I think many will agree that the easiest solution is not always the best solution. Sometimes, a little resistance, a little friction, can be helpful. It can even be more human.
Take scheduling meetings. Occasionally, people will put meetings on my calendar. I’ll come into the office or back from lunch and there it is: a meeting invite tentatively waiting for me to accept its existence. Now, I know the sender had the best intentions. They would like to have some of my time and attention, so they looked at my Outlook calendar and selected a time they thought would be most convenient for the both of us. As I’ve noted before, the problem with this style of scheduling is that it assumes that just because someone is “free” that they are also “available.”
Unless explicitly instructed to, putting a meeting on someone’s calendar treats them as if they were a machine. Available or unavailable. Ones and zeros. What our calendars don’t take into account is all the unspoken baggage of the workday. How must preparation is needed for a meeting? How much debrief will this meeting require? What other things are happening that day that might be emotionally weighing on the you? How much mental bandwidth do you think you’ll have at the time of the meeting?
All of those things are lost in translation when simply “looking for an open spot” on someone’s calendar. Modern work culture has tricked us into thinking that shared calendars, with all their convenience, are a net good. They certainly have many benefits, but the ability to commandeer another person’s time is not one of them. By adding just a little friction to the meeting reservation process, in which the recipient has more agency (i.e. opt-in) in the selection process, we can treat our colleagues more like humans than machines.
For the last few years, I have been striving to de-center my job. I’ve stopped thinking of higher ed as a calling or a lifestyle. Instead, I’ve tried to focus on living in a more balanced way: one that still includes attention to craft, community, contemplation, and constitution, but in ways that are not grounded solely in my job as a librarian.
For this, and many other reasons, I loved Meredith Farkas’s latest post, “Stop Normalizing Overwork.” In particular, I liked this quote:
“Let’s stop being complicit in creating cultures of overwork. Let’s let structures that are built on our overwork, on our exploitation, fall apart. Real solidarity requires this. By refusing to overwork, we not only set an example for our colleagues. We make it that much less of the norm. It’s hard to fight to de-normalize overwork while you are continuing to overwork.”
A three-pronged solution
My own solution to the problem of overwork (in addition to therapy) came through the combination of task-blocking, autopilot scheduling, and quotas.
Task blocking is the process of determining in advance how I’m going to spend my time and then scheduling that work on my calendar. So if I have 5 major tasks I want to accomplish next week, I decide how much time I need to complete them and then schedule that time into my calendar before the week begins. If it turns out that I don’t have enough time in my calendar, I either (1) cancel something on my calendar to make room for it or (2) decide not to do that task.
Autopilot scheduling is the process of setting aside a specific block of time each week for a recurring task or class of tasks. For example, I know that I need at least 1.5 hours to plan out and schedule a week’s worth of social media posts, so I have a recurring meeting on my calendar for this work. Additionally, I know it takes about 6+ hours/month to create each issue of the library’s monthly newsletter, so I block off 1.5 hours each week and, if necessary, add more time if it seems to be taking longer than usual.
Quotas are weekly, monthly, or quarterly limits that I put on certain types of work. In academia, we often divide our work into performance, research, and service. I try to set aside no more that 10% of any given time period for service, 20% for research, and 70% for performance. Additionally, I limit myself to no more than three “big” projects at a time and then schedule those projects out over three semesters.
As a result of spending years fine-tuning this work, in addition to time tracking cyclical projects, I can tell you with relative accuracy what I’ll be doing in any given week. In fact, here’s what my calendar looks like 6 months from now for the week of April 25, 2023:
Unless the parameters of my job changes, I know I’ll be working on my annual goals. I know I’ll be meeting with my direct reports. I know I’ll be developing content for social media. I know I’ll be writing something for the library’s e-newsletter. I know I’ll need to spend time on my research. I know I’ll need to meet with people (“Drop-in Hours”). I know I’ll need to eat lunch. And I know something else (“ad hoc”) while probably come up. These time blocks could move around, but I know what work I need to do in order to do my job well enough.
Setting up guardrails
And therein lies the solution. I’ve pre-determined what I need to do to be/feel successful. I’ve set my priorities in advance. Any new projects that come up have to fit into one of these buckets. If not, then either: (1) I have to stop doing something I’ve already committed to, or (2) I say “No, I’ve already met my quota on meetings/ research/ liaison work/ ad hoc projects/ etc.”
My guardrails are set at 45 hours per week. If I cannot regularly fit my work into that timeframe, then something has to give: meetings, responding to email, or specific projects themselves. And since my boss and I have already set my priorities for the year in my annual goals, I have a legitimate excuse to say no to new ones.
This system does have its drawbacks. My colleagues find it difficult to schedule meetings with me. It also limits opportunities for serendipitous projects, but to be honest: those were always the problem. In academia, we don’t lack for good ideas. We lack the time and resources to accomplish them. At least with this system I can accomplish what I set out to do and still be able to completely shut off each evening and weekend. I’ll take that over easy meeting scheduling any day.
It should go without saying that this is not a solution to the plague of overwork in academia. I’m of the cynical belief that universities couldn’t survive without the overwork of their faculty and staff. Not enough of us plan out our unit-level projects and commit those resources in advance. Instead, we tend to simply agree that Project X is a good idea and just move forward willy-nilly, carving out time along the way to the detriment of all our other commitments. I would love to see a more systematic and thoughtful approach to moderating the project load of an entire unit, instead of relying on individuals to figure it out for themselves. That said, if we all agree to stop being complicit in overwork, as Farkas calls us to do and as I have done in my own work life, then maybe our organizations will start paying attention.
One of the downsides of using time-blocking to schedule my week is that my calendar is 90% booked before the week even begins. At the end of each week I review my projects and next actions lists and map out each hour of the day for the coming week. While this ensures that I will spend my time and attention on the projects that are most important to me and my manager, it can make scheduling ad-hoc meetings difficult for my colleagues.
So back in January, I began scheduling daily office hours. Regardless of what else is going on, I block off at least 1 hour every day where I am available for drop-in conversations in-person, via chat, or the phone. I try to keep these hours consistent (MWF 2-3p; TR 1-2p) and will refuse meeting requests during those times when I have the ability to do so. To hold myself to this, I’ve already scheduled my office hours in Outlook through to the end of the year.
For the first few weeks, I mostly sat in silence during office hours. I would use the time to review email, read recently published literature in my field, or catch up on other synchronous communication needs. Lately though, people have started to pop in. Last week alone, five colleagues stopped by and said something to the effect of, “I saw on your Outlook calendar that you have office hours right now…” What followed was either a quick conversation about a question they had or a delightful brainstorm about an idea they wanted to get feedback on.
One colleague expressed their appreciation of how this method makes my availability direct and transparent. Instead of having to wonder “is he available now? is he working on something? if I send a meeting request will it be well received or an annoyance?”, holding office hours offers a bright light that says “I’m here! Talk to me!” Clear and concise.
I feel the benefit of this clarity as well. I host office hours with the expectation of being interrupted. I’m not as anxious as I might otherwise be when someone stops in and I’m “in the flow.” Moreover, it offers me the confidence that I can make myself unavailable at other times, knowing this option is still available to my colleagues. For too often I fall into the trap of thinking that because I’m not in a meeting, I have to make myself available to interruptions. Meetings with yourself (and your priorities) are just as important as meetings with others.