Academia is a cake-eating contest, in which the prize for eating the most is… more cake

Oh the weather outside is dreary

And marking is making you weary

And you’ve got that draft to revise

And that grant! And reviews! And replies!

Something we talk a lot about in academia is work-life balance. We have committees on it. We hold meetings about it. I’ve seen workshops scheduled on it that ran from 2pm till 8pm with apparently no sense of irony. Everyone sings the same song, and yet, systematically, the attacks on our free time come from all sides. Most of us feel pushed into a 100% teaching/admin load, with another 33% on top for research during evenings and weekends. And most of us feel a sinking abyss of guilt when we say no to other people because our refusal seems, in the short-term, to leave them with even more to do, or to stem from us not doing our fair share.

This post is all about being selfish. It is about protecting your free time (whenever you decide to schedule that free time, morning, noon, night, I don’t care). It is about respecting and supporting your own physical and psychological well-being. And it is about stemming the infinite avalanche of crap that will otherwise continue to pour onto your desk and into your inbox.

This is a Five Step Plan to a Better You. It will give you shinier hair. Longer nails. Sparklier teeth. Smoother skin. More toes. Literally everything you ever wanted, except for all those things I just listed. But really, it should lead to a better you, because you will get the time you should have to be you, and do stuff that makes you you, and it will build in emotional and logistical reserves for the times when shit gets hyper-busy.

It will also, hopefully, help you to recognise your limits, and stop you from disappointing people in future by preventing you from saying, “Yes” to something that it will be virtually impossible for you to do.

Step One: make a list

Not kidding. Write down all the “extra” and some of the core stuff you do – reviews, vivas, blog posts, etc. For example, you want to add stuff like…

  • Article reviews
  • Book reviews
  • Pre/post confirmation panels/student appraisals
  • Internal viva examinations
  • External viva examinations
  • Committee/society memberships
  • Conference presentations
  • Articles
  • Book chapters
  • Monographs
  • Media/community/blog/podcast engagements
  • School/non-academic talks
  • etc.

This list will easily grow as stuff hits your inbox and you realise how much “invisible” work you do.

Step Two: set some limits

You are working over the course of one academic year, or twelve months, so, taking into consideration your teaching load, your general health and wellbeing right now, your home-life commitments (caring for an elderly relative? got a none-sleeping baby or two?) and the fact that Other Shit both at work and home will always happen right when you least expect it, set yourself a reasonable annual limit for each item on your list.

I said reasonable. Calm down. Halve that number.

Here’s my example…

Article reviews 3
Book reviews 1
Pre/post confirmation panels/student appraisals 5
Internal viva examinations 2
External viva examinations 2
Committee/society memberships 1
Conference presentations 2
Articles 1
Book chapters 1
Monographs ¼
Media/community/blog/podcast engagements 6
School/non-academic talks 3

As is hopefully obvious, these numbers accumulate very quickly, and as you remember stuff, add it and adjust your other limits down accordingly. Also remember that this list doesn’t account for a lot of “routine” or highly unpredictable tasks, like sudden requests to be parts of projects, write references, read through drafts of X and Y, supervisions, workshops, mandatory training, meetings, boards, graduations, etc. etc. etc. Some of these can be sensibly added to your list. Others will just have to be free-floating time suckers that you could perhaps tally rather than trying to schedule.

On that note, here’s the crucial thing with a cap. It’s a cap. Not a goal. This is your way of saying, “If I reach this limit, I’ve done my fair share of this thing, and more is not only unnecessary, it will be detrimental to some other area that deserves my attention”.

Should you hit your three article reviews or your two conference presentations or your five appraisals, your answer to new requests is now, “No”. You can tell people that you have hit your quota, or you can say, “Sure, I can get to this in eighteen months” (but make sure you mean this because if you’re good at what you do, plenty of people will be prepared to wait!) or you can just politely decline with no explanation. People are not entitled to know why your brain is not available to fulfill their every command.

