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Academic Achiever

Defeat overwhelming feelings with time boxing

This system allows you to compartmentalize in a way that most academics are not used to doing.

BY ELIZABETH WELLS | MAR 26 2024

One of the things I find most prevalent in my work with academics is the almost universal feeling of being overwhelmed. From graduate students to seasoned professors, everyone has a tale of unending busyness. Unfortunately, people are not finding this pressure invigorating or something that promotes deeper work, but instead a state that makes most of us freeze, give up and watch Netflix. Taking on too much is one of our problems, which I will write about in another column, but until we can get rid of some of our commitments, we need to deal with our feelings about the amount of work we do now. Email, social media, student demands and lack of some institutional support adds to our workloads, but one of the problems we have is not how much we have to do, but how many different kinds of things we have to do simultaneously. All these “hats” that academics wear (not counting our personal lives and family commitments) mean we are using different skill sets, brain spaces, and even values for various areas of our lives. Although productivity gurus will recommend “task batching” (i.e. do all your email at once so you are in that modality before switching to another modality), I would recommend a more global approach: time boxing.

Time boxing means that you devote specific blocks of time (boxes) to specific projects or activities and you only work on those projects for that specified block in a kind of deep work mode (see Cal Newport’s excellent books and podcasts on this for more in-depth description of deep work). This could be anything from a report you have to write, a chapter you need to edit – really anything that takes a stretch of uninterrupted work. That sounds great, but many of us do not have uninterrupted time in blocks of an hour or 90 minutes to work on a task. We are pulled in many directions simultaneously. I would argue that part of this is our own doing and we can time box more effectively if we set boundaries. For instance, I have some signs (I call them status cards) that I put on my door. They are neon pieces of paper that simply state things like “Dr. Wells is in a meeting; please do not disturb” or “Back in five minutes” or, even better “I am preparing class; please do not disturb.” I also have information in my email signature that indicates the hours in which I read and don’t read email. I tell my students that I grade on certain days and not to expect work to be returned until after these days are finished. I shut off my phone. I shut off notifications. I have an app that allows people to make appointments with me that is synched to my Outlook calendar, but I also block off time that I need to be uninterrupted so that people cannot book me during those times. I hide.

You can do all of these things as well, if you set firm boundaries and also plan your weeks and days (as I suggest in an earlier column). This won’t work perfectly, but it’s probably better than what you are doing now. Are people instant messaging you and demanding an immediate reply? Politely tell them you only take messages at certain times and are sure to get back to them by the end of the day. Then turn off messages. They’ll get the message (no pun intended) clearly. Once you have done this, you can start thinking about what happens in these blocks. And also remember that this can be done for your personal life, too. “Date night” could allow you some uninterrupted time with your partner every week so that the rush of everyday and your occasional unavailability can be mitigated every week. I have a one-hour slot every Friday afternoon (which I highly recommend as a great time unless you have classes) to work on this column and other things associated with my website. I turn everything off in my home office and write or do administrative tasks. This keeps me completely up to date, and a great advantage is that you intentionally stop thinking about everything else. This is the beauty. When something comes in through email or from an outside source, gently make a note to deal with it when you have allotted time for that. Most people will respond well to a short email that says, “Thanks for letting me know about this. I’ll be back to you by Friday at noon.”

In short, you simply put something in its place, and deal with it on your terms, allowing that sometimes you need to put out a fire that might derail you only briefly.

Do you feel like you are always putting out fires? In another column, I will offer advice on how to fireproof yourself in the first place.

Elizabeth Wells is a professor of music history and musicology at Mount Allison University as well as author of the book The Organized Academic.

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