How Not to Suck at Administrative Tasks

An underrated factor differentiating successful graduate students and academics from their less successful peers is completing mundane administrative tasks efficiently and on time. In my previous career as a school psychologist and later as the lead psychologist in a major hospital, completing administrative tasks was a challenge. By that, I mean that I sucked at these tasks. I struggled to complete psychological reports, expense requests, staff evaluations, billing activities, and budgetary plans on time, following appropriate procedures, and with high quality. When working in a school district I had more than a small reputation among the clerical staff as being an inept psychologist because I could never remember which forms needed to be signed in blue ink and which forms needed to be signed in black ink. Secretaries, administrative staff, and other support personnel frequently nagged me to correct errors, submit a late report, or remember a specific bureaucratic rule. (The movie Office Space hit too close to home: “There seems to be a problem with the new cover sheet on your TPS reports. Let me resend that memo.”) Administrative tasks were always the activities that I avoided and consistently gave the lowest priority. Intellectually, I knew that these administrative tasks were essential to the job. Correct and timely completion of administrative tasks leads to improved allocation of resources, operating funds, accreditation, and ultimately everything that allows for professional service delivery to our clientele. However, my disdain for administrative tasks had more than a small underpinning of arrogance. The implicit message was that I was a highly trained professional who is beneath small bureaucratic tasks—George Costanza’s “delicate genius.” Such an approach is clearly not productive and kind of the attitude of a jerk. I have since learned and matured to the point that I understand that administrative tasks are essential to any job and must be completed efficiently and accurately.

As I made the transition from clinician to university professor, I quickly learned how much I relied on my secretary (I still miss Patti a lot). I honestly did not know that the university departmental secretary was not available to manage my schedule, edit correspondence, make phone calls on my behalf, and remind me to complete the administrative tasks that were part of my job. Fortunately, the department secretary laughed, took pity on me, and sat me down to explain the situation. And graduate students are also not available for these tasks unless I explicitly pay them to do so, which is not a good use of their time. Equally as quickly, I learned that there were many administrative tasks that professors are required to complete. Grading, evaluating teaching assistants, grant budgets, expense reports, and many other tasks are essential, can interfere with research productivity and teaching, and frequently are put at the lowest priority of the to-do list.

The first things that I needed to learn in order to get administrative tasks under control, rather than them controlling me, were to become good at these tasks and what can be best delegated. When there is a major task on the horizon I still sit down with our department secretary or other knowledgeable administrator to discuss the goals, details, timelines, and exactly what my role is in the completion of these administrative tasks. Clarify the parameters of the task. Then I set out to complete my duties. The only thing worse than administrative tasks is to spend hours on such tasks only to learn that you have completed the wrong forms, used the wrong ink, or made significant errors. I am still not especially excited about the tasks. Yet, I understand that they are important and that the best way to minimize the time and energy spent on such task is to become a master of these tasks.

As someone who has often shunned or ignored administrative tasks I have grudgingly learned that the key is to be early, rapid, and efficient. Submit forms and reports as early as possible. Seek advice and delegate when possible. Consider that every moment spent on fairly dull and tedious administrative tasks increases the likelihood that you will not be interrupted or disturbed when you need to spend time on tasks that are most important to you. Therefore, students and professors benefit from mastery of all of the rules, details, and bylaws that govern their functioning. Once you have mastery of these administrative rules, then you can develop efficient methods of meeting your requirements. Administrative tasks are the grease that makes all systems run efficiently. All successful in academics have spent significant time plowing through tasks considered to be mundane, bureaucratic, and clerical. Do it well, do it efficiently, and the time for your priorities and goals will be best protected.

As my ability and willingness to undertake administrative tasks improved, the opposite problem began to arise. Manuscripts, book chapters, and grant proposals were delayed and otherwise put off because I was engaged in the completion of administrative tasks. The routine nature of these tasks makes them relatively easy. Moreover, there is immediate positive feedback from secretaries, committee chairs, administrators, and editors; whereas manuscripts are projects with long-delayed and uncertain feedback. In this case, urgent but not necessarily important administrative tasks served as a convenient avenue for procrastination. These administrative tasks needed to be completed, but can certainly wait. And yet I allowed them to cut into my writing time. When most people talk about being busy, they are probably conscientiously completing urgent, but not important, administrative tasks (e.g., e-mail backlog). As most academics know, these tasks add up and can quickly fill up each day, every day. Over-reliance on the completion of administrative tasks gives the impression that you are continuously and chronically busy. But at the end of the day there is little to show for it in the areas of research productivity or teaching.

As in most things, setting priorities and goals is a key. At the beginning of each week and at the beginning of each day I set priorities as to the most important task of the week or task of the day. Therefore, I have goals concerning what I want to accomplish and how I will spend most of my time. Concerning administrative tasks, my primary goal is to ensure that I am not interrupted in working toward my priorities and goals. Thus, I attempt to avoid situations where I force payroll, administrative support services, funding agencies, or colleagues to nag me over completion of an overdue administrative task. This is my primary motivation for administrative tasks: not to be interrupted or disturbed in my effort to achieve my priorities and goals.

Priorities and goals are reflected in how one spends time. My default is to allocate 10% of the work week for conducting and maintaining administrative tasks. Usually this means that I spend four hours per week on some aspect of routine administration. Even in weeks where there are no apparent tasks to complete (rare, now that I am a program director), I still find it productive to update my CV, check grant budgets, complete research ethics reports, ensure student grades are accurate, and develop agreement forms for research partners. These preemptive tasks are helpful in organizing information so that when large tasks are due, they are not quite as onerous. In addition, extra time is allocated for end-of-term tasks such as grading, grant proposals, student evaluations, and other issues that arise regularly throughout the academic year. Very large administrative tasks will require more time and need to be planned well in advance so that other priorities and goals can also be achieved. Some very large administrative tasks include program accreditation, review of applications for admissions to graduate school, and financial audits of expenditures. The primary point is that administrative tasks are important and require planned time and effort; yet cannot be allowed to take over your calendar to the point that your priorities and goals are overwhelmed.

There is no doubt that I still struggle to complete administrative tasks. My cluttered desk, a variety of projects, and a stack of expenses to be submitted are evidence of the struggle. Yet, I work hard to ensure that my challenges as a bureaucrat do not interfere with my priorities and goals as a teacher, researcher, supervisor, and program director. Administration has its place. I no longer avoid the completion of these tasks, nor do I use these tasks to procrastinate when other work becomes difficult. It still is not fun and I envy the bureaucracy savants. But there are times carved into my calendar to ensure that these tedious and essential tasks are completed efficiently and on time.

S. R. Shaw

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