Maxed Out

To get ahead, you need to know how you spend time, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

March 1, 2010

One of my favorite TV shows is called "Maxed Out." Each episode features a stressed-out couple who are in debt and have no idea how to climb out of it. Inevitably, their financial problems boil down to: 1) not knowing how much debt they have, 2) no clue where their money goes each month, and 3) a vague sense of what they hope might happen in the future but no concrete plan to move in that direction. The last time I watched it, I realized that the people featured on the show feel oddly familiar. That’s because they remind me of many tenure-track faculty I know who are totally maxed out, not on money but on TIME. So I want to dedicate this week's installment of the Most Common Mistakes New Faculty Make to error #7: Not Knowing How You Spend Your Time.

Are You Maxed Out?

We all have heard that financial intelligence requires knowing how you spend your money. The problem with time is that, unlike money, it is finite. We each have 24 hours in the day and must divide that precious time between personal, physical, professional, and familial commitments. We can't borrow extra hours from a credit card or bank. We have to work with the 24 hours that we have. Many new faculty members I work with complain that they never have enough time, that they are constantly running from one commitment to the next, and that their lack of time leads to feelings of frustration, guilt, shame, and an overall sense of not moving forward at an adequate pace. But at the same time, they can't answer the most basic questions about how they spend their time because they just don't know where the hours go.

I have been tracking my money for the past 10 years. At first I thought it was a total waste of time because I thought that I already knew how I was spending it. But the first month I tracked every penny, I couldn't believe the discrepancy between what I thought I spent, and what I actually spent. Knowing where my money went enabled me to start gaining control over my finances and making conscious decisions about my money that would allow me to meet my long-term goals.

Likewise, the first time I tracked my time over a week, I was shocked by how much time I was spending on service and teaching and how little I was spending on writing and research, despite knowing that my publication record was the primary criteria for promotion and tenure at my institution. Understanding how you spend your time each week (not in your imagination, but in reality) will help you to decide if you are investing in things that will pay off in the long run, or spending it on things that offer immediate gratification but no long term interest. And more importantly, you must know how you’re investing your time today in order to make conscious decisions about how you will spend it in the future.

Track Your Time

Just like the adviser on Maxed Out, I want to suggest that you try the same homework assignment: keep track of how you spend your time this week. If you are feeling exhausted, frustrated, and I-don't-even-know-how-I'm-gonna-make-it-to-Spring-Break tired, then try starting this week by simply tracking your time. Time tracking doesn't have to be difficult or unpleasant, and it doesn't require you to buy or do anything different. Just put a little scrap of paper on your desk and keep a running tab of your activities and the time you spend on them during each day this week. Include everything: e-mail, writing, course prep, grading, talking to colleagues, reading, meetings, phone calls, student meetings, attending talks, preparing to give a talk, worrying, crying, food breaks, etc.

Evaluate Your Data

Once you have a week's worth of data, tally up how much time you spend on research, teaching and service when you sit down for your weekly planning meeting (aka the Sunday Meeting). That's a great time to gently and patiently ask yourself:

  • Is how I’m spending my time in line with how I will be evaluated for tenure and promotion?
  • Does my time reflect my personal values, priorities, and long-term goals?

If the answer to these questions is "yes," then congratulations! But if you find that the answer is a resounding "NO!" then it's time to make some changes. For example, if 50 percent of your evaluation criteria is based on research and publication and you are only spending 2 hours a week writing -- there's a problem. If teaching is 25 percent of your evaluation criteria, but you are spending 40 hours a week on it -- there's a problem. And if service is taking up more than a few hours per week -- there's definitely a problem. The good news is that these are problems that can be resolved by proactively adjusting your behavior.

Rethink Your Time Expenditures

Faculty development researchers have documented that the difference between successful new faculty and those who struggle is how they spend their time. Successful new faculty:

  • Spend 30-60 minutes a day on scholarly writing
  • Integrate their research into their teaching
  • Manage course preparation time and avoid over-preparing for classes
  • Spend time each week discussing research and teaching with colleagues

Only you can determine if you’re satisfied with how you are spending your time each day. But, if you’re unhappy, exhausted, and feel like you’re not moving forward, then becoming conscious of how your time is spent AND comparing it to the behaviors of successful new faculty should give you some concrete ideas about how to climb out of your time debt.


  • Track your time this week.
  • Without criticism or judgment, honestly evaluate how your time expenditures compare with your tenure and promotion criteria and/or your personal goals and values.
  • Try to identify and eliminate unnecessary time demands to increase the time you have available for the things that matter.
  • Write 30-60 minutes every day.

I hope that this week brings each of you the patience to track your time, the wisdom to evaluate your current situation and pinpoint areas for change, and the sense of empowerment that results from making conscious decisions about how you spend your time each day.

Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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