5 Effective time-management strategies for busy professors

Being a full-time professor at a university can be stressful, but it needn’t be.

After all, you are theoretically doing something you love: being paid to think about and explore ideas that excite you. All while having cocktails with smart, interesting colleagues, and taking time off in the summer to really focus on a specific project.

Yes, you will work hard, Routines will be developed, but also habits and patterns that unnecessarily cost you a lot of time. And then there’s the pressure to publish. Regularly and according to the laws and tides of the community. The concomitant feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to anxiety and burnout.

So it’s worth taking a look at your time management every now and then and questioning your daily routines. A mix of traditional and modern time-management approaches can help to get you back on track.


Where does a full-time professor’s time go?

From the outside, the lifestyle of a full-time professor looks easy: teach a couple of classes, meet a grad student for coffee, do some research, gather with colleagues, attend a conference or two in an exotic location, enjoy long holidays and a sabbatical every few years.

In reality, most full-time mid-career professors are working 60-80 hours a week. If you are teaching two courses, that’s typically about 6 hours of class time. Class preparation alone can take 10 hours for a lecture at first; at best, 3-4 hours once you’ve taught it a few times. Then there are hours and hours spent on exam composition and grading.

When it comes to mentoring, rewarding as it is, those sessions of working with grad students or junior colleagues also take up time and energy. Departmental meetings and office hours are a necessity, too, but those sessions can be a time-killer, especially when they run longer than anticipated or get cancelled at the last minute.

Now, we are just coming to your own research and writing commitments. To advance along the tenure track, you will need to publish. Setting aside time in the lab or writing grant applications, submitting papers to conferences, convening panels and dealing with revisions to articles for journal publication are all extremely demanding tasks.

Of course, you also have to maintain a healthy work-life balance for general wellbeing. For some of us that means deliberately allocating time for exercise, family or socialising. Finding ways to get the best of both worlds can be challenging.


Top tips and handy apps for better time management

The first step to better time management is to understand the full range of obligations you have and to categorise them according to importance. Then, to plan. And finally, to execute.


  1. Plan ahead – Use helpers that fit

A daily, weekly and/or monthly plan is helpful to start prioritising tasks. In the old days, many of us used thick, leather-bound day-planners we took everywhere and huge monthly calendars we kept on our desks.

Nowadays, we use our smartphones and digital calendars. But it requires a keen eye and constant maintenance.

There is something appealing about a visual planner compared to a digital planner. And some new apps combine both, along with checklists and satisfying ways of ticking off tasks.

  • Toggle, for example, is an app that allows you to set up new tasks with key details, such as deadlines, daily estimated time, notes and a checklist for each step. Then you mark off each step with a satisfying click.
  • Evernote has been around for a while and we love its wise old elephant icon. It’s an organisational tool typically used for cloud-based media-file storage, but it also has some note-taking capabilities that academics have found useful.
  1. Check your list

For a daily checklist app, Todoist is one of the most intuitive tools out there. It can help you clear up mental space by getting all those tasks out of your head and onto your to-do list, no matter where you are. Setting up reminders along with deadlines and assignments, as well as assigning priority levels, is quick and easy. Best of all, it allows you to share responsibilities, whether you are planning a conference panel or making a grocery list for the family weekend away.

  1. Track your tasks

There are a number of strategies to use here, but one of the simplest is to limit yourself to a “rule of threes”. Before you start your day, list the three things you absolutely must get done, the three things you ought to get done, and three things you’d like to do. You can run a similar list for larger tasks over a week or a month.

To manage this approach, a task-planning app can be useful if you have many projects running simultaneously or if you want to break bigger projects down into smaller chunks to make them feel less overwhelming. The Asana app is quite popular, but there are many other alternatives, such as Monday.com and Remember the milk.

  1. Deal with distractions

In order to stick with your tasks, you have to limit your distractions. In the course of a day, you are faced with multiple interruptions that can throw your plans off course: emails, pop ins, urgent requests from students, colleagues or the department.

There are a number of tools that can help. For email organising, you can download an AI assistant, like Folio. This app plugs directly into your work email inbox and automatically organises your email, giving you contextual access to all the information you need to increase your productivity in minutes.

If you find you are easily distracted by other online temptations, you can get a website blocker. There are a few free browser extensions, depending on your platform that act as your super-ego, preventing access to sites you’ve chosen to block. You can also try FocusMe, for example, a fully customisable tool that “walls off” online temptation to instantly increase personal efficiency and gain extra hours in the day.

A favourite among students, and perfectly appropriate for professors, too, is the Forest app, a gamified Pomodoro time tracker and app blocker in one. With this app, you block off sections of time to work, followed by short intervals of bounded breaks. The part that works? When you start Forest’s timer, a tree starts growing. If you switch to a different app before the timer is up, the tree dies. Each successful focus block adds a tree to your virtual forest and gives you some gold coins that you can trade in for new varieties of trees and power-ups. This is the part that is gamified. But, if you trade in enough gold coins, the company plants real trees for you!

  1. Don’t break appointments with yourself

Lastly, if you have allocated time for activities – whether it’s a regular session of writing, spending time offline with your family in the evening, or going for a walk in the woods – try not to break these commitments. Your time is scarce. In a quiet moment of planning (see #1 above), you carefully set this time aside. Breaking that promise to yourself, even if something else seems urgent at the moment, will backfire.


Wrapping up

Before you start downloading and installing a  plethora of apps, consider this from Harvard Business Review: “These tools presume a person’s underlying skill set, but the skills comprising time management precede the effectiveness of any tool or app.” This means that without developing a set of skills for decision making which enable you to analyse, anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances, none of these gizmos will make much of a difference. Step one, therefore, according to the study reported in this article, is to build accurate self-awareness of your time management skills.


© Unsplash 2021 / image: Robert Bye