The role of support in academia

This semester, I did some things very differently than I had in previous semesters. A lot of that change was driven by Meggin McIntosh’s Academic Decluttering program. You’ve heard me talk about it before – it really helps you distill what is important, what’s not, and how to plan your day for best effectiveness.

Unlike before, I didn’t try to make the most out of every minute. I didn’t get up at 5:30am and work until 8:30pm. I learned to create pockets around my work that made life so much easier. Some things that work when I work the program include:

  • Having agendas and clear start/end times for meetings
  • Scheduling time after each meeting for follow-up and debriefing as necessary
  • Streamlining my calendar and to-do lists (I now use Google for everything)
  • Over-estimating the time it takes to do things
  • Leaving gaps in the calendar between meetings
  • Most importantly, getting very clear in what I wanted to do and be – rather than what was expected of me by former bosses, advisers, and whatnot.

I channeled this newfound energy a bit using Karen Kelsky’s strategy from her book The Professor is In. All the work I’d done to determine what I wanted and what I didn’t culminated in a document that allowed me to be less stressed than I’ve been in a long time – the semester plan. In the semester plan, I broke down the duties I needed to accomplish by month and by role. The roles I included were:

  • Professional development and CEUs (those of you who need ’em, you know why spacing them out is a good idea)
  • Writing and Scholarship
  • Teaching
  • Service and administration

Then I got pieces of paper and wrote down every single manuscript, project, committee, hobby, etc… that was unfinished and needed work. Decisions were made about whether those projects fit where I was or if they just didn’t. Things that made the cut went into the plan, and were broken into specific, actionable steps. Those steps were all assigned due dates throughout the semester.

Having a nice, easy plan was great, and really helped with productivity. But what made more of a difference was external accountability. Although hardly scientific, Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies really changed the way I looked at accountability. I was holding myself to the standards of the upholders – the ones who make commitments to themselves as important to those they make with others. I tend to be an obliger – one that makes commitments to others more important. No wonder things like writing took a backseat to student feedback! All this time, I was beating myself up for a trait that I was probably better off accommodating.

So I went out in search of ways to be held accountable for my actions. I’d already been a longtime member of Academic Ladder and the Academic Writing Club, but I never took advantage of the community like I could have. I started interacting more with members and using the challenge chats to get more done. In challenge chats, you log onto a chat room, tell people what you are planning to accomplish, and get to work. Then you check back in to share your progress. This alone was helpful.

In addition, I got myself a coach. Life coaching sounds so luxurious and for those without adulting skills, doesn’t it? But honestly, my experience has been great. I signed up using and my coach has been really encouraging. She checks in each day and asks pointed questions about how things are going. She provides me with resources, too. That said, it’s different than a counseling relationship. No promises of confidentiality and the point isn’t about finding yourself at all. It’s about accountability. The price varies, and some features are free, so it is accessible to the average professor.

Another thing that was incredibly helpful to me was hiring an editor for my manuscripts. I’d always resisted the professional editor. That was for people who didn’t have English teachers for Moms, right? I soon realized, though, that part of my block was because of perfection. If I had a safe person to review my manuscripts and provide feedback before sending, well, I was more likely to write said manuscripts and send them for peer review. More money well spent.

Now that the semester is drawing to a close, it’s time for me to reflect, update, and re-visit. Many goals have been accomplished, and others are well on their way. Some things are still on the plan hoping to be finished at some point. I hope to say that the change is quite sustainable, but I don’t know yet. One thing we know is that the data never lie.

A little digression into time management

I read an article today that I think might be helpful enough to digress from standing desks and momentum to time management.

I read this article today in The Guardian (am I the most stereotypical prof or what? For the record, I also wear hipster glasses and hang out in craft breweries). The advice here is from Julie Morganstern, one of the OGs of organization. Meggin McIntosh has done a nice job of translating the principles into ones that are do-able for academics. 

Why do I read these things and pass them on to you?  You probably have this idea that I have a perfectly organized office, no chaos, and that I’m smiling and organized all the time.  Nope.  I’m working the programs just like you are.  I find when I use these strategies, they help, and when I don’t, well, I’m a mess.  Progress, not perfection, right? 

So what are some of the takeaways I got from the article? 

  • Disorganization takes precious time and resources from you – time you could be spending somewhere else
  • Put things in the most efficient places – for example, keys in a basket by the door (which, for the record, I already do, just not neatly)
  • You have to know what you have to declutter. Oy, yes.  Raise your hand if you have seven million tote bags, post-its, and pens from places you will never work? Conference swag and attendee name tags?  Tee shirts with nerdy phrases that sounded fun when you were with fellow nerds?  (Anyone still have a “f**k mentalism” tee from the late 90s ABA conferences, before the I was added)?
  • Sometimes you have to schedule time to do nothing.  Having some time to just hang out is a form of self-care. Don’t schedule your life so tightly.

That last one, and the idea of “buckets,” were game-changers for me.  Buckets are clustering similar work into one time frame, based upon your natural energy patterns.  I’m not talking how you align your chakras; what I mean is your natural patterns of productivity.  For example, late morning to early evening are my most productive times. I tend to be what we call in my house a “second shift” person.

By working with your natural patterns, the probability of success goes up. All of my other attempts at time management consisted of filling every waking hour with productivity.  Up at 5:30 and go until 9pm.  These changes rarely lasted more than a week.  Now, I have time for things I would have railed at before, and I don’t feel as pressured.

Am I perfect?  Nope.  As I said earlier, I’m “face down in the arena” just like everyone else.  But good enough is better than perfect, because often perfect never happens.  That’ll be a post for a later time.