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Lately, I’ve been feeling superprotective of my time. Demands on my work-related bandwidth that I may have acceded to in the past are now getting elevated scrutiny.

Increasingly, I’m willing to say no to requests for my time.

What about you?

While I’m older than I once was and younger than I’ll be, aging is a poor explanation for this change. My perceptions around the opportunity costs of my time have evolved too quickly for this shift to be primarily a function of normal career progression.

What I think is going on—and I think the same thing may be going on for you—is that the pandemic has reset many of our professional priorities and workplace norms.

Why might the past two years of pandemic academia have caused us to be more protective of our time?

Theory 1: Zoom

We may be more protective of our time because we have less time to protect. Zoom has had the same effect on productivity as highways have had on traffic. By reducing meeting friction, we have increased the number of meetings.

Nowadays, many of us spend our days hopping back and forth between Zooms.

It is no wonder that we will feel protective of the precious hours of the day when we are not in virtual meetings.

Theory 2: Understaffing

In a piece titled “Higher Ed’s Invisible Understaffing Epidemic,” I argued that higher ed has an invisible understaffing epidemic. In that post, I argued that the pandemic had increased the demands on higher education, while the number of people who do the work to meet those demands has not increased.

Structural understaffing across postsecondary education is a long-running problem. The reality is that the costs of employing people in full-time jobs have increased (mainly due to spiraling health-care costs and an aging workforce) faster than revenues have gone up. And with challenging demographic trends and public disinvestment, revenues have not been going up.

Every school is hustling to find new sources of revenue while also trying to figure out how to be more efficient. This leads to a reluctance to hire, and when hiring does take place, it is often with contingent or term labor. (Or the work is outsourced so that costs stay variable instead of fixed.)

So with too few people and too much work, a trend again accelerated by the pandemic, higher ed people are being forced to protect whatever concentrated and distraction-free time they may have. So many hours are spent on logistical and operational tasks that it is challenging to find time to think strategically. We know we need to prioritize the important over the immediate. We just don’t have time to do so.

Theory 3: Culture

Not all the reasons why higher ed people may be becoming more protective of our time stem from negative causes. The pandemic has altered our way of working in that the divide between work and home got erased.

A new set of academic norms is developing around flexible work and the recognition of higher ed employees as people with complicated lives.

Pre-pandemic, mostly only full-time tenure track faculty enjoyed autonomy over their time and broad discretion about how they got their work done. Post-pandemic, many staff (not all—and mostly only professional staff) are evolving away from rigid campus work rhythms.

For some in academia (again, the most privileged), it is more acceptable than ever to work remotely, to be up front about competing family needs and to engage in work outside normal business hours.

For some, this new way of working (for some) may result in a new orientation to academic work.

Getting big things done, however, requires concentrated time. Something has to give. There may be more of a willingness to question old workplace practices that were followed more out of habit than anything else. Those who work in higher education may increasingly have the confidence to say no to that meeting, no to that request and no to that project.

If all this is right—or half-right—what does it mean for those who want the time and attention of higher ed people?

I’d say be sure that you value other people’s time as much as your own. Don’t request someone else’s time and energy unless completely necessary. Stop assuming that others share your priorities. The time and attention of your colleagues must be earned and not assumed.

Sometimes the biggest gift you can give someone is to leave them alone.

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