The end of the semester must be near because nearly all the new faculty members I met last week were holding their breath, trying to keep their heads above water, and praying for the end of the semester! The feelings of exhaustion and frustration I heard repeatedly were both intense and predictable. As a result, let's focus on some concrete ways to deal with Common New Faculty Mistake #15: Failing to Recognize and Adjust to the Rhythms of the Semester.
Each semester has a natural energetic rhythm. We share our students' high energy at the beginning, it flattens out during the middle (as reality sinks in), and the end of the semester finds most of us dragging from some combination of disappointment, frustration, exhaustion, and/or departmental drama. While most new faculty members feel tired, cranky, and completely out of gas the last two weeks of every semester, the end of the spring semester is particularly difficult because it's also the end of the academic year. So if you find yourself feeling bone weary, that’s perfectly normal. This week, I encourage you to recognize the current intensity you’re experiencing for what it is: a predictable rhythm of the semester. Knowing this is a recurring pattern should enable you to be gentle with yourself and make behavioral adjustments that will allow you to not only survive, but thrive during the end-of-semester crunch time.
10 Tips for Thriving During Crunch Time
I believe that stressful times call for unique coping strategies. The following tips are the collected wisdom from my own mentors about how they maintain sanity during the end-of-semester crunch. The underlying theme is that when you’re pressed for time, you must be proactive, strategic, and clear about how you spend each moment. Too often, when things get hectic we sacrifice our own needs so that everyone else’s can get met. Instead, each of these suggestions is aimed at minimizing the things that don’t matter so that you can move through the busiest time of the year without surrendering your health or productivity.
Tip #1: Clearly communicate to others that it is crunch time
Let those who live with you and/or are impacted by your behavior know that the next week (or two) will be difficult, assure them that it's a finite period of time, and let them know you appreciate their support and understanding. I find that people are willing to assist me when I communicate my needs ahead of time.
Tip #2: Lower your standards in non-essential areas of life
I'm what's known as a neat freak. During crunch time, I give myself permission to be a slob. It's OK because it's only one week. I love to eat out, but during crunch time, I'm OK with peanut butter and pickle sandwiches because I don't have time for anything else. And that's OK because it's only one week. Typically, I sleep nine hours per night. During crunch time, I sleep nine hours per night. And that’s because sleep is not negotiable for me! The point is to ask yourself: what can I let slide a bit for the next week (or two) without negative consequences?
Tip #3: Ruthlessly assess what grading ACTUALLY needs to get done
Many students do not read comments that are given on final papers and projects. Upon the suggestion of one of my mentors, I developed the habit of asking my students ahead of time to indicate if they want me to write comments on their final papers. Fewer than 10 percent requested the comments and I saved hours of grading that would never have been read while concentrating my comment-writing on the students who genuinely want feedback.
Tip #4: Say NO to EVERY SERVICE REQUEST from now until the end of the semester
If you are struggling to find time to complete all of the things on your to-do list, it makes no sense to add more items. In other words, when your time is scarce, one of the worst things you can do is to take on any additional responsibilities. Say "no" often, clearly, and without guilt.
Tip #5: Every day needs a plan
Take 30 minutes on Sunday night to get your to-do list out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Then force yourself to place each of your tasks onto a specific time in your calendar. If you don't have enough time for the tasks, then delegate them, re-negotiate the deadline, or let them go. This Sunday Meeting  will clarify your week and force you to make the tough decisions in advance. Then each morning, you only need to spend two minutes reviewing the items you must complete for that day. This will keep you focused and confident that the truly important things will get done.
Tip #6: Write for 30-60 minutes each day
When new faculty feel crunched for time, one of the first things they are ready to sacrifice is their daily writing! This semester, put yourself, your future, and your daily writing time into the non-negotiable category (along with classes and meetings). There are MANY other ways to be efficient besides eliminating the one activity that is central to your promotion, tenure, and long-term professional success.
Tip #7: Only check e-mail one time per day (max)
E-mail begets more e-mail. When you have little time, the least effective way to spend it is writing e-mails. I'm only able to restrict my e-mail to once a day during crunch times. But for one week, it's unlikely to cause a crisis and typically works out just fine.
Tip #8: Eliminate Unnecessary Electronic Distractions
If you subscribe to any listservs, sign off until the semester is over. Many people sign off during the summer, so why not just do so now? Listservs create lots of e-mail in your in-box, very little of which is critical information that you can't do without between now and graduation. While you’re at it, why not take a respite from all electronic time-wasters: Facebook, Twitter, television, etc.
Tip #9: Take Care of Your Body
Exercise reduces stress. When I don't have time to go to the gym, I opt for using the stairs instead of elevators in buildings, take quick walks at lunch time, or just put on some music for five minutes and dance like a toddler who just found a cup of coffee. Be creative! Whatever you need to do to get your heart rate up and your body moving will benefit you during crunch time.
Tip #10: End Every Day With Gratitude and a Treat!
As each day comes to a close, take a moment to thank the universe for all the things that went well and affirm that everything in your life is working for your highest good. I insist on a treat every day during crunch time, because I deserve it. So do you!
This week, I challenge you to:
- Acknowledge that the end of every semester is a stressful time and THAT IS PERFECTLY NORMAL!
- Use the tips outlined above to proactively create strategies to manage your stress, frustration, and energy levels.
- Write every day this week for 30-60 minutes.
This week, I hope that each of you find the strength to try some new end-of-semester strategies, the creativity to adapt them to your unique situation, and the comfort of knowing that you are not alone in your struggle.
Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore