How to prioritize your time?
Time is our most precious resource. Just like everyone else, professors have limited time to do the work they want to do. What is different about a professor's job though is that their time is completely their own, that is, professors get to decide how to spend their time; often, their personal and professional lives are intertwined. For a junior faculty, like me, a key five-year goal is to obtain tenure (I will explain the tenure process in more detail in a separate post), which is basically to get promoted and attain a permanent position at university. At most research-intensive universities, professors’ performance is judged by their research productivity, which is measured by three key achievements: i) the amount of funding raised by research grants, ii) the quality and quantity of peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and iii) the number of graduate students matriculated from the research group. We are also evaluated on teaching performance (i.e. evaluation scores given by students in our classes) and our contributions to department-, college-, and university-level services (e.g. graduate admissions committee, faculty selection committee, etc.).
Having complete freedom over my time is my favorite part of the job. The freedom allows me to select my own working hours and plan around travel. The schedules of professors are as varied as their personalities. For example, I was traveling for 17 out of 52 weeks last year (2018); these trips included both personal and professional travel and ranged from two days to two weeks. Given that I'm traveling one out of three weeks on average, there really isn't a “typical week.”
The Faculty Success Program
The freedom in time-management has a flip side too: it is very easy to slack off if I am not self-motivated. It is also very easy to spend a lot of my time on activities that will not be the top criteria for evaluating my performance: e.g. service, administrative work, and teaching. In order to help us manage our time better and prioritize our activities, my college has sponsored my participation in The Faculty Success Program offered by the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. When I was initially offered the opportunity to participate, I was skeptical about the program because it seems like a big time-commitment with unclear benefits. I consulted with a few of my colleagues and determined that it has indeed been beneficial for most of them. So, I decided to participate and we are now four weeks into the 12-week Bootcamp. I am pleasantly surprised by the program. Although it does require time-commitment towards weekly activities, the accountability introduced by the program has helped enforce priorities that are necessary for my successful performance.
In brief, the program has the following three key components: i) a weekly homework where we learn new techniques for managing our time or prioritizing our work, ii) weekly meetings with a small group to discuss our goals and any challenges in obtaining these goals (the conversation is facilitated by an experienced coach who is an established faculty member), and iii) daily tracking of activities (i.e. the amount of time spent on research, writing, teaching, and service tasks and our daily challenges). Following this process enables me to collect data on myself and thus, allows me to evaluate my progress and make adjustments to my goals or strategies (which was this week's homework). Since we post our goals within our small groups, the members of the group hold each other accountable to these goals. The accountability has helped me focus my time on my research and writing. I have also realized that I can spend less time on my service activities without hampering my contribution to those activities simply by evaluating what component of the service is necessary and critical.
The program can work for you too
These strategies are not just limited to professors though; if you find yourself spending too much time on work and not achieving the desired results, you can learn from these strategies too. You can also attain better work-life harmony (which is the term Jeff Bezos has emphasized and I relate to as well, as opposed to work-life balance). If you wish to implement the strategies from the Bootcamp in your own life, the three key tasks are as follows: i) build a strategic plan for professional and personal goals, ii) hold a weekly planning meeting with yourself (less than 30 minutes per week) and iii) evaluate your progress in four-week intervals and adjust your strategy.
Since professors operate on the basis of school terms, a term is a useful unit of time for planning. You can also plan for the next 12 weeks or 3 months. The key is to list out your major work-related goals and personal goals. Within each work-related goal, you need to divide it up into projects or tasks that are necessary to complete the goals. These tasks need to be measurable and you need to be able to allocate time to them. They should be broken down into further tasks as necessary until they are very specific (e.g. to the level of ‘send an e-mail to person A to set up a meeting’). Once you have a list of goals and projects, you need to arrange them by priority. Next, you want to lay out the projects on a weekly basis for the next 12 weeks. Make sure to include any known events (e.g. travel plans) in the week to ensure that the projects are proportionally allocated (i.e. you will have less time to work when you are traveling). Once you have laid out your projects onto the weeks, you will realize whether you are being realistic or not. For example, my initial strategic plan for the summer made me realize that I was being too ambitious and I cut down on some of the lower priority goals.
Weekly planning meeting on Sundays
Schedule a 30-minute meeting with yourself every Sunday at a fixed time (I do it at 6 pm). An extremely effective tool for completing the tasks from the strategic plan is the calendar. The first step in the weekly planning meeting is to enter any existing commitments (e.g. meetings, appointments, travel, etc.), which forms the skeleton of the week. The skeleton should include both personal and professional commitments. Next, you want to spend about 10 minutes listing every single task that needs to be completed in the upcoming week while referring to your strategic plan. It is unlikely that you will actually be able to complete all of these tasks because we always want to do more than we have time for. So, the next step is to spend 15 minutes to put the tasks on your calendar and give them appropriate time slots. While filling the calendar, you need to prioritize your strategic tasks first (e.g. research and writing for professors). Once these tasks are filled in, you will realize that there is little to no time for lower priority tasks. Now, we need to get creative about how we complete these tasks (e.g. service) by either delegating, reducing our standards, or abandoning them.
Planning out the week in advance helps to take the important decision of how we want to spend our time in advance instead of trying to decide every day when there are seemingly urgent but potentially unimportant tasks (since our brains make poorer decisions under stressful situations). It is also important to have buffer zones in your calendar to account for the unexpected events that are a normal part of life. Personally, it helps me to know that even if I'm able to accomplish 80% of my ambitious weekly goals, I am making good progress.
Learning new behavior requires rewarding ourselves. One way to do so is by giving ourselves treats. As we grow up, we can often forget the little things that bring us joy, for example for me it is eating chocolate, eating plantain chips, watching Netflix, exploring state/national parks, or traveling to a new destination around the world. It helps to have a list of treats so that you can pick out and reward yourself proportionally to an achievement (e.g. I reward myself with chocolate for writing at least 30 minutes every day or a weekend getaway if I win a small award).
Evaluate and adjust
After four weeks of experimenting with the weekly planning meeting, you should evaluate your progress towards your strategic plan. If you are on track, that's great! You should reward yourself from the list of treats. If you're falling behind, it is helpful to figure out why. It would be either due to technical challenges (e.g. you did not actually Implement fixed times for tasks on your calendar), psychological obstacles (e.g. you feel like procrastinating by spending time on lower priority tasks), or external realities (e.g. unexpected travel plans). Identifying these challenges helps in adjusting our plan, improving our performance, and attaining our work-life harmony.