I’ve created an audio version of the post so you can listen to it on your commute, or while you’re cooking, or whatever. Listen here:
A good plan can reduce the stress and overwhelm you experience trying to juggle all your different responsibilities. This is why I have developed planning classes for members of the Academic Writing Studio. In this rather long post, I set out the fundamental principles that guide my planning classes. There are lots of links to other posts, both here in the Library and beyond, and I plan to update this post and the links regularly. I have also created internal links that enable you to jump between sections. Your browser’s back button should take you back to your previous location. Onwards!
Overwhelm and stress are only partly due to the number of things you have on your to-do list. Term is busy. Unlike the summer, when you can focus on just a few things for extended periods, there are multiple things going on: teaching, meetings, advising students, and so on.
There is a strong temptation to act as if you have NO control over your time or your activities. Although a lot of it is non-negotiable and possibly scheduled by someone else, this is not true. Even with those constraints, you have a lot more autonomy over what you do, and how and when you do it, than many professionals.
What you don’t have is a boss and a departmental culture that will make those decisions for you. You need to take personal responsibility for your workload. The hardest part of personal responsibility is taking responsibility for all the things you will not get to. That’s scary because it means taking responsibility for making the wrong call. You have good judgement. You will make mistakes but they are probably not going to be fatal.
A plan will reduce your stress
The primary contributor to stress is lack of control over your time and energy. The fear that you are going to drop a ball is a big part of that stress. A good plan can significantly reduce the stress, even if you still have a lot to do. Furthermore, decisions take energy. Having a plan means fewer decisions to make as you go along, and more energy for the things you need to get done.
There are 3 key elements to a good plan: Priorities, Boundaries, and Slack.
What does it mean to say that something is a priority?
priority (noun): 1. The fact or condition of being earlier in time or of preceding something else. 2. Precedence in order, rank, or dignity; the right to receive attention, supplies, etc., before others. (OED)
To make something a priority does not mean that you will spend more time on it than anything else. It means that it is most important. It means that you will allocate resources (of time, energy, etc) to it before you allocate resources to other things. Start your planning by identifying your priorities and making time for them in your schedule, even if that is a small amount of time. It also means valuing your time when responding to requests, and determining the relative priority of different things you could do with that time.
Your first priority isn’t work at all, it’s basic self care: sleep, eating well, exercise. Your work may mainly use your brain, but your brain is part of your body. You require nutrients for your brain to work well. Fatigue impairs cognitive function. Sleep is not optional. Exercise and movement also keep your body in good shape. You don’t want to wait until you get frozen shoulder syndrome or other repetitive strain injury to figure out how important your body is to your ability to work.
Make writing your next priority. You are not being selfish but no one else is going to make time for your writing. Your writing is not more important than your students. Nor are your students more important than your writing. Consider what is reasonable, given your other responsibilities, and give those resources to your writing before other things. Establishing a writing practice enables you to pursue your curiosity, create knowledge, and communicate that knowledge through publications.
Boundaries enable you to balance the various different responsibilities.
According to the OED the term boundary has the sense of both the thing which serves to mark the limits of something and the limit itself. I encourage you to put limits on the time, energy, etc you will give to certain tasks and to mark those limits in some concrete way. This is especially important for things that are a lower priority but can expand to fill the time available.
The easiest way to mark boundaries is to schedule blocks of time in your calendar. You may resist scheduling everything because it feels restricting. I encourage you to try it, you may find that having a schedule actually feels more free. You get to decide what your schedule is, but establishing boundaries between different types of work, and between your work and the rest of your life, reduces stress and overwhelm. Within specific boundaries you are juggling fewer balls.
Another way to set boundaries is to create personal policies for certain types of activity. This is just making a big decision once that sets some criteria or boundaries for smaller decisions. For example, you might have a policy about how many manuscripts you will review for journals in a year. Or, which journals you will review for. Or a strict set of criteria to guide your decisions about reviewing. Then when you get a specific request, you use your policy to make the decision on this particular review request. You can even write a few response scripts that you use as the basis of your response. You spend less time (and energy) making the decision and communicating it, and more time doing the work (even if you say yes).
I’ve expanded on this with a few examples in a separate post: Setting Boundaries
Set these boundaries in order of priority.
Remember, priority means gets resources first. So don’t start with the small stuff to get it out of the way. Start with what’s important. This will be an iterative process. You have a lot of balls to juggle. Time and energy are finite. There will be tough decisions to make. Start with good estimates of how much time you have available, and then adjust.
