The average day of a teacher-scholar without administrative responsibilities is largely unstructured. With the exceptions of teaching times, office hours, and a slate of irregular meetings, how and when a faculty member works is largely left up to the individual. Accounts of how much time our varied responsibilities consume are varied: see this and, for the contrary opinion, this. Some institutions, a minority, do require faculty members to be on campus for a certain number of hours during the week. Even then, because most of our work outside the classroom consists of long-term undertakings and only progresses incrementally, the vast majority of us are the masters of our own day-to-day schedules, whether we are on campus or working from home offices.
This largely unstructured schedule is a great freedom, and for many people it is one of the perks of working in academe. As one of my friends likes to point out, he can go grocery shopping in the middle of the day, when no one is else is in the store. He, of course, ends up making up that time by working evenings or weekends, or perhaps by being extremely efficient during normal business hours. He certainly both fulfills his responsibilities and enjoys the freedom of the flexibility.
But that freedom can also be daunting. The unstructured nature of our days can be overwhelming, anxiety inducing, unmanageable. Some people need a fixed schedule. But without a higher authority imposing it upon us, relatively little about an academic’s schedule (at least in comparison to the daily routines of most professions) is actually fixed. It is easy then, to fritter away time, or to avoid difficult work that needs to be chipped away at by focusing only on the small, busywork tasks that often can be put off (some refer to this pattern as “pre-crastinating”). Others of us become terrible procrastinators, and I probably don’t need to explain those patterns at all. Freedom, just as it is for many a college freshman in the initial semesters of college, can be a liability for some of us.
For me, one of the most difficult aspects of this schedule irregularity is what I refer to the “in-between” times, the small parcels of time between say, when we finish teaching, and when we need to show up for a meeting. I feel that I am very, very bad at using these in-between times efficiently. Cumulatively, this might represent a large loss of my own labor time, which must then be made up on evenings or weekends in order to complete my required work. So I've recently committed myself to becoming a better manager of the small chunks of time that buffer the various fixed obligations that I must move between on campus during a typical day or week.
Recently I have begun trying to intentionally put off non-urgent, routine tasks that don’t require much time, deferring their completion for the awkward blocks of time between larger, less flexible commitments. It is taking considerable effort.
And there are tradeoffs. By deferring some tasks, such as routine, non-urgent email correspondence, I find that my organizational skills need to increase. One of the perks of responding to e-mails almost immediately was that it precluded the possibility of forgetting to respond. But, if I wish to use the awkward, small increments of time lodged uncomfortably between my more substantial daily commitments, then I need mechanisms to ensure that I don’t entirely neglect the small tasks that I’ve put off. I almost have to plan not only the tasks that I need to accomplish in a day, but also the sequence or timeline for achieving those tasks in order to prevent omitting work, by shifting some work’s completion to occur during a weird, awkwardly short block of time.
Grading is another activity that I have attempted to use to fill the gap times during my day. Grading is very difficult for me to do in small increments of time. Rather than grade one or two papers during a small shift of time, I have always reserved large blocks of time in my schedule for marathon grading sessions. It’s difficult, and painful, but I have always felt that I have to “get into” grading, to immerse myself in it, in order to maintain the focus required to respond thoughtfully and carefully to student writing. But, instead of long grading sessions, I’m attempting to chip away at the task incrementally, and hopefully this will mean the freeing of large blocks of time that I previously set aside specifically for the task of grading.
As with grading, I have tended to reserve large blocks of time for course prep. Because I fear that my teaching would otherwise become rote, I constantly shift around the readings, assignments, and syllabuses of the courses that I regularly teach. As a result, teaching prep is always a task on my agenda during the academic year. Now, by breaking the discrete elements that go into preparing a discussion section down (I don’t teach any large lecture courses), I can prep part of a class during a relatively short period of time, and prepare cumulatively. This too requires considerable discipline, because if I fritter away these brief periods of prep time, I’m then left scrambling to prepare at the last minute, a feeling that I despise.
Like many humanists, much of my research consists of reading. And much of that reading is portable, either in the form of a hardcopy text, or a digital platform. I am trying to make sure that I always have a piece of reading related to my research on my person when I’m on campus. Fifteen minutes spent waiting on someone who is running late for a meeting means fifteen minutes of reading and annotating a text, and isn’t too distracting if the text is one I’m reading for background information.
I don’t think I’ve quite mastered how to maximize the use of my own time. It’s an ongoing endeavor, and I’m finding that old patterns and habits are difficult to break. There are any number of books that claim to tell us how to maximize our time and our efficiency, but fundamentally all those methods can be peeled back to the simple, but not always easy to achieve, matter of self-discipline.