How not to Suck at Graduate School: Creating a Productivity Schedule

There are many ways for academics and graduate students to increase their efficiency and productivity. Because individual circumstances, both personally and professionally, change it is necessary to be able to adapt your methods to your current realities. Nearly every semester involves a new strategic plan to increase quality of work. Because no matter what the realities of life are, the goal is continuous improvement.

For me, this should be a high productivity academic year in terms of scholarly papers and ideas. I have a favorable teaching schedule, a research lab of motivated-to-produce graduate students, pent-up ideas that did not get written last year, invited papers and a book contract, and a solid base of data to use. I have also decided not to go after writing major grant proposals this year because these activities require a large amount of work with a low probability of success. The plan is to have a strong publication year now that will increase the probability of grant funding for next year. I also have a lot of motivation to keep up with my younger, smarter, an extremely productive peers; and move to a full professor status. Although this strategy may not work for everyone, even for me in previous terms, this is what I am using for a potentially high productivity year.

The first assumption is that a to-do list is simply fantasy unless time is allocated to complete each item. So at the least your to-do list must sync with your calendar (I use Priority Matrix, but there are many excellent to-do lists available). It also helps that I have enough experience to know how quickly I can work and therefore am a little bit stronger at estimating the time to complete a task than I once was. Here are the steps that I use:

  • Fill your schedule with nonnegotiable items. This includes your classroom teaching schedule, scheduled meetings, office hours, classroom planning, and other regular meetings that you cannot escape.
  • For every one-hour of meeting time, schedule at least 30 extra minutes to prepare for the meeting or to follow up. Meetings without preparation or follow-up are a complete waste of time.
  • Fill your schedule with items that are critical to your life. I know it sounds silly, but schedule time for lunch, time with friends, family time, exercise, sleep, shopping, time with significant other, rest and downtime, hobbies, volunteer work, etc. Your work is a marathon and not a sprint. Take care of yourself and your relationships. It is easy to become obsessed with work at the expense of living a decent life. Once these items are put into your schedule, they are also nonnegotiable.
  • Estimate at least two hours per day for flex time. These are for impromptu student meetings, hallway consultations, answering emails, bathroom breaks, taking deep breaths, office naps, and other work (e.g., reviewing manuscripts and reading).
  • I tend to keep a seven-day schedule. However, it is extremely rare for me to do more than four hours of work per day on the weekends. Many academics like to keep a five or six-day schedule.
  • I do not seem to have the mental stamina that I once did. So I cannot write for hours at a stretch anymore. Therefore, I use the Pomodoro system of 25 minutes of full work with five minutes of rest (this is when I usually send out Tweets of frustration @Shawpsych). Then Pomodoros are added to the calendar. I typically have 20 Pomodoro units (10 hours) scheduled per week.
  • From experience, I know that I write approximately 300 to 350 words per Pomodoro. That does not sound like much, but there is much variability. Sometimes I can write 2000 words in one Pomodoro and other times writing comes slowly or the session is spent editing and revising. Nonetheless, the goal for me is to have 6000 to 7000 words written per week. Sometimes Pomodoros are used for data collection, outlining, planning, or data analysis.
  • Now go to your projects. A project is any paper, chapter, book, grant proposal, report, or work that requires dedicated time to complete. I have a gross list of all projects that are on my agenda. There are usually 10-12 that are in my brain at any one time. Many of these are co-authored. I keep all of this information on a spreadsheet.
  • All projects with firm deadlines such as grant proposals, contracted work, invited papers or reports with deadlines, and the like are scheduled first. If possible, I like to give extra time on projects. For example, if a paper will be approximately 7000 words (or 28 APA-style pages) in length. I schedule one week to write a first draft, one week to revise and edit, and one week to let it rest or for unforeseen problems.
  • Well thought-out papers and papers with complete data take about 3 weeks to prepare for submission. Papers that are not fully baked can take forever. Spend Pomodoro time developing your ideas, completing analyses, and making detailed outlines so that writing will go smoothly. I have individual meetings with all of my students. Usually, this meeting time is where our projects are thought out and outlined.
  • Projects without firm deadlines are the hardest to complete and probably the most important for your career. See #getyourmanuscriptout for Twitter inspiration on this issue. Most often we work from deadline to deadline and those papers with no firm deadline can be put off for months or years. But typically this is your most creative work that sets the tone for who you are as a scholar. Place these papers into your calendar of Pomodoros. I typically place one project paper without a deadline into my schedule at a time. When that paper is submitted, then I move on to the next paper and schedule that.

All fields are different in relative demands for project completion. In general, 12 projects per year is a reasonable goal with this model of work. As we all know, some projects are massive and some are simple. I am a no-drama advocate. Consistency and scheduling time for high quality work is preferred to a lot of down time followed by high intensity panicky writing.

A critical factor to remember is that Pomodoros are not free time. When someone asks you if you have time available, consider a Pomodoro to be a meeting with yourself that cannot be cancelled. In a pinch, you may be able to move a Pomodoro to a different time, but do this rarely and never cancel.

This also helps you to understand which requests you can say yes to. If there is no time available to complete a task, then the answer is no. It is always easier to say no, if there is a larger yes on your schedule.

The hardest part of this schedule for many is the insta-author aspect of this form of schedule. If I have a random 30-minute period between meetings, then I can instantly get into focus and write for 25 minutes—and then move to the next meeting. I have always been able to do this. Many folks need to get in the mood and do not bother to work unless they can string together 2 or 3 consecutive hours. That’s okay—I just like to pick up the scheduling crumbs of the day and make them useful.

Sometimes, I do extra. We all know that there will be interruptions, disruptions, emergencies, lack of motivation, anxiety, depression, and other things that will interfere with the productivity schedule. It is going to happen. The calendar and productivity schedule is aspirational. If I am writing and on a roll, then I will keep going beyond the scheduled Pomodoro, if possible. I consider extra writing to be productivity insurance for the inevitable disruption of regularly scheduled writing tasks.

I have made the case many times that the best strategic plan is to have a plan. There are so many techniques and strategies available that the above described idea is probably not the best for most readers. Pick and choose the parts that work for you. Or develop a completely different plan. Have a plan. I know that many people fly by the seat of their pants, work all night, sleep for days, every project is completed one minute before the deadline, and move organically (or haphazardly) from project to project—and many of these people are successful. But these folks are often hard to collaborate with, have challenges in their personal lives, do not sleep well, experience burnout, and have a host of other difficulties. Have a plan. Your sustainable productivity and overall quality of life will improve.

