best laid plans · promotion · reflection · saving my sanity · writing

30 Minute Miracle: A Measure of Faculty Time

I went up for tenure last July. In these last 18 months I have worked harder and got more done than I ever thought possible. I did it 30 minutes at a time.

This is what 30 minutes means in my day:

  • freewriting 400 words on a research/writing project
  • writing 100-200 words on an article draft
  • grading 2 response papers
  • reading / commenting on 8-10 pages of grad student draft writing
  • reading 15 pages of a textbook, or 6-8 pages of an article
  • revising 2 pages of my own writing
  • preparing for a meeting by reading all provided materials
  • copyediting 10-12 pages of my own writing
  • reviewing 3 grad course proposals
  • reading 5 online news articles, from my Twitter feed
  • reading / commenting on 3 blog posts
  • meeting with one grad student or two undergrads
  • ordering 1-100 books on Amazon 🙂
  • prepping a repeat 80 minute class
  • writing half a peer review of an article
  • answering 5-10 emails (depends on complexity)
  • book a flight / a rental car / a hotel and fill out a reimbursement form
In the process of working to get tenure, I saw what happened when I really made use of my time, its wee little increments, 15 or 30 minutes at a time. For me, this is what a year of 30 minute increments looks like:
  • create and teach a new first-year course in my area, with excellent reviews
  • revise and teach a grad course, with very good reviews
  • revise and teach 200 pages of writing handbook MS to my editor for a new edition
  • write three articles and had two published
  • co-author a short piece for University Affairs with Heather and Erin
  • give four conference presentations (two invited, two international)
  • give one invited academic presentation at another university
  • give two hour-long public lectures
  • apply for and won a SSHRC Standard Research Grant ($58K)
  • teach a week-long workshop at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute
  • supervise an honours thesis
  • supervise an MA Major Research Project
  • peer-review four journal articles and one book MS
  • serve on department-level graduate and appointments committees
  • serve on two university-level committees, and was appointed to a third
  • write something upward of 30 blog posts for Hook and Eye
I have learned, through this incredibly productive year, that 30 minutes is actually a pretty important unit of time. I’ve learned that even 15 minutes have real substance to them, and that my day, week, semester, career is actually made up of a vast but not limitless series of 30 minute increments. Now here’s where it gets interesting: because I have discovered that I can–and do–get a lot done in these increments, I have recently come to see my time as valuable. 
This insight has been both incredibly empowering, and incredibly guilt-inducing.
(Of course, right?)
As a junior faculty member, out of an aim to ingratiate myself and out of a general tendency to be very social and with a further predilection towards saying yes no matter what the question, I said yes to everything: need it right away? Sure, I can drop what I’m doing. You’re going to be 10 minutes late? I’ll just sit here. Of course I’ll come to campus for a 20 minute meeting. Oh, someone screwed this up somewhere and now it’s a rush? No problem. No one else wants to be on this committee? Yeah, I’ll do it.
But this year, I transformed my career by saying no to things I used to say yes to: those yesses were hindering my ow productivity as a researcher, as a teacher, as a colleague, out of some misplaced agreeableness. Now I say no: No, I can’t meet you today. No, I won’t be able to attend that event. No, I can’t answer your email within two hours of you sending it. No, I can’t serve on that committee. No, I can’t supervise that thesis / project / reading course. No, I’m not willing to be nominated for Senate. No, I can’t work extra fast to make up for your missed deadline. No, I can’t just drop what I’m doing right now.  
I feel kinda like a bitch, frankly, insisting in the ways that I now find myself doing, that my time is valuable and I will split my 40/40/20 to maximize my own productivity. Before I give it away, I measure my time by what I could get done with it: if a 20 minute meeting on campus means 30 minute commute each way, then I know I could read an entire article, or prep two classes, or write 1000 words of freewriting–is the meeting that important? Or can it wait until I’m already on campus and it will ‘cost’ me less time? Or, better, can we do it over the phone?
I know that I was saying yes for maybe the wrong reasons and to little purpose, and that no one wants to take advantage of me, or watch me martyr myself on the flaming pyre of my own career, but saying no still feels like a really hard thing to do. I try to treat my own time with as much respect as I hope I have always treated everyone else’s. But I still feel selfish and awful about it, at the same time as I feel so great about what I’m accomplishing in all areas of the job.
Dammit. How do you protect your time? What can you get done in 30 minutes, and how do you make sure you get to keep those minutes? And can you do this and still feel like a ‘nice’ person?

6 thoughts on “30 Minute Miracle: A Measure of Faculty Time

  1. This was a wonderful post for me to wake up to this morning. As an undergrad trying to do (perhaps to many) extra projects alongside my degree, I often find myself in a bind for lack of time. But I often also write off (rather than writing in) those 30-minute segments of time. 30 minutes seems too short, and so I give myself an excuse: 'you can't really get into that writing project in that amount of time. By the time you get started, you'll have to drop it and be somewhere else.' Sometimes, that is true. Some things do demand hour-long stints of undivided attention. But most things don't. Most things, even if I'm tackling them in hour-long stints, get no more than 15 or 30 minutes to themselves, because I am a chronic multitasker (or just easily distracted). Perhaps I'll make a list, like yours, of things I can get done in those short, 15-30 minute segments. I'm always looking for more hours in the day, but maybe I should be looking for more minutes instead.


  2. Thanks, Lee!

    Erika, your process sounds very similar to mine, frittering the minutes away and then wondering where the hours went. It's so, so easy to do, and every day I have to remind myself that those little bits of time are NOT useless, and to push myself to USE them for something. And every day I'm amazed! I love how you've phrased it: looking for minutes instead of looking for hours. Love it!


  3. I share Erika's sentiments. It's the small steps that build the journey. All the posts at Hook & Eye are always so incredibly inspirational. I, too, am a grad student, and your ideas, suggestions, and discussions, provide a much needed support for those of us struggling to see the big picture. Your (Heather, Erin, and yours) take on the academic life from an insider's perspective has been very helpful and reassuring that hard as it may be, I am on the right path. Keep up the great work!


  4. This is an excellent post. That list of specific things you can accomplish in 30 minutes, and the list of bigger things that led to is particularly valuable.

    I have written on both the value of 30 minutes and the importance of saying no. This post makes a good complement to those more theoretical musings.


  5. Wow – thanks for this! I'm a grad student & TA/instructor, coming up on my dissertation work. I think I'm going to make a similar list of my 30 minute jobs and post it on my bulletin board. What an excellent post.


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