Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

How does this professor really spend his work time? (Fall 2018)

Posted 11 Jan 2019 / 0

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After my first year of being a tenure-track professor, I knew that I had a problem: I wasn’t being mindful of how I spent my time. This had been a problem for me in graduate school, but once I got on the tenure track, the stakes became a lot higher. I knew that if I wasn’t careful, there was the possibility that I wouldn’t work enough — or on the right things — to earn tenure. Beginning a process of tracking the time I worked was a matter of professional survival.

And it worked. I am now a tenured professor, suggesting that I did indeed spend enough time on the right things during those first six years of my professorial career. How did I do it? Most of it was just about keeping myself accountable. I set goals for how many hours I would work and then created a spreadsheet that would allow me to keep track of all my work and see how “on target” I was with my goals. When I was falling off and not working as much as I had committed to, I knew it. And, in large part because of this feedback system I created for myself, I worked a lot in those early years.

While my previous practice of tracking my work time was very effective at assuring that I was working enough, it wasn’t capable of really telling me if I was using my time well. I was actually collecting data — what I was doing for various intervals of time — that would have allowed me to make some assessment of how well I was spending my time, but I hadn’t designed my time tracking spreadsheet to give me this feedback. Why? Well, maybe I didn’t really want to know how I was spending my time, because doing so was going to challenge some of my work habits and personal tendencies. Making sure that I was working enough was the first challenge of tracking my work time, and a comparably easier challenge. The next frontier was to really look at how I spend my time.

Creating a time budget and tracking my actual use of time

I am finally exploring this frontier. This past Fall 2018 semester I re-vamped my time tracking spreadsheet to allow me to accurately track up-to-the-moment time allocation to a variety of different work tasks. And I set intentions, both of how many hours I wanted to work per week and how I wanted to allocate my time.

Why did I want to know how I was spending my time? Well, as the years have gone on, things have changed. The biggest change that I have experienced in the last five years — those since I earned tenure — is a decrease in the total number of hours that I can work. Concurrently, I also find myself feeling more tired and overwhelmed than I have ever felt before at any job. Wait, you say, how can I be working less and feeling more overwhelmed? The answer, my friends, is simple: small children. While I have been a parent for my entire professorial career, the birth of my last two children ushered in an era of dramatically-increased parenting and household duties. Being a parent has constrained the number of hours I can work, and that has made work time more precious. Whereas before I might just work a whole lot more to accommodate a project that I am less-than-enthusiastic about, now “wasting time” comes with serious opportunity costs. Keeping track of how I spend my time is an attempt to minimize those opportunity costs, or at least to know more clearly when I am paying them.

There’s also an aspect of this more specific time tracking that seems particularly in line with being a tenured professor. To some degree when you are seeking to earn tenure, you just need to do “enough”. Like many people trying to get to the tenured promised land, I didn’t concern myself too much with whether I enjoyed doing what it took to get tenure: I did what seemed like it would lead to job security. Now that my job is secure, I am more free to ask how do I really want to spend this precious time I have as a professor? I still have substantial teaching obligations and I need to make sure that I do my part as a member of my campus community, but fulfilling these obligations should — if I have proper boundaries — allow plenty of time to pursue other activities.

Of course it is those boundaries that are the hardest to enforce. I will never stop wanting to be a better teacher, so it is always tempting to keep throwing work hours at my students. But what I really want to do is to use my hours devoted to my students effectively, and to a great degree that requires that I don’t just allow myself to spend more time on teaching. Similarly, one could always be a better member of the campus community by signing on to be involved in more committees and to oversee more initiatives. But again, what is the boundary on this sort of activity?