SRShaw

 

Communicating Science: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Science, and especially the way science is funded, is changing dramatically. A laboratory that produces only esoteric work with results published in esoteric scientific journals will find that funding, attracting new and high quality students, collaborating with other laboratories, and receiving necessary support from the university is far more challenging than in the past. Government and foundation funding agencies want to know the applied applications of nearly all research, no matter how basic. Science communication is now a required activity. However, there is so much energy and expertise concerning science communication that it is overwhelming for graduate students and new scientists to figure out how to allocate their time and resources. Sometimes so much time is spent updating CVs, creating websites, and managing communication that there is little time left for actual research and data generation.

As always, I am not an expert in science communication, but that does not stop me for offering my two cents about what works for me. I am a director of a professional program in school psychology at a large research university. Certainly, some of the strategies will not work in other fields or in more basic science areas.

Tree-Shaped Communication

The communication of thinking, science, implementation, and data produced by the lab is most effectively thought of as a tree-shaped process. The first stage is the trunk and roots of the tree, which serves as the foundation for all communication. The trunk consists of refereed scholarly articles. The roots are the data and theory development upon which ideas are created. Scientific articles that have been peer reviewed begin to form the trunk from which science communication spreads. Without such foundation, communications can be speculative, fictional, aspirational, or otherwise not tethered to any scientific thought. The branches and leaves of the tree spread communication to professionals in your subfield, to related professionals, to policymakers, to thinkers in other fields, to implementing professionals, to the general public. The traditional academic laboratory consists solely of the trunk — although it is a strong foundation, there is no reach beyond the restricted group of dedicated colleagues. Speakers, popular science communicators, talk show hosts, and other communicators may have a broad popular reach; but those communications consist only of the branches and leaves (like a shrub or vine) — a broad reach with an uncertain anchor in science. We all know people who do this and view them as dilatants who have sold their soul, but are still someone envious of their notoriety and bank accounts. As a graduate student or new scientist, this framework allows for strategic use of time and energy to both create a respectable core of knowledge and communicate findings to the most appropriate audiences.

Possessing a framework is only a tool. Every graduate student or young scholar must have a communication goal in mind. For me, that goal is to be respected by my research peers and also have the opportunity to influence the clinical practice in education and psychology. There is a necessary middle ground to occupy between being a dusty tweedy professor writing papers that collect dust and are only read by other people who write papers; and serving as a spray-tanned veneer-smiled consultant and media personality. There are many types of trees in this framework that you can choose to emulate. Some professional goals are more like a lodge pole pine that is tall and narrow; and others are more like an oak tree that is shorter, but spreads far and wide. The tree analogy can work, but you must know what your goals are.

The Trunk

Within the building of a foundation for communication there are a variety of options. Every field in science has narrow journals that focus on a subset of knowledge. Narrow focus journals allow for strong peer review by experts in the field. This level of professional journal most typically serves as the foundational aspects of any research program. These narrow focus journals serve as the core of the trunk of the tree. The next level is the broad journal. These journals have a wider readership and cross into many related areas of study. Most fields have multiple levels of journals. For example, in my field of school psychology there are narrow journals such as the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment and Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation; more broad journals such as School Psychology Review; and very broad journals such as Psychological Bulletin or American Psychologist. Typically, the foundation of a research program begins at narrow journals and works its way out to broad journals as the theoretical implications of data become more mature. Both types of journals are necessary for building the strongest possible roots and trunk of the communication tree.

The Branches and Leaves

Not all research programs are intended for a broad audience. It is helpful to grow from the established trunk of the tree outward to the broad and general audience. Most people in science prefer to stay close to the scientific community (i.e., thick branches). The further the communication spreads to a general audience, the less structure and less control the scientist has (i.e., the leaves).

Professional newsletters/professional organization websites/magazines — Many fields of study have professional newsletters, websites, or related magazines that are widely read in the field, but are not refereed or a primary outlet for scientific results. These outlets may include interviews with scholars, book and paper reviews, and broad descriptions of scientific activities. Such outlets reach a wide professional audience and the editors of newsletters and magazines are familiar with the language of science and your discipline, specifically. Although these outlets tend to have a larger reach than broad refereed journals, they lack professional status. These are excellent communication resources when you want to publicize your research activities within your broader field.

Blogs — The value of blogs varies from field to field. In some areas blogs are often the first repository for new data and new thinking. In other fields of study blogs are used to provide overviews of research. There is no guarantee of size or reach of the readership of a blog. The nature of the readership is difficult to control as well. However, the advantage is that you have complete control of the editorial content and tone of what you wish to communicate. Often referring wide and general audiences to a blog in order to communicate details of research can be valuable.

Social media – Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others provide a general outlet for information. Savvy marketing is necessary to ensure that the audience to whom you wish to communicate is receiving the information. Most often social media serves as an excellent method of interacting with colleagues and the general public. Scholarly connections frequently began as social media communication. These frequently lead to collaborative work and other partnerships.

Public and professional talks — Scientists are often asked to engage in public or professional talks. In my field, school boards/districts and professional organizations need speakers for professional development opportunities for psychologists or teachers. Engaging professionals with the information developed in the research lab and applying it to clinical activities is a difficult skill. However, developing public speaking skills to assist in having your research information communicate to audiences of potential policy makers and implementing professionals is worth the time and energy.

Press — Newspapers are always looking for interesting stories. As such, they frequently interview scholars to receive an expert perspective on their news story or feature a scientist who has made discoveries. Being interviewed for a newspaper reporter story is a difficult skill. Nearly every scientist who is interviewed for a newspaper claims that they have been misquoted or so heavily edited that their primary message did not appear in the final article. An effective reporter or interviewer will ask an open-ended question upon which a scientist will go into a long and rambling explanation, then the interviewer will select components of the long and rambling explanation that fits into the reporter’s narrative. That selected information is what appears in a newspaper article. Although it goes against the nature of most scientists, answer newspaper interviews with short declarative sentences. An interview is not a social conversation. Taking several seconds to articulate a short and simple answer is perfectly acceptable. If your responses are short and on point, then you are unlikely to be misquoted.

Media — Radio and television interviews reach fairly large audiences, but are extremely difficult to do well. The hardest part about television and radio interviews is that everything is in first draft, there is no opportunity to revise an answer once you speak it out loud. This is also a foreign environment where you need to worry about audio and visual equipment, dress and make up, the tone of your voice, camera angles, strict time limits, and other issues that are irrelevant to most scientists. Engaging with television and radio interviews can be nerve-wracking, is a specific skill, and depends in large part on the quality of the people in the media. The major advantage is that you will immediately reach a large number of people in the general population.

All-Purpose Communication

There are other forms of communication of scientific progress that can cover both trunk and branches and leave of the tree framework.

Grant proposals — Although grant proposals are essential to funding core research, many grant proposals are read and evaluated by people who are not area experts in your field of study (I know, weird). In any grant proposal there must be a weaving of deep foundational aspects of the research with broad implications for application and social import. Writing successful grant proposals often requires mastery of both directions of the tree framework.

