Elizabeth Wells has a tidy office, is on time for every appointment, and never pulls an all-nighter. She has had a successful academic career, winning teaching awards and having served as dean of a faculty of arts. And somehow, throughout all of this, she sleeps nine hours each night. Is she the perfect academic? No, she said. But she is organized.
After taking an administrative leave nearly two years ago, Dr. Wells decided to channel her passion for organization into a new book that she hopes will help other academics relieve some of the stress from the often-chaotic lifestyle that can come with a career in academia. Her labour of love, The Organized Academic: How to Transform Your Academic Life, is a trove of day-to-day techniques that can improve the personal and professional lives of those working in higher education. Below are three tips that she offers that could help academics regain control in their lives.
1. Write a mission statement
“Why am I here? Why am I doing this difficult job in the first place?” are questions that academics may ask themselves, especially when a bad day becomes worse. Answering these questions through a mission statement, said Dr. Wells, can help form the foundation for a more organized, effective and fulfilling career. She recommends setting aside time to reflect on your core values and what you want to achieve, and then condensing that into a few simply written sentences.
“It’s something that we don’t think about much as academics – we are given a job, we know what the job is, but what exactly is your scholarly mission? What do you want people to say at your retirement party about you?” said Dr. Wells. You can use the statement to assess how you are prioritizing your activities and the amount of energy you spend on them. “You have to be focused on what is really important to you and what you are enthusiastic about,” she said.
Another important benefit of a mission statement is that it can act as a motivator when you are feeling overwhelmed. Dr. Wells shared that she has one mission statement for each of the three pillars of her academic life – research, teaching, and service – but said that having one overarching statement works well too.
2. Embrace a long syllabus
When asked what is the one piece of advice that she would give to academics trying to free up time, Dr. Wells said, “a 20-page syllabus.” Yes, you read that correctly. Dr. Wells argues that a 20-page syllabus that details every element of a course will save hours of time and frustration during the term.
“If you don’t explain to students what’s going on in intricate detail one time – even though it took you lots of hours to do it – do you really have time to do it every single day after that?” she said. In some of her classes, not a single student has written her asking for clarification on the course content or assignments, she said, which is proof the technique can work.
3. Work in 25-minute intervals
Among Dr. Wells’s tips and tricks is one that might sound familiar: the Pomodoro technique. Theorized by Italian then-university student Francesco Cirillo in the late-1980s, the time-management method uses a kitchen timer to break work into 25-minute intervals separated by short five-minute breaks. Each interval is known as a “pomodoro.” Once you have completed three pomodoros, you do a final fourth one before taking a long break of about 20 or 30 minutes. Then you start over again. (If you complete less than three pomodoros before your task is interrupted, you have to start at the beginning.)
Dr. Wells said academics worldwide have taken to the method. “I know a lot of academics are using this technique because what we do is very intense and we have to be very focused,” she said. She has found that by working in 25-minute intervals with a short break, she is able to return to the top of the clock with the same energy as when she began her task.
The Organized Academic: How to Transform Your Academic Life will be published this November by Rowman & Littlefield.
What discipline does Dr. Wells teach? It does make a difference. I teach courses in Cultural Studies and in Religious Studies. While some subject areas allow for a commercial farming method: “plowing of a designated section of land, then seeding, then growing and tending, then harvesting”, others do not. Genuine moral (philosophical and personal) insight is more like a night-blooming cereus. If the bloom comes, and you are there to witness it, it is pretty miraculous, but it is not quantifiable in the way Dr. Wells’ method suggests. Neither have I found that significant insights can be scheduled, or simply willed to emerge through a disciplined regime.
Of course, the scut work of academic life can be managed more efficiently than many of us do – but the Big Thinking works on its own timetable, if we are lucky enough to have it visit us at all.
I teach in musicology and music history at Mount Allison University. Although I agree with you about the serendipity of inspiration there is value in simply “showing up” as Woody Allen puts it. Sometimes just carving out the right time to write and think can help with our often over-booked and over-connected lifestyles.
Actually, according to The Clockwork Muse (https://www.amazon.com/Clockwork-Muse-Practical-Writing-Dissertations/dp/0674135865/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3RUZ3JLZY03WY&keywords=the+clockwork+muse&qid=1666212146&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIwLjYxIiwicXNhIjoiMC4zOCIsInFzcCI6IjAuMzcifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=the+clockwork+muse%2Caps%2C93&sr=8-1) reports that many great writers establish schedules for their work, and that indeed organizing the day into discrete, planned chunks is better than waiting for inspiration to strike. Paul Silva’s How to Write a Lot (https://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Lot-Practical-Productive-ebook/dp/B07HNMJV57/ref=sr_1_1?crid=CO8AJ0X9QBME&keywords=how+to+write+a+lot&qid=1666212214&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIxLjkyIiwicXNhIjoiMS40NyIsInFzcCI6IjEuNjEifQ%3D%3D&sprefix=how+to+write+a+lot%2Caps%2C89&sr=8-1) advises the same. And of course, one of my mentors advised me to think of a long writing project as “one page at a time”—chunking out work, in other words, promotes steady progress and helps to reduce burnout.