Workload survival guide for academics, Advice on how to cope with all the work and when to say no to opportunities, Times Higher Education, February 18, 2016
[Editor: This piece by Stuart Elden is part of a larger feature on current workload problems in the university]
‘I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole’
I recently spent three days at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, outside Caen in Normandy. This houses the archives of many French writers, publishers and institutions, including a valuable collection of papers by and relating to Michel Foucault.
The reading room is in the abbey itself; the other buildings have been converted into study-bedrooms, a refectory and conference rooms. Most people using the collections stay on site, take meals together and work in the reading room all the time it is open. There is a shared collective endeavour, a comfortable silence in working hours and a genuine interest in each other’s work in the communal spaces.
All this is at some distance from the working lives of most academics today. Teaching, preparation, marking, office hours, meetings, emails, phone calls and so on make consolidated and protected time for individual study very difficult to obtain and protect. Yet much of our most important work, perhaps especially for academics in the social sciences and humanities, happens alone, in time that cannot easily be quantified, measured or evaluated. Journal articles, chapters and books need consolidated, isolated and protected time; the slow accumulation of reading, thinking and writing, repeated and repeated.
I’m in a privileged position in general in terms of my academic role, and especially this academic year, when I am on sabbatical. But I have an ambitious plan: one book was submitted in the summer before the sabbatical began, I have another that I want to complete and a third with which I want to make good progress. So I set myself some rules to try to structure the days and make the most of the time available (these work just as well for isolated research days, or even just a few hours of writing time).
Number one is not to check email in the morning; email has a habit of setting the day’s agenda for you, instead of being but one of the tasks you need to address. I try to keep nothing in my inbox. This does not mean that every email is already answered, or the associated task completed. It means that the only ones in there are ones I have never seen. Some messages are sorted into consolidated folders – things to do in the office, things to read at some point – others are turned into tasks with scheduled dates and times. So, if nothing in my inbox is older than half a day, it can’t be that urgent. If it is, it’s the sender’s problem, not mine.
I try to keep the morning, or the whole of a shorter slot, as consolidated writing time. I set the agenda. If I’ve had a few productive hours of writing, and feel I am moving things forward, then I am better placed to deal with other tasks – review work, editorial duties, reading PhD students’ work, answering messages. I restrict social media use, usually by using a plug-in to block or limit time. I can always use my phone or iPad, but then it’s really obvious that I’m not working.
I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole. There are always exceptions, but preparing a talk can become a major diversion from a focus. The same goes for writing or editing projects – often intriguing, flattering and tempting, and I do those that I can, but they have a cost.
Certain places are also associated with productive work. The specialist archives are one; I’ve also done good work in the British Library Rare Books room in the past. But the best place is still my home study. Close the door – physical and virtual – and get back to writing.