Last week I had coffee with a new faculty member (I’ll call her Cynthia) who works at a large research-intensive university. We have common research interests so I was excited to meet with her and talk about her current project. Cynthia arrived frazzled and late for our meeting, had dark circles under her eyes, and just exuded a palpable air of exhaustion that’s common among pre-tenure faculty. When I asked how her research was coming along, she sat in silence for a few moments, then dropped her head down into her hands and cried. After a lengthy conversation, I realized that Cynthia’s tears, exhaustion, and frustration were the result of working incredibly long hours, but feeling like she had little to show for it. Sadly, Cynthia was suffering from a common error I see among new faculty: a complete disconnection between her time and her priorities.
Let’s be clear: Cynthia was acutely aware of the fact that she is expected to publish prolifically in order to be promoted with tenure. And yet, despite knowing that her publication record will be the most important factor in her tenure review, her description of her weekly schedule just didn’t reflect that hard reality. In other words, she was talking the talk about publication as the pathway to promotion, but not walking the walk in her daily life. Instead, she was spending the vast majority of her time on teaching and service. To make matters worse, as an African-American woman she was experiencing both the structural challenge of receiving a disproportionately high number of service requests, and the dynamics of racism and sexism in the classroom that were leading her to over-prepare for her classes. All of this added up to 80-hour work weeks, minimal research productivity (accompanied by guilt and shame), and emotional and physical exhaustion.
Strategies to Align Your Time and Priorities
I have heard Cynthia’s story dozens of times from faculty in almost every discipline. The best thing you can do to avoid this error is to open up your calendar and honestly assess how you are spending your time each day. If you aren't sure how you’re spending your time, then I encourage you to record your activity this week in order to figure out how much time you are spending on research, teaching, and service. I encouraged Cynthia (and all the new faculty members I work with) to use the following steps to proactively align her time with her priorities each week.
Step #1 Categorize Your To-Do List by Research, Teaching, and Service
When you create your to-do list for the week, categorize the items by "teaching," "service," and "research." This simple step, in and of itself, can be illuminating. One of my mentees described having an epiphany when she tried this simple activity because she realized that her teaching column was four times the size of her service and research columns! In that moment -- holding her categorized to-do list in her hands -- she realized that her tasks were out of whack with how she will be evaluated. This isn’t to say that the three lists should be of equal size, but that they should reflect the evaluation criteria at YOUR institution. If you are at a research institution and your research list isn’t at least tied for first, you may be headed for a problem. Likewise, if you’re at a community college, and teaching doesn’t dominate your list, your list may suggest a problem.
Step #2: Align the Time in Your Calendar With Your Promotion Criteria
Open up your calendar and block out time each day for the most important activities related to your long term success (such as research and writing). Try making these the first things you do each day so that you know that the most important things will get done. Let's say, for example, that 50 percent of your tenure evaluation will be based on research productivity. If that's the case, then consider spending 50 percent of your work time on research. In a 40-hour workweek, that means setting aside 20 hours for research and writing tasks each week (or 4 hours of each day). If another 40 percent of your evaluation will be based on teaching, then that means fitting your teaching (class + prep) into 16 hours per week. If service is the final 10 percent, then you have 4 hours per week for it. I realize this is a radical suggestion, but realistically meeting the promotion and tenure criteria at your institution requires you to: a) understand the evaluation criteria and b) align your daily work time with those expectations. And remember that you need to align your time with what really counts – many colleges claim that teaching, research and service are equally important criteria for promotion and tenure, but in reality research counts far more than anything else.
Step #3: Map Your To-Do Tasks Onto Specific Time Blocks in Your Calendar
Each of your to-do items needs to fit into a specific time period. For example, if you can't fit the 35 to-do tasks related to service into the 4 hours of time you have available for service related activities, then it's time to rethink those to-do items. What can you delegate, postpone, or eliminate entirely? Do you need to be committing to that much service at this point in your career? Do you need to learn when and how to say “no” more frequently? Should you consult with your mentors before agreeing to any additional service this year? For me, there's just something about having to make my to-do tasks fit into specific blocks of time each week that forces me to ask myself some hard questions:
- How am I spending my time?
- Is it in line with my long-term success?
- Is it consistent with how I will be evaluated?
- What's really important to me and is it getting done?
THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE
This week I challenge each of you to:
- Create a Semester Plan . It’s not too late!
- Set aside 30 minutes at the beginning of this week to plan how you will spend your time.
- Estimate what percentage of your work time this week would align with your institution’s evaluation criteria.
- Gently ask yourself if the way you are currently spending your work time is likely to result in your meeting the standards for promotion at your institution.
- Write out your to-do items for the week, being sure to categorize your to-do list by Research, Service, and Teaching.
- Map that list onto specific blocks of time in your calendar.
- Proactively decide what to do with the items that don't fit into your calendar.
- Try working just one week with your time (literally) aligned with your priorities.
- If you still need more convincing about aligning time and priorities, read The New Faculty Member  by Rebecca Brendt and Richard Felder (it's only two pages and can be read in two minutes).
I hope this week brings each of you a glorious epiphany about the relationship between your time and your priorities, fresh energy to engage your intellectual projects, and the peace that comes from knowing that everything that really matters will get done.
Peace and Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore