Five quick tips for a new semester

 

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It’s that time again.

The Targets and Walmarts of the country are filled with shoppers holding lists of school supplies, once vacant college towns are jammed with traffic, and summer research projects are coming to a close. It’s time to get in gear for the 2017-2018 school year.

Are you ready?

Like many academics and teachers….I’m a back to school nerd. I love shopping for office supplies, I love pencils, I love new notebooks and I love fresh starts. I think this is one of the most beautiful things about life in academia, while in most jobs you keep moving forward, there’s often not a clear delineation, there’s often not the excitement of a new year, new faces, new starts. I appreciate that I get that excitement at least once a year.

But back to school means more than shiny new office supplies. It means a new chance to be your best self. Your best research self, your best teacher self, your best academic self. Here are some quick tips on how I try to start the semester off to reach my goals.

Five tips for a new semester:

  1. Get organized – Get a paper planner, use Evernote, use Trello, something. Make sure you have a way to organize your day, your week, your semester. Something beyond post-it notes. Make sure you’re able to look ahead, and go ahead and outline what is coming up for the next month. The more organized you can make things, the less stress you will have later in the semester.
  2. Make a schedule – More on how I write my schedule in this blog post, but overall, it’s good to have a plan, even if most of your day is devoted to research or devoted to teaching, plan to protect your research/writing time, plan some time for moving around during the day, plan some time for project work, and then stick to the plan.
  3. Make a reading plan – Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has some great tips on how to keep up with the reading that is important for your class and your career. Check out his blog here.
  4. Set a student-related goal – If you are in academia, you’re here because of and for students. At the end of the day, no matter your research agenda, research dollars, role as an administrator or as a maintenance worker, you’re here for the students. What’s your goal for students this year? If you’re in the classroom, that’s easy, set a goal of learning everyone’s name by the end of the month. If you’re an administrator, or a researcher or someone who doesn’t often interface with students, make a goal to say hi to students in the hallway, make a goal to meet 3 students this semester. Build bridges with someone new. Welcome the students to our institution. It’s theirs now too. Set at least one goal devoted towards them.
  5. Clean your office – I know this seems simple but when is the last time you cleaned out that filing cabinet, or cleaned off that shelf? What is even up there on top of the book case? Take some time during the day, or maybe come in on the weekend if you don’t want to be seen standing on your chair in the middle of the day, but take an hour and some disinfecting wipes…and clean things off. You’ll feel better in a clean and organized space and it’s better for your health too.

Good luck with the new semester, your research goals, and the traffic! I hope these tips help you have a productive and less stressful start to the new school year.

 

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What are your tips for heading back for a new semester? Are you a back to school junkie or do you dread this time of year? Let me know in the comments.

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The accountability approach to productivity

In my last post I talked about the importance and impact of scheduling your day, or at least having a general schedule for those days where you’re not rushing from meeting to meeting. Today we are going to talk a little more about schedules, but more specifically about how knowing your schedule can help with productivity.

I’ve tried a lot of things when it comes to increasing productivity. Having a schedule is just one component of that equation. For those of us in academia, especially in the summer, our days are mostly up to us. Sure, meetings happen, but if we aren’t teaching classes or leading programs, we can choose what we work on each day. We get to pick where to spend our time. It’s both wonderful and terrible at the same time. A lot of us got here because we are very good at following the rules, showing up, doing what we are told, and then suddenly, once your PhD is completed, your schedule is your own. What do you do with it? There’s work to be done but…the deadlines are often weeks or even months away. How do you cope?

For me, it’s accountability. I need to have some kind of report or product to show me where I’ve been and what I’ve done with my time. I’ve tried a few different things, paper planners, to-do lists, evernote, but what seems to work best for me is a time tracking app. It’s similar to what an independent consultant would use, or a contractor, or anyone who needs to estimate hours spent on different tasks. There are several out there. Damon over on the Art of Productivity has reviewed several options so I won’t repeat his efforts, but you should check them out (Link: http://artofproductivity.com/top-time-trackers/).

Personally, I like ATracker. I used it on and off during grad school but now that my time is really under my direction it helps me be accountable to myself and know where I’m spending the bulk of it (no shocker that it’s meetings and email…). It took me a little while to remember to use it and I admit I still forget sometimes, especially on days that my schedule gets thrown off, but I can always go back and edit the hours and add in what I missed.

Here, you can see how I’ve spent my morning so far. Again…mostly email and organization.

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I like the fact that I can color code my tasks. For me, each of the colors represents a portion of my PRS (research percentage, university service, etc) and allows me to quickly see how much of my time I’m devoting to those activities and then compare it to my PRS document in my annual review.

