Do You Really Not Have the Time?

August 22, 2008

A student sits in your office lamenting his low grade on a midterm exam. He tells you he fared poorly because he "did not have enough time to study." Curious, you ask him to catalog how he spends his days and nights during an average week. It turns out, of course, that partying, socializing, and playing video games rank high, so that "not enough time to study" really meant "not enough time spent studying without distractions."

We all see students who are woefully unskilled at organizing their calendars, who start term papers at the last minute, or who assume that late barhopping on a weeknight will not affect their attention span during an exam the next morning. In addition, the multimedia aspect of their actual study time — plugged in, linked up, online — is hardly conducive to the retention of information. We have a finite attention span and "multitasking" just means reducing the attention, and the quality of our focus, on individual tasks.

The irony is that many of us faculty members could use some time-management advice as well.

A novice academic will probably not drop off the tenure track because of the distractions of frat keggers or playing too much Halo 3. But we all hear faculty members say they don't have enough time to do their research, prep for a class, attend meetings, or even to live their lives. In many cases, it may be true — to a point. But it's also true that we can all afford to step back and ask if we are managing our time properly and efficiently.

To get your work life under control, you must first recognize that the problem is controllable. To view yourself as a martyr to work, fated to slog through the faculty years overburdened with cares and labors, is an exercise in self-indulgence. Does that attitude get the work done any faster, or better? Does it free up an extra hour to type a paper or play Scrabble with your kids? Many academics are chronic procrastinators or nonplanners, but no one cites such qualities as career builders.

Discover and stake out your preferred work environment. All the productive academics I know have a "Walden," a place they can go to, as Thoreau put it, "transact some private business with the fewest obstacles." Perhaps for you it's a literal cabin in the woods, perhaps it's a carrel in the library. It is difficult for me to do creative work in my campus office, while some scholars can write up their research in Grand Central Station.

Whatever your favored venue, carve out time to concentrate there. As an assistant professor, parts of your job — teaching duties, meetings, and office hours — may call for your presence at the office. But on many if not most campuses, faculty members are not expected to sit at a desk chair with an open door from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Devote a set time each week to do your creative work without checking e-mail or answering the phone. Keep that creative period sacred; surrender it only for a true crisis.

Frame of mind is also important. You can accomplish a lot in 10 hours a week of determined effort as opposed to 40 hours of scattershot, interrupted work. Simply shutting out physical distractions is not enough: You need some spiritual focus as well — a sort of "Zen and the Art of Research." Perhaps your creative-work time begins with yoga, meditation, tai chi, prayer, or just a much-needed nap. Any ritual that cleanses the mind of unproductive intrusions will work.

Think as well about how to avoid "pop-up distractions." One of the reasons academics postpone starting or completing big projects is that it is so easy to be diverted by minutiae. As an assistant professor I used to tell people: "If I don't get tenure it will be because of e-mail." I was only half joking.

Knowing how to rein in such distractions is crucial to getting the important stuff done. In 2006 a management-research company named Basex did a study of workplace productivity among 1,000 white-collar employees and found that a whopping 2.1 hours of their day was consumed by interruptions. Worse, workers reported that when they stopped to check their e-mail messages it took almost half an hour to return to their real work.

Sometimes, I suspect, bored workers seek out interruptions. We all allow ourselves to be distracted to avoid the actual, harder tasks. But after the (relative) fun is over, the tenure clock still ticks. As many time-management texts assert, you need to discriminate between what is crucial, what can be put off, and what can be ignored.

I have a friend who runs a marketing-research company. When his clients e-mail him, they expect an immediate response or they keep e-mailing; or they call and ask, "Did you get my message?" Similarly, when I was a midlevel administrator, I checked my e-mail often, and high-level administrators are always on call.

But an assistant professor can check e-mail once a day or less without the world ending. Above all, train your students not to expect instant replies, and restrict instant messaging to your doctoral advisees or lab assistants.

Now it's time for the real planning to begin. And I do mean "planning" in the same sense as an artist sketching out a painting and an architect drawing up blueprints. Begin with the big picture: Consider what you want to complete in teaching, research, and service, and calculate the probable time needed to finish the projects for, say, three years ahead.

Then create a time/project chart (several software programs for project planning are on the market). Your mentors can help you make a reasonable assessment of how much time particular projects are likely to take. Make your chart as snazzy and professional as possible, and place it prominently in your office. Review it every few days.

Undoubtedly, that will strike some faculty members as too much like the ways of a sales rep. But a physical chart is a visible reminder of your priorities: To avoid missing a deadline, it helps to see it looming. The chart demonstrates that your time is limited — to add a new project, you have to subtract one. A chart is right there, reminding you daily that your deadlines won't go away. And it shows people (like, say, senior professors or your chair) that you are organized. Trust me, even if they tease you, they will look at it and be impressed.

Of course if you don't actually use the chart they won't be impressed for long. You have to convince yourself and the people around you — from your family to your dean — that the chart reflects a conceptualization that you are trying to bring to life.

For example, a spouse or partner who is not an academic might like to see the tangible requirements of your working on journal articles and understand the penalties of failure. Alternatively, the chart might help persuade your chair to support your budget requests.

I turned my own project chart into a source of family fun when, working on a book, I put my young children in charge of monitoring my progress. They gave me a little gold star when I had finished a chapter on time. They were also much more understanding when daddy had to close his home-office door and work.

Remember that stereotypical undergraduate who found the lures of playing on his Xbox didn't give him "enough time" to study well? Making time for your teaching, research, and service will, in the end, mean giving up other activities in your life that hold some charm.

Nobody expects you to be a modern Spartan warrior, and, as I have written in these pages before, a monomaniacal focus on work is itself dysfunctional. But to earn tenure means there must be some degree of self-sacrifice. Autonomy is one reason that being a professor is the world's best job. But don't confuse autonomy with irresponsibility: A young scholar who is unwilling to sacrifice personal time for labor time is not really interested in winning tenure.

Perhaps charts and gold stars are too cheesy for you. But the essence of time management should not be: Plan ahead. Project how much time and resources you will need to finish. Learn to distinguish between which tasks deserve immediate attention and which can be forgotten. Inculcate a personal philosophy that allows you to focus on the project at hand to the exclusion of all other distractions.

Above all, control your time lest it run away with your career.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.