The 5 secrets to prioritizing your research and writing time without losing your mind.
When I started my first job on the tenure track one of my colleagues shared some strange advice, "Teaching is like a gas," she said, "It will take up whatever space you give it."
This was a surprising announcement, because I was in my first year at a teaching-intensive institution, where my eventual tenure case would be evaluated 55% teaching. I had taken the job because I was excited about working in the classroom with my students, but here I was being told to set some limits, to not focus too much on my instruction.
And thank goodness I did! I was successfully promoted with tenure exactly six years after that weird metaphor, having published a book while teaching five course per year and with two kids under four at home. I could not have done this without finding time to write during the academic year.
Here are a few things that I do to prioritize my time for writing during the teaching semester.
Secret #1 - Write it ALL Down
It's easy to lose track of all the assignments and tasks that loom over us at the start of a semester. There is the teaching prep and grading, service assignments that you agreed to in the optimistic haze of the summer, an overdue manuscript, and of course your book project that is WAY behind schedule.
The first step to a good semester plan is to account for all of the tasks that must be completed in those 15 weeks.
Make a master document where you list research priorities, class deadlines, committee meetings, and even your personal goals. When you plan your syllabus, adjust assignment due dates around your conference travel. Don't promise a book review during a heavy grading period or your anniversary weekend. And remember to take a look at your list before taking on any extra assignments. You will thank me later.
Secret #2 - Be Specific
Raise your hand if your writing goals are something like, "read X book by Professor Blue" or "edit chapter draft." When you have limited time, it is critical to set specific (and measurable) writing goals. Gone are the days of long, uninterrupted blocks of time for your writing and you need to adjust accordingly.
Break up those big goals into discrete tasks: "Read the first chapter of X book by Professor Blue;" "Write 2-paragraph summary of the first chapter with keywords;" and so on. Take that peer review report and make a task list so you can keep track of what revisions need to be made. That way, when you have 30 minutes to write on a teaching day you know where to start.
Secret #3 - Be Realistic
"Academics are the only people in the world who will tell themselves they need to read 200 pages today, fail to do it, and then say, 'OK then, I will read 400 pages tomorrow.'"
Academics are notorious for under-estimating the amount of time it will take to complete a task. In graduate school we have long, uninterrupted blocks of time for reading, brainstorming, and writing. So we never really understand how long it takes for us to read a 300-page book, write a 1,500 word book review, or even write a 50-minute lecture.
As a result, we tend to set unrealistic goals that we have no chance of meeting. OR we spend too much time on tasks that are not important. We beat ourselves up for not writing enough and so begins the shame cycle. Pro tip: If you take longer than you estimated for a specific task, you need to adjust your time goals, not double down on more tasks. If you have no idea where to start with estimating your time, download a tracking app and use it for a week to get some basic parameters.
Secret #4 - Set Limits
Too often we plan our semesters around just teaching and research, neglecting to consider the impact of service commitments on our time. Make sure to set aside some time every week for administrative tasks (e.g., e-mail, application reviews, and scheduling) so it doesn't creep into your writing time. Take your email off of your phone and resist the urge to reply immediately to every tiny query. Decide beforehand how much time you have to devote to reviewing grant applications, and set a timer.
Secret #5 - Make Adjustments
Lastly, it is impossible to predict every detail of the semester in advance. There will always be a last-minute committee assignment or required university workshop. Remember that in order to succeed you not only have to anticipate these things, but make adjustments to your plans accordingly. Making time to revisit your calendar on a weekly basis can go a long way in helping you to reach those goals.
Do you have a plan for prioritizing your writing this semester?
Click Here to sign up for my Writing Planning E-Book and Template to see how I make time for my writing, even in the busiest of semesters. And be sure to leave a comment below.