I enjoy reading materials by Laura Vanderkam about managing time. She is a big advocate for tracking time, among several other strategies, especially in light of the fact that most people overestimate the time they spend in different activities (especially work). By tracking your time, you can think objectively about how to change things up.
I've done a few time tracking challenges in the past, usually for durations of one week. This past spring, I decided to track my time for the whole semester. I was especially interested in doing so because I was entering new territory in my work: collaborating with others at a separate institution, an ambitious plan for abstracts, proceedings, and manuscripts (let alone the actual science work!) and a full teaching load (twelve credit hours). I was coming off of a sabbatical semester in which I spent all my work time solely on research (except for a few teaching-related things that could not be left alone, such as getting in course proposals). It was a good time to evaluate where my time was going and how I felt about it. I was able to leverage some intentionality a year in advance, because I was able to get my actual time spent in class limited to being distributed over three days per week, leaving the other two to be solidly for research (except for a few pesky meetings). I also asked months in advance for our weekly department meeting to be held on a different day of the week than in the past, so that I could have hard lines between days spent at Wheaton and days spent at Chicago.
I was successful in tracking my time for the whole semester, except for two weeks: the week before spring break, in which I became very sick with a serious norovirus and had to quarantine myself (and had to miss three days of school), and the week of spring break itself, when I was in major recovery mode. However, it wasn't until the third week of the semester that I realized it would be helpful to split "work" time into "Wheaton" time and "Chicago" time. So the graphs below are for weeks 3-7 and 10-16.
I tracked time in several categories, personal and work-related, but below I plot the percentage of time spent for work by three categories: time spent on activities related to my appointment at Wheaton (course prep, administrative tasks, teaching), my appointment at Chicago (research), and driving to/from the University of Chicago, since that is not trivial. I should note that research is part of my expectations at Wheaton (although my compensation is tied to my teaching load), but as my research right now is solely related to my collaboration at UChicago, I am categorizing it completely separately. So, where did the time go? (Don't critique the figures themselves; I'm getting these out quickly using Excel. At least the default colors are Wheaton-esque?)
A follow up question is, where did the time go week by week?
In this figure, you can see the ebb and flow of the semester. Weeks 5, 6, 12, and 13 I had some major abstract/proceedings due. Week 11 was when I had a lot of grading of papers to do, and Week 14 and Week 16 involved a lot of grading as well, as well as prep for final exams.
So, am I happy with where the time went? Here is what I'm thinking:
1. It is a bit startling to see that driving time was 8% of my work time in the semester. But it's necessary: the whole point of a collaboration is to work closely with others. It's valuable for me to attend our group meetings, to work on research in a separate space (which drastically reduces interruptions), to be able to turn around and ask my officemate a few questions every now and then and even be able to chat a little bit. I've found it refreshing to just have a different space to work in, and short walks around the UChicago campus are great for thinking through coding challenges. I think I've done a good job of limiting the driving time as appropriate, because I can use a remote connection to work on things from Wheaton if need be. I did this a couple of times when meetings at Wheaton were piled onto Tuesdays for reasons beyond my control or if a kid was sick and I needed to be close by for potential doctor's visits. But in my mind, the driving is not something be thought of as a target for minimization. I have been making good use of the time by listening to podcasts, but I can handle the sound of continuous talking only so much, so I do tune in to our local classical music station too. If I get to the point of having conference calls semi-frequently, maybe I could call in to those while driving.
2. I perceive that it is a little bit of a shock to the system, so to speak, to be away from my PUI two days a week. Students seem really shocked that I'm not there - and that it's just not that I'm not available, but I'm not there. Student evaluations have always commented on my availability, however, even though I always have the faculty handbook-recommended (required?) 6 hours per week. In many ways, I really feel for students: every professor they have over their college education does things differently. Some professors have their doors open all the time. So what do I do about this? I don't know, to be honest. My sense is that all I can do is make sure I have a useful distribution of times. It is up to to the students to show up or let me know if they need alternate times. It might be helpful if other faculty would be a little more specific with their availability to students, and talk less about having their door "always open" (because they aren't really), but I can't really do anything about that.
3. Related, my days at Wheaton are packed. That's not a bad thing, though. I no longer have longer expanses of time in which I can fit in a number of different things with great flexibility; every 15 minute portion of my days at Wheaton is allocated before the day begins. Overall, I feel like I am much more efficient with my on-campus time. It means that I walk out of meetings that run over, but I don't think that is too huge of a deal. I'm sure there is some adage about tasks filling the time they are allotted. I think that's true. I think I've lost a little bit in serendipitous interactions with colleagues, but I have a group of faculty friends who send around invites for lunches and I go when I can, and we're starting up some gatherings of female faculty over the summer and into the fall, so that will help. We also have a program in which students can invite faculty to meals in our dining hall, and so when I get those I encourage the students to have breakfast with me.
