Establishing Your Absence

June 18, 1999

"For me the real key to managing my time came when I realized the value of 'establishing my absence.' In the beginning, as a young assistant professor, I was mainly concerned with establishing my presence, of being seen on campus and in my office by my students, colleagues, and, of course, the administration.

"But then, during my first sabbatical, I had an opportunity to spend some time at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Cal., about 10 miles from my university. The contacts I made during this period led to my subsequently spending every Thursday at the center. I was amazed at how much I could accomplish. I could write and collaborate with my colleagues for periods of time that just weren't available to me back on campus."

-- Alison Bridger, chair of the meteorology department at San Jose State University

Ms. Bridger's advice is one of the keys to managing your scientific career while also maintaining balance in your personal and professional life. Over the years I have talked to hundreds of scientists and engineers about their careers, and the common themes running through all of my conversations are the huge number of tasks on everyone's plate, the challenge of figuring out how to do any of them well, and the difficulty of finding enough time to just sit and think.

In late November I had dinner with a group of professors at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in San Francisco. A faculty member from the University of Michigan remarked that her four-hour flight from Detroit had been the first block of time she had had to herself since the semester began. The nods from the others at the table made it clear she was not alone.

As a professional scientist you need to find ways to manage your time and tasks efficiently (doing things right), and to control what you put on your plate in the first place (doing the right things). If you don't do both, all the effort you put into your professional work will be for naught: You will simply burn out and in the process endanger your career and your relationships with the people you care most about.

In First Things First (Simon & Schuster, 1994), Steven Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill argue for what they call the "importance paradigm," or the putting of first things first by "doing what is important rather than simply responding to what is urgent." They describe a time-management system consisting of four quadrants, each containing certain kinds of activities. Quadrant I is for important, urgent matters; Quadrant II, important, non-urgent matters; Quadrant III, not important but urgent matters; and Quadrant IV not important and non-urgent matters.

For scientists, examples of Quadrant I activities (important and urgent) include certain meetings, public talks, crises in the laboratory, and proposal deadlines. Quadrant II activities (important but not urgent) include designing a new experimental procedure, preparing a conference presentation, writing a book, and supervising other laboratory personnel.

Quadrant III activities (not important but urgent) include certain meetings, phone calls, and drop-in visitors. Trivial busy work -- junk mail, mindless gossiping, and some phone calls are examples of time-wasting Quadrant IV activities (not important and non-urgent).

Naturally we spend time doing the things in Quadrant I. However, most of us spend way too much time in Quadrant III, and not nearly enough time in Quadrant II, which the authors call the Quadrant of Quality.

A key insight here is that by spending more time on long-term planning and preparation, you can anticipate and in many cases eliminate the urgent, crisis-driven activities of Quadrant I.

Also, understanding that not all urgent things are important, at least to you, can help reduce Quadrant III activities and eliminate the need to "escape" to the mindless Quadrant IV activities.

So how do we make more time for Quadrant II activities? One way is to "establish your absence" by setting aside time on a weekly basis for long-term important tasks. Making, and keeping, appointments with yourself is the key.

Paul Humke, a professor of mathematics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., makes this point when he says: "I treat my research time the way I treat my class time. It's high-priority and I don't cancel my research time unless I would cancel a class for the same reason."

The key, according to Kim Needy, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, is to remember the quadrants and establish long-term goals, then block off time on a regular basis for tasks that help you achieve those goals.

Ms. Needy says: "The only way to do this is to be somewhat selfish with your time. I'm usually here from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and I can never find more than an hour to do any one thing. But one day a week I stay at home and work on my research, my writing, and my course development."

For some people, establishing an absence means having to get away from the office. For Ms. Bridger, who spends time at the NASA research center, getting off campus one day a week has yielded additional benefits: "I find it really helps to go somewhere else to think and set up. This time away from campus enables me to work on important, non-urgent things I would otherwise ignore. Plus, my students and colleagues are now accustomed to the fact that at certain times during the week I am not available to them."

What else does Bridger do to manage her professional life?

"You have to consider all the ways, big and small, that you spend your time. Student advising consumes a lot of time, as does class preparation, all of which takes time away from your research. While I always strive to give my best effort to teaching, it is possible to overdo writing up lecture notes. I was a perfectionist in my teaching, but if you let it, class preparation can take all of your available time."

For Ms. Needy, reaching a "comfort level" with not being able to do everything was a turning point: "With some things 'good enough' is indeed just that. Time spent doing one thing means time taken away from another, and there are some really important, long-term things I have to pay attention to if I'm going to survive in academia. It does me no good to be the ideal professor, always available to my students, and fully accommodating to my colleagues, if in the end I don't get tenure and am no longer here for anyone."

Last fall a new faculty member joined my department. Immediately he went about establishing his presence. He felt it was all right to spend the fall and winter quarters "getting ahead," by always being available to his colleagues and students because he would be getting married in the spring and would then have to cut way back.

He did get married in the spring but of course he didn't cut back. By then he had established the expectation of, and received the positive strokes for, his universal availability, and it was now very hard for him to change.

Don't make such a mistake. Establish your presence and your absence right from the very start.

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Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to