Some things that helped me make it through a particularly busy semester

This past fall was quite busy for me, and I was worried at the start about whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The big things taking up time were teaching over 600 students in Intro Bio and chairing a university task force on graduate student mental health, but it was also important to me that people in my lab not have to go the whole semester without getting feedback on their manuscripts, and there were also a couple of grant deadlines that I really didn’t want to miss. I knew this would be a lot, so I did my best before the semester to set up a structure that would hopefully help me through my particularly busy semester. And it worked pretty well! Things weren’t perfect, but I did the things that needed to be done and think I did them reasonably well, and I came out of the semester with my mental health intact. I think a few things really helped with managing things, and I’m hoping that sharing them might be useful to other folks, hence this post.

I’ll expand on each of these below, but the short version of my strategy is:

  1. Block off time for everything
  2. Say no to lots of things
  3. Work with good people
  4. Celebrate the wins
  5. Remember that the bar is not perfection

Strategy 1: Block off time for everything

The first thing that was absolutely essential was to block off time in my calendar. This is something I’ve done for a while, but I had to be extra sure to block off time for everything this past semester. In addition to blocking off time for obvious things (e.g., one-on-one meetings with people in my lab, class time and office hours), I blocked off time for: class prep; working on writing, editing, and other research-related tasks; working on the mental health task force; drafting the weekly announcement I sent to my class; walking between meetings; writing letters of recommendation; writing exams; and, really, pretty much everything else I might need to do.

Things that worked about this strategy:

  • I knew that I could ignore things until it was their scheduled time. As an example: for mental health task force work, I mostly ignored emails related to that unless they were time sensitive, knowing that I had Thursday mornings fully blocked off for focusing deeply on that work (in addition to the time that was blocked off for our monthly meetings of the full task force). It surprised me how helpful this was. I didn’t have to devote time to trying to figure out when to deal with it, or keeping track of it. I have a lot of email filters set up, and, on Thursday mornings, I would search for them (searching for “label:inbox label:RackhamTaskForce”) and then plow through all those messages. I did something similar with teaching-related emails, research-related emails, etc.
  • I’m pretty good at estimating how much time things will take, so my estimates of how much time to block off worked pretty well. If I tended to underestimate how long things would take, this strategy surely would not have worked as well.
  • It made it easier to say no to things (which is Strategy #2) – especially once things were blocked off on my calendar, it was very clear that there was just barely enough time for all the things that I had already committed to doing.

I’m proud that I managed to continue to prioritize some research work during the semester. Some of that was driven by deadlines for proposals and manuscript revisions, but it was also based on having Tuesday mornings blocked off and viewing that as pretty non-negotiable. I think there were two times when I used that time for something else: once for task force work the week of Thanksgiving (when my normal Thursday morning task force work slot wouldn’t work), and once for working on a department tenure review (when I really couldn’t fit it in anywhere else, and it really needed to get done). I was pleasantly surprised by how much writing and editing I could get done during those Tuesday morning work blocks.

A big downside was that there was basically no wiggle room for emergent things – I got two requests to write tenure letters for folks at other universities during the semester (aren’t these supposed to come during the summer?!?!) and agreed to do them, but then it was almost impossible to find time to actually get them done. One I got done by ignoring my kids on the weekend, and the other by waking up at 4AM (which surely contributed to me getting very sick the following week). Neither of those strategies was great, and I’m planning on saying no to mid-semester requests like this next fall (when I will once again have a busy semester).

It’s also worth acknowledging that it did make me feel awkward a few times (including when people were trying to schedule things at the end of the semester). Part of my brain was saying, “Well, you could say you’re available Tuesday morning”, but that would have meant implicitly saying no to something like editing a manuscript for someone in my lab. So, I kept coming back to the conclusion that I really wasn’t free then, even though it sometimes felt hard to keep that time blocked off.

I should note that scheduling time for everything also included time for exercising and sleeping. While I don’t actually block those off on my calendar (unless it’s a run with a friend), those are pretty non-negotiable for me. If I don’t sleep at least 8 hours and exercise almost every day, my mental health suffers pretty quickly. And I have a personal rule that I will not miss therapy appointments because I feel too busy with work, so I also continued to make time for those (which, like sleep and exercise, help keep me fully functional!)

I definitely got lucky in that we didn’t have a major health or other family crisis during the semester, though there were enough little things (such as school being closed for a power outage and, later, a snow day, strep throat for one of my kids, and rabies shots for the family after a bat was flying around our house while we were sleeping).

Strategy #2: Say no to lots of things

One thing that was actually kind of a good thing about having an overly busy semester was that it made it easier (if not always easy!) to say no to lots of things. It was just so obvious that I couldn’t fit in things like being on a search committee, or a college-level committee, or guest lecturing, or travel. And, when I got asked to do one thing where it really did seem like it was important for me in particular to do it, I was able to negotiate for something else to get taken off my plate to make time for it.

