How to triage your to-do list
Plus a small plea for academic compassion - even to yourself
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
Do you think the Covid experience has helped all of us working in academia to be a bit more empathetic? Recently in some areas, schools and daycares have closed down yet again. Many faculty, staff, and students have been struggling for over a year now to manage their workload while caring for their young children. I won’t use the word ‘balance’ here. When demand for one’s time and energy exceeds supply, there is no balance. Something always has to give.
Some situations are simply beyond the idea of “work smarter, not harder”. There is no time hack to fix constant interruptions and persistent guilt over one’s inability to simultaneously be a full-time worker and full-time parent. There is no magic to wash away the stress of worrying about the toll of the past thirteen months (and counting) on both one’s children’s development and one’s career trajectory.
I can only imagine how challenging this is. As a mother of teenagers, my children are relatively self-sufficient with remote learning; as a full professor and dean, my concern is for my faculty members’ career trajectories rather than my own. While I strive to be aware of the challenges faculty, staff, and students are facing, I undoubtedly fail in some ways due to my own blind spots.
For most of us, Covid-19 has blurred or erased the lines between personal and professional. We peer into each others’ homes and see the untidy bookshelves and unfolded laundry. Kids and cats appear during discussions with students and colleagues. We are forced to see others more fully as people: colleague, student, department chair, instructor, dean, student advisor …. and also parent, roommate, spouse, dog lover, book hoarder.
Ideally, this experience reminds us that people are just that - people - and pushes us to be more compassionate in how we work with and relate to each other. If we imagine two possible errors - being overly firm or being overly compassionate - in any interaction, my own preference is to err on the side of compassion. I would rather be a chump than an asshole.
Many aspects of academic work call for strict adherence to rules and timelines, but even in these situations there is the ability to communicate and respond with kindness. For those of you who are in a position to do, I encourage you to set a tone of flexibility and compassion. (Here is a great example from my good friend, Dr. Byron Sheldrick). And for those of you who are struggling, be it to manage parenting and work or for some other reason, I encourage you to communicate this clearly to others if you feel safe doing so and allow them the opportunity to be supportive.
It has been a difficult year for many people. Let’s get through it together with kindness and empathy, to each other and to ourselves.
In this spirit, it is time for this week’s small idea.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: The Two-Week To-Do List Triage
The end of the winter/spring academic term can overwhelming. Grading, committees, and looming graduation deadlines combine with high levels of student stress (and the resultant emails) and a broad sense of when-will-it-end exhaustion. Throw on top of this our current reality of remote teaching, Zoom meetings, limited/no child care, and fourteen months of working from home/living at work. It is …. a lot.
If you are tired, fed up, or feeling done with all of it, I encourage you to try a two-week to-do list triage. In medical situations, triage is the practice of prioritizing patient care based on urgency and necessity. You can apply the same logic to your to-do list. Here is how:
DECIDE: Adopt a triage mindset. Decide to do only what needs to be done for the next two weeks. Imagine you are on a battlefield (triage is used in wartime, after all) and gird yourself for some hard but necessary choices.
LIST: Take pen and paper and write down everything you can think of that you need to get done. Fill the page. Then look in your email and calendar and add anything that you missed to the list. Pause here to feel a flush of nausea. Don’t panic. Things are about to get better.
SORT, THEN EDIT: Review your list. Circle items that absolutely must get done in the next two weeks, star those that ideally will get done in that time, and cross out anything that doesn’t really need to get done for awhile. (I am an office supply geek, so I have multi-coloured pens for this step. It makes the scary-looking piece of paper much prettier. Highly recommended!) After a first pass, review the circled items. Identify the ones that don’t really need to be done in the next two weeks, including ones for which you can negotiate a later deadline. Star these items. They can wait.
INFORM: You are only going to do the circled items in the next two weeks (read those words again if you need to), so let others who are expecting items on the starred and crossed-out lists know that they will need to wait. Here is some sample email text (you may find it helpful to create an email signature for this):
I wanted to let you know I am going to be focused on grading and other end-of-term work until April 28. Given the challenges of getting this done while managing my children’s remote learning due to the school closures, I won’t be working on our paper until the first week of May. I appreciate your understanding and look forward to reconnecting in May. Talk to you in a few weeks!
All the best,
After your triage plan is set up, stick with it. If you get everything on your circled list done, don’t feel you need to move on to the starred items. You could instead choose to get outside for a bike ride or coffee on your patio. You could catch up on sleep, read a book for pleasure, or post photos of your pets on social media. Be compassionate with yourself. You earned that break. Take it.
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:
My April Skills Agenda column is out! This month’s column discusses why explicit instruction is more effective for teaching career skills and competencies and provides instructors with easy ways to transition from implicit to explicit instruction. If you are interested in higher education teaching and learning, I think you will find my Skills Agenda column series interesting.
I have been working with the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development to develop a webinar on department leadership during Covid. Panellists are my longtime friend, Dr. Kari Roberts (Mount Royal University); a teacher-scholar I admire tremendously, Dr. Kim Helleman (Carleton University); and two other experienced leaders I am excited to working with, Dr. Danny Mann (Manitoba) and Dr. Gus Hill (Wilfrid Laurier). I am co-moderating with my Work Your Career coauthor Dr. Jonathan Malloy (Carleton University). Needless to say, this session is going to be a treat for me. If you are a department chair or head, please sign up! It is on Thursday, April 22 at 12 pm ET; there is no cost, but registration is required. Please forward this to the department chairs in your life and encourage them to attend.
My most important update: I am beyond happy to report that I received my first covid vaccination. My province allows “people with underlying health conditions that are clinically extremely vulnerable” to be vaccinated ahead of their age cohort. Finally, having an autoimmune disease pays off for me! Being immuno-compromised during a pandemic has been a tad stressful and I am grateful to be somewhat less at risk. If you have yet to receive your own vaccination, I hope you can soon.
Until next time…
I would love to build the audience for the newsletter and your assistance would help so much. If you find this newsletter useful please forward it to one person who you think would enjoy it.
Until next time, please be kind to yourself. It has been a long academic year for all of us. You have done your best.
Stay well, my colleagues.
PS. You are still reading? Wonderful! I would love to hear how you manage your to-do list these days. Please reply (for email) or comment (for the website) and let me know!
Loleen Berdahl, Ph.D.: 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 Ph.D. and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.