Website — All labs require a website that communicates the foundation and the reach/scope of the topics studied. The website is used to recruit new students, indicate the importance of the research for the general public, and provide detailed methodology of current projects. Like a blog, the website is the home for interested parties to receive additional information and more communication than they received from the snippet of information in a television interview or newspaper article. All communication requires a reference to the website. The website is as much the home to your laboratory as the physical space of your lab.

Nerd social media — Nerd social media involves repositories and scientist-focused websites such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and related sites. On these sites scientists can search any scholar to view their catalogue of publications and the reach of those publications. Many of these sites have opportunities to interact, share papers and data. Nerd social media is an excellent forum from which to meet and reach collaborators, future research supervisors, and scientific leaders in the field.

Conclusions

Conducting and reporting scientific findings in narrow focused refereed scholarly journals is no longer adequate for any scientist in any field. A communication strategy is required to maximize the reach of a research program and therefore possibilities for funding, recognition, collaboration, and application of science to the larger community. Each graduate student or scientist is now required to develop specific communication skills; whether they are writing for a general audience, public speaking, creating videos, or other methods of communication. Selecting a strategy that fits with scientific and professional goals based on the tree framework of scientific communication is an effective way to create a reputation based on sound scientific principles, yet reach a broad and important audience.

SRShaw

What Happens after Tenure and Happily Ever after? A Look-into-the-Future Edition of How Not to Suck in Grad School

For many graduate students, postdocs, and adjunct faculty members a tenure-track job represents the Holy Grail of academic career achievement. The lucky few who earn the coveted tenure-track position spend the next five years experiencing stress, panic, extremely long hours, and stomach-churning worry over whether they will lose the, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, job. But then…through hard work, talent, strong mentorship, and luck your university decides to grant you tenure and a reasonably permanent contact. Well, then what?

Nearly all mentorship from graduate school through to assistant professor positions focuses on earning tenure. This is a single-minded obsession for at least the first 10 years and as many as 20 years of an academic career. Every piece of guidance, encouragement, support, and wisdom is integrated into the behaviors necessary to achieve the elusive and ultimate goal of tenure. Rarely do we discuss why we want tenure, what we will do with it, or how your life changes. Yet, most academic careers spend only 4 to 6 years as an assistant professor under extreme pressures to receive tenure and anywhere from 20 to 50 years in the fairyland of post-tenure. I would argue that at least half of all junior academics have no idea what they will do post-tenure. I would bet that most will say, “More of the same.” That would be a waste of the opportunity that tenure affords. Once you have achieved tenure and your own personal happily ever after, then what happens?

As always, this blog is based on my personal experiences and may not generalize. My work is in the employ of a large research university where I direct a professional program. Academia is clearly not a homogeneous profession. There are many different roles and expectations for academics. This post reflects my experiences only and certainly will not be useful to all academics.

Existential Dread

I had no idea that after I received tenure and during my sabbatical year that I would be spending so much time thinking about who I am as an academic and what I want to accomplish for the rest of my career. Existential dread is a major component of life immediately post tenure. This dread will need to be addressed in order to have the post-tenure career begin on a well-organized and productive footing. As someone who has come to academia fairly late in life after having a career as a practicing psychologist, I did not have a professional identity as an academic. Once I achieved tenure, I realized that I was an academic whether I like it or not.

Motivation to achieve and meet milestones are not big things to me like they are for many academics. I just like the work. Others live for milestones such as tenure and awards. When such huge emphasis is placed on tenure, there is a post reinforcement pause that frequently happens after getting tenure, which looks an awful lot like lack of motivation to achieve. The purpose of re-establishing the purpose of your work and processing the potential existential dread is to minimize the post reinforcement pause, which if not addressed successfully can become a long-term lack of motivation to produce.

I strongly recommend that much of the sabbatical year be spent in contemplation. What do you want to do with the rest of your career now that you do not have to publish large numbers of minor refereed scientific articles to keep your job? What is your niche within science or within your profession? What you aspire to do or to be? Post tenure results in a state similar to the legendary midlife crisis: Is this all there is? What do I do now? I am actually considering my proposal for my next sabbatical leave to be simply this: “to walk the earth like Kwai Chang Caine” so I can figure out what my years as a senior professor will be like. Failure to resolve these questions may lead to burnout, cynicism, and status as a deadwood professor.

Senior Scholar Issues

Some of the issues related to becoming an older scholar have little to do with tenure. As your reputation grows, there are more opportunities and responsibilities. Universities from around the world are interested in having you serve as an external reviewer to doctoral theses or to be an external reviewer for tenure files. Some of these documents are over 500 pages long and require a significant amount of time, energy, and responsibility. You will be asked to serve on editorial advisory boards for journals or to be an associate editor. Professional organizations want you to be an officer. You will be invited to contribute book chapters or articles to special issues of journals. You will receive invitations to provide workshops, consultation, or colloquia to a variety of audiences. Some of these opportunities are exciting and you wish you had them when you were pre-tenure. However, every opportunity requires significant time commitment and your time is a finite resource. These things simply come with the territory. When you know who you are and what you want to accomplish, then the decisions on whether to accept or decline these opportunities are much easier than if you wander through mid career without a plan.

Role and Function

The big change that nobody talks about is the day-to-day responsibilities post tenure. There is a tendency to have far more leadership roles and responsibility for governance of your university post tenure. Most universities try to protect their pre-tenure faculty members so that they can develop the teaching skills and research productivity necessary for tenure. Once tenure is obtained the floodgates open. Pre-tenure involves sitting as a member of a variety of departmental and university committees, post tenure involves chairing those committees. One thing that becomes clear is that chairing a committee is an order of magnitude more time consuming than simply attending meetings a couple times per semester.

Many departments have a rotation of roles. Once tenure is gained, you are now in the rotation for huge and time-consuming activities. Many of these roles are not simply a function of tenure, but are assigned immediately the year after the sabbatical. In other words, “while you are on sabbatical, we decided to make you chair of time-consuming committee X as soon as you return.” For example, I am now program director, member of the university’s tenure and promotion committee, the department’s executive steering committee, and a member of nearly every new faculty search committee. I would like to advance my research, please. Effective organization of time may be even more difficult post tenure than pre-tenure. Sorry to be the one to share that.

Being director of a professional program is especially time-consuming. My first year was spent writing a 572 page self-study document for program accreditation and then coordinating a site visit from the accrediting body. Every complaint from students or faculty, incidents of clinical problems, budget issues, mediating conflicts between students and supervisors, writing annual reports to accrediting bodies, recruiting and admissions, and making the final decision on difficult and complex issues (e.g., student dismissal) comes across my desk. Ultimately, every challenging decision is made by the program director. Luckily, I have quality support from faculty members, a strong department chair, and high quality students. All you can do is try your best to be efficient, delegate when possible, and upset everyone equally.