Well. Your boss probably is, but you know what I mean.

Remember also that you can change your caps. Feeling under the weather or just added ten new things to the list? Bring them all down. Zero them if  need be. Roared through everything this year and ready to do more? Increment them up.

Step Three: protect your time and your sanity

Now add your months, and shade out the ones that will already have extra workload anyway – start of term, marking seasons, sabbaticals, and of course, of course, annual leave.

Article reviews 3
Book reviews 1
Appraisals 5
Internal viva examinations 2
External viva examinations 2
Committee/society memberships 1
Conference presentations 2
Articles 1
Book chapters 1
Monographs ¼
Media/community/blog/podcast 6
School/non-academic talks 3
TOTAL   0     0               0

Step Four: spread your to-do list across your year

Unless you take some decadently wild vacation time, you should have some free spaces left, so spread out the tasks that you have more control over, and/or apportion time when you would consider doing some of the other tasks, perhaps with a question mark or some other placeholder symbol. The point of the exercise is to avoid ending up with a monumental clusterfuck of stuff to do exactly as, say, exam marking lands. Or term starts. And if you accept one big job with a deadline in a certain month, you can then work to avoid accepting other (big) tasks that also finish in that month.

Article reviews 3 ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
Book reviews 1 ✔️
Appraisals 5 ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
Internal viva examinations 2 ✔️ ✔️
External viva examinations 2 ✔️ ✔️
Committee/society memberships 1 ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
Conference presentations 2 ✔️ ✔️
Articles 1 ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
Book chapters 1 ✔️
Monographs ¼ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
Media/community/blog/podcast 6
School/non-academic talks 3 ✔️ ✔️ ✔️
TOTAL   0 4 4 0 4 5 5 4 4 5 5 0

If you threw yourself into bullet-journalling and, unlike me, you had the stamina to keep going beyond the three week honeymoon phase, (a) you have my unbridled admiration, (b) free time is probably not really an issue for you, and (c) you will enjoy having some new fodder for one of your double-page spreads. Here’s the version I did a few years ago, but since then I have a Google Doc that’s basically a nice hi-tech version that I can access from anywhere:

Step Five: schedule to-do items into your calendar

Right, so, that’s the macro-level year-long task-smoothing operation sorted, but there’s one more step you can take to really get to grips with your work-life balance at a more granular level. If you have a physical or digital calendar, it’s useful to schedule in the items from your to-do list in your upcoming few weeks. (My combo here is Todoist and Google Calendar but you do you. Paper and pens have been exceptionally reliable for centuries now so don’t feel compelled to tech up for the sake of it.) Schedule your to-do items into whatever constitutes your working week around your teaching, breaks, meetings, and whatnot (PUT BREAKS IN I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING) and keep the length of that working week to the standard for your university, whether that’s 37.5 hours or 40 or whatever. Don’t put tasks outside of your working day (whatever that is) or beyond your week into whatever would count as your evenings and weekends.

For each task you schedule in, estimate how long it would take if everything went well, and then double that amount of time. This is because sometimes that job will indeed take twice as long as you thought, because bureaucracy is a thing, and computers like to get revenge on us now and again for our endless cat memes. Sometimes other urgent stuff will encroach and eat some of the allotted time. Sometimes you will get ill, or your kids will start to leak green ooze from their ears and require an on-call otolaryngologist, or aliens will abscond with the main university building and half the senior management team.

The actual emergency doesn’t matter. The simple fact that emergencies happen does. Build slack into the system. This is crucial. If you continually and relentlessly push yourself to meet a series of exact deadlines with absolutely no leeway for mistakes or incidents, whether of your own making or anyone else’s, one day you will, and indeed must, invariably, fail to meet a deadline. And if your stress levels haven’t already skyrocketed, at every hiccup that threatens your next upcoming deadline, they will obligingly race straight through the Kuiper Belt and out towards the Crab Nebula.

