How to contain work to the realities of your limited work time
Plus repeated use of the phrase “ugh”. You will see why.
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
I have many passions (books, running, chocolate) and cleaning is definitely not among them. I live with three human and two feline family members, and none of them are passionate about cleaning either. The result is that our house moves from sort-of-tidy to not-at-all-tidy at shocking speed, and while I would like to blame it on the three other humans and the two felines, the state of the hotel room I am writing this from is evidence that I bear my share of the mess.
Over the years, I have sought solutions to household overwhelm: books, robots, hiring help. One voice I keep returning to is podcaster and author Dana K. White. She has many ideas that resonate with me, and one of these is what she calls “the container concept”. In a nutshell, here is how it works: Your spaces (your house, your dresser, your entry closet) are containers that serve to contain (limit) your stuff. Each container can only hold what it has room for and to have your home under control, you need to respect the size of its various containers.
This means hard choices. You start with a particular container, such as your sock drawer, and then you put items in it based on your preferences. You first put in your most beloved socks and then add your less beloved socks. When the drawer is full, any remaining socks have to go. The container is a hard limit and while you get to prioritize your stuff by deciding what gets added first, at some point the container tells you, “Sorry, kiddo, but you are out of room.”
I find her container concept extremely helpful for keeping (my parts of) our house (somewhat) in check. And over the years I have extended the container concept to help me get my work calendar into (somewhat) balance as well. It is a helpful tool and I hope you will try it. So that is what today’s small thing to try immediately is about.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Treat your work time like a set of containers
Imagine your work time is a set of containers. These containers can only hold what they have space for. To have your work life under control, you need to respect the size of these containers. This means hard choices. You start by defining these containers (that is, the broad categories of your work responsibilities) and their sizes (that is, the amount of time in each category). You then go through a process of allocating that time, first to your most important activities in a category, and then to your next most important activities. When the time is all spoken for, the container is full and that is all you have room for in your work life. The stuff that doesn’t fit has to go.
Ready? Let’s make this real.
Warning: I am about to lead you through a thought exercise (ugh) that involves some light math (ugh) and requires you to imagine making hard choices (ugh) and possibly dropping some perfectionism (ugh). At Step 3, you are going to get annoyed at me and/or think I live in a fantasy land populated with unicorns. At Step 4, and certainly at Step 5, you are going to be mentally writing me a nasty comment explaining why I am so very wrong. And (hopefully) by Step 6 you appreciate the point of the thought exercise (ugh) and forgive me for the math (ugh) and hard choices (ugh).
You have been warned! Proceed with caution!
1. Define your broad category of work responsibilities to create containers. What does your academic work consist of? For people in faculty positions, these work categories are usually research, teaching, and service, with service including service within the university (e.g., university committees, department meetings) and service within their discipline (e.g., article reviews, editorial boards). For people in leadership roles or staff positions, these categories will be different. Figure out what applies to your role.
2. Figure out the relative size of your work containers. In very broad percentage terms, how are your responsibilities weighted? If you have a “traditional” faculty position that includes a balance of research and teaching with your “fair share” of service, this might be imagined as 40% of work time devoted to research, 40% devoted to teaching, and 20% to service. (This is likely not written as such in letters of offer or collective agreements, but it is a ratio I hear regularly from faculty members). If you work at a more research-intensive institution or hold a research chair, your weighting on research might be higher; if you work at a more teaching-intensive institution, hold a teaching-stream position, or simply have a semester with a lot of new course prep work, your weighting on teaching might be higher; and if you are in an administrative- or leadership-intensive position such as a department chair, editorial board member, or centre director, your weighting on service might be higher. Figure out what makes sense for your role.
3. Assume a 40-hour work week. Oh, quit laughing - I am serious. If you don’t start from the thought experiment assumption that you are limiting (containing) your work hours to 40 hours per week, you have little chance of keeping it anywhere near that number. If your goal is to work more, fine, assume whatever amount you prefer for the light math (ugh) ahead. You do you. But for me, 40 hours is plenty for this thought exercise.
4. Remove time for the annoying parts of work. Starting with that 40 hours (I mean it - quit laughing!), take 10 hours right off the top for an important work category that we all tend to forget, which is general work management. This includes things like email (ugh), filling in expense forms (UGH!), updating your CV to match the requirements of a particular grant competition (UGH!!!!), and the other flotsam and jetsam of professional life. I’ll call it “work potpourri”, as this sounds nicer than other names that spring to mind. 💩 This leaves you with 30 hours to allocate. (Right now you might hate me a bit, and I get that. I still love you! Stay with me!).
5. Determine the actual size of your work containers. Take your 30 hours and apply the weightings you established in Step 2 to figure out your available hours per normal week. Here are some examples:
40-40-20: 12 hours research; 12 hours teaching; 6 hours service = 30 hours.
60-20-20 (e.g., research-intensive position): 18 hours research; 6 hours teaching; 6 hours service = 30 hours.
20-0-80 (e.g., administrative-intensive position): 6 hours research; 0 hours teaching; 24 hours service = 30 hours.
A quick note about the words “normal week”, which I put in both bold and italics so you won’t miss them: not all weeks in a semester will be normal. If you are on the faculty search committee (congratulations to your unit for hiring!), there will be weeks that suck up more service time than usual. If you are teaching without grading support, there will be weeks where grading sucks up more teaching time than usual. If you are going to a conference or finishing a research grant or working on a publishing deadline, there will be weeks when research sucks up more time than usual. Such is life, so let’s continue with our thought exercise.
6. Let your work containers’ sizes determine what you can take on. Imagine that your weekly hours are fixed (yes, I continue to stick to this 40-hour-per-week idea! I am stubborn!). Remember that when the allocated time is all spoken for, the container is full and that is all you have room for in your work life. The stuff that doesn’t fit has to go. So, with your 12 hours per week (or whatever your number is) for research, which research project is your priority and within that project, what is the best use of your time? How about your 12 hours per week (or whatever your number is) for teaching: what teaching activity (e.g., new lecture prep, meeting with students) is your priority? What projects and activities don’t fit into the container?
Of course, you have choices in all of this. You can go through the exercise and decide that the relative sizes of the work containers you established in Step 2 don’t reflect your priorities and adjust accordingly. You may decide that the suggested 10 hours for work potpourri is excessive and adjust accordingly. You may decide that limiting your work to 40 hours is a pipe dream and adjust accordingly. You may decide that you can use tools (e.g., software, rubrics) to increase efficiency and/or collaboration (e.g., coauthoring, hiring a teaching assistant) to share the workload and save time that way. Great. Just do what you need to do to make the thought exercise work for you – and then respect the containers as a hard limit. When your containers tell you, “Sorry, colleague, but you are out of room in your calendar,” the stuff that doesn’t fit has to go. (Ugh. I know.)
Until next time…
If you are looking for more ideas to make this container concept work for your work life, be sure to check out my previous newsletters “How to protect more time for your priority work”, “How to streamline your teaching workload for next semester”, and “How to stop apologizing for reasonable boundaries (sorry, fellow Canadians!)”. And if you are enjoying Academia Made Easier, please let me know: hit the “like” button, leave a comment, or share this on social media and tag me. I always enjoy hearing from you!
Stay well, my colleagues.
P.S. One might think that two felines couldn’t possibly contribute much to household mess. FALSE! But they are sweet and worth the effort to pick up after! Here is a photo of Bandit testing the limits of a container:
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