GTD for Academics: Setting the stage

GTD for Academics: Setting the stage

Anyone who works in higher education, from faculty to administrators and even students, understands that higher education is nothing if not a never-ending stream of stuff to do. Somewhere in there, too, is the joy of learning new things and teaching people those things. But our enjoyment of teaching and learning, and even life itself apart from our jobs, is contingent upon whether we are in charge of that stream or whether it is in charge of us.

This topic came up recently when I was a guest on Bonni Stachowiak's outstanding Teaching in Higher Ed podcast not once but twice. The first episode was about self-regulated learning and flipped learning and how they relate. That discussion at one point turned to how we manage time, tasks, and projects -- which to me is the clear number-one issue with effective flipped pedagogy. Bonni and I agreed that this was an important enough topic that it merited its own separate episode.

Those discussions struck a chord with many academics, gauging the responses it got on Twitter and elsewhere. It seems like there are many academic types out there who recognize the need to have a strong system for managing all the things that are going on in our lives, but they haven't found something that works for them. Either they tried a system in the past and it never took root, or they can't see how to get started with any system at all. Even more academics don't even notice the predicament they're in, expending energy being busy not because they are getting a lot done or even necessarily because they have a lot to do, but because they approach the work of education with no plan at all, no guiding principles for what to say "yes" or "no" to, and no system to manage anything. So they end up working hard in the same sense that a dog chasing its tail works hard.

So I thought I would resurrect the blog --- something I've been meaning to do anyway --- to expand on the discussion from Bonni's podcast with a multipart series on my systems for managing my work. I feel like I have a lot to say here. I'm known around my department as a person who gets a lot of stuff done, and sometimes people assume that means I work all the time. Spoilers: I don't. I've just spent a lot of time developing the systems I use to make the most use of the time that I have. Those systems all cohere in the Getting Things Done philosophy of David Allen, whose book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is without a doubt one of my top-10 life changing books I've read, and I think it's essential reading for all academics.

This is going to come in several installments, and I am happy to take requests to answer specific questions about it; just leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. In this installment I want to set the stage for why I think the whole concept of Getting Things Done, or something like it, is necessary.

Setting the stage: Part 1

As I write this, it's a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon in Michigan. This morning I got up at 6:30am and went for a run, then made breakfast for my kids and went to the grocery store. After I got back, I watched some Premier League soccer and then my family and I went to a local farm to pick dahlias to put in the kitchen and buy some pumpkins to carve later. I made some coffee and helped my oldest two bake a pan of brownies. I am now drafting this post. In an hour we are headed out to a local county park to have some family photos made, then back to the house to carve pumpkins, grill some delicious bratwursts I got at the butcher shop this morning, maybe watch a movie and then get to bed so we can get up for 8:00am Mass at our parish tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll go to Mass, and then the rest of the day is a true "sabbath" for us, set aside solely for rest and relaxation and hanging out with each other. The one exception to that rule is a 90-minute block of time I set aside to check in with my appointments and plans for the week. Then we head to bed at 9:00pm so we can be up and ready for the work/school day on Monday.

In contrast, here is a short list what I am not doing this weekend:

  • Grading.
  • Prepping my courses for next week.
  • Writing anything aside from journal entries and this blog post.
  • Researching anything aside from recipes to try out this week.
  • Working on my tenure portfolio that's due in December.
  • Answering emails from my work account.
  • Reading emails from my work account.
  • Checking in on the Slack team for my junior/senior level class.
  • Literally about 100 other things that I could be working on that pertain to teaching, scholarship, or service in my job.

So I guess I am doing a medium-size amount of things this weekend in terms of family activities; but there is also a large amount of things that I am not doing. And, I am totally comfortable with those choices of what to do and what not to do in this present moment. And this is how it is for me and my family most weekends. Every choice to do something is automatically a choice not to do many other things, and I deliberately choose to do things other than "work".

To some looking at this choice not to work on the weekends, it would be easy to conclude that I must be either a slacker, a low-achiever, or that I'll be in trouble when I am up for tenure (which is this semester). However here's my CV and I'll let you decide whether that's the case.