There is nothing wrong with these roles. I am used to this level of administration as I spent 9 years as director of psychological services in a hospital setting. But the problem is that promotion to full professor, remaining competitive for increasingly difficult to acquire grants (mostly because you are now competing against extremely well-established scholars and not other noob assistant professors), and continuing to establish an international reputation is dependent almost entirely on research productivity. The year I spent writing the 572 page self-study, I published zero (zero!) refereed publications. That is a big hole in my CV. The next year I only published two papers. So it took more than a full year to fill the pipeline and return to my pre-tenure productivity of about six refereed papers per year.

The dean and department chair completely understand that my role and function have changed. My lack of productivity did not really generate much heat on me as they seem to understand the trade-off that was being made. But to granting agencies and people outside of my university, I looked like I was becoming deadwood.

Deadwood

Deadwood is not the kindest of phrases to describe a faculty member, but it happens. The deadwood professors are those who achieved tenure and then do little above the minimum requirements of the job. Publications slow to a crawl, they teach their classes, attend required meetings, hold office hours, and then go home. Critics of academia point to deadwood professors as the reason that tenure should be abolished or reformed. Honestly, I do not see much of this. In a department of about 35 faculty members only two or three might be considered deadwood and that would be a harsh judgment. This does not include those academics with illness, personal crises, changing research directions and programs, other relatively short-term disruptions of their professional lives, and those slowing down as they near retirement. The deadwood professor relies on a permanent open-ended contract as an excuse to live a lifestyle without doing the core work of an academic. The deadwood professor occurs when there is an environment that treats receiving tenure as the end state or final major accomplishment of academia. We do not have that culture at my university. The other reason for becoming a deadwood professor is when the individual does not find meaning in work and has no plans beyond tenure. The status of the deadwood professor is an indication of a failure to navigate post tenure academia.

Ideas and Solutions

For me there were six activities that helped navigate the challenges of the academic midlife crisis. These may not work for you, but create your own activities. Tenure is opportunity. Be mindful about how you can best use this opportunity to make for a most satisfying career and life.

  1. One of those insipid inspirational quotes is, “what would you do if you knew that you could not fail?” This really applies to the post tenure life lived well. Without pressures to produce small and frequent articles on the minutia of your field, what would you produce? This is the opportunity to produce vast and important projects. This is the opportunity to produce exciting work that may not result in a positive outcome. This is the opportunity to make work that is innovative and truly important. Keep a list of what you want to study if you did not have to worry about publication quantity. Try to publish that one big paper each year or take on a large book project in addition to your other work. Think big and make a difference.
  2. The five-year plan has always been something that I have (like Stalin). This guides my decision making. Where do you want to be in five years? What projects do you want to accomplish? What outcomes do you want to achieve? I have found that a review of the previous five-year plan and development of a new five-year plan bring excitement, take advantage of opportunities, and help me to make my work continuously progress.
  3. Say no and say yes. Say no to small projects that are not consistent with your five-year plan or big opportunities. Say yes to risky ventures with large opportunities for success and a more than zero probability for failure. Tenure allows risk taking, if you do not take those risks, then what is the use?
  4. Creating a life is hard for academics. As an undergraduate many say that I will wait to live my life until I get into graduate school. Once in graduate school, the same people say I will have fun and start my life after I complete my thesis. Then as a tenure-track professor, I am too busy to have fun or have a real life. After receiving tenure, you are out of excuses. Although, I have heard some say that now they are too old to engage in fun life activities that they should have when they were younger. That can be a sad situation. My advice is to jump in without fear. If your life was out of balance, then post tenure is a brilliant opportunity to get it back in balance. For me, I returned to judo training after 26 years away and am working on converting my neglected dad bod into something that will carry me for the next 30 more years.
  5. Lead something. This is the opportunity to take control and establish leadership as a mid-career and well-established professional. There is no choice for me but to be something of a leader as I have the formal title of program director. However, part of my five-year plan is to organize and make coherent the profession of school psychology in Canada. Being a leader is an empowering activity for senior academics that gives purpose and creates opportunities.
  6. Give back and be generous. Remember all of those people who helped you when you were a junior professor? The chances are good that there was more than one mentor or generally encouraging person as your career was established. This is now your opportunity to give back to the next generation. Reach out and actively take these opportunities to mentor, support, and be generous with your time and effort. Giving back is a wonderful cure for cynicism.

Congratulations on getting tenure. I remember being somewhat disappointed that there was not a secret handshake, dedicated washroom, or lounge with a wet bar. In fact, there are more duties that take time from your research agenda and desire to create. A great deal of planning and mindful approaches to task are required to set forth an agenda for the remainder of your career. Tenure and the security that goes with it are nothing more than opportunities to do something special–so do not waste this wonderful opportunity.

SR Shaw

 

 

 

How Not to Suck at Summer Work Habits

As often happens, I was inspired by Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent blog post. This one is entitled, “My daily workflow: On focusing on ONE task at a time.” (http://www.raulpacheco.org/blog/). I always learn a lot from his insights and experiences. Moreover, I am always fascinated by the variations in work habits that productive people enjoy. Although I have written about my organization, work habits, and approaches to completing tasks before; summertime work schedules, priorities, and tasks change.

For me, summer is four months without teaching, few grant deadlines, and minimal numbers of meetings. About 75% of my writing volume is completed over the summer. Because so much writing is completed in such a short time, maximum efficiency of work habits is needed. In addition, there are vacations, downtime, children home from school, and wonderful weather that demands time be spent outside. The best part is the flexibility. I have few 10 to 12 hour days. Many days I can complete my daily work in six hours. Even taking a few days off is perfectly fine in the summer. The goal is not to allow this flexible and enjoyable time to slip away without achieving maximum productivity.

Organization. Before the summer begins, I catalog all of  the projects that need to be completed over this four-month period. For me, this is fairly easy. I have several papers and book chapters that are being co-authored with students, there are student theses that require editing, and I have a book contract where I have promised to present a completed manuscript by September 1. I noticed that Raul uses conference deadlines to guide much of his scheduling. At this stage in my career, my personal life, and the priorities of McGill University, travelling and presenting at conferences is a low priority for me. About 90% of my summer work revolves around refereed publications, books, and grant proposals. So my list of projects to be completed over the summer is made with hard deadlines primary and self-imposed deadlines secondary.

Prioritization. I use the website/app Priority Matrix to organize my to do lists and projects. Typically, projects with hard deadlines and long difficult projects are attacked first. I have a tendency to procrastinate productively. In other words when I get tired of working on a long and difficult project, that I will automatically begin working on a shorter easier project just to break up the day (this blog post being an example—I wrote it during the night shift [about 7:30-8:00pm] after a day of writing).

