Recently someone in the Academic Writing Studio asked me for advice about the conflict she is feeling between working on her own writing and writing student reference letters, reviewing thesis proposals, and whatnot. This is something everyone struggles with.
Your writing isn’t more important than your students. But nor are your students more important than your writing. By planning for this periodic work, and leaving a bit of slack in your schedule, you are better able to adapt to the unpredictable because the predictable baseline is already taken care of.
These tasks are important, somewhat predictable, but irregular. They don’t happen every week so you don’t get into a regular routine (compared to, say, teaching preparation) but they are normal enough you don’t think to block time in your calendar. This results in a situation where you are almost taken by surprise by things that are a normal part of your job. They always seem to need to be squeezed in. And both the squeezing in, and your failure to remember how much work this perfectly normal task involves, makes you feel bad. (The same thing happens with grading.)
Block time for periodic tasks
In the Planning Your Semester class (available to Studio members) I suggest that you look at the deadlines you set for your assignments and block time for grading in your calendar in advance. You can use this same strategy for any periodic task. By blocking time in advance, the time it takes is visible when you are planning other things. You can do a better job of spreading out things that you have some scheduling control over. You can also be prepared for your writing time to be reduced sometimes, perhaps adding some extra writing time in other weeks to compensate.
You know students generally need references for specific purposes, which happen at known times of year. You can estimate how many requests you might get and block time well in advance. If you get fewer requests, you have plenty of things to fill that time with. It won’t be wasted. And if you get more, you are only squeezing in a few extra rather than ALL the references.
The timing of thesis proposals, dissertation chapters, and PhD examining is a bit more unpredictable but you do get some advance warning. When your graduate students are almost ready to submit a proposal/chapter/final draft/etc you can have a conversation with them about timelines, block some time in your diary based on their proposed submission date, and suggest a turnaround time based on your total commitments at that time. This not only relieves some of the pressure on you, it also models good workload management practices for your students.
Don’t sabotage yourself
Stop telling yourself that it is pointless to block time because the student might not get it in when promised. Your schedule isn’t set in stone, but all the pieces can be in the calendar where you can see them. If you have to move your scheduled block, at least you have a block to move. There are plenty of things to fill up that time with, including doing other things early to free up time later.
If you know that one of your students is running up against a hard deadline that might require you to turn things around quickly, schedule time near that deadline for that work in case you need it. Your student doesn’t need to know you’ve done this but it will make you less frustrated and more able to support them in sustainable ways.
In really busy weeks, you will need a different strategy for your writing, but that will be temporary.
This post was edited 24 August 2017.