For those of you who have just made it through the first, overwhelming week of school, congratulations! It gets better. For those who are about to head into a new term, hang in there. I know this is a busy time for all of us, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving up our writing completely as we settle into our semester routines. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the effects of the whirlwind. Get your calendars and your timers ready, and think about your goals for the term as you read these tips:
Schedule all appointments directly into your calendar.
This includes grading, teaching prep, research time and writing. I know many people who write down their schedules and their to-do list for the week or day and think they’ve done enough to plan. While some planning is better than no planning, unless you have a reality check with your calendar,
you may tend to overbook. You may want to use an electronic calendar for this, although paper daytimers can work well too. The important thing is that you are actually writing down the task within the block of time that it will take to do it.
Be realistic about how much time a task will take.
If you know that it’s going to take five to seven hours to grade your 35 essays, for instance, there is no point pretending that you’ll “just get them done” in two or three. Most project managers will tell you to estimate the time a task will take and then double it — yes, that may sound scary at first, but by doubling the time, you will prevent your teaching and other obligations from creeping into your scheduled research and writing time. And if you finish a task early — that’s great! Then you can either take a break or use the extra time to get ahead on other things.
Refrain from spending too much time on teaching and service obligations.
This is a difficult one, especially for TAs and new faculty. Just remember that, as Robert Boice says in his now classic Advice to New Faculty, you can limit the time you spend grading and prepping for teaching. Use a timer for both and try relegating these sorts of tasks to the spare moments you have throughout the day. These little bits and pieces of time will add up, and by not doing all of the prep and grading at once, you’ll likely be a better teacher too.
Write in brief, structured periods of time and with carefully defined goals.
This is another instance where a timer can help – -remember to make use of those pomodoros (Italian for tomato, a timer technique widely used by writers)! Remember that even 15 minutes a day will accumulate over the course of a week, and you might be surprised at how much you will get done.
Make use of your office hours, especially early in the term.
Early in the term, students aren’t as likely to come to your office hours, so make good use of them. This is a good time for those tedious tasks like making copies or setting up your gradebook as well as for getting ahead in your grading. If you can do your research or writing during this time, even better, but if you are worried you’ll be interrupted, try scheduling in tasks that take less mental energy.
Be conscious of your semester and long-term goals.
Finally, remember to streamline your schedule as much as you can and to say no to things that will not help you. Every Friday afternoon or Sunday evening, you may want to sit down with your calendar and make sure that you have a good plan for the next week, and that your plan is in accordance with your goals and values.
If you set yourself up well while it’s still early in the semester, you will be able to pick up momentum in your writing and research and be less stressed as you go through the weeks to come. The life of academics is never easy, but with some thoughtful planning and scheduling, you can release yourself from a perpetual state of being overwhelmed.