One of the elements of a good plan is boundaries. Boundaries enable you to juggle your various different responsibilities without having too many balls in the air at once. According to the OED the term boundary has the sense of both the thing which serves to mark the limits of something and the limit itself.
Because decisions require energy and cognitive capacity, and you want to optimize the energy and cognitive capacity being used for the work itself, it helps to make some big decisions about boundaries when you plan. In the Academic Writing Studio we do this in a planning class at the beginning of each semester, and by reviewing and adjusting plans at the beginning of every month. I also encourage you to do this weekly as part of your ritual for transitioning too and/or from the weekend.
Setting boundaries with scheduling
One way to make big decisions about boundaries that ensure you get to all the important things is to use your calendar and schedule time. Someone else schedules your teaching. Meetings and office hours probably also get scheduled but if that’s the only thing you actually block time for in your calendar, it looks like you have a lot of free time. You don’t. You have more work to do than time available. You need to make tough decisions to set priorities and ensure that you get to everything. You drop balls.
Schedule your other important work. Figure out how much time you can reasonably devote to writing, and what kinds of time you have for writing, and block time in your calendar. Block time for teaching preparation. Note the deadlines you have set for students to submit assessed work, estimate how much time you need to mark their work, and block time in your calendar in the week(s) following that deadline.
You can even block a slot every week for meetings, perhaps at the time your department meeting normally happens. You can offer this time as your first option when you need to schedule a meeting. If it doesn’t work for others, you can swap this block with another block so you still get the work done that you’d planned for the slot you’ve ended up using for meetings. You can do the same with (post)graduate supervision. Block time to be used for supervision meetings, reading and commenting on drafts, and so on. You can reallocate that time to something else if you don’t need it for this purpose in any given week. And it’s there when you do need it.
When asked to peer review a manuscript, estimate how much time you would need, look at your calendar and block that time before you accept. If you cannot block the time, you should decline in this instance. You may decide that the peer review is a higher priority than something else in your schedule, but with everything in there, you are aware that you are doing that rather than feeling guilty about dropping some other ball in order to do this.
You can even put basic self-care tasks in your calendar: lunch, going for a swim/run/walk/exercise class, a target bedtime, a target time to stop work for the day, and so on. By scheduling time you recognize that these are important.
Your time blocks are moveable. You can adjust as needed. But by clearly marking your boundaries you are more aware of what you are juggling and what you are setting aside. Having to move or delete a scheduled block prompts you to remind yourself of your priorities and ask yourself if this action is aligned with those priorities or if your priorities are changing.
Setting boundaries with policies
In addition to scheduling, you might also use personal policies to set limits on how much of different types of work you will do.
You may have policies around email: how often or when you will check it; how quickly you aim to respond; or even if you will respond to certain kinds of requests by email. Some academics refuse to answer student requests by email and require them to come to office hours. Others do not answer student email requests where the answer is in the syllabus/course outline. Others require students to use the messaging facility inside the LMS (which allows you to block time to deal with student email without being distracted by it in your main inbox). Other email policies I’ve heard about include: Not putting your work email account on your phone or other mobile device and treating it as if it lives on your office computer; Not checking email on weekends and holidays; Using the offline mode to enable you to deal with your inbox without it filling up as you do so.
Many academics have policies about how many manuscripts they will review for journals and presses. The most common policies recognize the diffuse reciprocity involved in this task and create a limit that is related to how many articles they submit and the average number of reviewers that would require. If you are on an editorial board that includes a commitment to review a certain number of articles per year, this would be your priority, and you’d reduce your limit for other requests accordingly. You might also have personal policies about which journals you will review for (either specific ones in your field or “only open access” or “not x publisher”).
Creating personal policies means deciding criteria for decisions in advance. By having clear criteria, you make specific decisions easier. You spend less time making decisions, use less of your cognitive capacity to do so, and reduce the emotional processing you need to do when someone makes a request. It may take a while to really feel confident that your policies are reasonable, but stick with it.
Fit Your Own Mask First by Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer (re. policies on academic travel)
Rules of Thumb for making decisions on requests for academic work By Rob Kitchen provides a detailed example of the policy approach.