a few thoughts on academic time management

Having received some interesting feedback on my previous post about academic life, I’m going to say a few more things about academic time-management, in a things-I-have-learned-in-a-long-life sort of way:

1) I know this is obvious, but I have to say it: you’re never going to write much if you don’t insulate yourself from distractions. I have enough self-discipline now that I don’t have to get off the internet or shut down my Twitter and email clients, but I set those clients so that they don’t give me any notifications. That gives me a chance to get absorbed in my writing enough that I forget that they’re open. YMMV, but do what you have to do to write without interruption. Also, remember that it’s really hard for most people to write for more than about four hours a day: if during those four hours you’re really focused, you’ll have made significant progress, and then can do other ancillary work in a more leisurely way. Thomas Mann, one of the most prolific of great writers, wrote one page a day. But he did it every day.

2) In writing, it helps to have more than one project: one that’s your chief occupation, and one to turn to when Project 1 grinds to a halt, as it sometimes, inevitably, will do. The longer you work as a writer, the better you’ll get at knowing when you’re just not able to make progress on a particular task and need to turn to others in order to give your mind a change of pace. This works especially well if your secondary project uses different parts of your brain than your main one. In writing more than in anything else I know, a change is as good as a rest.

3) Take the time to experiment with different workflows and different software until you find a combination of tools that rhyme with the way your mind works. If using Word constantly frustrates you, don’t continue to use it just because you’ve always used it and think you don’t have the time to learn something else. That’s a false economy. About ten years ago I started writing in a text editor (BBEdit) instead of a word processor, and then more recently learned LaTeX. The elegance, precision, and feature-appropriateness of those apps have rewarded me more than amply for the time it took me to learn to use them well.

4) Many academics are control freaks, and one of the most common ways that freakery manifests itself is in over-preparation for classes. That’s bad in a couple of ways. First, you spend more time than you can really afford, and second, once you’ve spent all that time you want to make sure that you squeeze it all in to your class time. So you end up talking more than you should, talking too fast, and shutting down potentially interesting conversations because you’re afraid that you won’t be able to cover everything you’ve prepared for. Over-preparation is thus not only time-consuming but has many bad pedagogical side-effects. You’ll do real damage to the classroom environment if you think getting through your outline is more important that allowing the students to pursue an issue that really fascinates them and gets them involved. Invest less time in traditional course prep and more time in thinking about how to manage the time in the classroom that increases student involvement.

5) Many academics, in the humanities anyway, also over-comment on their students’ essays, and end up giving far more feedback than the students can absorb, even when they want to, which is not that often. If you write dozens of marginal comments and a page or more of summary comments, students will rarely be able to differentiate between the major issues and the minor ones. You need to make comments only about major things, and let the little ones go. In that way you’ll give your students feedback that they can actually use.

6) Also: I ask my students to give me, by email, a proposal two weeks before the essay is due. I tell them what I think is good about their idea and what they need to watch out for; more often than not I advise them to take only a part of their topic and focus on that. Then, a week later, I have them send me, again by email, a rough draft. Once more I comment briefly with encouragements, warnings, and indications of where they should invest their major energies. This process would be valuable to them even if I gave no comments at all, because it makes them think about their work well in advance of the due date, which gives them the chance to turn ideas over. By the time they turn in a final version, I don’t have to make many comments at all: those who put in the work will have improved significantly, and the others will already know what their problems are. I spend less time that I would have spent in writing extensive comments; I spread that labor out over a longer period, thus making it feel less onerous; and I get better results.

Just a few recommendations, I know, but you’d be surprised — or at least, I have been surprised — by how much of a difference they make in the use of my time.