Start with a foundation of basic self care: sleep, eating, exercise. Go beyond sleep to consider rest in the form of breaks in your day, and boundaries between work days and weekends and vacation. Assume it is reasonable to get the sleep you need. Make a plan for eating that you can stick with. Put “eat lunch” in your calendar so you have a better chance of remembering to do so. (Leaving your desk/office for lunch is an advanced practice that also incorporates rest and movement.) Find ways to combine breaks with exercise/movement. (Tip: most pop songs are about 3 minutes long. Set an alarm with a song you like to dance to as the alarm tone. Get up and dance. Sit back down to write or whatever.)
Then determine how much time you can reasonably allocate to writing, consider the 3 types of writing time, schedule a combination of those types in your calendar, and put in place whatever you need to support you in keeping that commitment. You may not be able to do the same amount weekly. Consider a base amount you know you can do even when busy. Then identify weeks when you can do more (e.g. reading week; weeks with no grading) and schedule it in there. If you set product oriented goals (e.g. finish this chapter), take the time available into account first.
Someone else schedules your teaching but there is a lot more to teaching than what goes on in the classroom. Decide how much time is available for teaching preparation, allocate time for teaching related administration, check your assignment deadlines and schedule time for grading in the weeks following, and so on. By scheduling time, you won’t accidentally treat your time as available and then resent how much time this work takes away from your writing or other things.
Go down the list and do the same with meetings, post-graduate supervision, and so on. Make sure you put boundaries around email so that it doesn’t end up taking over from your plan in driving your daily activities. Email is an area where personal policies can work well. Communicate so colleagues and students are aware and don’t assume that email is urgent and you’ll reply instantly. You can combine blocks of scheduled time with policies for booking that time and then repurpose the blocks if they don’t get used. For example, block time weekly for post-graduate supervision, tell your post-graduates that they need to book a meeting by Friday of the previous week, then look at next week on Friday (or Monday morning) and adjust. Or block time for meetings every week in the normal time for your department meeting, and make that your first suggestion for other meetings in weeks you don’t have a department meeting. If you need to schedule a meeting in another slot, move whatever it replaced into this slot.
As you do this, you will realize that you have to make some tough decisions about how much time you really have and how much you can accomplish. You may need to go back and forth a bit to make everything work. You also may need to adjust the amount of time allocated to writing in specific weeks to accommodate periodic but important work. Making these decisions now saves a lot of energy later. You may also need to renegotiate some commitments now that you know you don’t have the time an energy available to meet them.
You also need some slack in your plans.
Everything will not go to plan. And that’s okay. Stuff will come up — extra meetings, illness, an opportunity you can’t imagine now. You can’t plan for everything. Slack enables you to minimize disruption and keep your commitments to your priority things.
One way to do this is to leave a half-day per week unscheduled for now. Block it in your calendar as “Stuff that comes up”. You might make it Friday afternoon and use it to transition to the weekend. Or you might make it mid-week to prevent things from getting overwhelming. The rule is you can only put stuff in this slot in the current week. That might be “I’ll get to that on Friday” or “I’ll do that now and move what I was going to do now to Friday instead”. You can also use this time to triage your email. Or to take the afternoon off to sleep because you feel a cold coming on.
You also need slack in your goals. It is important to set ambitious goals that stretch you, but it’s also important to recognize that even if you don’t meet those ambitious goals you are still doing good work. Pressure has a role in motivating your work, but working at or just beyond your limits all the time is not effective.
Your gremlin will tell you that you could get so much more done if you scheduled every minute of every day. Look at all that unscheduled time!!! Get that gremlin to go for coffee with the gremlin who thinks planning is useless because plans always get thrown off. They can fight it out somewhere else. A note for your gremlins: You are not lazy.
Help making plans
Planning is one of those things it’s hard to get around to doing. You know it’s a good idea but it’s hard to make the time. And sometimes it’s helpful having someone guide you through the process with specific questions, especially when the questions are hard. I offer a class as part of the Academic Writing Studio that guides you through planning the next semester. A recorded version is available anytime to Studio members. I also offer the classes live, by conference call in May, August, and December.
I’ve also teamed up with illustrator Amy Crook to create a picture book that goes into these principles in more detail: The Principles of Juggling: A Picture Book for Academics (ISBN 978-1-912040-71-1 pb)
An earlier version of this post was first published on 1 December 2014. It has been substantially edited. Updated 28 November 2017 to add information about the related book.