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Sanity Management Tips from an Ex-Chair
A couple of things that work for me that you might try
Toward the end of yesterday’s post on deadlines, I mentioned that I had originally thought I would wrap in a bit about time management from the faculty side, but the post had run long. This was prompted by a tweet that hit my feeds around the same time as the Burke post I was responding to yesterday, asking about how to handle email:
The connection to yesterday’s material was going to be that, as with the students who are working on figuring out what sort of deadline arrangement works best for them, faculty also have to find their own best accomodation. Could this “I only do email from 2:00-3:30” method work for some people? Absolutely. Will it work for everyone? Absolutely not, as you can see from the replies (which, it should be noted, are remarkably civil, so it’s actually okay to look…).
Different people work best in different ways, and a big key to success in any line of work more complicated than digging holes and immediately filling them back in is figuring out what approach will work best for you. You can sort of attempt to short-cut this process by asking other people what works best for them, and ruling out the options whose descriptions make you recoil in horror, but for anything short of that you pretty much have to try it out. In the spirit of supporting the information-gathering needed to fill out the option space, though, I’ll offer my two big time-and-sanity management tips for faculty, that came out of my time as Chair:
First: Block out some time when you absolutely will not work on anything that isn’t your own projects. For me, this was relatively easy, because I’m up very early— my alarm is set for 5:30 am, but I’m usually out of bed before it goes off. SteelyKid started kindergarten during my term as Chair, and the pick-up time for the bus was 7:30, so I would get up early, feed and walk the dog and push the big cartoon plunger on the dynamite needed to get SteelyKid out of bed at that hour, then decamp for the local Starbucks at about 7am. Then I had a hard rule that I would not do anything Chair-related before 9am.
This is, in some respects, the inverse version of the designated email hour proposed in the tweet that kicked this off, but for me it was essential for productivity. I got a couple hours a day of time when I was only working on my own stuff, and not in the department office where people could just drop in and ask questions they already knew the answers to. (“Can we order $200 of chalk?” “If we need chalk, yes, buy chalk. Get out of my office.”) That was essential for maintaining my writing career— I wrote basically all of Eureka during that three-year span— and also my sanity.
This approach was based in part on the half-joking advice offered by one of the members of the external review team who had reviewed the department a year or so earlier, which was “Whoever becomes Chair, my advice is to just throw away half of what comes in asking you to do stuff. It doesn’t even matter which half, because anything that actually matters, they’ll ask for again.” It is super easy to fall into a nibbled-to-death-by-ducks scenario as Chair, dealing with endless requests that each seem tiny, but cumulatively eat up the entire day. And a lot of those things are not actually significant.
I actually shared that in an advice-to-new-chairs meeting, to the horror of many of my colleagues. They tended toward the opposite advice— I was speaking on the heels of someone who suggested that, in the interests of not letting things pile up, “If something comes in that’s going to take me five minutes, I just deal with it immediately.” That sounds really nice, but I’ve learned that that kind of approach is a disaster for me, because I’m extremely bad at estimating how long a task will take. I regularly get something that I think will take me five minutes, which turns out to require an hour and a half of software updates and password changes, and then my whole morning is shot and I’m in a foul mood. I’m much better off letting stuff pile up and then doing triage when I have blocks of time where I’m just generally trying to clear the decks, and not do anything else.
Second: Do not have your work email on your phone. This one I learned late, and through a method I don’t really recommend, but when I went on sabbatical at the end of my term as Chair, I deleted my work email from my phone. I’ve never put it back, and it’s been one of the best decisions I ever made, in terms of preserving my mental health.
The key realization here is that there is absolutely no problem that anybody— faculty, student, or administrator—might ask me to solve that I can do anything useful about from my phone. If I’m in a place where that’s my only access to email, all those messages do is elevate my stress level until I can get to a place where I’m at a desktop computer with a real keyboard.
In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious, as I once had an entire weekend day ruined by receiving a bunch of pissy emails from an annoyed colleague on a Saturday morning when I was watching SteelyKid play soccer. I foolishly attempted a response of the form “I’m sorry to have upset you, I’ll fix it when I can get back to my office,” which just led to escalation and aggravation. It would’ve been way better for everyone involved had I not even seen that until I was in my office and could take immediate action.
The usual negative response to this is “But what if there’s an emergency?!?!” The honest answer is that actual emergencies in academia are almost vanishingly rare— as my T-shirt says, I’m not that kind of doctor. There’s basically no problem that can be solved by a college professor that’s so critical it can’t wait a few hours. In the incredibly unlikely event that one of those tiny number of events comes up, the admin assistant has my cell number, and can call or text me.
That realization has been profoundly liberating for me— family outings are now virtually guaranteed to be family-only time, and not moments that can be spoiled by stupid email drama from work. I can’t recommend it highly enough to people whose core psychology resembles mine.
But, of course, as noted at the top, this is very much a personal thing. For some other people, the stress of wondering about what might be in their email would be worse than reading it is for me. So, as with all advice, salt to taste.
Bonus anecdote: the tweet up top arrived in my timeline as a retweet of a response to it:
This ended up reminding me of the Two Cultures theory of meetings that I heard (second-hand) from a former Dean (a Classics professor, for the record). This was prompted by her noticing that the scientists and engineers always seemed grumpy and impatient about having meetings during work hours, where folks from the non-STEM fields were more cheerful. She realized that this was largely because the STEM folks tended to do research in their labs and offices on campus, during the day, so having a meeting was directly taking them away from productive time. For folks on the more literary side of academia, the actual scholarly work of reading and writing was mostly done elsewhere— at home, in coffee shops, at archives— and at times outside the normal academic workday— in the evening, during the summer, etc.. As a result, they tended to only come to campus for classes, meetings, and socialization, and the latter two tended to blend together.
This is from twenty-ish years ago, so the culture has probably shifted a bit, but there remains an element of truth to it that I think of every time I look around a faculty meeting.
I’ve written about this stuff before, of course, but as with all generalized advice, it’s kind of an evergreen topic, so this almost certainly won’t be the last time. If you’d like the opportunity to have the next round pop up while you’re watching a kid play soccer, here’s a button:
And if you want to tell me that I’m all wrong about these tips, the comments will be open: