Thursday, November 21, 2013

That Time of Year: A Brief Survival Guide

Whether you're a graduate student coming up against seminar papers, a hopeful job marketeer, or a lecturer/jr. professor coming to terms with impending stacks of student essays, it's that time of year. It's that time of year that can only be described as a perfect storm of expectations, responsibilities, and obligations.

What are you going to do?

It's ok to run and hide, but only for a little while. First, remember that you've finished countless semesters in the past. The day after the last day has always come, and you have always (hopefully) finished. You will finish again.

Yes, but HOW???? Here are four simple steps to get things going:

1. Make a list

What tasks must absolutely be accomplished by the end of the semester? Write them all down with no regard for the order, size, or difficulty of the tasks. Getting it all down on paper will help you see everything at once, and (again, hopefully) demonstrate that what lies before you is doable.

2. Prioritize the list

Once I've got all my necessary tasks down on paper, I usually prioritize these lists by date. What has to be done first, second, third...?

3. Guesstimate a timeline for each task

This objective is more difficult, but gets easier with time/experience. I now know, for instance, about how long it will take me to grade a stack of 25 papers from my survey course. I know roughly how much time I need to generate an abstract for a conference proposal.

4. Set a timer and tackle the first task

Sit down at your desk/workspace, set a timer (I use an online timer. Anything will do), and start on task #1. Don't wait for anything? Why wait? If you run over on time, you have a decision to make:
     A. Continue on with the task until you're finished
     B. Reset the timer and start the next task
What you decide to do will depend on your individual timeline leading up to the semester's end. It will also depend on what your blocks of time look like. If, for example, you have a two-hour block of time tomorrow morning and you finish the first task in 35 minutes, but run up against teaching a class toward the end of the second task, you will have to decide whether to pick up where you left off, or to move on and come back to the unfinished task the next day.

This approach is driven by a time management philosophy that embraces the fact that you can only control things that are...well...within your control. You cannot control time, contrary to that movie with the hot tub, and you often cannot control your deadlines. But you can control how much time you allot these tasks, and the order in which you tackle them. Control what you can control!

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