A lot is made of how professors change when they get tenure. The general implication is often that tenure allows professors to work less, or to spend less of their time on serving their institution. Certainly there are those tenured professors who work a lot less, but I have not found this to be the norm at all. What’s reasonable is for a tenured professor to take more control of their time budget, particularly when it comes to how time is spent on scholarly activities. My experience is that it isn’t just the professor who changes when the university awards them tenure: the stance of the university towards the professor also changes. Tenure is a lot like a marriage in that it comes with security but also a lot of expectation, and it seems to me that the university often feels quite entitled to a rather large share of professorial time once the wedding is over. I want to be a good partner to my institution, but that institution needs to also understand that it can’t have all my time.

Alright, enough introduction, let’s get to the fun stuff: the data. How do I spend my time?

How do I actually spend my time?

Well, before I give you the data, let me say just a little more about my process. I started this effort by thinking about the major categories of my work. For a professor, the super-categories are easy to define, because they are also the near-universal criteria by which tenure eligibility is determined: teaching, service, and scholarship (which includes research). But within each of these super-categories, what are reasonable categories to define? Obviously this is a classic “lumping versus splitting” problem, and I tried to come up with categories that would help me to better understand my work habits without creating a logistical nightmare in logging dozens and dozens of different kinds of work activities.

Once I had my categories in place, I started to think about how many hours I wanted to work each week (an over-arching work intention) and how many hours I expected to and/or wanted to spend on each of my different activities (particular intentions). For some kinds of work activity, there wasn’t a whole lot to decide: “course delivery” happens for three hours per class per week, making this a seemingly-easy “intention” to set. Other activities — most notably all my scholarly work — fall to the other extreme: although clearly I couldn’t spend all my time on these activities, exactly how much I spend (including the possibility of spending zero time on some activities) was somewhat arbitrary. The vast majority of activities fall into the (confusing and difficult) middle: they involve some degree of set, already-obligated time, but also could soak up more time if I so desired. Setting this time budget was an incredibly valuable process, because it was the first time that my intentions and my reality really sat across the table from each other and had an earnest conversation.

That conversation was not easy to listen to. What I heard was that I really didn’t have a lot of discretionary time on my hands, especially if I wanted to be a good teacher. And that meant that I had to be really mindful of how I spent my time, how productive I was during that time, and how I often I said “no” to new projects that threatened to encroach on my time.

A big change that I hoped to institute with this new time budgeting and tracking system was to increase the amount of time that I spent on various forms of scholarship. Look, I know where I am a professor, which is at a teaching-focused institution within a department that doesn’t even have majors. I know that with my teaching load I need to temper my expectations when it comes to my scholarship. But lately it has felt like I am at risk of doing nearly no scholarship: even the basic task of keeping up with reading in my various fields has become a challenge. I wanted to reclaim a bit more time for my own scholarly process, because of late that time feels like it has been eaten up by teaching and service. Time tracking would allow me to see what has been keeping me from being the scholar that I intend to be.

Once I had a time budget on my hands, that intention was entered into my spreadsheet so I could compare what I wanted to happen with what was actually happening. To try to optimize the chances of intention and reality aligning, I also entered into my work calendar regular slots of time for each of the activities in my time budget. If I was able to follow this calendar, I would both meet my overall work effort goal and honor my intentions on how to spend that time.

And here is how that all worked out:

Activity: Goal Effort: Actual Effort:
TEACHING 59.8% 60.3%
Course delivery 20.1% 24.4%
Coursework grading 6.7% 8.9%
Prep for course delivery 6.7% 9.2%
Review of student projects (writing intensive) 12.3% 10.4%
Review of student projects (non-writing intensive) 7.4% 2.2%
Answering student emails/class business 6.7% 5.2%
SERVICE 17.7% 24.9%
Department: Prep & attendance at department meetings 1.2% 0.9%
Department: Reading/answering emails & impromptu meetings 2.2% 4.8%
Department: Prep & attendance at CRAC meetings 1.8% 1.3%
School: Reading and answering emails 0.6% 0.0%
Institution: Academic Integrity Standing Committee 1.2% 0.4%
Institution: Academic Senate 1.2% 1.1%
Institution: Facilitating Faculty Learning Community 4.5% 4.6%
Institution: Prep & Attendance at Faculty Learning Community meetings 1.8% 1.4%
Institution: Attending facilitator’s meetings for FLC’s 0.6% 0.8%
Institution: Bias Education Response Team 0.4% 0.0%
Institution: Reading and answering emails & other service 2.2% 5.0%
Other email & organizing 0.0% 4.6%
SCHOLARSHIP 20.4% 14.8%
Reading to keep up with my field 6.7% 3.7%
FLC research work 4.8% 5.1%
Working on my BPC manuscript 8.9% 4.2%
STEAMplant work 2.2% 1.7%