It didn't always use to be this way. I used to spend weekends either completely isolated away from my family to do work, or else doing things with my family but always looking over my shoulder, mentally speaking --- wondering if I was really prepared for Monday or if I'd forgotten something important; always working so that I would be marginally more sure that I hadn't forgotten something important; or just working because of an internal disposition that says if you're not constantly busy then you are not as good of a professor as you could be. Academic types will recognize this statement. Your life is like a pie, they say. When you cut a bigger slice of the pie for your personal life, the slice devoted to excellence in your work gets smaller. So the well-intentioned concept of "work-life balance" becomes less about balance and more about negotiating how big of a slice you are allowed to have for your personal life, and most of the time you're pressured toward making that slice smaller and smaller.

This idea that being excellent in your work as an academic must come at the expense of your relationships with spouses and children, and at the expense of your own personal balance and growth --- is destructive and wrong. It hurts you, it hurts the people you love, and it might be one of the most insidious false assumptions in all of higher education. As I was thinking about this just now, I thought of all the colleagues I have across higher education who, at this moment, believe that going out and enjoying a day like this is impossible because of all the grading, all the writing, all the whatever that they feel that they must do in order to make it in higher education. If this is you: Please realize --- that's a lie, and it doesn't have to be this way.

But how do you fight back?

Setting the stage: Part 2

I remember the exact moment when I realized I needed to get my act together, as an academic.

It was in 2008, in my previous job at a small liberal arts college. I was walking down my hallway when I passed my Dean. He looked at me and said, in a tone of voice intended as a reminder: "So, I'll see you at 2 o'clock today?" I froze for a second because I had no idea what he was talking about. But then I recovered and said, "Absolutely, see you then." Then I did an about-face, went to my office, and starting dumpster-diving through my email inbox --- which had roughly 400 items in it at the time --- looking for some hint that I was supposed to meet with my Dean at 2pm. After some searching, I found it. But, without that chance encounter in the hallway I would have blown right through that deadline.

Maybe it wouldn't have been a big deal. His secretary would have just phoned my office and asked if I had forgotten the meeting, then I would have hastily grabbed a notebook and headed up the stairs to his office. By that point it would have been about 10 minutes into the meeting time. This might not have been a problem. But maybe it would have been. Or, more likely, it would sow a tiny seed of annoyance in my Dean's mind that would sprout into an ugly idea about me and my professionalism that, fair or not, could have untold downstream effects.

I came away from that encounter realizing that I am engaging with a raging torrent of work without any kind of plan or system. Emails poured into my inbox and would stay there after I read them --- assuming I read them, and assuming I didn't miss anything. Physical stuff would come into my physical inbox and would pile up. In this amalgamation of stuff, physical and electronic, I would often get a lot done, but the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that something important wasn't getting attention was always there, sapping my energy and lowering the quality of the things that I did get done. I was never comfortable with what I was doing because I didn't know what I was not thinking of, and therefore I was never comfortable with what I wasn't doing.

And if you have a family, you know that these "unknown unknowns" in life don't stay confined to work. They pull at your attention like a child pulling on your sleeve, and you're never completely able to give attention to what truly needs it --- especially at home. After this hallway incident, I realized just how impoverished was the attention I was giving to my wife and my kids at home. We only had two at the time, and they were just toddlers and needed attention from Mom and Dad. I could give them something like attention but it was like wages being garnished by a third party --- the unknown unknowns from work always demanding a tribute.

I realized in that incident that this was about a lot more than just avoiding embarrassing myself with the Dean. It was about the quality of the life and work that I had chosen. What was I going to do about it?

Looking ahead: A need for a system

We don't just walk in and teach a class without some sort of plan. We don't engage in a research project without a proposal. We don't go to a committee meeting without an agenda (at least, you shouldn't go without one). And yet, somehow a lot of us think we can approach life and work without a system, without a plan, and everything will work out for us. A lot of us think that having a plan for managing the stuff in our lives is weird, complicated, confining, something only nerds do, just one more damned plate to keep spinning --- some think that we don't have the time or energy to set up and maintain a system for managing our time and energy.

But I would like suggest that having a systematic way of handling our work as academics is not only beneficial but necessary if we are to do excellent work in all phases of the profession --- teaching, scholarship, service, mentoring; and that it is something every academic can and should set up and manage. Not every person will end up doing this the same way, but there can be a common starting point, and I'd like to suggest that the philosophy known as Getting Things Done (GTD) is a great place to start.

So if this sounds interesting, stay tuned.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.