academy · administration · best laid plans · day in the life · failure

Keeping track

How do you keep track of all your obligations?

My fall rhythm is out of whack this year, as I’m not teaching my complement of courses on campus (I have a release from my two classes in order to develop an online version of one of our core courses …). Normally, the times and places that I teach and hold office hours anchor my week and fill my calendar with repeating, regular obligations. “Lather, rinse, grade, repeat,” as it were. Uprooted from that regularity, I find I’m having some trouble remembering everything I have to do, and being in the right place at the right time.

Here’s some of what I’m trying to stay on top of:

  • Executive position on national scholarly organization
  • Executive position on faculty association
  • Subcommittee membership related to same
  • Helping rewrite the university’s copyright documents
  • Chairing a PhD area exam committee (co-create exam, meet with students)
  • Department meetings related to urgent, irregular matters
  • Hiring activities, and visiting speakers
  • Supervising 3 PhD students, 2 MA students, and 1 undergrad, and reading their writing and meeting with them about funding and proposal and dissertation/thesis deadlines
  • Peer review for two publications
  • Meetings with the team helping me produce the online course
  • Blogging at Hook & Eye
  • Applying for conferences and workshops
I keep forgetting things, missing appointments or writing them down for the wrong time or forgetting to follow up on things I’m meant to take a lead on or filling out an email survey or offering feedback on something or answering an urgent question or whatever.
Not teaching, I realize, doesn’t mean I have more free time. I don’t. I do have, though, a lot more unstructured time. My obligations are scatter-shot through the week, every week looking different from every other.
I’m pretty sure if I could figure out a better system, I could stay on top of all of this. None of the work is impossible. But I seem to spend a lot of my time trying to manage my time and figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, and waking up in the middle of the night having forgotten something important, and racing to catch up.
I try really hard to use my iCal, which syncs across all my devices (two computers, a phone, an iPad, the cloud). But I forget to check it. And I am trying to use Things, a great organizer and to-do list for iOS, but again, I often forget to check it. My paper lists are really good, but not if I leave the notebook at school and I have a day at home.
I guess everyone is right: the post-tenure years really are super jam packed with … the drip drip drip of professional obligation. I’ve never ever been trying to do so very many different things where I have so much responsibility, all at the same time. I’m not sure how to do this right. I’m used to big responsibility in a limited number of things that I already know how to do well, and that fit large and regular chunks of time (like teaching, or my research). All the professional work, and all these graduate students, and administration work? This is new. I’d like to be proactive in all my new roles: I have lots of ideas and lots of energy. But I seem to be getting really frazzled just trying to make sure I am in the right placea t the right time, and minimally prepared. I want to do more than that. And I gotta figure it out.

7 thoughts on “Keeping track

  1. You should read my dissertation on time-tracking software! Just kidding. No one should read that again. Ever.

    But seriously, what you're talking about is “loose time” versus “taut time.” Taut time is the norm now. It's the direct result of projectification of everyday life. It's almost impossible to get so many things done because they involve other people.

    The central issue isn't you getting “on top” of things, but knowing with whom to synchronize and when. The problem is that they're not always focusing on the same thing as you are, at the same time.

    Synchronization is even harder when you factor in time-changes and the myriad of asynchronous communication devices.

    I advise to synchronize as much as possible. This means phone calls and face-to-face instead of email or memos (ha! remember memos!). When possible, schedule a skype chat with someone who is on one of these other “projects.”

    Separate the projects that require no synchronization. Relegate them to certain days, if possible. Protect that time. Organize those times with a list on a white board before you sit down to do it.

    On synchronizing days, do the “non synchronizing” work relating to those projects. Fit it in between f2f meetings.

    Don't worry about technical solutions. Use lists or paper. Just as effective. But revisit them regularly and update.

    Good luck!


  2. Maybe this makes me an old fart but, while agree with pretty much all that she says, unlike Sam I find that email is actually my best friend for keeping a bunch of things moving at once. You can fit it around your own schedule and so it solves some of the synchronization issues. It's in writing, so you can craft the message a bit, which can be an advantage compared to telephone calls for those of us who don't specialize in thinking on our feet. Nobody notices that you look like hell when you send them, which is an advantage over meetings. And, in general, it's good for my state of mind to think that someone owes me a reply rather than the other way around.

    I know. It's just my age that makes me an old fart.


  3. I appreciate this post; I am a grad student and a TA and applying for grants and blogging and writing regularly. It often seems impossible to remember to do everything I need to do on the day I need to do it. My solution is an agenda, but that only works half of the time. I often set reminders on my phone to remind me to send emails or call people.


  4. Aimée, this is a great iteration of a problem that I face, too. Even though I teach, there are so many extraneous activities I have to keep track of, and so many deadlines, that I'm perpetually in search of a good/better platform. Just putting them in an agenda, as Jill S. suggests, does not suffice for me. I've tried setting them out on a hard-copy (gasp!) monthly calendar, but there were only the deadlines there, not the minutia of every application (and they all require different documents! the joy!). I have now created an Excel file. Next up, my very own time management software ;-)!
    I, too, really like the notions Sam brought into the conversation: synchronizing with my referees is an undying question for me. When is it ideal to send them notifications so they're not as early as to be forgotten, but not as late as to cause a rearrangement of that person's schedule?
    And the list could go on, just like my own laundry list of tasks, that I write out every day.


  5. I must admit that I swear by a notebook where I make lists, a whiteboard in my office, and a 4 month resuable calendar. The last two help me see at a glance what is coming up.


  6. My approach is to book a time (usually at the beginning of the week) to manage time. I use Google calendar, not just as an agenda, but also as a task management software. I make “appointments” to work on projects, do research, and write. Each week, I review my to do lists (which I try to make very specific and which I keep track of electronically in the program “wunderlist”) and identify tasks that have to be completed that week, tasks that require some time that week to keep projects moving, and other tasks that might have to wait. I then block in time for essential tasks. Once a month, I revisit responsibilities or projects that are ongoing and try update my list of tasks. Once a term, I revisit the whole system and see what I've accomplished and what still needs attention. I also use a similar system for things I know I need to do in my life outside of work (i.e. exercise and date night – both go into my calendar). It seems to work pretty well most of the time…until those days and weeks where you feel like you have no time at all.


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