Some of the discussion behind my recent posts on active learning involves finding time to read up on and then implement teaching techniques that might be new. Time can be a real problem – well, it is a real problem without a doubt – for faculty everywhere. We are constantly short on time to do the things we want. It brings up a larger issue about finding time to do anything: learning about new teaching methods, doing research, having a balanced family life, getting exercise, and so on.

I sometimes get asked how I find the time to do the stuff that I do. I am by no means an expert at this, and right now in particular I find myself feeling that I am precisely the wrong person to talk about finding time, because I have so little of it. I’m in the middle of a three-week period in which, when it’s all over, I will have given three workshops (one of which is an all-day affair), two invited talks, two keynote presentations, a webinar, and a radio program – in three different locations (not counting my office) including two countries. Because of this I have had to front-load my classes three weeks in advance. Of course I have to also teach the three classes I on my schedule and get prep work and grading done for those. And on top of it all, I chair two committees at my university, I got an article in at Wired Campus, and I foolishly picked this time to start the “blog every weekday for a month” challenge (this is day 13, by the way) – and of course I have a family, with three kids in school and doing soccer, cross country, and robotics as well as church stuff. It seems like there’s not enough hours in the day – and yet I am somehow making it work.

So maybe I am an expert in this, but at the moment I am too tired to notice.

Anyway, if you feel like there is no time to do the stuff you want to do in your life and career, you are probably only half right, if your experience is like mine. Time is scarce, that’s for sure. But for me, I would say I just don’t have the time only to find out that I do have the time, it’s just hidden and poorly allocated, and I needed to adjust my habits in order to liberate it.

Here are five things that I’ve learned, and trained myself to do to help free up that time that’s sitting around.

  1. Eliminate wasted time, especially in small things. When I started paying attention to how I used my time on a daily basis, I found I was bleeding myself to death with a thousand paper cuts. Two minutes here to browse a website (unrelated to my work). Five minutes there making photocopies of some handout that could just as easily be posted to the LMS. One minute over there spent waiting around aimlessly for a copy job to complete when I could be processing through my email. What I found was that there were dozens of these 2–5 minute pockets of time being wasted during the day, like air bubbles that do nothing but take up space. Learning to eliminate the waste and maximize my time, one 2–5 minute packet at a time, would sometimes free up an hour total during the course of a day. While you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, check your email. While you’re waiting for the print job to complete, write down notes for your next lesson. For me right now, while I am sitting on an airplane I am writing this blog post. I think most of us in our daily professional and personal lives might have dozens and dozens of these small inefficiencies that can be fixed. It just takes attention. As for larger time wasters, there is a great source of free space in your life. For example, watch TV while on the treadmill if you can’t find time to exercise. Eliminate an hour of TV a day and spend it reading up on active learning pedagogies. And so on.
  2. In whatever task management system you use, tag your tasks with time required and energy required and work on tasks suited to the tags. This supposes that you are actually using a task management system, whether it something like Todoist or Wunderlist or an old-school paper notebook. (If not, we need to talk.) In my system (ToDoist) I have the ability to slice through my master task list, which currently contains dozens of projects and hundreds of individual tasks, by doing a search by tags. Whenever a task requires very little time – 5 minutes or less – I tag it with @quick. (According to GTD principles, a task that requires 2 minutes or less should not even enter the system but rather should be done on the spot.) Whenever a task doesn’t require me to be at 100% – for example menial tasks like “Clean the kitchen” or “Check out the website for this tech tool” – I tag it with @lowenergy. This way, when I have one of those 5-minute pockets, like 5 minutes before a meeting in which there’s not really a lot of time to get anything important done, I will look at all the @quick tasks and try to knock out one or two of them. When I haven’t slept well the night before, or it’s been a long day and I am tired out, I will ignore the stuff that requires my whole brain (e.g. don’t try to write an exam in this context) I will search up all my @lowenergy tasks and start picking them off one by one. This is a subset of the GTD philosophy about contexts, which states that in any given moment you should be focusing only on those tasks that fit the location, priority, energy level, and time required that you are experiencing. This is a great way to reclaim those little wasted packets.
  3. Don’t put a deadline on a task that doesn’t actually have a deadline. For example, if you have a task that is important and needs to be done soon, don’t put “due tomorrow” on it unless it is actually due tomorrow. What does this have to do with finding time? I’ve learned the hard way, and I still struggle with this, that by slapping deadlines on everything that’s important, the things that really have deadlines get crowded out and this causes a sort of psychological buildup. I look at all those tasks that have deadlines tomorrow and it appears hopeless and so I sieze up and do nothing, thereby creating a wasted time packet. On the other hand if I only look at the real deadlined tasks, it’s usually a much smaller subset and it feels doable. And if it feels doable, it’s a lot more likely to get done. For those tasks that neet to get done Real Soon Now but not at any particular date, I tag them with @thisweek and often with a high priority. But that’s different than a deadline.
  4. Do put deadlines on tasks that need deadlines. If something really has to get done by 5:00pm Friday, put that deadline on the tasks in a prominent way so you won’t miss it. But also – and this is going to be a partial contradiction to point 3 – if there’s a task that needs to get done but you’ve been putting it off again and again, go ahead and put a deadline on it and pretend it’s real. By doing so, you’re putting a boundary around that task, and boundaries create energy. But do it sparingly, only for the hard core cases of tasks that you’ve been avoiding.
  5. Say yes… strategically. My fellow MAA Project NExT fellows know that the Joe Gallian School of Professionalism lives by the one mantra, “Say Yes”. This can get you into trouble – it’s very easy to end up saying yes to so many things that you end up doing none of them well. I am struggling with this right now with the number of speaking engagements I’ve allowed myself to take on in a three-week period. Untenured faculty in particular feel like every “no” that’s given to an opportunity is a strike against their tenure and promotion candidacy. I think in the vast majority of unviersities this is not the case. I think most universities, in my experience, want faculty who are effective and do excellent work over faculty who are agreeable and do lots of work. (If you are on the market right now, when you get to interviews, ask your interviewer how their department views this.) Of course it’s awesome if you can be agreeable and do lots of work very effectively. But you can’t always do this, so when given an opportunity, you have to weigh where it fits with your professional and personal goals, and your life situation, and go from there. If you haven’t done something like a Life Plan where you have clearly articulated your personal and professional goals for the long term, you should take time (that you have now freed up) to spend a morning doing this.

Time is a scarce resource and therefore valuable. But I’ve found these methods to be pretty effective in finding time when I didn’t think I had it.

What are some of your tips on this subject?