Use Your Energy Patterns to Be More Productive

lightbulbsOne of the biggest light bulb moments I’ve had in terms of scholarly productivity is that when I work on writing when I’m energized, things go better. This probably sounds obvious, but for years–ahem, I mean more than a decade–I tried to do my writing in the afternoon, the time recognized as nap time, coffee time, and slump time by most everyone, including me. Despite my strong daily desire to take a nap in the afternoon, I thought it made sense to plan to write in the afternoon. My reasoning was that by then I would have gotten all of my tasks for the day done and I’d have this delicious open period before me.

But most days, by the time 2 or 3 pm came, I did not have all of my tasks done, so I was grouchy, slumpy, nappy, and stressed out about being behind. I would then spend my “writing time” trying to catch up. Why did I not catch on to this insidious pattern after it had repeated itself thousands of times? Sigh. I don’t know for sure.

But one magical day, after my usual morning workout, which leaves me full of optimism and energy, instead of going straight to the shower, I sat down at my computer, and something amazing happened: I wrote for an hour straight with no trouble. I fell into the “zone” in which you lose track of time and just revel in your current activity. After this happened a few times in a row, I came up with a theory–if you write when you are energized, things will go well, and if you write when you are not energized, things will go not so well–and I decided to test it by keeping a log of my writing times and productivity for a few weeks, sometimes writing in the morning and sometimes writing (or attempting writing) in the afternoon. You can guess what my log revealed: yes, it was no fluke–when I wrote in the morning, when I was energized, I wrote more and it felt less like a chore; when I wrote in the afternoon, when I was not energized, I wrote very little and it felt like a huge burden.

Now I try to write as early in the morning as is possible, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Writing for 20 minutes at 6 a.m. results in more words for me than writing for 45 minutes at 4 p.m.

Now you may not be a morning person and perhaps your high energy time hits at 8 p.m. My advice is to then reconfigure your schedule so that you can write at 8 p.m. as often as possible. Whatever your high energy time is, that’s when you should write, and if your schedule doesn’t allow that, then figure out when your lowest energy time is and write as far away from that time as possible. (If you’re not sure when you have the most or least energy, try this.)

sleep hygiene for faculty

kittySleep hygiene is the official term for your sleep practices, including things like napping, what you do to wind down before bed, setting your bedtime and wake time, and what you eat or drink before bed.

I was not always a good sleeper, but for the past nine years I have been a champion sleeper, getting 7.5 hours of good quality sleep almost every night and waking up feeling refreshed.

I know that getting good quality sleep is not always within your control. My daughter did not sleep through the night until she was six, which means I did not sleep through the night for her first six years (which is why I am able to pinpoint with accuracy exactly how many years it’s been that I’ve been getting good quality sleep). In addition to caring for children or other loved ones, we might have health conditions, work schedules, and other circumstances that make it impossible to get high quality sleep on a regular basis. However, there are quite a few things you can control to help yourself get higher quality sleep.

After getting craptacular sleep for most of my life (the six years that my daughter wasn’t sleeping plus most of the years before that because of stress, depression, difficult work schedules, and frankly, terrible sleep hygiene), waking up feeling well-rested the last few years has been truly profound in improving my quality of life. For example,

  • I can think clearly most of the time.
  • I handle stress better.
  • It is easier to maintain a regular workout schedule.
  • I get more high quality work done on a regular basis without stress.
  • I procrastinate less.

Faculty tell me all the time that they didn’t get enough sleep because they were up late grading papers or doing research or reading or writing. My thought is that whatever it is they were doing was probably not done nearly as well as it would have been if they had gotten good quality sleep and then did that thing.

