OK, so maybe the school year isn’t quite that long, but it can sometimes feel that way. And while there’s little we can do about the length of the year, there is a great deal we can do about we make it through the year.
As noted in my last post, I’m gearing up for the start of the fall semester by making plans for my work directing the graduate program. Of course, there are many other things I need to prepare for (teaching, of course, and laying the groundwork for some research projects), but perhaps above all else, I need to prepare myself.
For years – both in graduate school and in my first few years here at SUNY Potsdam – I did a pretty poor job of managing the work/life balance. Like many academics, I saw work as my life (which, in case it isn’t already clear, is a terrible position to take); just as importantly, I allowed my job to encourage me in that thinking.
The truth is, the job will take as much time as you are willing to give it. And the job will always be ready for – and sometimes ask for – more. Because the truth is, you can always spend more time working on your teaching; you can always spend more time on your research; there is always another committee, student club, task force, etc. that you can join. Because “more” doesn’t stop; there is always more. And if I had a nickel for every time a colleague, chair, administrator, student, parent, or colleague* helpfully told me I could do more, I could probably retire.
So with this post, I’d like to lay out some of my own plans, how I manage to stay sane during the semester. I’m not saying this is the magic formula, nor am I suggesting that this always works (or that I always stick to it). And some of these are new ideas that I hope to implement this year. As always, I’d love to hear from anyone else, how you manage the work/life balance.
There are only 24 hours in the day. That doesn’t change. So once you have your teaching schedule, it’s up to you to block out the time you need for the rest of your life.
- Sleep. You need it. You need it every day. This is a fact. You can argue with it, fight against it, or try to chemically change it, but these are battles you will lose. Whatever else you need to schedule, make sure you schedule to sleep. If you set a time to go to bed, stick to it. I don’t care if you want to finish that last bit of grading, or if you only have one more chapter to read, etc. Go to bed.
- Grading. A very common approach to grading is to do it until it’s done. I have found this to be incredibly inefficient, and can lead to eating up time for other things (especially sleep). I have two recommendations here. First: schedule time for grading. Set aside the number of hours you need (per day, per week, etc.), and stick to it. If you can’t, maybe you are assigning too much work to grade. Or maybe you are spending too much time per assignment, which leads to my second recommendation: set a limit on how much time you will spend grading individual assignments. (This may change, depending on your own grading methods, and the length/complexity of the assignments. But over time, you can ballpark this.) And just as importantly, plan for this. You may not have to devote the same amount of time every week, but in the heavy weeks, plan for the time. (But, and I cannot stress this enough, do not draw that time away from sleep.)
- Research. Personally, I like to use the weekends for research. I’ll go into the office on the weekends to write, or go to the local bakery to read and take notes. Or maybe I’ll just stay home and think. (Of course, some weekends I just relax. But I find it helpful to devote the weekends to research.) Maybe you block off two hours every day. Maybe you get up early in the morning to do some reading, take notes, etc. with some tea and toast. The point is not how you do it, but that you block off time to do this. And as with everything else, do not steal from this time.** It can be very tempting to steal from this time to get grading done, or do extra service work, or any other instance of the “more” that is always knocking at the door. If you know one week will require extra time to grade, maybe schedule that time to grade instead of doing research; but you pay this time back when the grading is done.
- Your life. You are allowed to have one. In fact, I highly encourage it. And you should spend some of your day – every day – enjoying it. And no, “sleep” is not enough. Personally, I play music (almost) every day. And during the semester, most days, I play for at least 45 minutes when I come home from teaching. I get out of my work clothes***, grab a cold drink, and play guitar. If I have to grade, or prep for class, etc., it can all wait until after I play guitar, until after I check on my plants, until after I make dinner. It doesn’t matter what you do: walk the dogs, play with your kids, join a local club, sit quietly and watch the sunset. But this is your time; spend it as you see fit. And no, don’t tell me that grading, or your research, or some other part of the job, is how you want to treat yo self. That kind of thinking is exactly how we fail at the work/life balance. Now, it should come as no surprise, I love to read. So another way I spend my time on me, while engaging in an activity that I have also chosen to devote my life to, is to read for fun. I may not pick it up every day, but I am always in a book that I am reading just for fun. This is never something for class, or for research, but just for fun. Maybe it’s a novel by one of my favorite authors, or a collection of poetry recommended to me by a friend, or even a work of theory that I find fascinating. Again, it doesn’t matter what it is. What matters, of course, is doing something just for you.