Outlining. Most of my work has extremely detailed outlines. Every heading is written before I begin writing. Usually paragraphs that do not receive headings are also placed within the outline. Any figures or tables are completed before writing begins. The goal is that once writing begins, it should go quickly. The time required to write any manuscript typically involves about one third outlining, one third drafting, and one third revising and editing.

Writing. I write nearly all of the text via dictation with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This approach increases my speed over typing from about 50 words per minute to 140 words a minute. I typically have Zotero open to the folder related specifically to the project I am working on. I usually have tabs open for four or five PDF papers that have sections I want to emphasize in my papers highlighted. These open papers are most frequently data-heavy papers where I will be citing complex details in the literature review. For me, writing is about getting as much on the page as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time. Given the amount of time and energy I spent outlining, most often writing runs fairly smoothly. Sometimes I find that an outline that appeared to be solid is less so when I actually start writing. Then I go back and fix the outline for future writing sessions. There is always a reciprocal process between outlining and writing.

Editing. Revising and editing is where the differences between a professional writer and a beginning writer are most apparent. The first revision is called the FLOAT pass and works to perfect the bones and muscles of the paper. Float stands for Flow, Logic, Order, Accuracy, and Tone. Flow refers to an easy-to-read paper with strong transitions. Logic refers to whether the arguments supporting the thesis or hypotheses are clear and meet logical standards. Order is related to flow and logic, and refers to the sequence of paragraphs that creates a consistently deductive or inductive approach to making the thesis or testing the hypotheses. Accuracy is simple fact checking and includes appropriate attribution and citation of ideas. Tone refers to word choice and quality of expression. The second pass is editing. Paragraph structure, complete sentences, grammar, and punctuation are the foci. The third pass is formatting. The details of APA or AMA (or other) style are important. In addition to the general professional style, often journals have their own idiosyncratic stylistic issues that must be adhered to. Often the difference between acceptance and rejection of a paper can be traced to style and presentation.

Time Working. I like to work from home mostly because I have an 80 minute commute from my house to my office. Working from home allows me to have almost 3 more hours of productive time in the day. The goal is to work for 40 pomodoros (30 minute segments) per week. I usually exceed this or work without the Pomodoro timer running. There is flexibility for when these hours are worked. 6 to 10 Pomodoro’s per day is typical.

Weekends. My family tends to be fairly late risers on weekends. Since I typically wake up about 5:30 (dogs do not comprehend weekends — all she cares is that it is pee o’clock) in the morning, I have plenty of time to complete at least six Pomodoros on each weekend day before the family is awake. Household chores and family time take up most of the afternoon and evening. I also tend to work with the television on during weekends, but do not watch television on weekdays.

Daily Grind. I go to the office once or twice per week during summers to meet with students, pick up mail, and attend the odd meeting. But if I do not need to go to the office, then I do not. My typical summer day is as follows:

  • 530 to 6 wake up and walk dog
  • 6 to 630 meditation and brief yoga
  • 630 to 830 shower, coffee, breakfast, twitter, farting around
  • 830 to 12 writing
  • 12 to 230 gym, lunch, long dog walk
  • 230 to 5 editorial duties, thesis reading, correspondence, editing (I do this on the patio if the weather is nice)
  • 5 to 7 cooking, family dinner, cleaning
  • 7 to 9 administration, reading, and answering emails
  • 9 to 10 family time

Although this schedule is the default, it is realized maybe 3 to 4 days a week. Real life always is the primary activity, no matter what deadline is pending. Medical tasks, therapies, chatting, and just being together take priorities over any work. And sometimes I just need a nap or to spend some time doing absolutely nothing. I do not worry about days where not much work is done. Guilt is not helpful and robs the day of joy. When the work habits are established, tasks will get accomplished. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to make any task appear effortless.

SR Shaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Not to Suck at Identifying and Coping with “Rhymes with ‘Glass Bowls’”

April 2016

From the vocabulary.com definition: “insulting term of address for people who are stupid or irritating or ridiculous or unpleasant. If you call someone an asshole, then they’re probably doing something not just stupid and annoying, but mean. Like all slang words and obscenities, this is a word you need to be careful about using. Saying asshole in class, in a paper, at a job interview, or even on television could get you in serious trouble. If you’re not alone with your buddies, stick to a safer word like jerk or doofus.”

Academia is rife with examples of destructive and hostile behaviour among professors who hold power over others. Not a week goes by without a newspaper report of a well-known university professor who is a serial sexual harasser. Every graduate student has a story of at least one professor who has behaved in a way that can be considered manipulative, angry, insulting, demeaning, degrading, vengeful, and otherwise taking advantage of humans with little power. Careers are often ended before they begin by graduate students identifying their supervisors as assholes too late in their educational process to make changes. Such experiences are devastating personally and professionally. The ability to identify, avoid, and cope with academic jackholes is a major predictor of career success for people without power (i.e., graduate students, postdocs, untenured faculty).

To be fair to assholes, there are many systems that encourage a high degree of assholery. For example, some universities bestow credit or honours for authorship of a refereed publication only if the professor is the first or sole author. In such systems, graduate students or postdocs, who do the majority of work on a study, may be deprived authorship or given secondary authorship. Much of academia has a “zero sum game” approach. In other words, a given professor does not receive credit and the consequent rewards if someone else has success. Therefore, it is just as effective and sometimes easier to undermine others and prevent success of underlings rather than demonstrate quality of work. Although there are cases of active sabotaging the work of others, most frequently passive-aggressive undermining of others is the tool of the asshole. There are always finite amounts of dollars in a grant envelop, usually only one person can win an award every year, and annual faculty evaluations tend to be norm-referenced. As long as there are competitive rewards, there will be assholes. And most galling, assholes often win.

Identifying Bleepholes

A major skill is to identify challenging people as early as possible and then avoid situations where the asshole will have any power over you. There is no level of funding, professional connections, inspiration or knowledge that is worth being abused and slowly having your soul crushed. There are many outstanding well-funded, inspirational, and knowledgeable scholars who are also supportive humans and productive mentors. Most typically we do not find out which supervisors are assholes until it is too late. Early identification and avoidance of assholes is a critical variable in making your life as a scholar easier, more enjoyable, and more productive. There are keywords to identifying assholes — a vocabulary of assholery. Unfortunately, this is one of the confusing aspects of identifying the asshole. The keywords words used to identify assholes are quite similar to the vocabulary used in successful grant proposals or by the orange 2016 US GOP presidential candidate. Self-aggrandizing and superlative language is common. If, in an introductory discussion with a senior faculty member, more than three of these words or phrases are used, then there is a high probability that you are talking to an asshole: best, state-of-the-art, paradigm altering, innovative, superior, elite, most demanding, highest achieving, most productive, most highly cited, award-winning, highly selective, high standards, and hardest working. And it nearly goes without saying that anyone who uses the expression “we work hard and play hard” is to be avoided.