What can we glean from these results?

The first thing is to note that my intentions and my reality are still misaligned, and that misalignment is not particularly surprising: institutional service is stealing a lot of time from my scholarship. I knew scholarship was suffering, but I wasn’t sure whether I was borrowing from scholarship time in order to pay teaching or in order to pay service. The answer is clear, at least for the Fall 2018 semester. Service to the institution was eating away at far too much of my time!

Digging a bit deeper into this reality, you can see that not all forms of service are the problem. In some cases, I actually anticipated putting in more time that I did (which is always scary, because it suggests that maybe next semester those now-dormant committees will once again wake up and consume even more time!). But a few categories of service were way hungrier for my time than I anticipated. The most obvious one is my department: the amount of time I budgeted for communication within my department was less than half of what I actually spent. This is not particularly surprising. Every time I am in my office there is the possibility that someone will drop by for an impromptu meeting, many of which are important. But within my department it is most difficult to have boundaries and keep communication time within reasonable limits.

The other big over-consumer of my time is the larger institution itself. Here is where my categories likely need refining: because I did not have a clear category for the various things the institution asks me to do (often spontaneously!), it all got lumped in with answering institutional emails. Reading and responding to institutional emails did take up a lot of time, but the overbudget on time expenditure was also caused by special events that I did not plan for in my initial time budget.

Interestingly, my intentions totally ignored a need that I clearly have: miscellaneous organizing and email time. And the amount of time that I spent on this “other” category is significant (just short of 5% of my time!). One danger in time budgeting is not properly anticipating a need, and it is clear that I need a lot of time just to get organized (and to a lesser degree to deal with emails that come from outside the institution).

How much damage did the disproportionate time appetite of service do to my scholarship? Well, as a quick look at my results shows, it depends on what forms of scholarship we are talking about. Some forms of scholarship were actually on target with my intentions: I spent a bit more time than I had intended on my Faculty Learning Community research work. But two major categories were dramatically under-honored. The first, “reading to keep up with my field”, was a major driver for my time tracking project, and as I expected I am not spending as much time on this scholarly activity as I intend… even after setting clear intentions! The second is perhaps most tragic, as it is clear that I have not been able to honor my Breeders, Propagators, & Creators book project as much as I want to. These shortcomings in my scholarly effort, laid bare by the time tracking process, are a wake-up call.

Perhaps my teaching looks to be in the best shape, as my overall goal effort (59.8% of my time) was very close to the time I actually spent (60.3%). I am happy with this alignment, but it is a bit misleading. As you look more closely at the actual numbers, you see time budget over-runs and time budget under-runs. Some of these misalignments are actually informative: I am learning that I probably need to budget a bit more time for coursework grading and course delivery and a bit less time for review of writing-intensive student projects and answering student emails. But other misalignments are a bit more troubling. For example, it looks like I need to allocate a lot less time for reviewing non-writing intensive courses, but this is an aberration. This semester my one non-writing intensive course was massively underenrolled (by semester’s end down to nine students for twenty-two seats!) and that greatly reduced the amount of work I had to do for that class. Such a windfall cannot be expected every semester.

