Data Collection, Experimentation, + Scheduling Blocks... Oh My!

This guy’s got “all the time in the world and no time at all”

This guy’s got “all the time in the world and no time at all”

A few weeks ago I opened up a work email from the Textbook and Academic Authoring Association (TAA) prompting me to sign up for a webinar titled “Creative Scheduling For Those Who Have ‘All of the Time in the World’ and ‘No Time At All.’” I was intrigued by the title and even more surprised when I opened up the email and saw that the presenter was Dr. Katy Peplin of ThrivePhD, who I follow on instagram! Since I’m still quite new to the academic blogging scene, I haven’t had many instances of overlap between my blogging life and my professional life (granted, my blog is all about my professional life, so they are bound to collide at some point!). After seeing the intriguing title and Katy’s name, I checked my calendar, saw that I was free during the webinar and signed up for it through TAA. [Side note: You should check to see if your university sponsors free memberships to TAA for faculty/staff. I was able to sign up for free through my university, which means I can sign up for all their webinars for free!]. If you’re in academia and you haven’t checked out Katy’s work, go do it now! She has an amazing amount of resources on her blog (for free!), 30 minute coaching sessions (also free!), as well as reasonably priced courses, and more in-depth individual and group coaching/support. Her advice is incredibly practical and easy to implement. She also has real life examples of experiences in academia (like this one about being a parent in grad school!).

Anyway, back to the point of this post! Katy’s webinar got me thinking about the strategies that have served me well, both in grad school and as an assistant professor. Sure, my planning process has looked different over the years, but there are a few things that continue to remain a consistent part of being able to manage (sometimes not so gracefully) a seemingly impossible number of things on my plate. Today I’m writing about a few of the strategies Katy mentioned in her talk that I’ve consistently used over time.

Data Collection

I think it's safe to say that if you have a PhD, you probably love data in some way, shape, or form. Yours truly is no exception. I love to track things and find patterns in how I spend my time. I think part of my success in (sort of) managing the 5 million and 1 things on my to do list can be attributed to gathering lots of data (e.g., tracking time in my calendar, tracking habits like meditating or working out, reflecting on when I’m at my best and when I’m not). If you’re struggling with your schedule, start by collecting data on how you actually spend your time. Oftentimes it’s hard to identify patterns and problem areas without gathering some type of data about where your time goes. While I’m a big fan of tracking everything you do (not all the time though!), you don’t have to start so big. You can focus in on one aspect of your life (e.g., TV time) and just track that aspect. Some apps, like Instagram, will even tell you how much time you spend on them during the day (e.g., my daily average time on instagram is 38 minutes), so you don’t even need to do anything extra to gather data.

Experimentation

Not only is it important to collect data about how you’re spending your time, it’s also important to experiment with your schedule (and collect data as a part of that process too). My planning/scheduling process has never been static, it’s always shifting to better meet my needs at each point in time. How I plan my time now is not how I planned/scheduled my time during grad school and not how I planned and scheduled my time when I started this blog and wrote about my current process (which reminds me that I need to write an update!). You won’t know if something works for you until you experiment with it! What works for you now won’t work for you in a month (or maybe even tomorrow), so it’s a continual process of adjusting and re-adjusting. If you’re wondering how a 20 minute afternoon power nap will impact your daily life, try it out! Yes it takes time, but so does everything else... you’ll never know until you try!

Scheduling blocks

In addition to collecting data and experimenting, Katy talked about using scheduling blocks, which have been an integral part of my planning/scheduling process for a long, long, long time. I’m a huge proponent of blocking out everything on my calendar (even if it’s not a meeting or event). Having time blocked out for things like my morning routine or my commute or sleep has helped me slowly but surely be more realistic about my time. One type of scheduling block that Katy mentioned and that I really benefit from is a transition or buffer block. These blocks pad one or both sides of a calendar block and give your brain time to reset before moving on to the next thing. Buffer blocks are particularly helpful when you’re doing anything that might be mentally and/or emotionally draining. Another type of block that I don’t use but am very intrigued by is a firefighting block. These blocks are dedicated to urgent things that come up that need to be dealt with right away but that you wouldn’t necessarily know about while planning out your schedule for the week or day. Lately, I haven’t been leaving much room for error in my schedule and I can see this helping a lot, particularly related to advising.  

It might not be you

The final piece I’d like to mention isn’t a strategy but instead a reminder. Academia is notorious for piling an impossible number of things on your plate and then making you feel like you’re doing something wrong because you can’t seem to figure out how to fit it all in. During the webinar, Katy suggested that all the scheduling strategies in the world aren’t going to solve an overscheduled life. I try to remind myself of this often, but it was nice to hear it coming from someone else. Sometimes there is just too much to do and you’ve got to figure out what can be dropped or put on the back burner.  

When all else fails, I block everything out on my calendar, experiment, collect data and always keep in mind that sometimes I may need to let some things go. If you ever have the opportunity to participate in a webinar with Katy, do it! You won’t be disappointed! Also, if you’re wondering why there is a picture of my cat at the top of this post… Katy’s dissertation was all about animals, so I figured a picture of my cat was fitting!