Since I have been weathering the Qualifying Exam storm for most of the past six months, I feel that it’s best to write this blog post about something I have some serious first-hand experience with: time management. When faced with that ominous list of books and a regular teaching schedule—and in my case a three-year old and the birth of a new baby—it’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle and devote too much time while not actually getting enough done.
What follows are some strategies that I have found effective, and that I think can be applicable to most teaching situations, whether that is grading, class preparation, or, for graduate students, finding the balance between taking classes, teaching classes, and QE preparation/dissertation writing/publication.
1.) Turn it all off.
I found that the biggest time waster, for me, was distraction, especially when sitting in front of a computer. YouTube, Facebook, News sites … all of these are going to be more fun than the task at hand, so they are very hard to stay away from if the computer is on. Cell phones and instant messaging are also temptations. As much as I felt the pull to “stay connected,” I made sure that, if I was pressed for time, to turn off these temptations and use them as rewards if I met certain goals or just needed a break—e.g., finish a book on the list and surf Facebook for ten minutes to relax before cracking open the next one. Without these distractions, I used my time in a much more focused and efficient manner.
The second most crucial tactic was sitting down and periodically prioritizing my work. Looking at my list and asking myself which books were the most important, which ones needed to be read in their entirety, which ones could be skimmed, and which ones should be saved for later, also helped focus my time. Having a specific hierarchy of texts made it easy to divide my time. If I had a full day, I could focus on a book that I needed to read cover to cover. If I only had half a day, I could spend my time more effectively reviewing a few texts I was more familiar with. This tactic was also helpful while grading papers over the summer and during this semester pre-exam, dividing papers into a hierarchy of which students had shown the need for more commenting and which students needed less (or even longer papers vs. shorter papers).
3) Set ambitious, yet attainable, goals.
Finally, after ridding myself of all distractions and prioritizing my time, I sat down and asked myself this question: “in the time I have, what is it really possible for me to accomplish?” If I set too lofty a goal for myself, I’d get frustrated (and waste time), if I didn’t set a lofty enough goal for myself, I’d finish early (and waste time). They key is really thinking about how many papers you can (or should) get graded or how many books you can (or should) read in two, or four, or five, or eight hours, and then do everything possible to accomplish that goal … then take a break and read the news.
Of course none of this is foolproof. Life gets in the way and you end up having to take a week off and then cut your productive time back by several hours a day to deal with a new baby and a three-year-old that is crying her head off … or car breakdowns, plumbing issues, or whatever happens in the course of a week. But having some solid strategies to put into place, and reducing distractions, prioritizing, and setting goals, can make the time you DO have much more productive. Keep yourself honest and you’ll be surprised at how much you really can get done in a very short period of time.
Conor-Shaw Draves is a GTA and PhD candidate who research interests in rhetorics of technology and new media. He is currently teaching ENG 3050 and has previously taught ENG 1020 and also served as the Writing Center GSA dedicated to graduate student tutoring.