Honestly, I’ve always imagined that professors and lecturers lead easy academic lives. They pop into a lecture hall and drop a first-rate lecture. They float around the corridors making jokes with other faculty members. They share an informal drink with some of their favorite students, while waxing lyrical about the role of postmodernism in Foucault’s Pendulum. Then they spend office hours nurturing a brilliant, but misunderstood, mind.
OK, so a lot of my view of faculty is based on Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting. Not for the first time, it seems like Hollywood might have it a little wrong. Research carried out over a period of years at Boise State revealed that faculty members work more than 60 hours per week on average, with 10 hours of that across Saturdays and Sundays. Less than half that time is spent teaching, with other administrative tasks stacking up.
This isn’t a Boise or even an American problem either. More than half of Chinese universities’ faculty members experience significant occupational strength, with assistant professors and associate professors even more stressed than those with tenure.
Faculty members are sinking in a sea of lectures, groups, office hours, administrative meetings, preparation, marking papers, publishing their research and attending professional events. So what can they do to help lessen the load?
1: Spend time planning your time
Professors spend hours each week preparing for lectures and classes. They should do the same with their agendas.
Scheduling and blocking these time slots helps protect your time from other demands and reduces the decision fatigue experienced by consistently adjusting to new, unexpected tasks.
2: Focus on groups
One benefit of a detailed schedule is that it allows you to look back at the past weeks and analyze precisely how you’ve spent your time. For example, how many hours did you spend in one-to-one meetings, either with graduate students or other faculty members? Could some of those meetings be rolled up into small groups?
Office hours have become a standard part of college life. Still, there’s increasing evidence that small groups provide many of the same benefits as one-to-ones and they encourage more discussion. If faculty members proactively organize group sessions with between five and eight students, they can avoid much of the time and repetition of one-on-ones.
The same logic applies to meetings with other faculty members. Could a small, regular department meeting or a weekly catch-up over lunch avoid many casual individual encounters and drop-bys that occur during the week?
Of course, finding a convenient time for everyone to attend a group meeting can be more challenging, but scheduling software can help plan these sessions quickly and easily.
3: Lean into tech
Speaking of online tools, professors who embrace technology will see their time stretch a lot further.
A word of warning: don’t overuse technology or spend hours picking through the intricacies of different tools – that defies the point. Seek out the user-friendly tools with an immediate ROI in terms of time-savings.
4: Identify your time traps
Try (honestly) logging all your time in a freemium app like Toggl or Clockify for a couple of weeks to identify precisely how you spend your time, compared to how you think or plan to spend your time. That will help identify and create strategies to eliminate typical time thieves, such as:
5: Learn to prioritize
The entrepreneur Ryan Blair is credited with the Instagrammable quote: “If it’s important, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” In great corniness lies great truth.
How good are you at prioritizing? Research shows that the majority of us tend to prioritize what’s urgent rather than what’s important. If you’re not a natural in the art of prioritization, it’s crucial to have a system to prioritize between the two. Without priorities, everything becomes necessary, and that’s how stress levels mount and the work-life balance becomes a thing of the past.
One popular method is the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by former US President Dwight D Eisenhower. In this method, all tasks fall into one of four categories:
One other neat trick that will save you swathes of time once fully mastered is even more straightforward. Learn to say “no.”
6: Maximize the efficiency of your planning
Faculty members spend around 12 percent of their week – more than seven hours – preparing for lectures and classes. A few productivity tweaks can easily save a couple of those hours each week, adding up to as much as 60 hours of a full working week back over the course of a year.
7: Become a time management guru
You’re already a subject matter expert, which is why you’re a member of faculty in a higher education establishment. But add another specialism: time management. A few simple tips and tricks will see your efficiency increase almost overnight:Do more meetings online.
Maybe being a faculty member will always be a matter of juggling classes, preparation, research, student welfare and administration. Not even Robin Williams’ Dr. Sean Maguire had it all that easy. However, with a few productivity lessons carried over from the corporate world, academics can start to reclaim some of those 60 hours per week. And maybe even get an occasional weekend free.