In Dutch, we have a saying “Goed begonnen is half gewonnen”: if you start well, you have won half already. As a faculty member, the start of the semester may be overwhelming. When you return from a holiday, you may be facing thousands of unread emails, your calendar may be booked full with graduate students who have many questions as well as faculty meetings about the semester start, and you need to update your teaching materials to be able to start the semester.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos, I would like to invite you to clear a day or half a day in your schedule to make time for planning and organising your schedule. You will see that when you take time for planning, you will be able to free up time during your semester to make progress towards your primary goals.
In the first week of every semester, I reserve a day to clear the decks and set myself up for success. In fact, I have developed a checklist for everything that I need to do at the beginning of every semester (and have updated this semester’s start task list over time). Here is a brief version of the various tasks I carry out, and a list of tasks you can carry out at the beginning of the semester:
1. Check what you did in your previous semester
Before diving into the deep end of the pool, it is good to know your baseline: What did you do in your previous semester? How many international trips did you make? How many courses did you teach? If you track your time, how did you spend your time across different categories?
2. Evaluate your previous semester
With the information from the first step, take some time to reflect. What went well in the previous semester? What did not go well? What did you enjoy? What would you like to change about your day-to-day academic life? Now is the time to set your intentions for the upcoming semester, and plan for it.
3. Review your schedule
What is on your plate in the coming semester? Which courses will you be teaching? Which international trips will you be making? Which major deadlines are coming up?
4. Make a list of your tasks
A lot of academic work is also ongoing tasks: graduate students we are supervising and multi-year projects. Make a list of all the tasks you have ongoing this semester. I usually organize my task list in the following categories: projects (with the activities and deliverables of this semester), graduate students, papers (that are ongoing and that I want to start this semester), service tasks, courses (teaching and what I want to learn), and trips and conferences.
5. Outline your semester priorities
After you have identified everything you have on your plate for the upcoming semester, identify your main priorities. Which deliverables are due that you need to put your shoulders under? How many papers do you want to submit? Which of your graduate students will need a bit of extra attention (because they are starting, struggling, or writing their thesis)? In your personal life and your relationships with others, think about what you want to focus on this semester as well – life is about more than work!
6. Identify what goes to the backburner
Just as important as outlining your semester priorities is identifying what you will not be able to spend much time on. Is it time to pass on a committee commitment to a colleague? Maybe you have taken on too many papers to write and will need to press the pause button for one of these. Perhaps you will need to limit the number of papers you can review for a while because you have an overloaded semester.
7. Develop your weekly template
Once you know what you have ongoing, what has your priority, and what is not a priority, you can identify how you will spend your time on a weekly basis. I usually start by making a tally of how I will spend my time: hours teaching, hours for office hours, hours preparing class and grading, hours for weekly meetings with graduate students, hours for writing papers, hours for replying emails, hours for research tasks, hours for service tasks, and hours for admin tasks. I then make the sum of these hours. If I find that I have more than 40 hours in total, I revisit my priorities and what is on the back burner and adjust the hours in the various categories, until I have a sum of 40 hours. Then, I develop my weekly template. The teaching hours and other fixed commitments go in there first. Then, I look for large chunks of time to dedicate to writing and research, as I need larger, concentrated blocks of time for these tasks. In addition, I try to fit these tasks in the morning hours or in the second half of the afternoon, when I am sharper. Then, I fit in the smaller tasks: service and admin, during my less-optimal hours of the day. I also make sure I block my writing and research time in my agenda where relevant so that no one can shoot appointments in there and chop up my block of thinking time. Here’s an example of one of mine (note: my template changes every semester).
8. Reserve time for major goals
When I have a major deadline coming up during the semester, I will take time at the beginning to review the steps that I need to go through. For example, when we have a major deliverable for a research project, I will reserve time for carrying out my calculations and adding my findings to the report, as well as time when I will review the parts of the report written by my graduate students. I usually start planning with the end in mind, so I start counting down the weeks from the deadline to know which steps we need to complete along the way. This approach also requires that I coordinate with my graduate students so that everyone is on the same page and that we can work together towards a timely submission of the deliverable.
9. Set up systems
Planning is one aspect, setting up systems is another aspect. How will you communicate with your students? How and when will you meet with students? Which tools can they use to book a meeting with you (I use Calendly, for example)? Identify the systems you will use to streamline your processes so that you can avoid many back-and-forth emails during the semester.
10. Clear the decks
Start the semester by clearing the decks. Go through your mailbox and archive what is not relevant, flag what needs urgent attention, and delete as much as possible. Clean your desk and archive paperwork where relevant. Clean your desktop and archive old projects. Start with a fresh slate so that you can focus on your major goals for the upcoming semester.
In this post, I gave you a ten-step method to set yourself up for success in the upcoming semester. I first invite you to reflect on your previous semester and think about what you want to change. Then, I want you to think about what your semester will look like in terms of priorities, commitments, and tasks that will need to move to the back burner. Next, I invite you to think about how you will fit everything in your agenda in a weekly template, with major time chunks assigned to important activities. Finally, I mention systems for automating scheduling and organisation processes and clearing the decks to start the semester with a clean slate.
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