If you want to start getting higher quality sleep today, here is what I suggest:

  • Use an app or create a spreadsheet to track your bedtime, wake time, and how you feel for a few weeks to figure out how much sleep you actually need. I always thought I needed 8-9 hours a night, but when I tracked it, I found that I actually feel and perform best on 7.5 hours a night. I also learned that going to bed and getting up pretty early (to bed by 9:30 and up by 5) is best for me. (In a perfect world, I would go to bed at 8:30 and get up by 4, but I’ll be damned if I can get to bed by 8:30 most nights).
  • Once you figure out the sleep schedule that works best for you, try to stick to it every day of the week. I usually shift things later by about an hour on weekends, but on the weekends when I stick to my weekday sleep schedule, things go better.
  • Restrict alcohol and electronics in the hour before you go to bed. Metabolizing alcohol can cause you to wake up in the night and the evil glow of electronics can disrupt sleep cycles.
  • If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, take melatonin or get up for a few minutes to read. I find that on the rare occasions that I don’t fall asleep quickly, staying in bed stressing out about not getting enough sleep makes it even harder to fall asleep. The first time I tried this, I was amazed at how well it worked. I thought getting out of bed would “wake me up” more and make it harder to fall asleep, but when I came back to bed 15 minutes later, full of melatonin and having read some poetry, I fell asleep almost immediately.

Finally, it may help to remember that our students practice notoriously horrible sleep hygiene and we do them no favors when we talk about how unrested we are. Instead, we can model good sleep hygiene for them–and maybe even those colleagues who like to brag about how sleep-deprived they are.

The Tie-Breaker: Making Decisions about How to Spend Your Time

rock-scissors-paperIt’s common at a teaching institution to feel pulled in too many different directions by your job. Sometimes this pulling can actually be quantified. When I was hired, for example, I was told that 50% of my time should go to teaching, 30% to scholarship, 20% to service, and the remaining 50% to the Writing Center, which I direct. Do the math and you’ll see why I wondered whether the job was actually going to be any less work than the 6:6 load I had left at a community college. (The answer is no, it’s not less work!)

Other times the pulling comes from an embarrassment of riches, such as the year I was invited to participate on several time-intensive committees for causes I was deeply invested in. I had the option of saying no to any, even all, of the committees, but I truly wanted to participate and felt I had something to contribute to each one. I ended up joining two committees and saying no to one but wishing I could clone myself to serve on the third one, too.

Other times we feel pressure, either internal or external, to do more, whether it’s taking on another class, chairing a committee, mentoring another student, or something else. We can technically say no, but to do so might have consequences we’d rather not deal with (the class gets cancelled and the students are SOL, the committee ends up being chaired by someone disorganized, the student flounders without mentoring and ultimately drops out).

To help me prioritize in the situations in which I do have some degree of say, I have a simple system: I designate a specific area of my job to be the priority each semester. I have four areas of responsibility: teaching, service, scholarship, and the Writing Center. I choose one of those to be the priority area for fall and spring and two to be the priorities for summer. I don’t advertise which one is the priority for the semester, and I don’t use it as a justification to slack in the areas that aren’t priorities. This system simply helps me make decisions when I feel stretched too thin; for example, I want to return papers in tomorrow’s class and I am behind on a draft of an article. If it’s a teaching semester, I’ll prioritize responding to the papers; if it’s a scholarship semester, I’ll prioritize the article draft. This system basically acts as a tie-breaker for me.

It’s easiest to see how this system works by looking at four years’ worth of semesters. First, I make scholarship and the Writing Center my summer priorities, with scholarship getting the first half of the summer and the Writing Center getting the second half.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 scholarship and WC
Year 2 scholarship and WC
Year 3 scholarship and WC
Year 4 scholarship and WC

I make teaching the priority once every academic year, alternating between fall and spring so that the classes I routinely teach during a particular semester don’t get more or less attention than other courses.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 2 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 3 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 4 teaching scholarship and WC

Finally, I fill in the remaining semesters by alternating scholarship and the Writing Center, but balancing them between the semesters.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 teaching scholarship scholarship and WC
Year 2 WC teaching scholarship and WC
Year 3 teaching WC scholarship and WC
Year 4 scholarship teaching scholarship and WC

Earlier in my career, I alternated teaching with service and did a ton of service. More recently, I’ve become aware of how unevenly service is distributed by gender (see this and this) and made a conscious decision to put my time and energy elsewhere, thus the absence of service on the grid. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t do service–it just means I don’t prioritize it.

