Honestly, I’ve always imagined that professors and lecturers lead easy academic lives. They pop into a lecture hall and drop a first-rate lecture. They float around the corridors making jokes with other faculty members. They share an informal drink with some of their favorite students, while waxing lyrical about the role of postmodernism in Foucault’s Pendulum. Then they spend office hours nurturing a brilliant, but misunderstood, mind.
OK, so a lot of my view of faculty is based on Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting. Not for the first time, it seems like Hollywood might have it a little wrong. Research carried out over a period of years at Boise State revealed that faculty members work more than 60 hours per week on average, with 10 hours of that across Saturdays and Sundays. Less than half that time is spent teaching, with other administrative tasks stacking up.
This isn’t a Boise or even an American problem either. More than half of Chinese universities’ faculty members experience significant occupational strength, with assistant professors and associate professors even more stressed than those with tenure.
Faculty members are sinking in a sea of lectures, groups, office hours, administrative meetings, preparation, marking papers, publishing their research and attending professional events. So what can they do to help lessen the load?
1: Spend time planning your time
Professors spend hours each week preparing for lectures and classes. They should do the same with their agendas.
- Use an hour each weekend to plan your upcoming week.
- Make friends with time blocking. Block time off in your calendar each day for emails, lunch, coffee breaks, office hours and other obligations.
- Give private time, relaxation and personal development the same level of priority and block time off in your calendar for these too.
- Keep a detailed to-do list for the day, the week and the semester.
2: Focus on groups
One benefit of a detailed schedule is that it allows you to look back at the past weeks and analyze precisely how you’ve spent your time. For example, how many hours did you spend in one-to-one meetings, either with graduate students or other faculty members? Could some of those meetings be rolled up into small groups?
Office hours have become a standard part of college life. Still, there’s increasing evidence that small groups provide many of the same benefits as one-to-ones and they encourage more discussion. If faculty members proactively organize group sessions with between five and eight students, they can avoid much of the time and repetition of one-on-ones.
The same logic applies to meetings with other faculty members. Could a small, regular department meeting or a weekly catch-up over lunch avoid many casual individual encounters and drop-bys that occur during the week?
Of course, finding a convenient time for everyone to attend a group meeting can be more challenging, but scheduling software can help plan these sessions quickly and easily.
3: Lean into tech
Speaking of online tools, professors who embrace technology will see their time stretch a lot further.
- Use scheduling software for the simple set-and-forget organization of one-to-ones and group meetings, avoiding the hours lost to the usual email ping-pong that it takes to organize even the most straightforward meeting.
- The coronavirus lockdown brought virtual teaching methods to the fore, and even once we return to normality, virtual meetings should continue to play a significant role in academic life. Large faculty meetings, for example, are easier to schedule when attendees don’t have to be physically present and time isn’t lost running from one meeting location to the next.
- Use a communication platform, like Slack, to interact and pass essential messages on to your various student groups and faculty groups. Answering questions in a way that all can see means you won’t be asked the deadline for that paper 40 times. Having an open real-time communication link between student and professor means more questions are likely to be answered online than during lengthy one-to-one meetings, while students get answers when they need them.
- Record your key sessions so students can revisit them when revising for exams, catch up on them if they missed them the first time and even use the recordings for future groups rather than retread old ground.
A word of warning: don’t overuse technology or spend hours picking through the intricacies of different tools – that defies the point. Seek out the user-friendly tools with an immediate ROI in terms of time-savings.
4: Identify your time traps
Try (honestly) logging all your time in a freemium app like Toggl or Clockify for a couple of weeks to identify precisely how you spend your time, compared to how you think or plan to spend your time. That will help identify and create strategies to eliminate typical time thieves, such as:
- Socializing every time you go for coffee
- Taking calls
- Looking for items, books or files (real and virtual) due to poor organization
- Answering questions after lectures and classes
- Dealing with drop-in visitors
5: Learn to prioritize
The entrepreneur Ryan Blair is credited with the Instagrammable quote: “If it’s important, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” In great corniness lies great truth.
How good are you at prioritizing? Research shows that the majority of us tend to prioritize what’s urgent rather than what’s important. If you’re not a natural in the art of prioritization, it’s crucial to have a system to prioritize between the two. Without priorities, everything becomes necessary, and that’s how stress levels mount and the work-life balance becomes a thing of the past.
One popular method is the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by former US President Dwight D Eisenhower. In this method, all tasks fall into one of four categories:
- Important With a Deadline: These have a significant impact and should be dealt with first.
- Important Without a Deadline: Also significant impact, create a timeline and schedule a time to complete these.
- Not Important With a Deadline: Try to delegate these tasks to someone else.
One other neat trick that will save you swathes of time once fully mastered is even more straightforward. Learn to say “no.”
6: Maximize the efficiency of your planning
Faculty members spend around 12 percent of their week – more than seven hours – preparing for lectures and classes. A few productivity tweaks can easily save a couple of those hours each week, adding up to as much as 60 hours of a full working week back over the course of a year.
- Set a time limit for preparing a class. With time for discussion factored in, there’s a limited amount of content that can fit into an hour or two. Any over-preparation is more likely to be lost than run over to the next class.
- If your school doesn’t provide templates for teaching notes, presentations or setting assignments, spend a few hours before each semester creating your own. Then use them faithfully throughout the year.
- Don’t overthink it. If you’ve taught a course before, or even have materials from another professor, who’s taught that class, use existing materials proudly. You don’t have to reinvent just for the sake of seeming original.
- Stagger the dates of your tests and papers throughout each semester, so you’re not stuck in grading hell for weeks.
- Plan to include a few painless classes throughout all the courses you teach. That could be recordings of previous lectures you’ve done, watching video materials or general class discussions on the topic. Building in an ‘easy’ prep week here and there gives you some room to breathe.
7: Become a time management guru
You’re already a subject matter expert, which is why you’re a member of faculty in a higher education establishment. But add another specialism: time management. A few simple tips and tricks will see your efficiency increase almost overnight:
- Do more meetings online. They’re usually more succinct and you save the time you’d often spend walking between meetings.
- When performing tasks that need deep focus, turn off all your notifications and email alerts. Use apps like Freedom, Mindful Browsing or RescueTime to block non-relevant websites or nudge you back towards work.
- Do standup meetings, especially impromptu ones. It’ll keep them shorter.
- Minimize your travel. In these post-COVID times, many conferences are offering online versions.
Maybe being a faculty member will always be a matter of juggling classes, preparation, research, student welfare and administration. Not even Robin Williams’ Dr. Sean Maguire had it all that easy. However, with a few productivity lessons carried over from the corporate world, academics can start to reclaim some of those 60 hours per week. And maybe even get an occasional weekend free.
Read our white paper,”Doodle Success Stories,” to learn how colleges and universities have used Doodle to improve their time management skills.