I don’t know about you all, but I am a chronic over-scheduler. You know what I’m talking about with never-ending to-do lists in all parts of life, events to go to with friends and family, and trying to keep some semblance of health by prioritizing self-care. I especially feel it during this time of year with the Thanksgiving “break” approaching and the end of the semester looming. It always seems like there is more to do than there is time. [Apologies to my readers for falling off the grid. Something had to give and for the last two months it was my blog.]
This is the first year in ten years that I didn’t attend my discipline’s annual conference. It always takes place during the week before Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, it has created some chaotic times for me in years past because it meant that I would be traveling right when my classes were winding down and, paradoxically, ramping up in the workload. I would cancel class for my travel time AND then again for Thanksgiving. Yet, I didn’t seem to get a break because I would come back exhausted with papers that needed grading and classes that needed preparing. In other words, Thanksgiving break wasn’t a break at all. Not to mention Thanksgiving itself where, even if it is just me and Mr. Smith, I make a full Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. Hence, the chronic overscheduling.
This semester, my second to last as an employed professor, I was determined to take back control of my time so that I could create more space to think about what comes next for me and start taking steps in that direction. This meant making some radical changes and, not surprisingly, reading some books.
What I did to take back control:
Make a list, prioritize the list, AND put time on the calendar for doing it.
I am a list maker. I even make lists of lists. Does this sound like you at all? Last fall semester, I enrolled in a program called the Faculty Success Program (a.k.a. Faculty Bootcamp). It taught me that, while making lists is great and all, the true power of the list comes from scheduling when you’re actually going to do those things. FSP suggests that one actually put on their schedule or calendar app when they’re going to do stuff. I found this to be a bit too rigid and, if I’m being honest, overwhelming because my entire calendar would fill up and there didn’t seem to be wiggle room for the inevitable.
Now, I use Wunderlist to make and prioritize my lists. As things pop up in my head, I add them to the app. Unless they are urgent or have a known time that they must be done by, I leave the due date blank. Each morning, I review my to-do list and my calendar. I aim to have 4-5 hours of stuff to do each day including appointments and activities. Sometimes, the to-dos that are already due that day or meetings/activities will take up that much time and I just go with it.
Other days, I don’t have as much pre-scheduled. This is when I go to the part of the list without due dates and pick a few to make due that day. I also review my Tody app to see what cleaning needs to or should be done and add one or two of those tasks to the list. Armed with this list, I usually have a pretty good plan for the day.
Ask yourself: What would happen if I didn’t do this?
Since I use Wunderlist to house my brain dump of to-dos, I try to spend about 30 minutes a week just looking over what’s on the list and asking a vital question of each item: What would happen if I didn’t do this? This is a surprisingly hard question to ask, but it is vital as it helps to both prioritize the list and remove the items that just don’t matter. This question was inspired by Sarah Knight’s book, Get Your Sh*t Together. (Side note: I have a sick obsession with books that use curse words.)
For example, my list currently has “Get Sisko’s nails trimmed” on it. If I ask myself what would happen if I didn’t do this, I would answer that Sisko’s nails will get too long and turn him into a tiny Chihuahua tap dancer. Since that sounds awful, this must stay on the list and preferably get done before it becomes a problem.
I also had “Create a video about statistical tests for my class” on my list. I asked my question and answered: They would need access to this information from some other source. This led me to scour YouTube for appropriate videos to share, thus saving me the time and effort of creating my own content. The students got what they needed, and I got some time back win-win.
Taking some time to tame my to-do definitely helps on a day to day basis as I’m no longer paralyzed by the length of the list nor do I hem and haw about whether I should put something on the list or not. I just put it on and prioritize later.
Place limits on your time.
I mentioned that I try to only schedule 4-5 hours of stuff for me to do each day. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I am working part-time this year. As a result, it is important that I try to keep my work to 26 hours a week at most since I’m not into working for free. This one idea has been both life-changing and difficult for me as teaching, like a goldfish growing to fit the size of its tank, has the ability to grow to fit the amount of time (and then some) that you have. There seems to always be something else that I could be doing for my students. I have had to be ruthless with my time decisions and have come to accept that not everything needs to be done now. It just needs to be done before the students need it.
The other reasons for limiting my work to 4-5 hours per day is that sometimes I woefully underestimate how long something will take for me to do. I might look at a stack of papers and think, “I can grade these in two hours,” when it actually takes me double that. Just because I’m aiming for 4-5 hours doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen. (Now, there have been magical days where I get everything done in less than 4 hours, but on those days, I’m living the dream.)
My final method of taking control of my time is to spend some time creating routines and habits. I know it sounds counterintuitive to spend time on this, but if you can find a way to save one minute on a five-minute task that you do every day then you’re saving yourself 7 minutes a week or about 6 hours a year. It might not sound like much, but those time savings will add up. Also, the more you don’t have to think about what comes next, the less decision fatigue that you will encounter.
Let me give an example. Every morning, after I do my to-do list while drinking coffee in bed, mosey out to the living room and get working for at least an hour. I usually do emails and some other, low-level tasks. Then, around midmorning, I have a cup of hot tea. It takes me 5 minutes to make it. Since five minutes isn’t enough time to do much else, I use this time to handle the dishes. Whatever I can do in the time it takes the tea to brew is what gets done. Usually, it’s all the dishes. As a result, I don’t have to come back to the kitchen for a separate trip to just do the dishes and have thus saved myself some time.
Planning out my time and having predictable routine has helped me to streamline my days and reduce overworking. Over the next few months, I’ll be working on my evening routine to get the most out of my nights.
What are your tips and tricks for reducing over-scheduling stress?