Preparing for an especially busy term

I knew, going into this academic year, that my year would be especially busy. Between stepping into the STEM Director role, finishing my 3 year stint as the director of a cohort program, and teaching one more course than I should be due to a staffing shortage in my department, the year was going to be full, no matter what. I knew Winter Term, in particular, would be especially chaotic — several rounds of grant applications to review (and grant funds to award) in STEM, the selection of next year’s cohort in the cohort program, the selection of a new director for the cohort program, and tenure track hiring in my department. And despite my best efforts to avoid this scenario, my heaviest teaching term — 2 of my 4 courses this year — falls, you guessed it, in Winter Term.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a similarly full term — Winter 2016, to be exact, when I was teaching an overload, chairing a department, and chairing a tenure track search. That term almost broke me, even with my hyperfocus on self-care that term.

And while my schedule is what my schedule is, and I can’t control the number of responsibilities I have, I can control my approach. And, as I learned in Winter 2016, and in Winter 2019 when I had a challenging term despite advocating for a lighter term to deal with an expected heavy set of responsibilities, controlling my approach is crucial to maintaining my mental health.

Over at Dynamic Ecology yesterday, Meghan Duffy posted about her strategies for successfully dealing with a busy fall semester. The post contains excellent advice — blocking off time, saying no, etc. — advice that I will definitely borrow during this period of overwork. I’m also taking a few additional steps, to meet my responsibilities in as sustainable a way as possible.

First, I’ve modified the way I plan for the term. I tend to set research goals for the term at the start of each term, to keep myself on track and to keep myself from bailing on research, or spending my research time unproductively, when things get busy. I sketch out everything on my calendar for the next 10 weeks. But this term, there’s just too much to wrap my head around. So I’m only planning a month at a time, to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed.

Second, I’m putting off interesting but not time-sensitive projects. I decided not to meet a conference paper deadline next week, because I can submit to the same conference in a few months and get feedback then. I’m fortunate in that I am not likely to be scooped in the interim, and I’ll be able to more fully concentrate on the paper starting in mid-March. I’d also originally thought about revamping the assignments in one of my classes to revolve around datasets, but decided that while this would be an interesting and worthwhile use of my time, it didn’t need to happen now. (“It doesn’t need to happen now” is kind of becoming my mantra this term…) I have a couple of research projects that I’ll move forward in smaller steps this term, but the bigger pushes forward will have to wait until Spring Term.

Third, I’m hyperfocusing on managing my energy levels. Monday was the first day of classes, and by the end of my first class I had very little left in the tank. And I still had another 70 minute class to teach! It also didn’t help that I still had some prep to do in between the two classes, so by the time the second class was over, I felt nearly catatonic. Lesson learned: No class prep can happen in between classes — I need to use that time to replenish my energy. This is especially important as an introvert, since teaching two courses means a lot more people time. I also want to experiment for a couple of weeks with upping my sleep. I normally get 7 hours, but my gut tells me that I’ll need 7.5, if not 8, hours of sleep to optimally function given everything on my plate. I need to move some things around and really restrict the time I spend on, say, social media, to make this work, but I’m willing to try.

Perhaps most difficult for me, I am embracing the art of delegating. One of my biggest strengths is the amount of self-motivation I possess. One of my biggest weaknesses is that this self-motivation tricks me into thinking “I’ll just do X, too.”, even when there’s no time for X. Additionally, being the truly effective leader I aspire to be means giving others control and responsibility, giving them guidance, and then getting out of their way. This term, I literally can’t do everything, so delegation is a must — both at work and at home. I need to ask for help. So I will ask for help. Even if internally, I’m cringing at the thought of “imposing” on someone with my ask.

Finally, I’ve decided to embrace the suck. Yes, it’s a difficult term. Yes, I have too much to do. What can this experience teach me about setting and maintaining boundaries? What can I learn about prioritizing? I’ll be meeting and interacting with a lot of new people — what can they teach me? How can I use my experiences, as painful as they might be in the moment, as part of my professional growth? Having so much on my plate means many opportunities to learn and grow, as a leader, a colleague, a mentor, and a professor. I want to take advantage of this unique time.

Are you staring down an especially busy time period, at work or in life? What strategies are you using to make it manageable? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.