During the semester, I had to remind myself over and over and over that there are a lot of things that are interesting and important and I cannot do them all. Sadly, I never used E.B. White’s “I must decline, for secret reasons” when saying no to something, but I did get a lot of practice at saying no. Fortunately, people were generally pretty understanding.

Strategy #3: Work with Good People

Something that was extremely clear last semester was how much easier hard work is when it is done with good people. Obviously who we get to work with isn’t always fully (or even largely) under our control. But, when there are good people to work with, it’s possible to get so much more work done, even if it’s hard work! Fortunately for me, my lab is full of Good People, I teach with Good People, and the two people I’ve worked with especially closely on task force work are Good People.

A couple of things worth highlighting in particular:

  1. It is so much easier to share important work with others if you know it will be done well and that balls won’t be dropped. Similar to the strategy of knowing that I could deal with certain things at certain times, this freed up a lot of mental bandwidth.
  2. Having people to discuss issues with is so helpful! At the beginning of the semester, the person at the Rackham Graduate School who supports the task force, Heather Fuchs, and I decided to schedule weekly meetings where we could go over task force work. At first, I wasn’t sure we’d really need them, and suspected we’d cancel them pretty regularly. In the end, we almost always had them, in part because talking through different options with Heather was so useful for me as I thought about how to structure the work of the task force. I probably should think about how to set up a similar structure for other aspects of my work.

Also related to this is having a really wonderful invisible support network. As always, those people were so important to keeping me going during the rough parts (& in helping with strategy #4!)

Strategy #4: Celebrate the wins

Last semester was a weird mix of very hard things and really great things. There was one week that was a terrible horrible no good very bad week. But, Friday afternoon of that week, I got an email with really good news. And I decided that I wasn’t going to let the terrible horrible no good very bad things keep me from celebrating that major win. So I did – not in a big way, but just by letting myself accept that it was great and something to be proud of. And, to my surprise, it worked! That conscious decision to focus on a positive thing and own it internally really helped me shift out of a very negative mindset that I’d gotten into that week. (A therapy appointment helped, too!) This strategy relates to something I’ve been working on more generally thanks to a recommendation from my therapist: not to just blow by the good things in my never-ending battle to check off items on my to do list. Instead, when there’s a win, I try to slow down and really acknowledge it to myself. It surprises me how much this can change how I’m feeling.

Strategy #5: Remember that the bar is not perfection (or, put differently, focusing on good enough)

There were various things where I really needed to focus on what was good enough. As one example: I was really stressing out about finding enough time to write exam 4 and I had to remind myself that I probably wouldn’t have time to write super creative questions, but that was fine. The questions don’t need to be creative (e.g., linked to a new research study on a topic we covered in class) – indeed, sometimes it’s better when they’re not. While normally comparing myself to others is a recipe for misery, it helped in some contexts this semester, especially related to teaching. Seeing that people who I and others view as good teachers are not perfect was really helpful for me (as I discussed more here).

An example unrelated to teaching: At one point I was obsessing over very minor details in a preproposal. A friend who I run with noted that they weren’t going to choose whether to invite the full proposal based on the types of edits I was doing at that point – they were either going to like the sorts of work I do or not and invite or not based on that, not based on whether that em-dash should have been replaced by a colon. Her advice to hit submit and move on was right, and helped me at several points during the semester. (I do have a new personal rule, which is, when I’m debating em-dashes, it’s a sign something is ready submit.)

To be clear: obviously there were certain things that I needed and wanted to be very careful about and to do very well. That was a key reason why I gave up my research time one week to finalizing a tenure file – that is the sort of thing that needs to be done really carefully. But my initial inclination is often set the bar much higher than it needs to be, and it helped to focus on where it really ought to be.

Summary

I realize that these strategies won’t work for everyone, but I also think they were really important for me last semester, so figured they might be worth sharing. If you’ve found some of these work for you – or don’t! – I’d love to hear about that in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Some things that helped me make it through a particularly busy semester

  1. I am staring down a very busy Winter Term, so this post was timely for me, and I will likely steal some of your ideas. 🙂 Our first day of classes was yesterday, and by the end of the day I realized that managing my energy levels is going to be CRUCIAL to surviving the term intact. Still trying to figure out what that means, but I think it means I will need to schedule in a bit more sleep, at the very least.

    One strategy I’ve found useful is to limit myself to 3 intentions each day. So, rather than making a ginormous to-do list, I’ll list out 3 things that I intend to complete that day. This forces me to prioritize pretty severely — but ironically, I get more done, and the things I get done tend to be of the more important (vs. the purely urgent) variety.

  2. Wow, I almost could have written this – I also had a crazy busy semester at the same time as you and fell into very similar strategies! Like you, having a fully blocked out calendar (including scheduled exercise) made me finally succeed in saying no to things. It even helped me negotiate taking some things off my plate, which will hopefully get me through the next round with a bit more breathing room. Congrats on making it through!

  3. Pingback: Preparing for an especially busy term | This is what a computer scientist looks like

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