For many academics and academic administrators in higher ed, the academic year and the fiscal year is wrapping up. So I thought this would be a good time to look ahead. If you will be in a leadership role this fall – regardless of your job title – maybe you’re a department chair or pogram director, maybe you’re a dean, or maybe you’re running a committee or a task force – well, this episode is for you.
Let me start by telling you about what happened to me earlier this year when I didn’t plan ahead. Everything that happened to me, and the many I’ve tried to get out of the situation I found myself in, are the reason for today’s episode.
This past January I intended to take an additional week off of work, after the typical week our campus is closed for the Christmas and New Year Holidays. I had scheduled it on my calendar and everyone I work with knew I would be out. This week was important to me partly because I had work I had to finish by the end of the calendar year and I knew I wouldn’t take much time off over the campus break, and I really, really, really needed some time away.
But then January 2nd rolled around and I looked at my deadlines and the work in front of me and felt like there was no way I could take the week off. So … I didn’t.
Not getting that week of vacation was made even worse by the state of my calendar. For most of January and February, and even into March, I was not just busy. I was double-booked nearly every day. Many, many days I was triple-booked. And a few days I was – I’m not lying – quadruple-booked. I know exactly how this happened – after all, I manage my own calendar. But I couldn’t believe I had let this happen.
So I spent January untangling my calendar and pushing meetings out further and further so that I could actually meet with folks and have the conversations they wanted to have. Some people had to wait until April, and even May. It was tough on all of us. A fair number of people were really frustrated with me, and a few were downright peeved.
I have sworn to never let that happen again.
I never used to have this kind of calendar problems. It all started with the pandemic, and with this new behavior many of us have of needing to demonstrate that we are “on” while we’re working. I don’t really think people need to talk with more now than they did pre-pandemic. Sure, there were some points when that was true, as we were working on big, time-sensitive projects. But in general, it looks to me like in March 2020 we changed our behavior to constantly Zooming, and in general we have let that behavior become the new norm. Even now that we’re back on campus and meeting in person, I find that there’s still a tendency to book back-to-back-to-back meetings.
I don’t know about you, but for my sanity – not to mention my ability to actually do my job – I need that to stop. Let me repeat that last part: if I am going to actually do my job, I have to change my approach to my time and my calendar.
January of this year was the start of a big experiment for me, where I said “no” or “not now” to lots of people, over and over again. None of us liked it and yet we all lived through it. As the experiment has worn on, I’ve learned a few new things that I want to share with you today.
Here’s why they matter:
If you are going to be in leadership role this fall, you can start changing things NOW that will make it easier for you to actually lead when the new semester starts. My recommendations for you are a combination of behaviors, strategies, and mindset. Set those into motion now so that you are solid with them when August and September roll around. Set them into motion now so that when your campus pace picks back up and people start requesting your time, you are practiced at your new methods and at least some of the folks around you – those you’re working with over the summer – have already shifted their expectations. Start now so that when August comes around you’re not running to catch up. Learn from my experience in January and get ahead of this damn thing.
Here we go: Four things to stop doing, and four awesome things to do instead.
We’ve all heard this phrase a million times: protect your time. Block things off on your calendar, schedule in your lunch breaks and your exercise routines, etc. All in the name of protecting your time.
I say, stop it. Stop it now.
Protecting your time is playing defense.
If you are protecting your time, you’re working from the mindset that your time is under attack.
Your time is not under attack. Noone is attacking your time. When other people want to spend time with you, don’t default into defense.
Shift to offense.
Your time is YOURS to use in the most powerful ways. Say it with me: My time is MINE. My time is my power.
I first heard about this idea from Amy Porterfield, who heard it from Michael Hyatt, who it turns out heard it from someone else. Amy produced a podcast episode all about how to create the ideal week, and Michael Hyatt has created a planner system around the concept. I’ll link to both of those in the show notes in case you want to learn more.
But the short version of creating an ideal week is this:
Step away from your calendar, and to your sketchpad or notebook or tablet – somewhere where you can draw. Draw out – as a chart, a table, a mind map, whatever works for you – clusters of time where you dedicate yourself to something important. Be specific about this. Think about what you’re going to accomplish this fall – what deadlines you need to meet, what projects you need to complete, etc. Sketch out chunks of work that help you achieve those accomplishments. So maybe you have a chunk for the manuscript you’re editing, maybe you have a chunk for teaching, maybe you have a chunk for preparing your students for the first research conference you’re taking them to. Whatever is important to you to get done, add it to your cluster.
Then think about how you would ideally spend a week when you accomplished those things. Would you do all your writing and proofreading on one day – or would you spend an hour every morning on it? Do you teach every afternoon, or perhaps only on Tuesdays and Thursdays? When are you available for your family responsibilities? What about exercise? What about social time with friends?
Stay away from your actual calendar for now, and think about how these things would all be spread out during a week. What clusters of time emerge? How do you make the best use of your energies?