One thing you will notice is that I have only listed percentages, not hours. This is, of course, intentional. While I realize that many of you who have taken the time to read this would like a more concrete estimate of how many hours I work, I have decided not to include this information for a variety of reasons. One reason is probably rather obvious: by being completely transparent with the number of hours that I work, I make myself vulnerable. I don’t want to be subjected to the judgment of others — particularly those who wield administrative power over me — based on what they consider the “right” amount of work that I should be doing. Being transparent in this way would be particularly dangerous in an environment where there is no benchmark data on how much my colleagues work; if no one else is tracking their time in such a detailed manner and publishing the results, how can we know if I am working enough? Compounding this problem is something that anyone who tracks their time knows all too well (but people who don’t track their time have no clue about): the time we think we spend working is almost always a lot greater than the time we actually spend working. The initial impulse to track my time was to be more honest with myself about how much I work, but there’s nothing in it for me to be subjected to comparison by colleagues who think they work a lot but don’t actually have any evidence to support their impressions.

Showing only percentages is, of course, less informative: percentages don’t really tell you whether my shortcomings in particular categories arise from spending too much of my time on particular activities or simply working fewer hours than I intended on those activities. Without sharing the actual hours I worked this semester, I can say that the problem was a little bit of both. The number of overall hours that I thought that I could work was about five hours more per week than I actually worked. Although this may seem like a small difference, it adds up, and in large part explains many of my under-allocations of time. But it is also true that many of the activities that I spent too much time on actually exceeded even my overly-ambitious overall time budget.

Using this feedback in a productive manner

I haven’t yet made my Spring 2019 semester time budget, but I will have to do so soon. It’s going to be a bit of a scary process, because I know that my time budget is tight. In order to set more realistic goals, I am going to have to lower the overall number of hours I expect to be able to work per week. This will put pressure on many of my activities, and I am going to have to choose between being less aspirational (by budgeting less time for scholarship) or more disciplined (by limiting the amount of time I spend on various teaching and service duties). Making things worse are two potential expansions of demands on me that I can reasonably anticipate for the Spring 2019 semester.

The first expansion has to do with service. Because a colleague is on sabbatical this Spring, I volunteered to fill an additional service slot as chair of our Curriculum Review and Assessment Committee. While I think this work is important — and that it was my turn to take on this task — it is going to at least partially exclude other activities. Normally when I take on a new task, I like to do so when I have removed some other task that requires comparable time commitment. But because this new duty was bestowed on me mid-academic year, I really can’t get out of any other commitments. So I know that next semester will demand more service from me, and I expect to lose scholarship time.

The second expansion has to do with teaching. Although my teaching time budget intentions and reality appear to have been perfectly aligned for Fall 2018, there’s a slight distortion in this alignment. Why? Well, due to underenrollment, one of my classes took a lot less time that I anticipated. This made up for “cost overruns” in other areas. But for the Spring 2019 semester, I don’t anticipate any such windfall work reduction: all of my courses are fully enrolled and have very healthy wait lists, suggesting that I will have full rosters of students and therefore can’t assume that time savings from the Fall will also be manifested in the Spring. There’s a big risk that increased teaching time demand will also decrease my available scholarship time.

I am excited to make some adjustments based on what I learned from my Fall 2018 time tracking process. The first set of these adjustments are what I like to call “tiny tweaks”. For a number of my activity categories I had to make educated guesses about the amount of time required, and now I am capable of making estimates based on actual data. Will every semester be the same in terms of work allocation? Of course not, but many of my tasks are reasonably consistent in their time costs, which should make setting future intentions a lot more accurate process. For example, it is clear that my time estimate for general course grading was a little low, so that number needs to be boosted a bit. I also under-estimated the time needed for “course delivery”, because I did not anticipate time spent talking to students after class. Other guesses were to high; for example, I probably can allocate just a little less time to reviewing student projects and answering student emails. My hope is that these little tweaks can move me closer to a realistic time budget that I can stick to.