If I look and yesterday’s breakdown I can see that I spent a little over 70% of my time on Professional Practice (red categories in my world). I can also look at the past 30 days, or entire year. Again, great data to take to that annual review.

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By having a clear graphic (even though it is a pie chart….ugh) of how I’m spending my day, I feel a sense of accountability. I need to make sure I’m spending my time effectively. It’s not always perfect, but it keeps me on track. If I check the app at the end of the week and see that I did little to nothing in the Research category….I know I need to up my game and work on that next week.

Having some type of accountability helps you stay focused and on track. Accounting for your time can give you a huge push in the direction of increased productivity. I know it’s worked for me. How do you account for your time? Have you used any other apps or trackers? Leave a comment down below!

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The beauty of scheduling your workday

After many life changes in the last year I ended up taking some much needed time off from blogging, social media, and most of the internet to just adjust. Since January of 2016 I’ve gone from PhD graduate to postdoc to job searching to landing the dream job I never dreamed of and moving a thousand miles across the country. With so many changes it was very easy to get off schedule and sure enough, that’s how I’ve been feeling. So that got me thinking about how important and….well…beautiful a good schedule can be!

I’ve always been a planner and a fan of scheduling things. It just works for my brain. On Saturday we do laundry and on Sunday we grocery shop. I like order and organization. So why not schedule my work day in a similar way to how I schedule the rest of my life? Sure, my life-schedule doesn’t always go exactly as planned but the structure is there to give me direction. It’s not a big deal if I don’t stick to it exactly…but the purpose is to help make sure the most important things on my list do get accomplished. I’ve always got clean clothes and food for the week thanks to my schedule….so why not apply that to my workday so I can always have things like productivity and satisfaction?

I find that if I don’t have a decent schedule outlined for the day, I tend to get off-task or spend WAY too much time on one task when two others need attention that day as well.

So how to develop a schedule for a workday that can go in a million different directions? For me, I read several things about scheduling before I even realized I wanted to create a scheduled day. For example, I read somewhere that keeping your email open all day is a huge distraction and it leads to task switching and a reduction in productivity (more on productivity in an upcoming post). The article suggested scheduling email checks at 8:30, 12:00, and 4:30. Or in general, when you get to the office, mid-day, and at the end of the day. Not a bad plan.

In order to create a schedule I outlined the things I needed to do each day. Check email is a must…and I like the idea of scheduling it so it’s less of a distraction. Then I need some organization time, I need to schedule writing time. A lot of my work is project based so “Project time” is a good catch-all. Then there’s always the possibility of meetings. I also need to be able to read for my job so reading time is important. And so is lunch. We can’t forget lunch time.

I schedule mine for 9:30, 1:00 and 4:00. I didn’t like checking email before lunch….as I would often get wrapped up in something from my email and then have to rush to eat my lunch so I could make it to the next task. I don’t want to digest my email when I’m trying to enjoy my lunch. By keeping email off and having a notification from my calendar to check it….email is not forgotten and it’s not a distraction.

After I had email on my calendar I knew writing time was important based on several things I’d read and my own experiences…so I added that from 8:30-9:30 with exceptions for the days that I have 8:00am meetings….which are a lot of days. In my perfect world, no meetings would ever be scheduled until after lunch. I’m a morning person and I’m going to do my best work in the morning. Meetings aren’t (productive) work. Meetings are talking. I can do that anytime with little to no caffeine needed. But we don’t live in my perfect world so I have to build my writing time around the people who have scheduled 8:00am meetings. So some days I get an hour to write, some days it is just a half hour…but any time is better than the large expanses of no writing time scheduled….

Now that we have email and writing down….what other job requirements do I have? For me, I have a lot of projects I work on but they vary. So I scheduled my lunch and project times in one hour increments. In the afternoon I scheduled project work OR meeting time just as a reminder that if the meeting time is up to me, it will be after 1pm.

Then I also need to do a good deal of reading for my job. I can’t write or do research if I don’t read. So I schedule writing time with coffee (BONUS) for 10:00am.

Here’s what my ideal day would look like:

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I typed this up in word and set the background to black and took a screenshot. My computer background is black and so this image pops up on my background…to help me remember how to have my best day. I find that when I can stick to this schedule or as close as possible to this schedule, I have a very productive and happy day. Who doesn’t want to make it to 5pm and feel satisfied and productive?

For me, scheduling works. Keeping the email turned off works. Scheduling writing time is how this blog post happened. I hope it’s how more continue to happen.

Do you have your ideal schedule written out? What do you do when meetings or other things get in the way of your plans? What’s one part of your day you try and keep at the same time each day? I’d love to hear your thoughts.