You’ve got one. And the better you care for it, the better prepared you will be for the semester. Admittedly, I often fail at this. Much as I try otherwise, I often eat poorly at the start and end of the semesters, the most stressful parts of the semester. (These are times I’m more likely to get take-out, or stock up on chocolate.) This is true even though I enjoy cooking, especially as a way to unwind after a long day. (Sometimes, I’ll cook even when I have leftovers, specifically because cooking relaxes me.) This semester, I’m going to do a better job of planning for those stressful times. I’ll make good food ahead of time, so that I have plenty of tasty, healthy options waiting for me when I get home, so that I’m less likely to get take-out.****
Similarly, spend some time in exercising. Again, it doesn’t matter what you do. In grad school, I trained in martial arts. Lately, I’ve been doing yoga. And for the past few weeks, I’ve been getting up to run three times every week. I hope to keep to this schedule during the semester, getting up early to run, stretch, and have a bite to eat before going to work. I also plan on doing yoga several times a week, at some point after I get home from work.
And although I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: sleep. You need it.
I won’t lie; other people can be the worst. It’s always other people who want to give you more work and take away from your personal time. And for all that we can manage how we spend our time, most of it won’t do a damn bit of good if we don’t manage our interactions with other people. So here are a few pointers that have worked for me over the years:
Email. Email is a great thing, except that it also allows people to contact you at their convenience, not yours. Remember that this works both ways: people can email you at their convenience, but that does not obligate you to answer. And I get it; clearing the inbox can be very satisfying. But it can also become obsessive. So when it comes to email, I have two basic principles:
- I have two email accounts, one for my life, and one just for work. I only use my work email for work-related communications. I do not use my work email to contact friends and family, to make personal plans, etc. Work email for work only. Because if you start using your work email for personal communications, you’ll find yourself checking work-related emails when you’re dealing with personal things. It’s too tempting to open those emails, respond to them, etc. Just as you should set aside time for other work activities, you should set aside time for work emails. Personally, I check my work email when I check personal email. But I don’t feel obligated to read or respond to them (sometimes, I check because I’m waiting for something, or just to make sure I’m not behind on things).
- Also, I set a time when I am available to students over email, and that doesn’t change. I don’t check work email before 9:00 am, and I don’t check it after 9:00 pm. And I make this clear to my students, if only to remind them that there is nothing I can do for them between 9:00 pm and 9:00 am.^ There is nothing I need to know between those hours. There is nothing happening at work between 9:00 pm and 9:00 am that I can do anything about until after 9:00 am. And while I understand the impulse to want to know if a student has an emergency and can’t come to class the next day, or can’t turn in the work the next day, etc., there’s no need for me to know. Nothing will change if I wait until after 9:00 am to know, and make any decision, or deal with any issues. In fact, if it really is an emergency, it’s best if I wait until after I had a good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast to address it.
Office hours. I have them. I make use of them. And I do my very best to hold to them. In the past, I have scheduled my office hours for the end of the workday, so that students can come to me if they have any questions following class. However, I have found that, with nothing else scheduled after office hours, I allowed myself to linger. Rarely did I linger because I was working with a student. But I found that there was always something to do, and rarely was it time-sensitive. So starting next year, I’m scheduling office hours at the start of the day, and in the middle of the day. Office hours will never be my last work obligation for the day. I can finish teaching, and then walk away. Last year, I wasted quite a bit of time not leaving the office. That ends now.