A major feature of senior faculty assholes is their belief that they are the self-appointed arbiters of what is true science. Although they may be talented and productive, and sometimes correct, they insist on evaluating the work of others when no one asks their opinion with phrases such as, “What you are doing is interesting, but it does not reach the level of what I would consider to be science.” Another common feature is that the criteria used to evaluate whether something is true science tends to shift depending on how the outcomes of the evaluation can benefit the asshole.

Egocentrism and the pathological desire to control every aspect of their world are also primary factors. From an academic perspective such people are far more interested in using graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty as mechanisms by which they can leave a legacy. They are far more interested in how others can support and promote the asshole’s own ideas and agenda. The concept that the asshole’s ideas (and therefore the asshole him/herself) are the centre of the universe is quite common. Of course, criticism of the ideas is considered a personal attack. Moreover, even if the junior scholar chooses an independent trajectory that goes outside of the orbit of the asshole’s ideas, then that is also considered a personal attack or slight. Any behaviour that suggest that the asshole and his or her ideas are not the most important thing in the universe will be perceived as an attack or slight. And there will be ramifications.

Faux generosity and selflessness is another common feature. Any senior person who sounds like a martyr by humble bragging about how successful their students are due to his or her extensive and outstanding supervision is a problem. An example of the faux generosity is, “He needed the publication, so I gave him a paper topic and some data that I developed.” Another tactic of the asshole is bragging about how selfless their supervision style is. For example, “My students are so successful because I invest so much time and money in them. Supervision probably detracts from my other work, but I do it anyway because the students need me.” The not-so-subtle message is that the students would not be capable of success without the brilliant involvement and sacrifices of the senior scholar-hole.

When talking with potential supervisors and colleagues, one of the most effective questions involves asking them to evaluate their colleagues. Some will straight out trash talk their colleagues. For example, “Most of the faculty in this department are inept or lazy.” Assholes with a semblance of social skills tend to make comparative and evaluative comments about peers. For example, “Dr. Smith runs a very good lab, but their work is not as cutting-edge as what is done in our lab.”

A common approach to identifying sphincter-centric academics is to interview current students, previous students, and other professors. This is an excellent idea that I strongly encourage. However, there is only one predictive variable. That is the long pause after you asked the direct question. For example, “I am thinking of working with Dr. Jones. What is your experience in working with him (or her)?” If the first word in the response is, “Um” or if there is a noticeable pause before the first word is said, then you have your answer.

You want to examine the publication record of potential supervisors and colleagues. Examining authorship of refereed publications for the presence of student co-authors is an important factor. Graduate student and postdoc co-authors who have first or second authorship on a large number of papers indicate at least some general decency in assigning authorship. In addition, try to find out how many students begin working in that person’s lab, but transfer or drop out prior to graduation. Such information must be evaluated as a function of the norms of the Department; but if the majority of students who begin their graduate school careers in the lab do not graduate, then obviously red flags are raised.

Avoiding Bleepholes

A major mistake that many students and postdocs make when selecting a supervisor is that they focus entirely on the subject area, funding, and the reputation of the potential supervisor in their field of study. A better method is to look for signs of assholiness and, if found, keep looking for a supervisor with a productive style of respectful supervision.

Because assholes tend to be egocentric their sphere of influence in any academic community is limited. Despite the grudging respect of colleagues, most of them have peers who understand how challenging it is to work with these individuals. Even if you have managed to avoid the direct supervision of an asshole they can still make your life difficult. Assholes will frequently offer their opinion on their peers, provide passive-aggressive commentary, and dismiss students who are not working directly with him as being inferior. This is not so bad because you have the support of your own supervisor, lab peers, and other colleagues who can be supportive. My favourite response to digs, passive-aggressive slights, and veiled or not-so-veiled insults is to say: “I am having a difficult time interpreting what you said in a productive manner. Can you please reframe that in a manner that I can use it productively?” Sometimes the jerk will actually rework the statement so that the statement or question is actually helpful. However, the true and irredeemable asshole will say something like, “I did not intend that statement to be productive.” Your only logical response should be, “ I know.”

Coping with Bleepholes

Although my default line of recommendation is that everyone should avoid working with an asshole, many of us find ourselves in an unavoidable situation. Moreover, one person’s asshole is another person’s driven and inspirational advisor. I know that many people considered my mentor to be an asshole, but I have always found him generous and to be an excellent advisor. So how does one survive the challenges of being supervised by one of these people?

Find the Strengths. I have a colleague who has a mentor, who is well known far and wide to be an asshole. This mentor moves from university to university as he wears out his welcome. However, my colleague finds this supervisor to be an inspiring and generous mentor who opens career doors. She speaks glowingly of his kindness in working with others. She is well aware of the flashpoints and topics that will lead to conflict. She is aware enough to avoid these areas while benefiting from his skill set. She simply refers to the challenges of working with this mentor as “the price of admission.”

Negotiate everything, then get it in writing. Perhaps the most important feature of working with the asshole is the lack of trust and capricious nature of decision-making. Write everything. I like to have students summarize our individual meetings and send that summary to me in an email. This is an excellent idea to protect yourself from the whims of a senior author who have been known to change their minds. Everything must be negotiated before beginning. Make sure that all financial, vacation, responsibilities, hours to be worked, authorship on papers, travel opportunities, and other relevant issues are in writing. Ensure that the supervisor has a copy of all this writing and agrees to it. Likewise, having student or collaborator write exactly what they will contribute to a project or to laboratory life is equally important. It is not insulting to insist on all commitments being clarified.

Resilience. There are many, if not most, graduate students in this difficult situation simply accept their situation. They do their work, take abuse, and then go home. The next day they wake up and repeat. Although I am impressed with the perseverance and resilience of these quietly desperate young professionals, I hope they are not paying too large of a price for their compliance. Constantly working in a stressful environment is corrosive to one’s mental health. We know that graduate students and new scholars have a high incidence of anxiety disorders, depression, and withdrawal from their studies due to abusive mentoring relationships with supervisors. In addition, I am concerned that the asshole mentor serves as a role model for the behaviour of the next generation of senior scholars. However, quietly avoiding the wrath of the asshole and escaping with a degree or research experience is enough for many people. Frankly, that does not work for me. I do not have the strength and resilience of many graduate students.

