Among the many skills you need as an academic leader, time management may be one of the most important ones to have in your toolbox. Though it may sound like one of those “easy” skills you can shrug off and not think much of, the truth is that time management is something many struggle with—especially in our modern era full of distractions.
A distinguishing feature of a career in academia is the unstructured nature of the job. You’re a master of your own time, which can be liberating, but also result in overwhelm and inefficiency if you don’t have effective time-management tactics. Here are some tips to help you structure your time, take control of your days, and find that coveted work-life balance.
Spend time organizing, planning and prioritizing
Many academics will tell you that the flexibility in your schedule is both a benefit and a bane. When there is no structure in your day, you may find yourself feeling scattered and overwhelmed.
Research shows that people who structure their time are less likely to feel anxious about their to-do lists. Organizing and planning out your schedule helps you reduce procrastination, hone in on your priorities, and keep on track with goals.
Carve out time each week—Sunday evening is ideal—to organize yourself and plan out your days so the week ahead feels manageable. The structure and stability will benefit your mental health and well-being.
Create a fixed weekly/monthly schedule and stick to it as best you can
If you’ve ever found yourself working through your child’s softball game, or staying up writing long past your bedtime, you’re not alone. Many academics tend to overwork themselves, using whatever time is available to get work done, stretching themselves beyond what is reasonable.
Fixed schedule productivity is a method that suggests you schedule your working hours, optimize that time you have scheduled to work, and then stop working beyond those hours. It is as simple as this:
- Choose your ideal work hours that will help you achieve the coveted work/life balance. (i.e., 8 am – 4 pm).
- Stick to this schedule as much as you can
The idea here is to set your own hours and then stick with it, not working beyond that set schedule unless absolutely necessary.
Time-block and pre-plan your day (the day before)
Have you ever heard the adage “if it’s not on your calendar, it’s not getting done?” It’s true. Research shows that people who plan their tasks ahead of time are more likely to get things done.
The key to getting things done? Use your calendar to schedule your day—everything from research and writing time to gym time—and then do what it says in your calendar. Though it may seem contradictory, scheduling sets you free. In addition to keeping you organized, keeping a schedule can turn stress into peace of mind.
In a piece for Forbes about work/life balance, Princeton History Professor Kevin Kruse said:
“Highly successful people don’t just burn hour after hour trying to cross more items off their to-do list. Instead, they think through their priorities, schedule time for each, and then enough is enough.”
Set specific office hours and stick with it
As an academic, chances are you’re going to get a lot of meeting requests from students, faculty, and fellow administrators. Schedule blocks of time in your calendar that you can use to accommodate last-minute meeting requests. So when someone asks you if you have a few minutes to chat when you’re writing, for example, you can say, “Drop by my office in an hour and we’ll talk.” Not only does this keep you from derailing your schedule and work flow (these “just need a minute of your time” meetings add up!), but it allows you to stay available to folks who need you.
Streamline the letters of recommendation process (for students)
In addition to meeting with students and faculty, you may also receive a large number of requests for letters of recommendation from students, for example, or faculty members may need your input for evaluations. Create a “system” that allows you to help people while not taking up a large amount of your time. One system that works for many is creating a standard template form that students can fill out. This completed form will provide the information you need to write letters of recommendation without digging into the recesses of your memory to remember each individual student who has asked for assistance.
Budget time for fun/social activities
Life can’t—or at least shouldn’t—be all work and no play. Though the temptation is there to work yourself until you can’t anymore (particularly in academia), research tells us that the hours you spend with other people are more enjoyable than the hours you spend alone. So make recreational time as much of a priority as your work time.
The benefits of time structuring extend beyond you, as well. Research shows that children who grow up in families with predictable schedules grow up to have better time management skills and fewer problems with attention span. Even if you don’t have children, a set schedule that works for you and your loved ones will help you find a healthy work-life balance.
Learn to say ‘no’
How can such a small word be so hard to say? Saying “no” can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is your senior, or someone to whom you owe a favor. Folks in academia are at risk of overcommitment—perhaps because we worry that saying ‘no’ to joining a(nother) committee will damage our chances for promotion, or we feel the pressure to be collegial with our colleagues.
It’s easy to forget that saying “yes” to everything and burning the candle at both ends means that eventually, you won’t be able to do your job as well as you’d like, or be there for those who you want to be there for. For your own benefit and that of your colleagues, family, and friends, you have an obligation to learn how to say “no.”
Structuring and managing your time is perhaps one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your career. It can help alleviate stress, preserve your mental health, and give you the opportunity to enjoy life outside of work with your family and friends. One of the benefits of being in academia is the flexible schedule—so take advantage of it, make it work for you, and enjoy!
About the author:
Lindsay Curtis is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada, where she also works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She writes about higher education, healthcare, research, parenting, and LGBTQ issues. She spends her spare time tending to her indoor plants, cycling, and volunteering for hospice. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org or follow her on Twitter: @LindsayWrites_