So now you have your to-do list scheduled, and you can see how much unscheduled time you have left in your week (if any! we’ll get to that in a moment) so when people email to ask for appointments within those scheduled task times, unless it’s urgent, again, the answer is, “No”. They go into the free times, or you rearrange your calendar to accommodate them, but you keep the time you allowed yourself for whatever task you just moved.

In reality, of course, you will slip. Yes, you might have to spend the hour that should have been dedicated to an article review that day on a sudden, urgent pastoral care issue instead, but then you reschedule that time back in. And, during busy times, you may spend some non-work time marking or reviewing or emailing, but this should be the exception, not the norm.

Why bother with putting your to-do list into your diary? Well, if you can’t fit everything into your calendar within sensible working day or week durations, and get it done before its required deadline, whilst also having sufficient time for your other duties and any typical contingency requests (a tight-turnaround reference, for instance) then this is a major red flag that your workload is a problem. Perhaps you already knew that, but now you have physical, concrete evidence, and from there, you can start to make changes.

You can start declining all non-essential tasks without any feeling of guilt, or if your manager makes noises about that, you can ask them which jobs they would like you to remove from your calendar in favour of these new tasks they would like you to do.

Let them eat cake

Remember the title of this post. Academia is a cake-eating contest in which the prize for eating the most is… more cake. If you thoughtfully review those ten articles and carefully revise those four chapters and promptly submit that bid and enthusiastically teach all those classes to the pitch of your ability and breathlessly send in that article and relentlessly burn right down to last millimetre of your fuse, most people won’t know this. You may not even realise this.

What everyone else will see is that one module they took with you, or that one chapter you’ve sent them, or that one review that you have clearly bestowed loving attention upon, and they’ll think, “Good grief, this is wonderful! I must send you this OTHER thing to do!” No one else can know your whole work schedule in quite the way you do and so you have to keep a tight hold of the reins because with every effort to bat things out of your inbox, if you’re doing even a half decent job, four more things will come right back at you.

But there is another aspect to this. In keeping such a record, you also have nice clear evidence of your progress and collegiality and departmental input. This never hurts when you come round to your annual appraisal or your promotions or tenure paperwork. Assuming you don’t already have a system like this in place, think back over this past year. How busy have you been? Ridiculously? Okay, super. Doing what, exactly? Unless you have a remarkable memory, you’re likely to flounder about and say things like, “Er… teaching? And… I wrote a chapter?” And otherwise it will all be a blank. It’s not that you didn’t do anything all year (or maybe you did, I don’t know, but if that were the case why would you be reading this). It’s simply that the enormous avalanche of smaller jobs fades into a blur, and the details are lost. This keeps track of that in a light-touch, non-intensive way, whilst also allowing you to both pace yourself, and demonstrate to yourself and anyone else who deserves to know it just how you spent your time.

The best thing about cake is moderation.

A slice a week? Exquisite.

A slice a day? Still very delicious, at least for a while.

Five slices a day for every meal all year round? Gross.

I can guarantee that if you refuse every “extra” task for the next year, perhaps because you have been struck down with stress-induced ill health and simply cannot work at all, the university will serenely carry on exactly as before. By contrast, the consequences at home will probably be profound. In different words, keep in mind which aspects of your identity are eminently replaceable (employee, committee member, etc.) and which are absolutely irreplaceable (parent, spouse, etc.).

As I keep tweeting, on your deathbed, you will not be wishing you had spent more time on that review, or done another spreadsheet, or filed a prettier business case. What would you wish you’d done? Spent more time outdoors? With your loved ones? Reading? What would those most precious in the world to you have wished you’d done with your free time? What would you want them to remember about you? What example would you want to set to those who look up to you?

Ration your cake, and in so doing, leave yourself another, much nicer problem to deal with: using your well-earned free time to figure out all the answers to these very questions.