Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives
Not Enough Time
If you are like most professors, you never have enough time to get everything done. You dash from classes to meetings, multitask during office hours, and try to fit in a little scholarly work late at night when the grading is done. You might be trying to solve the wrong problem. Too little time is not the problem - we all have the same 168 hours a week; the real problem is too many goals. In order to become a peak performer you must dream big allowing your imagination to run wild about things you would like to accomplish in your life but at the same time work small on just a few projects at a time. Here are some tips that will help you.
- Get all those dreams and goals out of your head and
onto paper. Write each goal on a small sticky note, one per
sticky note. Free your brain from having to remember your
goals and you will feel like you have enough time to
accomplish all that you want to do.
- Group your goals under the six to eight Vision
statements. If you attended any of my workshops you
probably wrote them while building your life management
system, the Pyramid of Power. If you haven’t yet built
your system consider attending my complementary on line
seminar entitled, “Creating Your Ideal Life” (see notes
at end).Vision statements are 6-8 umbrella summaries of
your goal categories. For example, a health vision
statement would be, “I keep fit and healthy by eating
healthy, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of
- Park all of your goals in a Dream Book distributing them across the 6-8 sections labeled by your Vision statements. Writing your goals does not commit you to doing any of them. When you write goals on a written list, an uncommitted goal just sits there, uncrossed out, screaming “failure” at you. Writing goals on sticky notes allows you to toss out an irrelevant goal without the goal police even knowing you got rid of it. With this technique, you can write a limitless number of goals because you will later decide on the timing and appropriateness of each before you make a commitment. To paraphrase the Gallo wine ad, “No goal before its time.” The problem comes when you move from dreaming globally to acting locally. This is when you can overwhelm yourself with too many goals that you are trying to complete simultaneously.
Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two
Limit yourself to only five to nine projects at once, this recommendation based on a memory law discovered in 1956 by a young psychologist named George Miller. While studying the memory capacity of college students asked to remember random words, he found their capacity averaged seven items with a range between five and nine. That finding held up for fifty years until recent research discovered that while students in an experiment could recall that many single simple words, when it comes to sentences anyone can hold in memory is four.
Now for the really bad news: when it comes to ideas, the number you can hold in mind simultaneously is exactly one. No wonder it is so hard to think and takes so much energy. There is an exception to these numbers. Miller found that memory can expand if you “chunk” or group words that have similar meanings under a word. So when you are working on goals, if you can chunk goals under goals you will not deteriorate your memory with those additional items. You might be able to handle four projects with four goals under each but you will strain your brain by holding them in working memory. Many faculty attempt to do their intellectual work in their heads without writing down their projects or goals. It makes them tired, doesn’t really work, and amounts to intellectual arrogance. Instead, writing down the sub goals of a project will allow you to be able to work on one at a time and not “forget” the other important ideas.
Projects as Chunks
Projects such as “revise western civilization course” or “refinish hardwood floors” are really multi-goal goals. To accomplish those two goals, you will have to complete many small goals or action steps. Revising a syllabus will involve checking the college schedule to find out when the semester starts, ends and takes a break. It will involve reviewing last term’s course evaluations and scanning descriptions of new textbooks that might be used for the course. Likewise, refinishing the floors might involve many small goals such as saving money, selecting a company, and setting a date.
- Instead of making daily to-do lists of random
items consider how those items relate to each other
by chunking them under a heading of the project
they relate to. Manage those goals one at a time
and you will experience less overwhelm.
- Pick projects that are timely, interesting, and
use your strengths. Make sure the projects are really
things you want to do or at least that lead to
something you want. For example, you might not want
to co-direct your department’s self-study in
preparation for re-accreditation but doing a good
job might lead to better future funding for your
department and for your own special projects.
- Corral all projects, personal and professional
on a Tracking Sheet, a table document where you
manage the tasks related to the projects. Label the
rows with the project names and the columns with
dates, usually the Mondays or Fridays of each week
or any unit of time you wish. Write the tasks for
each project inside the cells formed by the
intersection of rows and columns. Use the Tracking
Sheet to watch the progress of all of your goals
simultaneously. You will easily see the intersection
of all due dates and can stop yourself from an
intersection error such as committing to a due date
on a major project the week of your daughter’s
- Cross a line through the cell tasks as you
complete. You can tell at a glance what tasks are
yet to be done. If many are left undone past your
personal due dates, don’t take on more projects
until they are completed.
- Keep data on how many goals you can do per day
and you are on your way to setting realistic daily
to-do lists with timelines that really work.
- Notice how many projects you do get done and
what their scope is so that you can more accurately
estimate how many projects you can do per unit of
time (month, quarter, semester, or year). Write
down your estimated time frames for how long a
project will take and then the actual time frame
for how long it really took. You will quickly
develop a data base of “reference class
forecasting,” data on how long it takes you to do
similar work with a similar class of projects.
That recommendation comes from the Nobel prize
winning research in economics from Daniel Kahneman,
who developed this technique as a counter to the
“future planning fallacy,” the universal tendency
to make mistakes about what we can get done in the
future. We expect to magically have more time than
we do now and we magically expect that projects
take less time that they really do.
- Run every project through your “reference class
forecasting” to estimate how long it will take
compared to other similar projects. You will be
able to more accurately predict how much work you
can get done in certain time frames and how many
projects you can work on simultaneously. For
projects you have never done, you should double
the time you think it will take. I would love to
hear results from readers. What happens when you
try to limit your total number of projects to
four or so? What is the magic sweet spot where
you can get things done without feeling frantic?
- After completing one project on your tracking sheet, pull out another from your Dream Book. You will be amazed at how setting limits on the number of projects you work on simultaneously will help you get many more projects done in a year’s time. Less is more.
Now you have all the time you need for the completion of key projects. And you will feel relaxed and productive while you are working.
Dream big, work small.
© Copyright 2010 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.
CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3725 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Susan@ProfessorDestressor.com Website: www.ProfessorDestressor.com