Amy suggests you have “theme” days – one day where you take meetings, one day where you create, etc. I love this idea of themes and I’m going to suggest for a lot of folks in higher ed that those themes might sometimes be smaller segments than a full day. So, for example, maybe you teach Tuesday and Thursday. Could you also schedule all your prep and feedback on those days? If so, then you could call Tuesday and Thursday your teaching days and literally not do any direct teaching work on the other days. Can you also create a theme day for all your committee work and administrative tasks? And then you might ask yourself whether, for that piece of scholarship you’re working on, you want to work on it every day or whether you want to dedicate a whole day to it. Obviously different structures work for different folks. But you get the idea.
Once you’ve got your themes conceptualized, then you can go to your calendar for the fall and organize it accordingly. Block off your themes – maybe even name the days in your calendar – and start organizing your work accordingly. And let folks know what you’re doing. Maybe not all the details, but let’s say you’ve decided that you’re only going to accept ad-hoc meetings on Thursday and Friday afternoons – commit to that personally, and then when folks want to schedule meetings with you, offer up times only in those clusters.
I have started doing this myself and I’ll be honest, I get some push-back. Obviously things will come up that will require your flexibility. That’s fine! But remember: it’s YOUR ideal week. It won’t be ideal if you constantly let others reshape and reorganize it for you.
Creating your ideal week is a macro-level task, while controlling your pace is a micro-level task. Even if you create your ideal week, if you are open to letting others control your time within those themes, or clusters, or whatever you’ve created, you will get run ragged. And then your ideal week will melt into nothingness.
I love white space. I love it in books and manuscripts, I love it on screens, I love it in design. White space gives your mind, and your eye, a chance to rest. It creates calm and helps make you more receptive to what you are taking in. White space in your calendar is a life-saver.
Creating white space in your calendar has two parts.
First, go open your work calendar. Right now while you’re listening, if you can. If possible,
pause what you’re doing and go open your calendar app. If you haven’t created your ideal week yet, that’s OK. Once you’ve done that, you can update what you’re about to do now.
Right now I want you to block out the events you know are scheduled for you during the entire fall semester.
The events you’re attending for your kids or family members. Plays, sports games, debate tournaments. After-school pick up. Morning drop-offs. Dentist appointments. Wellness checks. Vet appointments. Your birthday. The morning after your birthday. Hair cuts.
Every single thing that is on your personal calendar needs to have time blocked off on your calendar.
This will give you a holistic view of everything that is scheduled in your life this fall. Put it on the same calendar where you track your work responsibilities. If other people have access to your calendar, feel free to rename activities for privacy.
What you’ve just done is create the breathing room you need to integrate your personal and professional lives.
You’ve just created some white space.
But you’re not done.
First, let me just state the obvious – what I just recommended to you might run smack up against your “ideal week.” That’s OK. When you have time, sit back down with your notebook and work on integrating the two. If, for example, your ideal week has one day when you take care of all appointments (for your care, your hair, the vet, doctor visits, etc.), then work on rescheduling those that don’t fit your ideal week. Think #ProgressOverPerfection.
Second, I want you to do one more particular thing in your calendar. Stay in the app and think in 15 minute increments.
Look at everything that’s scheduled, and ask yourself whether would benefit from having 15 minutes before, and/or after, the event.
Will you need to decompress? Wrap up notes? File documents? Take a bio break? If you’re coming in from someplace else, might you need time to build in for traffic delays? Build yourself buffers, now. Schedule 15 minutes of space for yourself everywhere you need it.
This might be scary. Your calendar will suddenly be even less open, and it will be tempting to give this time to folks when they ask for it. But don’t. This white space in your calendar? It will give your brain and your heart the bits of time you need to process everything going on in your day. It will save your sanity.
You probably feel like you need to say yes to whatever you need to say yes to.
This might especially be true if you’re stepping into a new leadership role you’re excited about, and you’re not 100% clear on what’s expected of you but you want to make sure not to let anybody down.
Let me share a story of something that happened to me and a colleague this year. We both have the same boss, and our boss asked each of us, in separate conversations, to take on an assignment as co-leaders. Each of us, in our individual conversations, said a version of “I understand why I’m the right person to do this, but I honestly don’t have the time.” We were both given the assignment, and we both did our best. In this case, doing our best meant I did virtually nothing, and my colleague was left hanging. I felt terrible while it was happening, and I apologized to my colleague for my inability to contribute, and he felt terrible too. But the truth is I had bigger projects with higher stakes and more urgent deadlines. I simply could not do them all. Something had to give.
Now, aside from me letting my colleague down and leaving him to do the work on his own, this sort of thing happens a lot in higher ed: we are asked to take on more, and we feel we don’t have any choice, and so we do. And something suffers. Something is done less well, or not at all. For me at least that got way worse during the pandemic, in part because of personnel turnover, in part because of staff shortages, and in part because people got used to me taking on work that required me to work 12 or even 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
Everybody around me is going to keep letting me work at that pace. And everybody around me is going to keep asking me to take on work that requires that I maintain that pace.