Confrontation. Confrontation can be a valuable tool, but is extremely difficult to use. Being firm, polite, and professional in establishing and creating boundaries in working with superiors is an extremely difficult social skill under any circumstance. I have a friend who engaged in weekly hostile shouting matches with her mentor. The tone was often ugly, dramatic, personal, and emotional. They screamed at each other for at least 15 minutes and then the conflict was over. Neither seemed to hold a grudge for long and their work was productive. When asked how they can function in such a hostile environment, the response was, “This is not hostile. He respects me for standing up to him.” Okay. I am not sure that this is an approach that I would recommend, but I guess it works for a few brave souls. Some people thrive on drama.

Conclusions

If you are working in the academic world, then you have almost certainly failed to avoid working with assholes. No matter how resilient and strong you may be as an individual, everyone working with difficult supervisors or senior colleagues will eventually get tired and discouraged. We all require external supports to serve as protective factors to the corrosive effects of working with assholes. Some protective factors include personal supports (significant others, family, non-academic friends), peer supports (colleagues, virtual communities, co-authors), and systemic support (high status academics, ombudsmen, administration). Do your homework, prepare, and protect yourself. The early stages of your academic career do not have to be miserable. Identifying, avoiding, and coping successfully with assholes is a major predictor of your success, satisfaction, and long-term mental-health.

SRShaw

How Not to Suck in Academic Consultation and Speaking Activities

Professors, and even graduate students and postdocs, are frequently invited to serve as consultants, workshop presenters, or to provide other services to organizations and industry. My experience is that most professors are extremely poor at negotiating fees, expenses, and the scope of the services to be provided. Consultation and speaking can lead to immediate reinforcement in a job that typically requires epic delay of gratification. In addition, consultation can be lucrative, assist in creating and expanding a personal/professional brand, and provide the introduction to a host of important partnerships.

The first rule of consultation as an academic is to understand completely the formal requirements of your employment contract at your university and the informal culture of your department and university. For example, my contract allows an equivalent of one day per week to engage in consultation outside of typical university duties. As I am in a department of educational and counselling psychology, some of my colleagues use this one day per week to engage in independent practice as a psychologist, work with school boards, or engage in statistical and research design consultation for program evaluation. Exterior consultation is not an expectation, but is widely accepted. Some universities or units within universities may not allow external consultation at all. Others strongly encourage or require partnerships with business and industry because external consultation is considered to be a core component of the role and function of the professor. Evaluating the formal and informal expectations for external consultation is a necessity. Discuss this with your faculty mentor or department chair before pursuing any such activities.

A rule that I tend to follow is that I do not do anything unless it is fun, makes money, or is important for my career. The only real exception I have to this rule is that occasionally I will do some work as a favour to a friend. Knowing who you are working with and the general working environment and culture of the system with which you are consulting are important. Some systems are chaotic, rife with political discord, and without direction. They are hoping that by engaging a university professor as a consultant that they will gain some clarity or have a scapegoat for their inevitable failures. These situations are far from fun. They may earn money for you, but will be bad for your career and professional well being. Say, no frequently. It is better not to consult than to get involved in a quagmire of time, energy, and soul sucking activity. For me, the default answer is no unless I am confident that my efforts will be productive and rewarded.

The best advice that I ever received was from my postdoctoral supervisor, who said, “Never do anything cheaply. Do it for free or for an incredibly large amount of money.” Many young and even experienced professors dramatically underestimate the value of their time and expertise. Your consultation services are not like Walmart, where systems are looking for the cheapest possible deal. What is true is that more people will be interested in your services when your fees are higher. This may be counterintuitive in retail, but well-known in consultation. When you require a lot of money to engage your services, you are saying that your services are valuable. This is not simply for ego, but for the power to make systemic change. Your advice, workshops, or report will have much more impact on the system if they believe that the service you are providing is valuable. The amount of money that is paid for that service is an important variable for the perception of the worth of your service. Occasionally, a system wishes to engage my services, but has very little money. In these cases, I determine whether this system is a good one to work with, can help my career or brand, and will be fun. If so, then I will engage in such consultation for free or for expenses only. The goodwill generated by doing pro bono work is often worth just as much as the money. You never want to be known is doing something for cheap, but it is perfectly acceptable to donate your services to a worthy system.

Never be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. Many academics are extremely uncomfortable talking about money. By asking for what you want you are not seen as arrogant or greedy, but as a professional. Academics are well known in business as being inefficient with time management, unable to make hard decisions, and without knowledge concerning real world application of research. Strong negotiation performance will address this stereotype. Be prepared to put into writing exactly what the financial compensation and what goods and services and time will be required. When money is to be paid for your service, prepare a formal invoice (there are many forms for invoices available online). Write everything. This is professional show business. Academics tend to be extraordinarily trusting people when it comes to business and money. There are reasons why businesses employ lawyers. Trusting people with a handshake or with their word is an unwise business practice. Everything in writing!

I am sure people want exact numbers. As a psychologist and educator who works mostly with school districts and professional organizations there may be different financial expectations than for people who consult with business or industry. My fees are $450 per hour of work plus expenses. I will negotiate. Expenses include air travel, ground travel, lodging, meals, copying, postage, and other necessary components. Equally important is to have hard numbers on how many hours and which dates that you are expected to work. Plan this carefully or your seemingly lucrative contract will become a black hole for your time and energy. I am typically asked to do four-hour or eight-hour workshops for professional development activities. I tend to be pretty good at these and have much experience. However, I request $450 per hour of actual speaking time. Obviously, a lot of preparation goes into these workshops, but I only charge for the time that I am actually providing direct service. Always let the system know if you are going to charge them for your preparation time. And let your university know when you will be out of town or otherwise unavailable.

Do not do too much. Most of my friends and colleagues avoid consultation and conducting workshops. They are uncomfortable talking about money and prefer to avoid these activities. However, I also know people who do way too much consultation and speaking. There is a fine line between defining your academic brand as that of a public intellectual and simply being a huckster. I know quite a few people who more than double their academic salary with 40 to 50 speaking engagements per year. They are often charismatic speakers with well-made suits, spray tans, and well-rehearsed multimedia infotainment shows. This is an amazing and impressive skill set. Their talks are replete with ever-changing buzzwords (e.g., mindfulness, grit, everything prefaced with neuro-). Yet, it is rare that these speakers are respected as scholars. There is no question that I am just a little bit jealous of their impressive skills and healthy bank accounts. Doing too much consultation or speaking will damage your brand. For me, being considered by my peers to be a dilettante and purveyor of BS in my field is not something to which I aspire.

I am not paid exceptionally well in my academic job, but I do not need to consult or speak frequently. Due to family issues, I have been politely declining all requests that involve travel for a while. Consultation and travelling to speak weigh heavily in work-life balance. As an academic, when you find work life balance tilting in the wrong direction, one of the best places to cut back on is consultation and speaking if you have any options in this matter.

