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Protecting your time as an early career academic

Anybody who knows me is well aware that I’m extremely protective of my time. It’s not that I am participating in the “Busy Olympics“, as my good friend Janni Aragon calls them. I’m not “perpetually busy” as most academics, because if you look at my rather regimented (and sometimes rigid) schedule, you will see that I schedule self-care every single day. The thing is, I have a really hard time making time for anything else other than my priorities. For me, my priorities are: my parents’ well being, my own, my friends, my research, my teaching, my students, my service to the university and my contribution to the academic world and my discipline. The last thing I want is be extinguishing “last minute fires”.

Door stopperI’ve decided to implement a number of strategies to protect myself and my writing and research, given my perennial lack of available time. First, I unpacked and posted my “door stopper” sign (thank you Oxford University Press Canada for giving it to me). This sign tells people if I am willing to interrupt my time for anything that needs to be done. It may sound snobbish to some people, but actually I have found that most folks are extremely respectful of the sign. If I actually need to focus, I just signal that I am busy and that I can’t take phone calls or uninvited guests.

Second, I stick to my schedule and make it public in conversations. Most people know that I write from 4:00am to 6:00 am, and thus are very mindful of the fact that by 12 noon, I’ve already packed most of a full day of work. Most people also know that I drive back to Leon on Friday afternoons so I can see my parents for the weekend. Therefore, when scheduling meetings, I always make sure they are held when I am low on energy to focus on writing, but I can still provide intellectual input and useful feedback. Meetings for me need to be held after 1pm, so that I know that the mornings (when I am most productive and I write best) are being productive.

Third, I am learning to say NO to most things that I would love to say YES to, but that I know will not bring me forward in my research or teaching. I get invitations to give talks, deliver lectures, teach seminars, all over the world on a regular basis. But given that I promised myself last year that this year I’d be pretty much 100% focused on my research, I am saying NO to most of the things that I know are not advancing my research further. I am still developing strategies to go on the field, developing questionnaires and interview protocols, and setting up a randomized controlled trial for another project. There is no way I’m going to be able to give a guest lecture in Europe if I need four to five days to recover from the trip. These days can be used for a project I’m doing or to write protocols, or to create code for randomization, etc.

Finally, I make it clear to people that I value my time and theirs, so I try really hard to stick to deadlines, timelines and schedules. By staying on course with friends and colleagues, it creates a virtuous circle where most folks will feel appreciated. I am trying really hard NOT to read my research email (not very successfully, often!) while I am out with my friends or family. But if I promise a student or a friend that I will be spending time with them, I do so within the strict time constraints I face.

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