Mindful Scheduling and Work Habits

There is much blogging and twitter discussion about the how students and faculty work. There seem to be a variety of styles, methods, and approaches to getting work done. Some are consistent with the way I work and some seem downright bizarre. I want to make the case for being mindful, flexible and open minded about the specific approach that students and scholars take to scheduling and work habits. You may think that you are a night owl or binge writer now, and those things might work for you now, but be open minded. Changes in your life and work may necessitate incorporating major new work habits.

Many students are binge writers. They do not write much, but simply listen and think for a long period of time. The ideas are allowed to percolate until they are fully brewed. Then they write for 18 to 24 hours consecutively. Jack Kerouac used to write this way with the help of Benzedrine. He is famous for having written nearly all of On the Road in 48 straight hours of writing. I would write this way in graduate school (with espresso, rather than Benzedrine). Deadlines? No problem. I can write 8,000-10,000 words in 24 hours without any problems at all. Maybe 8 to 12 hours of editing the following day and I can finish an article length paper in 2 days.

I also considered myself a night owl. The best time to write was midnight to 6am. The world was quiet and dark. This was the way for me; classes and meetings in the day and writing all night. My dissertation was written that way. I worked at my internship site from 7:00 to 6:00, ate dinner and wrote from 8:00-4:00.
But things change. Shockingly, I married the woman I was living with during those hectic times. And I got a job. And then kids. Quickly, I learned that binge writing is basically not compatible with marriage, family, sleep, health, and is otherwise not sustainable. Spending time with family and work demands large amounts of energy. The need for sleep catches up. With babies you learn to sleep whenever possible. At some point, I needed to change. And I changed to a quota method. In this approach, I set a daily quota of 500 to 1,000 words written per day. Usually, this writing was done before work or at lunch. I also learned that the more I read, the easier it was to write. Once I developed the habit and skills, my quota was 100 pages read 1,000 words written each day. BTW—email, tweets, lessons plans and such do not count. The quota works fairly well as a consistent and sustainable method of work. I learned to be an efficient writer using tools such as voice recognition software, standing desks, and even writing text on an iPhone when on a train or bus. I thought this would be my habit forever.

But things change. Shockingly, I am still married 23 years later. But the change is that I am getting a bit older and slower. I need to have at least 6 hours of sleep per night. Moreover, my work tends to be more delegated now. I have matured to the point where I trust my well-trained students to do some of the hard writing and do not need to do everything myself. Also, I now have the role as a graduate program director with significant administrative responsibilities. The quota system is difficult to maintain. I needed to switch to a modified Pomodoro system for writing and editing that focuses on timed segments. The Pomodoro system involves 25 minutes of timed and intensive work and 5 minutes of rest. I use this online timer, although I am sure there are many that are equally as good (www.online-stopwatch.com/pomodoro-timer/). My days are fully scheduled; including exercise, family time, cooking, and such. I now schedule 20 Pomodoros for writing per week. This time is spent writing new text or editing. I needed to learn the skills of popping into writing focus exactly when the writing segment begins. It may seem difficult, but with practice it is not too difficult. And writing segments are set like any other meeting. I may move these times around, but these are not free time slots that get cancelled. There is a lot of pressure off of me. Under the quota method there were days where I had written only 500 words and it was 11:00pm. Those late-night words were invariably terrible and a waste of time and sleep.

I learned my new system from my daughter, who is a time management wiz. I am also now an early morning person, who is awake at 5:00 or 5:30. I see from twitter that @raulpacheco and others use a similar system.

Below is my preliminary schedule for the fall 2014 term. Note that there is a lot of flexibility built in. There are always theses to be edited, journals to be read, and unexpected happenings and events. The main issue is to fiercely protect the 20 writing segments per week. If there is something that interferes with the 20 writing segments and a challenging deadline, then additional writing segments are added on weekends. Almost always, I will turn off the internet when in the writing segments. My first work of the day is a preview. This involves checking calendar, updating to do list, checking e-mail, and just making sure I know what the day brings. Best part about a train commute is I can do my preview, tweet silliness, and check the news. There is also a review at the end of the day. This involves consolidating notes from meetings, updating to do list, answering e-mails and preparing for the next day. I meet with each student under my supervision for 30 minutes per week to discuss research topics. One helpful tool I have just started using is to ask students to summarize and e-mail me a summary of the major points from all one-on-one meetings. This way, I remember what I am supposed to do, can ensure that my understanding and the student’s understanding of the meeting are the same, and have tangible information to use for student evaluation. On a last note, my calendar is publically available. This calendar is posted on my door and website. This makes me accountable for my work and whereabouts. Students also know when and how to contact me.

Fall 2014 draft schedule

The theme here is to be mindful about the consequences of your scheduling and work habits on your life. Be willing to change well-practiced work habits and patterns. There are many ways to be efficient, productive, and balanced. You may need to learn new skills and work habits to maintain a well-balanced life. For my labbies, who are scared of the time commitments in the academic world, I will say that academics is far more flexible and family friendly than clinical practice. I am also a big fan of keeping perspective and priorities in order. I do not think it is odd to schedule family time, exercise or dog walking. Without such things in the schedule, they are taken for granted and sometimes forgotten. It is extremely rare for me to miss my children’s’ dentist appointments, school meetings, judo classes, or other events. I am not a fan of the “quality time” concept with family. Big fat hunks of quantity time work best for us. So this schedule is open to guilt-free change or cancellation if I am needed elsewhere. However you work, have a plan for maximum productivity and protection of your quality of life.

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