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Effective, Successful, Happy Academic

Why academics never have enough time… and what to do about it

The time-work conundrum means you’ll never feel in control of your work or time but that’s okay – it’s what you do that matters most.

BY BAILEY SOUSA & ALEXANDER CLARK | NOV 08 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that academics never have enough time. Whether there’s pressing research to be done, necessary teaching and marking to fit in, or more emails and more meetings – academic work pressures are constant.

The resultant perceived time scarcity leads to much malaise – from acute work claustrophobia to chronic burnout and family breakup. It contributes to vast swathes of friction between colleagues, low resilience and poor mental wellbeing.

The academic time-work conundrum

These challenges result from the academic time-work conundrum: the enduring co-existence of time shortage with academic work excess. Common remedies focus on both sides: wishing for or “making” more time, or wishing for less work or avoiding new work.

On the time side, we lament at length about “not having enough time” or “needing more time” – often addressing time scarcity by shifting hours to work from non-work time. We thus spend less time on sleep, exercise, socializing, or with loved ones. Or, we find ways to “make” more time, the illusion produced by striving to be ever more productive in the moment – maximizing our time to the extreme. If only we ever had enough time…

On the work side, we dream that one day soon the work expectations on us will relent or we will gain solace by focusing on the redemptive power of a distant sabbatical or vacation, to finally catch up. Internal or external expectations can be cast as unrealistic or unreasonable. Focusing on getting the next task done as quickly and efficiently as possible, we can’t remove our focus from the urgent, to manage work better upstream. If only work was different…

Yet, the nature of time and academic work creates a unique imbalance between possible time and possible work, which renders these “solutions” futile.

The nature of academic work

For many years, we have written about the necessity of handling academic work as extreme knowledge work – with a notoriously weak relationship between efforts and outputs,  exemplified in rejected grants, and failed attempts to increase student satisfaction or participant recruitment. Weeks or months of effort can be invested with no demonstrable return. While academic work demands high creativity and affords high autonomy, at every moment, we face almost limitless choices of what we could do.

The nature of time

Amidst this unlimited choice of work, every single act of academic work we then do consumes time irrevocably. While we can wish for more time, our time is totally fixed: unique in being maddeningly democratic and indifferent. Irrespective of our age, sex, gender, or seniority, career stage, celebrity, or qualifications: we each get 1,440 minutes each day. No matter how quiet your day may be today or how much work needs to be done tomorrow – that’s all we ever get. The clock resets at midnight to 1,440 minutes.

How then can we best address the academic time-work conundrum?

1. Recognize you will never have enough time for your work

Faced with doing academic work that is almost infinite in its nature during time, the most finite of conceivable resources – inevitably we feel squeezed. One of the most liberating realizations is to recognize: “There will never be enough time for my work, and that’s OK.” Take a deep breath, stop wishing for more time, and let go.

2. Be clear on what success looks like

Focus on what matters most in your work – this requires razor-sharp awareness of what success is for you as an academic. Instead, view work not as mere tasks, but as an expression of your deeper scholarly self: your vision and your values. With this personal crystallization of success, you build a foundation to make choices.

3. Prioritize to make better choices

Given time just cannot be managed, replace energy and efforts to manage your time with priority management. What is the most important thing you should do first in your day? Are you allocating your most crucial work with adequate time in your schedule? Make deliberate choices about spending time on your priorities.

4. Disarm time-thieves

Get serious about taming time thieves. Emails and meetings are two massive time-thief culprits for academics. Every email you write and meeting you attend consumes time you never get back. Poor practices in managing emails and meetings actually harm your most important work. Paradoxically, academics who do the most preemptively to tame and contain necessary daily work are able to devote more time to priorities like research and teaching.

Academic working cultures are beset with injustices and inequalities. The academic time-work conundrum warrants that even taking these steps won’t repel time scarcity. Realizing the scholarly vision and values in your academic work in your 1,440 minutes is not going to happen by magic or easily – it is a daily practice. Expectations are inevitable and pressures will be never-ending, but your learning and progress toward doing the right academic work can be never-ending too.

ABOUT BAILEY SOUSA & ALEXANDER CLARK
Bailey Sousa & Alexander Clark
Bailey is on secondment to the ministry of advanced education for the government of Alberta, from the University of Alberta. Alex is the dean of health disciplines at Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. KAGALIL / November 10, 2021 at 14:10

    Disarm time-thieves
    dear authors;
    Disarm time-thieves is easy said than done.
    you cant ignore emails from colleagues about course meetings and grad student supervision and many many important meetings
    2- you can’t ignore emails from students who email to ask a question about the lecture or the lab and if you ignore it more than once your evaluation and reputation will suffer,I saw it with my eye a student told me she punished the professor in her evaluation because he did not want to answer the question of last weeks lecture.
    3- meetings we all hate them but if you don’t attend you will never be on any committee and the chairman and the dean are the first to say “your service performance is lacking’ and you will get a lower value when assessing you for annual performance evaluation
    finally, I have seen it chairmen and chairwomen and deans looking for anything to reduce your annual performance evaluation mark so that their so-called buddies get the higher evaluation and which translates more money than you(remember the pot of money given to each chairman for evaluation of performance is like a pie some will get bigger pieces and some won’t get any)
    It is a vicious circle and if you happen to be a minority God help you!
    Kgalil