One way to get some control over how much time and energy you give to certain kinds of legitimate requests is to create a container for that kind of work.
Just as it is easier to store flour if you pour it into something with firm sides and a lid (so it doesn’t just flow all over the counter), some tasks can benefit from being contained in particular time periods or particular spaces.
Some activities already have containers
Some of your teaching related work is already in containers. There are scheduled blocks of time with scheduled rooms in which lectures and seminars happen. Someone else even schedules those times for you, though you may have some input about preferred times and the nature of the spaces.
Departmental meetings and committee meetings will have a scheduled time, sometimes even set for the entire year.
You can create containers for other activities
If a particular committee you are a member of doesn’t have a schedule of meetings, perhaps you can put agreeing a schedule on the agenda of the first meeting to help build a container.
For all kinds of reasons, students may need to see you outside of class time. Setting a limited number of office hours when you will be available creates a container for this activity.
You can schedule blocks of time in your own calendar for other activities like teaching preparation, grading, supervision meetings with graduate students, and writing.
You can also create spatial boundaries for particular types of work. For example
- only meeting with students in your office during scheduled office hours
- Writing in the same place every time (home office, university office, quiet coffee shop in your neighbourhood)
The benefits of containers
1. Containers set limits on how much time and energy you devote to a particular activity.
Think about your teaching. Having a fixed number of sessions per semester forces you to limit the material you will cover to fit into the container.
Creating a container for teaching preparation, forces you to decide what constitutes “prepared”.
Creating a container for writing ensures that you write during term time, even if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to this activity.
2. Containers help make the activity more efficient
If you make firm walls for your containers, more of the flour is going to be in the container and less of it on the counter.
How often have you had scheduled office hours and no one comes? And how often do students then ask questions outside of scheduled office hours? I’ve written more on how setting boundaries can make it easier for students to ask you questions Being available, with limits.
Similarly, you can create containers for writing that make use of your best writing time without getting to the point of forcing yourself to concentrate. Sometimes lots of small containers can be more effective than one big one. Energy + Focus + Intensity = Higher Productivity
3. Containers enable you to create good transitions
Bad transitions can really drain your energy. Jumping from task to task creates a lot of bad transitions.
By creating clear containers for different activities, you can also create smooth transitions. You can even consider the transitions when creating the containers.
4. Containers allow you to do your best work
Having containers for all the other things you need to do means that you can really be present with whatever activity you are doing right now, without being distracted by gremlins that are worried about all the other things on your list.
When you only have 2 office hours a week, you can be fully present for the students during those hours. More engaged. Inviting, even.
When you know you have time scheduled for teaching preparation, you can really focus on your writing during your writing time. And when you know you have writing time scheduled, you can be really focused on your teaching preparation.
You might need to experiment
Every time you set a boundary, some gremlin is bound to pop up grumbling about some horrible fate that awaits you if you do that: you’ll get bad teaching evaluations, people won’t like you, you won’t get promoted …
Figuring out the right size for containers and the best way to transition between activities can also take some trial and error.
Every August, December, and May I lead a planning class to help you through the process. Recordings of those classes, along with PDF resources, are included in Foundations of an Academic Writing Practice, along with resources to help you figure what kind of writing practice will work best for you.
A version of this post was published on August 11, 2010. It has been updated.