This post was originally written in February 2021 as a follow up to Planning Your Winter Semester and was shared in the Academic Writing Studio. It has been edited and divided into a series of shorter posts for ease of reading. The general principles—habits, routines, and default responses—are explained in the first post in the series: Managing energy to make decisions.
One of the things Studio members focus on in the quarterly planning class is noticing the general shape of the quarter. Although some of your activities will happen weekly for a whole semester, there are other things that happen less frequently. Advising is probably intense for a week or so at the beginning and maybe another week at the end but otherwise doesn’t need very much time, for example. Grading often happens in bursts. Certain committees may have a period of intense activity and then not much. Even your teaching requires more preparation some weeks than others.
The value of planning weekly
Establishing a habit of making a plan for your week (on Friday or Sunday afternoon, for example) helps you assess what’s going on in the immediate future and make decisions. You are giving yourself time to do the cognitive work of collecting the relevant information, weighing up your options, and making decisions. You can then default to that plan during the week. You can’t foresee everything, but many of your activities are predictable.
Some of us like a bit more freedom within our plans, but even high level planning to reduce the number of things we are choosing between can make a big difference. There is a big energy difference between deciding whether to write or prepare teaching from 10 to 11 on Tuesday, and deciding what specific thing you will do to move your writing project forward during the hour you’ve already decided to allocate to writing.
Use your calendar to remind yourself of the decisions you’ve made.
I chose the name for A Meeting With Your Writing deliberately. Your calendar isn’t just for meetings with other people. You can also set meetings with yourself to do specific tasks, or work on specific projects or types of work (even if you’ll choose the specific tasks from a longer to-do list). Leaving slack in your plan means making more decisions that you might like so you have flexibility to address whatever comes up. That way, you only need to decide how to incorporate the new things. Otherwise you just work to the plan.
Blocking time serves as a visual reminder of the decisions you’ve made and of how little time you have available for things that come up. One of my Guide for the Journey clients mentioned that blocking time in this way took a lot of the emotional charge out of saying no to an opportunity. It was so clear to her that she didn’t have time, the response felt easier. If your institution makes free/busy information available as the basis for sending meeting requests, it is crucial to also mark some of those meetings-with-yourself as “busy” so others don’t think you are available when you aren’t.
Some decisions can be made less frequently
While a weekly planning habit is valuable, you aren’t planning from scratch each week. Your teaching will be scheduled for the full semester and you plan other things around it. There are other decisions you can make in a similar way.
- You probably already schedule Office Hours for the whole semester as a way to manage meetings with students in your classes and advising responsibilities.
- You can block a separate time to make available to MA and PhD students whose projects you are supervising. Set a rule that they need to book appointments by the Friday before, and even how long before a meeting they have to send work you will need to read.
Members of the Academic Writing Studio decide at the beginning of a semester to attend a specific session of A Meeting With Your Writing every week. This reduces the number of decisions they make weekly. Their default plan includes A Meeting With Your Writing. Whether or not you join the Studio and attend a Meeting With Your Writing, you could schedule writing time in advance.
Scheduling writing time means you also have a default response to the question of whether you have time to write or whether you are available for a meeting in that time slot. Your default position is “Yes, I have time to write.” and “No, I’m not available for a meeting then.” You can decide to do something different but most weeks, you default to your routine.
Working the plan before making decisions to change it
Plans almost always have to be modified at least a little bit. It can be really frustrating to feel like you are retaking decisions you thought you’d already made. Your email likely has a lot of opportunities to change your plan: invitations to meetings, invitations to review things, invitations to write things, etc. You might try combining weekly planning with establishing a habit of not checking your email before 10 a.m.
You want to establish the plan as the foundation of your week. Start your days with something in your plan before you check email. Approach the email messages confident with your general decisions about what your priorities are, and how much time you have available. Even if some of those requests are “need a response today” urgent, you don’t need to read them before doing anything else. Work at least some of your plan before making decisions to rearrange it.
Planning isn’t magic but it makes a difference
You still have more things to do than time to do them in. The purpose of establishing a habit of planning is to reduce the energy you spend making decisions so you have more energy to do the work you decided to prioritize. You are laying a foundation that helps you feel confident that the important things will get done. You are also reminding yourself of your priorities so they are the basis of any decisions you need to make when things change.
Other posts in this series:
- Managing the energy you use to make decisions
- Decision making: meetings
- Decision making: peer review
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan (audio available)
You need a writing practice (audio available)
Email is not urgent (audio coming soon)