academic work · best laid plans · empowerment · ideas for change · modest proposal · organization · saving my sanity

Drop in, tune out

Here’s an experiment I’m undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they’re out of town, they can call. At the same time, I’m also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I’m overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.

Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.

My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what’s happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.

So far, I’m calling the experiment a success. I’m getting less email now, AND, I’m solving more problems for students, more quickly. I’m trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I’m also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I’m not really getting that much better at it.

In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they’re part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there’s nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I’m helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone’s expectations in check.

I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I’ll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they’re even having fun together out in the hallways. It’s convivial.

And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.

A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: “Send me an email to remind me!” I’d say. But then, honestly, I’d let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.

For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don’t do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it’s an experiment.

In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I’ve finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first  meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.

balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

failure · organization

Deadlines

I’m in a bind right now because of a missed deadline. Not my own. I’m commenting on a paper at a conference next week, but I only got the paper that I am supposed to respond to a couple of days ago, when I had expected it in mid-February. Under different circumstances, I might be able to produce a 10 minute talk with a week’s notice. And, truth be told, under these circumstances I have to, whether I like it or not. But this particular week I also have to teach, return papers, sit on a candidacy exam, finish another presentation for the same conference, prepare a final assignment, go to a doctor’s appointment, pack and get ready to leave and the rest of the usual stuff. 

And did I mention that it’s a long weekend? Before my son was in daycare, a long weekend was just that, a longer than usual break from responding to email, or having to schedule meetings. But now a long weekend means no daycare on Friday or Monday – the two days I had anticipated, and needed, to finish all this work. 

Such is life and I will get the talk finished. In this particular instance, it was difficult to prepare the talk in advance — given that it is supposed to be a response to the other paper. So I doubt that it will be the most thoughtful, well-researched piece of work I have ever produced. But, truth be told, I see little reason in being angry or frustrated given that, at this point, I can’t change the situation. 

This situation is also far from the first missed deadline I’ve encountered in academia. I’m not strict with my students about deadlines: for major assignments I tell them that, within reason, so long as they contact me in advance of the deadline I will consider an extension. And in every class I have ever taught, even with that flexible policy, at least one student has missed a deadline.

The most egregious missed deadlines I’ve encountered have been when editing journals, issues, or books. Chasing down peer reviewers and revisions are the main reasons I can see, why there can be long delays in works seeing the published light of day. The most frustrating situation I found myself in was when I accepted a series of abstracts for a special issue of a journal and then the deadline for the completed paper came and went, with two of the seven contributors submitting nothing. I tried to contact each author repeatedly but never even got the courtesy of a response. 

And I’m far from innocent in all of this. I have missed deadlines because I misjudged how much work I was taking on; because of circumstances beyond my control (such as when I had my work computer stolen); or because I felt that it was worth taking extra time to complete something. 

What have I learned from all these missed deadlines? 

1) Remind students / contributors / colleagues that things are coming due. Repeat.

2) Don’t miss deadlines. It throws everything off and reflects poorly on you. Sometimes it is more important that you show up then that you be the most brilliant belle at the ball. 

3) If you have to miss a deadline, contact the person to whom the work is due and let them know that you are going to be late and give them a realistic alternate deadline. And then don’t beat yourself up about it. Sh** happens. 

On that note, I have a talk I have to go prepare.