I have to be the one to stop.
“Swapping” does not involve saying “no.”
Yes, I’m super excited by that project and would love to take it on! Here are the two big initiatives I’m responsible for that are taking up most of my time. Which one would you prefer I reassign?
Or, Yes, I’d love to be part of that project. Let me take a few days to map out how much time it will take from me, and then I’d love to sit down together and decide what can come off my plate in order to free up the time I’ll need.
Or, “That idea sounds fantastic! How about if I complete that project next semester in exchange for a teaching reassignment?”
You get the idea.
So obviously this is a strategy to use in the moment of conversation. But I want you to prepare for it before next semester gets here.
Once you have sketched out your ideal week, and created white space your calendar, you will have a both a high-level and a detailed look at what you’ll be doing this fall and you’ll know what is taking your attention and when. You’ll know what gives you joy and what you’d prefer to let go of. You’ll know whether projects are ending mid-semester, or after the first week, or not until December. With all that understanding of how you are prioritizing your time, it will be so much easier for you to help people help you with swapping and reassigning tasks. But learn from me and when I have failed in the past: you won’t be able to prioritize what matters if you don’t have a reliable understanding of how you’re already planning to spend your time.
One last tip to help you prepare for the fall.
Here’s what I mean by that. Nearly every university I’ve worked at has had a scarcity mindset, where people start with the assumption that there isn’t enough money to pay for the things they want. I would be surprised if anybody listening feels they have unlimited resources at work, but hey, if you do, that is awesome! For the rest of us, we typically operate within parameters that mean we actually can’t spend money every single time we want to.
A scarcity mindset is damaging in a lot of ways. It typically flattens morale, and it sort of gets in the water, so that people believe they’re working somewhere where belts are tighter than they might actually be. Even worse, it’s a mindset that spreads to all things. A scarcity mindset encourages you to think you have to protect your time. A scarcity mindset prevents you from working out, or meditating, or even relaxing, in the morning because you think you don’t have the time. A scarcity mindset encourages you to save up your PTO. A scarcity mindset gets in the way of using the resources you have at your disposal.
Most colleges and universities in the US wrap up their fiscal years in June or July. This means we’re about to head into a season where our budgets are full. Even if your budget is small, at the beginning of the year it will be unspent.
I want you to look at a few things side by side.
First, look at your semester calendar – the one where you listed all your responsibilities, projects, activities, and deadlines.
Look also at your ideal week – so you can see how you are choosing to prioritize your time.
Look at your budget if you have one. See how much money is set aside for hospitality. How much for conferences and travel. Is there money for a student worker? Look at all the cash, even if it seems like a small amount, that is available to you during the semester or year.
Lastly, look at your paystub – particularly your bank of paid time off, whether it is vacation pay, sick time, or even personal days.
Now treat it all like a big puzzle. What resources are in your budget that will help with your calendar? Can you hire a student worker to do some of the work that is otherwise on your calendar? Can you purchase software or a subscription that will simplify a process or protocol and therefore free up time? If you supervise a group of people, how big is your conference budget? Can you ask your team to plan ahead which annual conferences they want to attend and figure out how best to use those funds? (While you’re at it, check to make sure you added your own conference days, plus recovery time from travel, to your own schedule!) And my favorite, which is a tip I learned from the good folks over at You Need a Budget: budget for your paid time off. It is literally money in your pocket. Plan to use up your vacation days. Schedule your vacation time into your calendar now, before the fall semester starts. Plan to use sick time for time away for dr’s visits. Or, if your boss is open to it, use “sick” time for “wellness days,” where you take a day off that replenishes your body and spirit and helps you stay healthy.
Gather all the resources you have at your disposal and make a plan to use them in ways that lift your spirits, help you maintain your ideal week, and support your priorities.
So there you have it: four tips to plan for the fall semester.
I will tell you honestly that I’ve been working on each of these since January. And here it is, nearly July, and I’m still learning and refining my practice as I go. But my fall is looking infinitely better than last Spring. I want that same joy and purpose for you.
Happy planning! I’m here rooting you on and wishing you a glorious, light-filled, and prosperous fall semester. 🧡🔥🧡
See you next week, same time same place, for the next episode of The Uplift: the podcast celebrating women leaders – at all levels – in higher ed.
ps: I’d love to hear from you if you try any of these strategies out! Drop a comment below, or stop by The Clareo Group at Facebook or LinkedIn and let me know how things went for you.
pps: If you’d like to learn more about the Ideal Week, here are my go-to resources:
Amy Porterfield’s Podcast, “Online Marketing Made Easy,” episode #433: How To Create An Ideal Week for Optimal Focus, Productivity, & Well-Being.
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