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.