So over the course of four years, teaching, scholarship, and the Writing Center each are the focus for four semesters.  

time breakdown for a typical week

laptop-coffeeMany discussions about doing research at a teaching institution break down into the kind of bickering and belittling evidenced in the comment thread on this Inside Higher Ed article.

So let me say from the outset, I teach writing and writing center theory and practice at an institution with a 4/4 load. I get a two-course release every semester to direct the Writing Center and I currently also have a one-course release every semester to coordinate a program. So I teach one course a semester and have, at least by my institution’s estimation, the equivalent of a 4/4 load.

(People have told me that the administrative work I get course releases for is “easier” than teaching, but interestingly, none of these people have done administrative work or if they have, they were not, in fact, able to publish more while doing it. I don’t think administrative work is easier than teaching, but it is different from teaching–a lot of it saps my energy much more than anything connected to teaching does.)

I have taught as many as seven courses a semester, back when I was adjuncting at two different community colleges. Seven writing courses/semester left no time for research. But I was teaching six courses/semester for most of the time that I was working on my Ph.D., so I know that for me, six grading-intensive courses/semester + research is possible, but it’s not preferable and I hope to never do it again. My point is not to say what is possible for you or anyone else, but simply to say that what is possible is a function of you, your circumstances in any given semester, what you are teaching, and what else you are juggling.

Here’s how I spend my work time in an average week during the semester:

  • writing center stuff (meetings, mentoring, planning, etc.) – 15-25 hours
  • teaching prep, including grading, and teaching – 8-13 hours
  • my own research and writing – 5-10 hours
  • service (committee meetings, prep, and follow up) – 5-7 hours
  • program coordination – 2-10 hours

There are weeks where my own research and writing get no attention, generally around midterm, when the Writing Center gets crazy, or heavy-grading times. (The times listed are based on what I found when I tracked my time for a few months using toggl.) What you see here is a typical week, but it’s not what every week looks like. 

I once told a brilliant and prolific scholar in my field that I envied how much she managed to publish on a regular basis and I asked her for advice. She said, “I don’t work out, I have no family, no pets, and my work is my life.” She went on to say that she was incredibly happy and loved her life. She didn’t miss workouts or pets or any of that, whereas I would miss them terribly if I didn’t have them. That conversation helped me feel some ownership over my choices–I have chosen to have a family. I have chosen to look only for jobs in Denver. I have chosen to stay at a teaching-focused institution. That doesn’t mean I am always happy with my choices, but in the grand scheme of things, I am.

Reducing time spent on teaching prep

clockfaceReducing the time you spend on teaching prep frees up time to put toward other things, like research or writing or family or whatever. Tonya Boza observes

I have been teaching at the university level for over a decade, and have learned that there is not a direct relationship between the numbers of hours you spend preparing for class and the quality of the class. Instead, after you reach a certain threshold, you receive greatly diminishing returns on your time investment into teaching. In fact, if you spend too much time preparing for class, it may end up not going so well because you have way too much information to share with students, and they (and you) end up feeling overwhelmed.

She then goes on to offer several “tips” for spending less time on teaching prep, my favorite of which is to lecture less. This tip in particular illustrates one of the most important benefits of spending less time on teaching prep: it often results in better teaching. Students generally learn more when they are interacting with the material, actively engaging with it, rather than sitting passively, listening to a lecture. Maryellen Weimer reviews some of the evidence that engaging students in activities is more effective as a teaching strategy than lecturing.

Recently, I participated in a webinar on reducing teaching prep time by Chavella Pittman. Pittman advocates that faculty schedule their teaching prep for 1-2 hours immediately before class; this is a surefire way to make sure you don’t spend too much time prepping. I usually schedule my office hours immediately before class, so I do most of my prep in the hour or so before my office hours start. I’ve also found that during class, while students are involved in group work, I can usually start sketching out the next class meeting.

