Finding an Academic Schedule that Works

Eva Lantsoght
Eva Lantsoght
6 Nov '14

For young faculty members, the large number of tasks you need to juggle might feel overwhelming. You might want to postpone writing your papers until you "have time for it."

You might be thinking: "This semester I am teaching new courses, so I'm going to postpone writing that article until next semester." And then, your next semester is there, and you have yet another challenge that takes up all your time so that you need to postpone your writing again.

As a new professor, and teaching 3 courses per semester, I need quite some time to prepare all my new material. I learned as well that there is not only the time it takes to prepare courses (4 hours of preparation per hour of lecture seems to be quite the golden rule), but there is also the time it takes to grade homework and exams, the visits of students with questions, and the extra volume of emails associated with streamlining the course. In short, once you start teaching, you have way, way less time for research left.

With a faculty position also come additional tasks. You might be managing a laboratory or responsible for revising the curriculum of your department's program to meet new government requirements. This work too needs to move forward, and takes time.

To keep your many tasks and responsibilities all moving forward at a steady pace, I am quite a fan of using a weekly template, as suggested by Dr. Golash-Boza and Dr. Pacheco-Vega.

Last semester, I followed Dr. Pacheco-Vega's approach, but I found this "scheduling everything to the very minute" rather depressing - I never got done what I planned to do, because over the course of the day, random extra things always seem to creep up. I need more air or buffer time in my schedule, and I need to foresee more time for email. By now, my golden rule is not to plan more than 75% of my time. If you look at my schedule, my "boxes" for my different tasks seem to be back-to-back, but in reality I only put tasks in these boxes that take 75% of the allotted time.

Boxes? Tasks? Let me explain that by introducing you to the weekly template that I have for this semester: 

As you can see, I'm using color coding for my different tasks:

- Green = workouts: Very important, I can't be focused on my work if I'm not giving some priority to movement. Time ago I wrote about exercise taking the backseat, but since then, I've been consistently making time for sports. Lots of work is not an excuse to sacrifice your health. Currently, I'm combining hot yoga classes in a yoga studio, with group workouts in the gym (body pump, spinning, yoga) and cardio and weight lifting in the gym. After trying out a number of different options, I've found that morning workouts work best for me here.

- Light blue = research. This category has different tasks: time for moving research projects forward (calculations, mostly), time for writing papers, and time for reading papers. This semester is the first time that I am actually blocking a few hours each week for reading papers to keep updated on the advances in my field. I especially like reading the recent issues of the ACI Structural Journal and the Magazine of Concrete Research.

- Yellow = personal time. A researcher's got to eat, and cook to get to eat said food. I plan sessions of batch-cooking to have food that lasts a couple of days. I schedule time to play music (singing or playing the cello), because that really rejuvenates me, and I have too little time for it. Groceries - ah, hate it, but it needs to happen. If you make your weekly template, think of all these personal errands that you need to run on a weekly basis, and safe time for them.

- Blue = Class preparation. For the course that I have taught before, I am not scheduling much time anymore. For my new course, I am scheduling 4 hours of preparation per hour of class. Luckily, I am teaching 2 parallels of the same course, so that saves me some time. The boxes of class preparation time can be moved around on a weekly basis, as I like to grade homeworks and exams right after receiving them - I like being punctual about returning work to my students, as a fair exchange for my being rather strict about the deadlines of their work (you respect my time, and I respect your time, and we all move forward).

- Indigo = Class. These are the hours that I am actually teaching. This semester, I am teaching in the afternoon (works well with my personal energy), I do not have gaps in between hours of teaching (last semester I had a Lost Hour on MWF in between two hours of class, and I never got any work done during that hour), and I am not teaching on Friday (research time!).

- Pink = Blog scheduling. Because writing these posts takes time, and if I don't schedule time, I can't find it.

- Orange = Office Hours. I only have 2 hours a week officially in my schedule as office hours, but my students can make an appointment and I'll gladly schedule them in. They know that I am in my office most of the time (I do not run a practice next to my academic position, I am more than busy with 2 academic positions), and that they can drop by if needed.

- Red = email and appointments. Also, my former "work" category (everything work-related used to show up red in my Google Calendar, but that has changed now). Appointments come in this category, and an hour on a daily basis goes in this category for plowing through my mailbox.

Now this weekly template is the basis for my week-to-week planning. I keep track of my tasks in ToDoist, and every Friday evening (as you can see in my template), I sit down to review what work I accomplished in the past week, and what needs to be done, per category, on a weekly basis. I fill in the boxes with the specific tasks that await me (using up only 75% of my allotted time, so I have enough buffer to catch up whichever fireball gets thrown at me during the day). An example of a recent week looks like this then:

As you can see, I moved some tasks around, added in some extra appointments, and generally filled in the specific tasks within their respective categories that I needed to accomplish.

For PhD students, you might like to implement a simpler version of this approach - you can find an example of what my schedule looked like when I was a PhD student in a different post

With this system, I am able to move a number of projects forward at the same time, and I ensure I am not neglecting a specific category of work while favoring another category.

About Eva Lantsoght

Eva started writing about doing a PhD while studying concrete structures at TU Delft and since then blogs about the non-scientific skills you need during a PhD and life as a PhD.