How to assess shiny new ideas and invitations

The importance of honestly assessing effort and impact before committing to new things, and an easy idea to give you the time and space to do so.

Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.

How do you decide what is worth your time and energy? I have always been intrigued by the idea of ‘return on investment’. Yet while in finance it is relatively simple to calculate the financial gains relative to the costs, adapting the idea of ROI to academic work is a bit more complex - and subjective.

The investment - or cost - is a bit easier to think through. The ‘costs’ are our time and energy, plus any hard costs that we incur.  

The return - or gain - is more variable. I find it most helpful to think of return in terms of impact relative to a goal. For example, if the goal is to advance student learning, a well-designed assignment is high impact, while a fancy PowerPoint deck is low impact. If the goal is to achieve tenure, a publication in a respected journal is high impact, while an opinion editorial or policy paper is low impact. 

Determining the ROI of my activities historically has been difficult for me. This difficulty was a result of my practice of constantly lying to myself. Without fail, I would underestimate the costs (effort needed) and overestimate the benefit (impact). “This book will change the world! And it will practically write itself!” Ha. Good one. 

Over time, I have become skeptical of my initial effort and impact estimations and have developed a practice to help me establish more reliable estimates. If you find you also can be overly optimistic by underestimating effort and/or overestimating impact, today’s small idea may help you too.

One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Create a Cooling-Off Zone

While some things in our calendars are decided by others, many other things taking our time and energy are there because we either designed them ourselves or agreed to them when we were invited to participate. 

At the time we took these commitments on, they all seemed like good ideas. But everything has an opportunity cost. Agreeing to Committee/Project/Idea A means less time and energy for Committee/Project/Idea B, and even less time and energy for Committee/Project/Idea C. Taking them all on is a recipe for burnout and resentment. (I speak from multiple lived experiences here.)

New ideas, initiatives, and invitations are shiny and exciting. This makes it difficult to assess if they are truly worth the opportunity cost. To counter this, you need to postpone committing until you can remove strong emotion (particularly excitement about a big thing and/or an ego-stroking invitation) and get more information.

It helps to have a “cooling-off” zone for “hot” ideas. Here is an easy way to do this.

1. Create a space to place future ideas and invitations, such as an email folder titled “For Later” or an attractive box that sits on your desk. (I have used both and each works great.) This is your cooling-off zone space.

2. When an idea or invitation comes to you, pause and assess. Consider the effort (time and energy) you would need to commit. Estimate the impact of the activity relative to your own personal goals and priorities. 

If it is clearly low impact, forget the idea or decline the invitation. (The ‘thanks but no’ email signature can help with declining invitations.) 

If you think it is high impact or if you are unsure, set a period of time during which you will deliberately not decide. Then physically move the idea/invitation to the cooling-off zone. This can involve moving an email invitation to your “For Later” email folder or writing your idea on an index card and putting it into the pretty floral box on your desk. 

Using a cooling-off zone may require delaying your response to an invitation. You can set up an email signature to help with this. Here is some text you can adapt if you like:

Thanks for this invitation! I am interested in this but I need some time to consider my potential involvement in light of my other commitments. I will get back to you on this on [date 1-2+ weeks in the future]. If you need an immediate response, I will have to give my regrets.

I strongly suggest only using this for invitations that you are truly going to consider. If you are almost certain to say no, just say no quickly so they can move on.

3. Hold off on deciding until the end of the cooling-off period. During this time you may wish to consult with others, such as your mentorship team, to get more information to better assess both impact and effort. Be careful not to try to sell others on the idea. Instead, ask them, “how much time and energy do you think X would take me?”, “given my goal of Q, is X a high impact choice?”, and “what do you see as the opportunities and limitations of X for me right now?”

You might find that the idea/invitation loses its appeal after time and additional information and choose not to pursue it. You might decide that is a good idea that continues to excite you and choose to proceed with confidence. Or you may remain unsure, and choose to take more cooling-off time.

Regardless, your Future Self will be happy that you took the time to choose wisely.

Chipping Away: What I Have Been Up To

A quick update on some of my own activities since my last newsletter, since I have your attention:

  • The external website with the summary findings of the Graduate Transformative Skills Project is now up. Some background: a year ago, as Faculty Fellow for my campus’ teaching and learning centre, I led a team that consulted graduate students, faculty, graduate chairs, and career skills professionals about career skills and professional development for graduate students. If you are involved in graduate education in any way, please check it out!

  • In my last newsletter, I spoke about the value of taking a break. To that end, I took a one-week “staycation” during which I puttered around, doing not much of anything punctuated by bursts of random non-work productivity. I am particularly proud of my 10-hour sleep (despite the fact that my Fitbit only gave me an 83 sleep score - rude!) and our newly organized furnace room. 

  • My family and I have been enjoying a lot of time on the water. (Fun fact: Saskatchewan has roughly 100,000 lakes and rivers.) In addition to visiting beautiful Emma Lake (photo credit to my husband) and kayaking on the South Saskatchewan River, my family took a day trip to Little Manitou Lake. This unique saltwater lake was once a huge Canadian tourist destination and has a fascinating history.

Until next time…

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Until next time, stay well, my colleagues. 

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PS. You are still reading? Wonderful! I would love to hear how you decide what activities are worth your energy and time. Please hit comment and let me know!

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Loleen Berdahl, PhD: I am a twin mother, wife, runner, cat lover, and chocolate enthusiast. I spend far too much time on Twitter and binge-watching television, and my house could be a lot cleaner. During the work hours, I am the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. I am the author of University Affair’s Skills Agenda column  and my most recent books are Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.