April 26, 2010

Sometimes Less is More: How to get it all done in 24 hours

There are only 24 hours in the day. How do you use them efficiently to get everything done that you would like to do? To get things done, one key fact to keep in mind is that spending more time on a task does not always mean that you are doing a better job. In fact, you might be making things worse by spending too much time on certain tasks. At the very least, you may be wasting precious time.

Let’s start with teaching. When preparing for a class, you could easily spend hours searching online for the perfect PowerPoint image for your slideshow that your students barely notice. You could spend hours reading background information for your lecture that you never have time to get to. You also could spend hours coming up with an extensive list of discussion questions that you never find time to ask in class. If you find yourself over-prepared for class on a consistent basis, with prep materials that you never use, you might be spending too much time preparing. In fact, researchers have found that spending one to two hours on class prep per hour of class time is more than enough to teach a brilliant class. I find that preparing less creates a situation where there is more time for the students to contribute to the class and less time for me to drone on about the intricacies of a particular topic. In my humble opinion, this makes for a better class.

It sounds hard to believe, but you also can spend too much time on research. When preparing an article, it is impossible in this day and age to complete a full literature review. There almost always is another article or book to read. For this reason, it is vital to put limits on the amount of background reading you are willing to do for an article. When you begin to do background reading, conduct a full online search for all the articles you might need, download them, and just use that material. Of course, if you come across an essential citation, you might look that article up. However, it is not necessary to re-do your initial exhaustive bibliographic search. If you keep reading and reading, you may never actually get to writing.

What about writing? I am always encouraging people to write more. Well, I also think that there are limits. You do need to write regularly and consistently. However, there are two qualifications to that. The first is that you likely do not need to spend more than two hours a day writing, and spending more time than that might be less productive. Your writing efficiency decreases over the course of the day. The second caveat is that you can edit and edit and edit a finished product for months – in an unattainable quest for perfection. At some point, however, it might just be the case that the piece is not getting any better. For this reason, it is crucial to set deadlines for yourself and stop writing when you reach them.

This idea that sometimes less is more – that quality is just as important as quantity – can also be applied to your family life. I have a husband and three children and I firmly believe that our relationship is better by virtue of the fact that we do not spend every waking moment together. Although many mothers feel compelled to spend as much time as possible with their children, the truth of the matter is that you can spend a few hours each day with your children and build strong, healthy relationships. Coming to this realization can do wonders for any guilt you might feel for working and “abandoning” your children.

In a normal school year, I leave the house at 8am, and pick up my children from their afterschool between 5pm and 6pm. That gives us three to four hours each evening to go to the library together, to cook together, to go to the park together, to read together, and to relax together. In addition, we have all day Saturday and Sunday to hang out. And, we usually take a long family vacation over winter break and an even longer one over the summer. For my family, this is plenty of time together.

Of course, with my flexible schedule, I could pick my children up from school at 2pm when they get out and spend all afternoon together. However, I find that they enjoy very much being in their afterschool program where they have their friends and enjoyable organized activities. And, the few times that I do pick them up early are special for them. If I did this every day, it wouldn’t be special anymore. Also, when we take family vacations and we spend every waking moment together for a week or a month, we enjoy it much more than if we did that all of the time. Sometimes not doing something all of the time makes it more special.

As there are only 24 hours in the day, it is crucial to make calculated decisions as to how you are going to spend that time. If you love, teaching, research, and your family, you need to make time for each of those. This is definitely possible – but, you have to make sure you are using your time effectively and you have to come to terms with the fact that you can be a stellar teacher, researcher, and mother/father/caregiver without spending all of your waking hours dedicated to just one of those roles.

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