I don't know about you, but the spring semester has already taken off like a runaway freight train for most of the pre-tenure faculty I know. I keep hearing from people who feel overwhelmed by budget cuts, crazy class schedules, writing deadlines, department drama, and an endless stream of service requests. This semester, I will be writing a weekly column for stressed-out pre-tenure faculty who are trying to make the transition from graduate student to tenured professor. Each week, I will describe the biggest mistakes new faculty members make, suggest strategies to avoid those mistakes, and challenge you to take a few small steps forward to start gaining some control over your productivity. I’ve made every one of these mistakes, so there’s not one ounce of judgment in my writing. Instead, the purpose of this column is to identify the common mistakes so that you can avoid them and become highly productive in the early years of your career.
The beginning of a busy spring semester is a great place to start with the first mistake many new faculty make: assuming that the time management and writing strategies that worked for you as a graduate student will continue to be effective in your new role as a faculty member. The problem with this approach is that the workload, responsibilities, and pressures you had as a graduate student are different than what you are now facing on the tenure-track. That sounds pretty obvious, and yet I regularly meet new faculty members who don’t own a calendar, are trying to keep everything they need to do in their head, have no concrete research plan, and whose entire writing strategy consists of hoping for a large block of time to materialize so they can go on a multi-day writing binge.
While this may have worked in graduate school, large blocks of uninterrupted time are unusual for new faculty who more often find themselves scrambling to prepare new classes, attend departmental events and committee meetings, manage graduate and/or undergraduate RA's and TA's, settle in to a new community, and make a positive impression on their colleagues. Let’s be clear -- "junior" faculty members are expected to participate, perform, AND be productive, but without a proactive strategy for research and writing, productivity is often the first thing that suffers.
In order accomplish all of these things, you must be absolutely clear about what work needs to get done to move your research agenda forward and ruthless about making time for the one thing that matters most to your promotion, tenure, and mobility: WRITING. And, if you work at an institution where publishing research isn’t part of your formal evaluation for tenure and promotion, please know that what I am really talking about here is not getting lost in the daily chaos, but instead strategically creating the space each week for activities that contribute to your long-term success (whatever those may be in your institutional context). In other words, busy semesters can easily fly by without much progress towards your long-term goals unless you do three things at the outset: 1) create a clear work plan, 2) commit yourself to daily writing, and 3) connect with a community of support and accountability.
THREE STEPS TO SPRING SEMESTER SUCCESS:
Step #1: Develop a Clear and Realistic Work Plan for the Semester
Before the semester gets into full swing, set aside 30 minutes to develop a work plan for the semester. Creating a work plan is easy and enjoyable -- just start by listing your writing goals for the semester and the tasks that are necessary to meet them. Then map the tasks onto your calendar so that you know what blocks of time you will devote to each task. There are only 15 weeks in the semester, so it's critical to determine what specific weeks you will devote to each task on your list. A work plan will help you to clarify WHAT needs to be done and WHEN you will do it.
Step #2: Commit Yourself to 30-60 Minutes of Writing EVERY DAY
I often sound like a broken record on this point, but I have seen so many new faculty experience explosive breakthroughs in research productivity by simply committing to daily writing, blocking that time out of their calendars, and showing up every day. If you haven't tried it, all I can say is that daily writing will not only consistently move you towards the completion of your writing goals, but it will also reduce your anxiety by aligning your daily schedule with your institution's promotion and tenure criteria.
Step #3: Connect With a Community of Support That Will Keep You MOTIVATED and ACCOUNTABLE
While it is critical to have a clear work plan and execute it by writing every day, the most important factor for success during a busy semester is connecting with a community of support and accountability. Too many of us try to do everything alone and expect ourselves to be perfectly motivated and disciplined at all times. This is not only unrealistic, it's a recipe for isolation, alienation, and frustration. To be honest, sometimes I feel like writing, but most of the time I don't! That's because writing is not an enjoyable activity for me. I also know myself well enough to realize that I thrive in a community where I'm motivated daily by others and where people care enough about me to hold me accountable to my goals. I’ve never had this type of community at any university, so I created one on my discussion forum. You may be similar to me, or totally different. But what's important is to identify what YOU need to feel motivated and supported, and then connect with a group of others who will meet your unique needs.
THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE
This week, I challenge each of you to:
- Create a list of your writing goals (and the tasks necessary to complete them) for the spring semester.
- If you are resistant to this task, gently ask yourself "why?"
- Map the writing tasks you need to accomplish onto each week of the semester.
- Go through your calendar and block out 30-60 minutes at the beginning of each week day for "writing time."
- If you don’t have a calendar, stop reading and go get one.
- Write every day this week for 30-60 minutes (just try it!)
- Proactively connect with a community of support that meets YOUR personal needs for writing accountability.
I hope this week brings each of you the clarity to define your writing goals, the persistence to write every day, and the joy that is found in true community!