One strategy I used to use quite a bit but don’t much anymore is having students, either individually or in pairs, facilitate discussions of readings. On paper, this looks like a great strategy and I have many colleagues who rely on the strategy and report good results. I have no doubt that it works really well for some faculty, but in my experience, the only way to ensure that the student-led discussions really get into the meat of a complex reading is to meet ahead of time with the student discussion leaders and spend as much or more time prepping them to lead the discussion. When I haven’t done this, the student-led discussion often turns into a lecture, and as I already said, lecture isn’t the greatest way for students to learn–whether it’s students doing the lecture or the instructor doing it. (I’m talking about undergraduate students–graduate students, particularly those with some teaching experience themselves, can probably handle discussion facilitation.)

This fall, I am going to try something new for me to start discussions. About ten minutes before class, I am going to hang several pieces of flipchart paper around the room, each with a different question about the reading, such as “which aspect of the argument did you find most challenging?” and “if the author could be here with us today, what would you ask her?” As students arrive, I’ll give them big post it notes to write their responses on and then stick on the appropriate flipchart page. I can then use the responses myself to facilitate discussion or divide the class into groups and have each group facilitate a discussion around the responses on one of the flipchart pages.

Here is the teaching prep routine I am going to work with this fall for each class meeting:

  1. Identify 2-3 learning goals for the class session.
  2. Review the assigned reading with those learning goals in mind, which will help me focus on what is important to “cover” about the readings.
  3. Come up with questions about the readings that support those learning goals to go on the flipchart paper.
  4. Figure out which content I need to lecture on. Check to see if there are any good videos, TED Talks, or visuals on the interwebs to integrate.
  5. Decide what kind of activity will be the main activity of the class meeting (I don’t want every class to feature the same activity), such as small group discussion, large group discussion, think-pair-share, freewrite and then share, roleplay, debate.


revisionspiral reboot!

balancing-stonesThis blog, the third iteration of revisionspiral, is devoted to “balancing” the demands and whims of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution. I used the scare quotes around “balancing,” but I might as well have also used them around a few other words in that sentence . . . it’s complicated! Let me explain.

Balancing. Some people think “balance” means giving equal attention to multiple things, while others conflate it with the concept of “everything in moderation.” My take is that things are in balance when you’re not collapsing from too much or not enough of anything (too many meetings or not enough sleep, for example), and the things you value–work, family, community-engagement, whatever–are all getting enough of your attention that you are not plagued by feelings of guilt.

Demands. This can be a tricky term with faculty, who I think, often confuse what they wish they could do or what their colleagues are doing with demands of their jobs. For example, I may have an over-achieving colleague who publishes three articles a year or a chair who is leaning on me to join a work-intensive committee, and I may feel a lot of pressure to publish more to keep up with the over-achieving colleague or to join the committee to placate my pushy chair, but the fact is, in this example, neither publishing more nor joining another committee are true demands of my position. I think one of the keys to “balance” is recognizing when something is really a demand of our job and when it is something else.

Professor. Adjunct instructor, lecturer, professor . . . there are lots of terms. Do you profess? In front of others who have paid for the privilege? Does an institution of higher learning issue you a paycheck for this activity? If you answered yes to these three question, you are who I’m talking about.

Teaching-focused institution. It seems like all institution presents itself to potential students as teaching-focused, but I’m talking about the institutions in which faculty are expected to put more energy into teaching than into research. The more might mean a tiny bit more or it might mean that the expectation is that all your energy goes to teaching.

Here are some of the topics I anticipate covering here:  

  • Making and defending time to research and write
  • Finding ways to integrate your teaching and research
  • Keeping email, meetings, and other tedium to a minimum so you can focus on more meaningful things
  • Noticing the differences between Demands and demands (capital D versus little d) so you can make deliberate decisions about how to focus your attention
  • Resisting the culture of academic elitism that often makes those of us at teaching-focused institutions feel defensive about what we do
  • Teaching strategies that promote social justice