Personalizing. This is tough, because sometimes this is fun. I genuinely enjoy the company of some of my colleagues and students, and I enjoy that I can spend time with them at work as people, and not just as workplace proximity associates. However, sometimes this takes up a great deal of time, especially if I have work to do. I need to do a better job of telling people that I need to get to work. But at the same time, if I have the time to be friendly, I want to do that as well. I’m not sure what to do about this, except to keep an eye on it and see what happens.
Students. Yes, students. Nearly everything I’ve been writing about so far comes back to students. Because we want to be there for our students, and the students want us to be there for them. However, we also do not – let me repeat, we do not – have to be on call. In fact, we should not be. We are entitled to a life outside our jobs, and this means we are entitled to a life outside our students. We are entitled to not be on call.^^ And do not allow people to tell you that not being on call – or not otherwise devoting your free time to your job – is inappropriate. To this end, some rules regarding students:
- Students do not get my personal email. Ever. For any reason. They can contact me through the university-provided email.
- Students do not get my cell phone number. Ever. For any reason. They can leave a message for me on my work voicemail, if they need to call me. (If I have messages, I check them first thing when I get into the office.)
- Students do not get to friend me on Facebook. Ever. For any reason. I am friends with a few former students, but never before they graduate. There is absolutely no reason why students should need to contact me via Facebook.^^^
This does not mean that I am not available to my students. And it certainly does not mean that I don’t care. I am invested in doing my job well, and I do want my students to succeed. However, this does not mean that I have to devote my life to my students. One thing to remember is that teaching is a job. And while many will try to convince you otherwise – teaching is a calling! teaching is your passion! nothing is more important than the work done by teachers!^^^^ – you do not have to devote your life to your job in order to do your job well.
I suppose I could write more, but it’s time for lunch, and then I have a plant I need to take care of.
Ultimately, the goal is to find a balance that works for you. But the truth is, the job will never provide that balance for you. Neither will students or colleagues. This one is on you. And I promise you, you deserve it.
*Yes, I listed colleague twice. Because more often than not, this advice comes from colleagues. Sometimes it’s well meaning; there are things I am good at, and colleagues want to enlist my help in certain areas. Other times, it’s an excuse to try and off-load some work (beware the phrase “good opportunity”). It’s not so much that it can be hard to see the difference between the two; it’s that it doesn’t matter. Good intentions don’t give you more hours in the day.
**Exception: you can steal from this time to sleep. Or really, any other non-work-related activity. If you want to use your research time to hike, or do yoga, or play with children, or do some gardening, or lose yourself in some art…that’s just fine. A good rule of thumb is that if you want to divert work-based time to personal activities, go right ahead. But never the reverse.
***This might sound silly, but I think this is incredibly important. I get home from work and I immediately change out of my “work clothes” (which, some days, might just be jeans and a t-shirt), into something more comfortable. I literally peel my work off of my body, put it in the hamper, and am done with it. And after a nice walk home from the office, by the time I get home, I am often ready to get back to the important “work” of living my life.
****That said, I have a first day of school ritual: Thai take-out and Taza chocolates. I treat myself to large amounts of both after the first day of classes, while watching something fun on Netflix. Speaking of which, I highly recommend establishing some rituals of your own.
^Of course, it’s not just my students. But most of my colleagues know this, and rarely do I get emails from colleagues between these hours. And most of the ones I do get during those hours are best ignored.
^^I have repeatedly told people that I’m actually happy to be on call, but only if I am paid for it. I’m happy to be paid to be more available outside of work hours (even beyond my very generous email availability). But I want to get paid for it. The last hourly job I had paid me $20/hour; that was with an MA and back in the 1990s. Let’s say that a reasonable number – based on better qualifications and inflation – is $40/hour (and even that is seriously under-selling it). But if my work wants me to to be on call, that’s the starting rate: I’ll bill $40/hour for every hour I am on call.
^^^In fact, most of the Facebook interactions I have are with people I don’t see regularly. Rarely do I find the need to have extended online conversations with people I see in person on a regular basis. That said, if you do use social media to connect to your students, regulate it in some capacity. Again, the goal here is to have a clean split between time you spend working, and time you spend not working.
^^^^Always true…until it’s time to talk salary.