4. I am working quite a bit, but I think I'm getting a lot of bang for my buck. A rule of thumb for teaching is that you should probably be spending two hours of time outside of class on activities related to the class, such as grading or course prep. With a twelve hour load, that corresponds to 24 hours spent outside of class, a total of 36 hours for teaching and related activities. If you could somehow limit other duties, such as advising or committee work to four hours, you'd be at forty hours, but these tasks really do push past four, usually, especially during registration time. And that allocation doesn't leave any room for research, which has to be done (and should be done!) but for which at my institution we do not receive any correlated compensation. I think probably I just have to expect an ebb and flow, especially when teaching old courses versus new ones. However, this semester I did not teach any new-to-me courses, and I still spent a higher number of hours per week on Wheaton activities, with sizable numbers of hours per week on Chicago (i.e., research) activities on top. But I feel good about it. I'm engaging in interesting research, with interesting people, it is invigorating my teaching, and hopefully the time investment will eventually pay off in summer salary secured by external grants, so that I will actually get paid for the research that is required for my job. I will need to be careful this fall, however: I teach a completely new-to-me course, and I have no course releases.
5. While I am working a lot, I actually feel like I am working less at home. I still do a second shift quite frequently, working after the kids go to bed, but that feels higher impact and less frequent. As a follow up, I should look at my time log and quantify when I spent time on work, "9-5" or evenings and weekends.
Now, moving on to personal areas of life, here are some reflections on what the time tracking taught me:
1. I really need to get workouts in on certain days of the week. If I think of workout goals over a seven-day-period, I wake up and it's a section of the week where I just can't get them in. However, going forward I realize that I need to think about getting my workouts in in a certain four-day period each week.
2. My husband and I probably switch off on childcare a bit too much. Lately our kids have been much too thrilled and surprised if we all four happen to get in the car to go somewhere together. So I hope to be more intentional about increasing my "family" time category and reducing the "childcare" category - the label I use when I am taking care of the kids on my own.
3. My personal reading time increased dramatically over the semester compared to previous ones, but I don't have a good quantitative sense of that in terms of time spent, just books completed. I have a general category of "chill" that could be made more specific.
4. I'm not going to explicitly track time in May and July this year. These months are just too broken up by meetings and travel. But I'll track in June and then in August through the fall semester.
5. I've been reading a lot lately about fixed schedule productivity (Robert Talbert has written a post about it, and it is covered in Cal Newport's Deep Work), and I've been thinking about if it would offer something to me. But the time tracking and reflection on the accomplishments of the semester have helped me think a lot about how things feel different for me. (And it made me really take notice that Newport's book references very few women and no blue-collar folks.) I think I use my time best when I consider the end-game of things that need to be done (e.g., abstracts submitted, exams graded, children's activities and the packing needed for them) and then get ahead of things, so that when things come up (as they inevitably will) the time-sensitive task is done. My schedule is not predictable enough to think of time and the tasks that fill it in terms of a fixed schedule. I cannot predict exactly how a research effort will go - a method might not work or there might be surprises in a data set. It also feels like so many things revolving around me are outside of my control, such as getting feedback from a collaborator on a manuscript (although I will say, my collaborators are remarkably fast with feedback) or especially when it comes to kid stuff. This semester, we were dealt a major surprise in the kid arena, something that totally disrupted the hourly schedule I had planned out for my family for literally the next 3-4 years at least. We're fine, but it was a major lesson in how many things are outside of my control. I cannot construct tight allocations of time, because my responsibilities are very varied, I can't control everything, and I need to be flexible. This past spring, my time did not fit into neat-and-clean, repeatable blocks, but I got major stuff done. (Even early! We got my four RSNA abstracts in several days early, for example.) So, if I think about my time in terms of getting things done, and getting them done early, that seems beneficial to me, because I am left either with the calm of getting things done early or the flexibility to respond to issues as they arise, and both of those conditions are good ones to be in. (As an aside, it also means that the people I work with and the systems my children interact with need to be clear about deadlines. So I've gotten better about emailing back and saying "please let me know exactly when you need this.")
It has been really helpful to be reflective of a semester as a whole, especially when entering a new phase. A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of mental whiplash. I flew back from the Quantitative Imaging Network meeting and got back to the house just in time to help with bedtime for the kids. The next morning, the kids were totally delighted at 7 AM when they were listless and I realized I could play them the Ghostbusters movie soundtrack from Amazon Prime Music, because they love the Dinobusters episode of Dino Dan. There was much dancing. I had a moment of realizing how packed my days were but they are packed with good things, and I feel very fortunate.