Lessons in Time Management

December 16, 2003

When new faculty members cross paths on campus, there's a shorthand they share. "You making it?" "Busy. You?" "Swamped." Sometimes, there's just time for an exchange of eyerolls.

I thought I was busy as a graduate student, and I was. But writing a dissertation, teaching a class, and working a night-shift job to pay the bills didn't have the same feel as becoming an assistant professor. The former took a lot of hours, but they were hours in compartments. As long as I showed up at the right place -- the library, the classroom, the data-entry warehouse -- I got through.

Being a faculty member lumps the hours and the tasks all together, and there is little immediate feedback on what's important to complete. Yes, you have to prepare for class, but how well? No, you don't have to write the article right away; there's no deadline on it. As for skipping the weekly meeting of a pointless committee well, who really knows it will matter?

Managing time as an assistant professor is something for which few new faculty members are fully prepared, but it's crucial to your long-term success. Having blundered through those years myself, and having now watched some junior colleagues sink and others swim, I offer the following time-management suggestions.

Be Cautious in Accepting Committee Work

You don't want to say no to everything, or to guard your time in a miserly way, implying that it's more precious than anyone else's. At the same time, there are duties that everyone tries to dump on junior faculty members. I spent years advising the student honor society, without interest, joy, or thanks, before working up the courage to ask my dean to put someone else in charge. Her response: "I didn't know you were doing that. Why are you doing that? Sure, I'll find someone else."

It's smart to consult with a senior faculty member before accepting any committee assignments -- especially those that feel dumped on you. Your standard line, delivered with appropriate humility, should be: "That sounds really interesting, but my department chair asked me to talk with her before taking on any committee assignments." Such a line does two things: It alerts the dumper that you have someone in your corner who will protect you, and it buys you time to think and consult about whether the assignment will be worthwhile.

If it's your department head who's imposing the new responsibility, you may need to take a different approach. "If I join the accreditation review committee, I'm afraid I won't have time to do a good job for the technology committee," you might say. "Which do you think I should focus on?" If your chair urges you to take on her pet committee, then enlist her help in getting you off another committee.

It's up to you to make sure you don't get overloaded. When they stop to think about it, administrators don't want junior faculty members to burn out on committee work. But they do want to get the institution's work accomplished. If you get the administrators on your side and keep them informed, they can help you manage the limited time you have for college service.

Make Time to Write

Research and writing are part of your job, but they are the part that initially seems least pressing. At a small university like mine, where the priorities are teaching and service, it's easy to forget for months on end about your scholarly work. A few years down the road, at promotion time, everyone will suddenly remember that scholarly work matters as much as teaching and service. And if you haven't established some record of scholarly productivity at that point, time management will be the least of your problems.

Getting scholarly articles and books published is maddeningly slow, so you have to send things out years in advance of when you need them to appear on your vita. When you take the long view, writing a page a day is a high priority. In my first years as an assistant professor, I had started each new academic year with great intentions to write that page each day, and more. But by October, when things got busy, writing would fall off my radar.

The one thing I did right was to apply to speak at several academic conferences a year. That way, the impending conference paper (and the attendant humiliation if I didn't finish) became as important as class prep, and I did it.

But conference papers aren't the same as finished articles or books. For those, you need a consistent plan. Scholars who schedule a specific time in their day to write tend to get the work done. When I finally started entering "read two journal articles" or "draft introduction" into my daily planner -- ahead of "grade papers" or "prepare lecture" -- I got productive.

One assistant professor I work with doesn't come to the campus until 11 a.m. each day; he devotes his mornings to writing. Another lets her research go for weeks, then gets into a frenzy and works long, late hours to complete a project. Although their styles differ, they're both getting the research done. And both are shoo-ins for promotion.

Be Canny about Class Preparation

When I started as a new assistant professor, I had to prepare four new courses in my first semester. I knew it was an emergency situation, especially given my tendency to overprepare. I had to cut myself a few breaks.

In each of the four courses, I found an excuse to show a movie once during the semester, which freed me from a week's worth of class prep. I also built in research days in the library, guest speakers, and a few out-of-class trips that took me off the stage. (I later learned that out-of-class trips and guest speakers are not necessarily time-savers.)

If there was going to be a big batch of papers or tests coming in, I tried hard to make the next class day a no-prep day; using class time for small-group projects is one good way to do that. Then I could use my usual prep time to grade.

Some research actually indicates that teachers who spend less time preparing (in order to write) end up with better teaching evaluations. For me, that has held true. When I had a class prepared to the minute, with gorgeous PowerPoint presentations, film clips, and carefully-orchestrated discussions, the students could be overwhelmed into passivity. If something interesting did happen in discussion, I'd often cut it off in order to get to the next planned event. When I have to wing it, I take more time to follow a discussion in the classroom to its conclusion -- and the class is more interesting for all concerned.

At first I felt guilty about all my little tricks, but to my surprise, neither my students nor my bosses noticed my "slacker days." It was a bit of a blow to my ego, but a boon to my workload. I still show a movie during the semester in each of my courses.

Prioritize Early and Often

I resisted doing careful planning for years because I feared life would become rigid and dull. But in fact, I find that planning my priorities and controlling my time frees me to think creatively and have more fun.

This year, before I leave the university on Fridays, I've started planning for the following week, which lets me enjoy my weekends more. I found a fabulous prioritizing grid in Richard Bolles's What Color is Your Parachute? that I've adapted to my daily schedule, so that I always know what's the most important thing I need to do next.

I've also started scheduling in lunch dates and jogs with my colleagues, which has pushed away burnout as well as put me back in the gossip loop. The flexible schedule of a faculty member conceals to the general public the fact that it's a demanding career. It's up to you to harness and control your schedule to make it a productive and joyous one, as well.

Lee Tobin McClain is a professor of English and directs the master's program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa.