ll now describe in this post. But first, a disclaimer. I’m a science faculty member at a small liberal arts college, and I work solely with undergraduate students. My semesters are primarily focused on teaching (which can include classroom and instructional lab time) and mentoring, with some institutional service thrown in. Research theoretically is partitioned to the summer, but in my world (doing experimental nuclear magnetic resonance research without postdocs or grad students, a fact which makes others in the field blanch upon hearing) I have to fit research in the school year to ensure productive summer work. I mention all this to note that what I’m about to write about may not work for everyone, because the description “professor” can have an amazing number of variations. But it is my hope that the methods that have worked for me, a scientist for whom the typical advice about “getting things done in academia” has always seemed to not relate, might in some way help ProfHacker readers who are in a similar scenario.
Back to the topic of my post: how scheduling writing led me to change up how I schedule my work in its entirety. You see, before I began scheduling writing I filled in my calendar according to other people’s claims on my time: classes, meetings, office hours. That left me with misleadingly wide open “slots” in which I could theoretically get everything else done: prep for each class period, prep for meetings, do the tasks that resulted from meetings, follow up on questions that came up in office hours, read, do the aforementioned writing (which I now realized for me was not just journal article writing but essays, grant proposals, grant activity reports, abstracts, and more), planning the writing, answering email, acquiring data, evaluating the data, etc. You get the picture.
Overall, I had previously felt that I was a fairly productive person. I was getting a lot done, but I had periods, especially on the weekends, in which I felt panicky and could not rest because I sensed that there were work-related items that I should have been doing. After reading How to Write a Lot, I realized that my change in thinking about writing — purposefully scheduling it so that it has a dedicated place in your schedule, and protecting that time — could (and really, should) apply to everything else I need to get done.
So several weeks ago I began sitting down on Friday afternoons and carefully evaluating my schedule for the week to come. At the beginning of the semester, when I put in recurring events for standing class, meeting, and office hour times, I also put in recurring slots for reading, writing, research efforts, and class prep/grading. I review those on Fridays to remind myself that in the coming week, those activities deserve the time allotted. I also review my tasks list, which I maintain in Remember the Milk (RTM), to see what tasks I’ve specifically tagged according to the standing time slots. For example, each week I have to look at the lab we will do with students the following week, make sure we have all the items, make edits to the lab as necessary, and then upload it to Blackboard for students to access; all of these items are recurring tasks in RTM, tagged for the time slot “intro lab administration.” Sometimes I’ll need to enter newly ordered items into our lab database, or fix a piece of equipment. That to-do will be tagged for lab and I’ll know to attend to it in my scheduled intro lab administration slot the next time it comes up. Next, I look at other more general to-do’s that have made their way into RTM and fill in time slots in which I will attend to other miscellaneous responsibilities that don’t happen regularly, such as arranging for clicker use in a faculty inservice day. After this weekly review period, I know I’ve set myself up for spending enough time on all the things I need to do in the coming week, and don’t have to worry that I’m somehow misappropriating my time.
There’s still room for flexibility, an absolute must, with this system. For example, when meetings get scheduled out far in advance they go into the calendar, and then when I do my weekly review I know to work around them as they come up. But the value is that I definitely know I’ve got to work around them and make up for the lost time somewhere. There’s a lot less ambiguity and overestimation of available time in the future. And at the same time, I am less likely to schedule meetings that interfere with my reading, writing, and research time and displace them in the first place.
I’ve been amazed at how this change in thinking has improved my semester thus far. I believe that previously I had a false sense of how much time was available to do everything that is a part of work. I do now have some Friday afternoon moments in which I’m gasping in awe at the sheer volume of things to get done the next week and how little time there is to do them. But now I feel more sure that I’m doing the best that I can with the 24 hours in a day I have. I also feel more motivated to continue to seek out ways to make my work and home life more efficient, to really and truly rest when I am able, to be honest when someone asks me to take on something that is outside of my work and life priorities, and to encourage students to protect their time as well.
Maybe you’re thinking, “she just needlessly reinvented the wheel.” If you already have found a similar process to work for you, then congratulations! But I felt compelled to write about this at ProfHacker because so much of the hacker-type advice seems to be written by those not in the sciences, and I have felt that advice hasn’t related to me. I’ve always thought to myself that those who write about hacking the academy don’t have to set up demos before class and then take them down afterwards, grade quantitative problem sets for both accuracy and appropriateness of solution strategy, make time-sensitive samples that will degrade if you don’t image them soon enough, get a stubborn machine to work, create data before you can even begin to think to write about it, and thus what they’ve suggested (which often is read by me as “just write” or some other oversimplification) doesn’t translate to my work. The few resources that are available for improving productivity in science are often produced by those with administrative help or course releases that allow them to protect their time, which doesn’t relate to me either. So if you’re in this boat with me, this post is for you. Even though “just schedule writing time” may not be directly applicable, there’s a principle there of protecting your time and giving it the attention it deserves that is helpful. I offer this perspective as a possible way to rethink getting things done in the sciences, especially in the small liberal arts college setting.
I’d love to hear more from our ProfHacker readers in the sciences. How do you get things done? Let us know in the comments.
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