I am also going to make some tweaks to my time tracking system that I hope will give me better feedback and therefore allow me to maintain better self-discipline. My past system tracked my work by month, and that led to an unintentional artifact in the Fall 2018 results reported above: the first week of class, which happened in August, was not included in my results. To fix this I am going to a “quarterly” tracking system, with my four tracking periods being the two semesters (Fall and Spring) and the two inter-sessions (Winter and Summer). I haven’t fully considered how I am going to set intentions for these inter-sessions, but I have been time tracking during the current Winter Inter-session.

In addition to getting my tracking periods in order, I also plan to add a few more categories to my list of activities. In an attempt to distinguish unintended time spent on departmental communication from unintended time spent on other projects, I have added a new category of departmental service. I have done the same for my institutional service, separating communication from other projects. The hope is that by adding these new categories — and the more detailed information they will provide — I will be better able to get some of my more time-hungry work activities under control.

Perhaps the most important change that I need to make is going to be to my own behaviors. Given that I don’t want to give up on some of my neglected intentions, I need to be disciplined about sticking to time limits for those activities that have historically consumed more time than intended. Think of this as “cost containment” in the realm of time and it makes perfect sense. I cannot allow certain activities to consume more of my time than they deserve. Some of the biggest candidates for cost containment in the coming Spring semester are:

  • the amount of time I spend prepping for my courses;
  • the amount of time I spend on departmental communication;
  • the amount of time I spend on institutional communication; and
  • the amount of time I spend on institutional special events.

This cost containment effort is going to be hard for me for a variety of reasons. For my teaching, I am going to have to be okay with my lessons being “good enough” rather than “perfect”. This might not be so hard for Spring 2019, as I am teaching my two most-established courses (as opposed to in the Fall, when I was teaching three courses including a relatively new one).

Email is a problem. Are you surprised? The ease of email allows others to flood our lives with things to do, and I am still not so good at resisting this subtle form of coercion. I love to have my inbox cleared, and one of the things I really struggled with last semester was allowing my inbox to be a bit messy. Perhaps one way to get better at this is just to not respond to as many emails. Some emails don’t require my response and I respond anyway, and the better I can be at rejecting superfluous messages from my inbox, the better I will be at staying on my time budget.

Perhaps the saddest place in which I have to contain costs are these “institutional special events”. If I could, I would be going to every gallery opening, special lecture, and student-led event on campus. But the reality is that I have very little time in my current budget for such things. I love being social and involved on campus, but unless I am willing to let other things go, that’s not in the time budget cards for me right now. One way to deal with this is to recognize that in the future, when my kids are older and I have more time to devote to work, I will also have more time to be involved on campus.

The largest adjustment that I need to make is of my own expectations. Perhaps this is the biggest value of tracking one’s time: it makes you realistic about what you can accomplish. For the Spring 2019 semester, that realism probably means that I need to admit that I won’t have a ton of time for scholarship, in particular working on my slow-moving book project. But perhaps this realism is a hidden gift, because by being realistic about what I can accomplish I can pull myself out of the state of anxiety that’s caused by expecting myself to accomplish what I just don’t have time for. And if I have to admit that once again scholarship is going to get pushed out by service, I can at least use that fact to argue for having fewer service commitments in the future.

Concluding thoughts on the value of time tracking

I see time tracking as a zen exercise, a kind of mindfulness. Setting intentions is critical to accomplishing one’s goals, but being realistic about what you can accomplish is also important. In the past, I have found myself emotionally paralyzed by the disconnect between what I want to accomplish and what I actually can accomplish. That sort of paralysis isn’t good for motivation. After all, it is those moments when we can summon up the motivation to get a task done that eventually come to define accomplishment. I have found it a lot easier to sustain that moment-by-moment self-discipline and motivation when I have set reasonable expectations and can fulfill them.

A Major Post, Higher Education, Research Projects, Teaching

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