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Academic Achiever

Why you should spend 25 per cent of your time planning

Academics tend to be very reactive. By taking an hour or two a week to plan out projects, you will feel you are making better use of your time.


Welcome to the Academic Achiever – a new column hosted by University Affairs. Here you will find advice to help you organize, manage and reflect on your academic career. Elizabeth Wells is an award-winning prof who specializes in organization management.

We have all heard this kind of advice before: your work on a task should be mostly preparation, with less time in execution. This is true for many things in life, whether that is refinishing a bathtub, or getting a class ready. The truth is, most of us are under the gun with looming deadlines, classes that can’t be procrastinated over, or meetings that start at a certain time and day. We have enough to do without planning our work, and anyway, isn’t planning just a form of procrastination? I would argue that much of my own success, and mental wellness, can be attributed to how much time I spend planning rather than doing. The productivity guru David Allen, who is known for his system “Getting Things Done” (GTD) reminds us that in knowledge work – which is primarily what academics are doing most of the time – we need to “define our work.” This seems like a waste of time: do we not know what exactly we need to do? Why not just do it? To the contrary, for myself and for my colleagues, knowing exactly what we are supposed to be doing is not as obvious as it might appear. It is also not always clear how long a task will take, or what resources we need to get it done. So, when I coach people or give workshops, I admit that I spend about 25 per cent of my time planning my work, and this is a conservative estimate.

So, why should you plan?

Most of our lives as academics are reactive: we respond to ideas of others, we respond to demands of students, calls for papers, or committee invitations. We tend, like most people, to put our attention on the immediately obvious or pressing issues that are in front of us, whether that’s an email or a request from someone. This reactive mode means we are responding to other people’s demands, and not setting our own agenda. When you sit down to write, you don’t simply pour a cup of coffee, open a document and immediately spew brilliant prose. We need time to get ready: where are the sources we need and what other documents or information do we need to do the work? How much time do we have and what do we hope to accomplish in that time? We actually need “research preparation time” before we can work so we don’t waste our valuable time later backtracking or looking for things.

How many hours a week do we have for any particular project or task, what resources do we need to do that task, where is the best place to do that? Do we have people we need to contact? Reservations we need to make for space? Meetings we need to accommodate or people we need to see? Spending an hour each week (often profitably in the morning or at the end of the day, or for some time on the weekend) will save you a lot of time, energy and effort in making your week run smoothly. On a larger scale, it is very effective to plan out projects from beginning to end, first starting by assessing whether we really have the time and bandwidth to complete to our own standards the work that we have committed to, whatever that is. On my personal blog, I have written about the benefits of spending only 20 minutes choosing my outfits for the week or planning my meals, and the amount of time I save by addressing such menial tasks in batches. This may seem over-managed, but then I am not frantically doing last-minute laundry or running off to the grocery store when I’d like to be doing something else. Planning makes for peaceful mornings and smooth days.

My experience, and perhaps yours, is that academics take on too much and then struggle to complete these commitments. Planning lets you see what you can do realistically whether that’s over one work session or an entire summer. Putting together a kind of “itinerary” as I call it or a simple table with all your commitments and when they are due will give you a sense of what you can and cannot accomplish, and when.

A great practice is simply to keep a “projects list” for both work and personal projects. Once a week, as David Allen suggests, do a “weekly review” and just see where you are on each project and what the next actions are to move it forward. This doesn’t take long but will give you a great sense of control and more perspective on what you are committed to. I would say that I am at least 50 per cent more productive than I used to be by prioritizing and making time for planning on a number of levels.. Think you don’t have time to plan? You probably cannot afford not to. Now as to what you should actually be doing with that time, your mission, that’s a subject for another column.

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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