Consultation and speaking engagements provide an excellent opportunity to mobilize and transfer knowledge and to deliver your scholarship to a wide audience. However, this is a business. Clarity, sense of purpose, professionalism, and complete understanding of what you are trying to achieve as an academic are important to the effective delivery of consultation and public speaking.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych

 

 

Academic To Do List Development and Management: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

There are an endless number of variations on how to develop and manage a to do list for maximum work efficiency. Books, workshops, motivational speakers, and efficiency gurus propose what they say are the best methods of using the tried-and-true to do list. There is no one best type of to do list. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, being mindful in selecting the appropriate methods for developing and managing a to do list is a major factor in how effective they can be for you. Like most people, I have tried multiple different forms of the ubiquitous lists with mixed degrees of success. Here are some ideas and factors that have proved important for making the list useful for me.

Whatever the form of the to do list takes, there are six variables that make this tool helpful:

Deadlines. The first items to be entered onto your to do list are those with fixed deadlines. These are hard deadlines where there is no opportunity to put off the project because you are not in the mood. These are grant deadlines, contractual deadlines, class assignments, end of fiscal year budgets, examinations, tax returns, and other externally imposed drop dead dates. Because these activities are not negotiable they serve as the bones of your list. Self-imposed deadlines do not fit into this category. You may wish to complete a chapter by May 1, but there are no immediate consequences if the assignment is completed a week later, a month later, or year later. Deadlines are must dos and must dos by a certain date.

Stages, Phases, and Steps. One of the real challenges of developing a productive to do list is to estimate accurately how long each item will take to complete. Most of us are pretty poor at this form of estimation. Some items on the to do list can be completed in 10 minutes while others require 80 to 100 hours and significant resources to finish. My preference is to make a sub entry for every four hours of estimated work. Given that many items on my to do list are writing projects and I know that I can typically write about 1600 words in a four hour stretch, I can begin to make estimations. For example, the to do list entry might be “complete chapter 1.” And let’s say I know that chapter 1 requires 7500 words. So under the heading of “complete chapter 1” there will be subheadings: a) pages 1-6, b) pages 7-12, c) pages 13-18, d) pages 19-24, e) pages 25-completion. In this fashion, at least one subheading can be checked off each day. Crossing off an item from the to do list is reinforcing. Working for an entire day on an item, yet not be able to eliminate that item from the to do list is discouraging. Breaking down large tasks into small projects that can be completed in the available time is a major factor in using this tool to allocate your energies.

Importance. Importance is independent of deadlines or urgency. These are the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to achieve your long-term professional goals. For academics, writing and editing of manuscripts are common items of importance. The items that get lost in the allocation of your time and energy are typically those of high importance, but without deadlines and with no particular urgency. Completing and submitting that article has no deadline and no one will get particularly upset if it is not completed by a certain date. However, a successful academic career depends on submitting that article and many more like it. Time needs to be carved out of each day to complete items of importance that are at risk of being forgotten or long delayed.

Delegation. Many items on to do list are team projects or require the input and cooperation of others. The biggest mistake that we make is to cross an item off the to do list that looks something like, “negotiate with Jane concerning writing of the methodology section.” This often means there was a meeting and an agreement that Jane will complete some work. A common mistake is that frequently once the item is checked off the to do list, the delegated task is out of sight and out of mind. Any time a team or cooperative task is delegated to another person, there needs to be an additional entry concerning checking or following up on the delegated task in order to ensure completion.

Making effective meetings. Preparing for and following up is about 80% of the value of any meeting. However, most often only the meeting time is in our calendar. Preparing for meetings and following up on the results of the meeting is efficient, but also time-consuming. Meetings can only be successful if time is allotted for preparation and follow up. For many people, unless an item has room on the calendar or to do list these activities do not take place in meetings become a waste of time.

Non-work life. My to do list does not only have academic and business items, I have personal items on there as well. Things like, “buy chocolate for Joyce,” “call Dad,” “remember Karen’s birthday,” and “do not forget to ask Isabel about her preparation for an upcoming math exam.” I know that it would be nice to be able to spontaneously remember to engage in self-care, attention to your family, and to make thoughtful gestures. However, I can be absent-minded and overly focused on work related activites. When I write it down, I can be assured that it gets done.

 Maintenance and Management of the List

Writing items on your to do list is necessary but not sufficient to make the list an effective productivity tool. The list must be maintained, managed, and acted upon. For me, this is a daily activity. I am fortunate to have about 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon to commute on a train. I spend that morning reviewing my daily time commitments and then allotting items from the to do list into the remaining space. I always give special attention to items labelled as important, because these are the items that so easily fall in the cracks of the schedule. On the return commute I review completed items, items that were not completed, and urgent tasks that may require evening work.

Each week receives the same treatment. Sunday evening or Monday morning means that the items for the week are reviewed and time is allocated for each. Items will not get completed unless there is time dedicated to them. Friday afternoon is the time to review the week, determine which items fell through the cracks and did not get completed, and exactly how much work versus play will be accomplished on the weekend. At the end of the week, I also pay special attention to list items in which there has not been sufficient progress. Sometimes, items need to be put in the long term bin. This bin is for items that may be important in the long term, but you are not able to get to them at all within a week. Be sure to check the long-term bin each week to determine if that item can be shifted from a long-term task to an active task. A major mistake is taking important long-term items, placing them in the bin, and then forgetting them. At this point the long term bin has become the garbage bin.

What Not to Put on the List

Knowing what not to put on the to do list is equally as important as what is put on the list. It is not efficient to use the list as a repository for activities that you are putting off until a later time. There are two well-known rules that I take seriously. The two-minute rule means that any item that requires less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. Never put a two-minute item on your to do list. A related rule is the never-touch-paper-twice rule. Any piece of paper or memo that comes across your desk is most effectively addressed immediately. This is not always possible as some memos require a great deal of time, multiple steps, or require delegation. But if possible address such tasks as quickly as possible.

Repeated items also do not need to be put on the to do list. Working out, answering emails, teaching class, office hours, and so on are not tasks; but scheduled activities. These items go into your calendar along with meetings.

 Conclusions

Beware of the to do list as the product. If “managing your to do list” is on your to do list, then the list no longer functions as a tool but is a productivity thief. I know people who spend hours colour coding, revamping, and giving loving care to every aspect of the functionality and aesthetic of their to do list. The perfect stationery, font, background colour, or pen used to complete your absolutely perfect to do list is procrastination. Finding something that works well for you may be a good investment of time. However, daily functionality with little maintenance is the goal. Whether you use a highly sophisticated piece of software from the latest management guru or a series of post-its affixed to your wall does not really matter. Make your to do list work for your goals and methods of getting tasks completed. Do not lose track of the goal of the to do list: a systematic approach to increasing efficiency, minimizing problems with follow through and forgotten tasks, and keeping perspective about how you should use your valuable time.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych