Agony Aunt

April 20, 2001

Q) There is always so much to be done at work - lecturing, researching, travelling to conferences. How can I fit it all in?

A) Be strategic, sit down and look at your key roles and responsibilities. Do you have a well-defined job description? If not, make a list of what you want to achieve over the next 12 months in three-month blocks and link these with your key roles and responsibilities. Make a list of jobs and put them in one of these four quadrants: 

  • Important and urgent
  • Important and not urgent
  • Not important and urgent
  • Not important and not urgent

Put all your commitments in your diary - ensure preparation time is included as well. Mark those important and urgent tasks and do not allow them to be overtaken - be strict with yourself. Add time for family, friends and hobbies as if they were meetings. This is really important if one is to balance home life and work.

Go back and look at your quadrant box. Is there anything you can delegate, cross out or ignore? Using this plan, map out the next four weeks' activities. Do this every Friday and review briefly at the end of each day. Decide when you work best and, if possible, do important and urgent jobs then.

Think strategically about your other tasks. Create "office hours" for students at set times and put this information on your door. Think carefully about the assessment methods you use. Always give clear guidelines, as this can save an endless stream of questions. Ask for questions of clarification to be emailed to you before the next lecture. You can then address issues with the whole group. Is the 3,000-word essay always the best? Will a 500-word book review test different skills, take far less time to mark and enable you to give more effective feedback? Can other student work be peer assessed and moderated by you? Remember, however, that students need guidance and practice when peer assessing. Finally, earmark a time for answering emails or using the phone.

Brenda Smith
Generic Centre
Learning and Teaching Support Network, York

A) I don't know anyone who isn't "too busy". Academic jobs offer a lot of skill variety, autonomy and flexibility in work planning, but they are also demanding. Time, like money, is a limited resource. Here are some basic pointers:

  • Analyse how effectively you are working by keeping a time log for a couple of weeks. Divide your day into 15 or 30-minute segments and record the activities you were involved in and how long you spent on them. This will help you identify whether and where you are wasting time
  • Learn to say "no" without feeling guilty
  • Draw up a "to do" list based on the short, mid and long term and prioritise the tasks
  • Balance routine and dull tasks to maintain motivation
  • Establish quiet hours
  • Resist the urge to read and respond to emails the moment they appear
  • Keep your work area tidy and uncluttered to avoid spending time searching for papers
  • Be ruthless about attending meetings
  • Encourage the practice of setting finish times as well as start times
  • Working hard is not the same as working long hours. Create "sanity breaks"
  • Take the train and use the time to catch up on paperwork and reading.

Susie Whiten
Senior Lecturer
School of Biology
University of St Andrews

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