Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

How does this professor really spend his work time? (Spring 2019)

Posted 29 May 2019 / 0

Deep Commitment

Last semester I got serious about my time budget. Although I had been tracking my time for years to assure that I was “working enough”, I had spent too many of those years “just doing what seemed like it needed to be done”, a practice that had led me to pay some serious opportunity costs: those things that were demanding my time most loudly were displacing the “quieter” pursuits that I actually wanted to be spending my time on. My first pass at time budgeting was an attempt at both determining real costs and at cost containment. Not surprisingly, coming to grips with the real costs was achievable in this first semester of this practice; containing costs was not quite so achievable. Armed with the knowledge that collecting this data had produced, I moved enthusiastically forward into the Spring 2019 semester, hoping to get a little better at living within my temporal means

A time budget for the semester, version 1.1

Part of learning from my first attempt at time budgeting was to update the allocations of time in my budget. In some cases, that meant adding or subtracting hours allocated to particular activities. For example, in the Fall of 2018 I spent a bit more time on “course delivery” than I had budgeted for, so for Spring 2019 I upped my estimate for the time I would spend on that activity. I also had to add new categories. Some of these categories emerged from new roles at work; most prominently, I became the chair of our Curriculum Review and Assessment Committee (CRAC) this semester, a major new role. Other new categories emerged from the realization that I have been doing work-related things that were not accurately accounted for in my budget. Believe it or not, I had not accounted for the fact that I periodically need to spend time getting myself organized… ironic given that this sort of scheduling/organizing is at the heart of this time-budgeting endeavor.

And so I came at the new semester with updated intentions. Here is how those intentions and my real effort compared:

Activity: Goal Effort: Actual Effort:
TEACHING 57.3% 56.0%
Course delivery 21.9% 23.9%
Coursework grading 10.6% 9.1%
Prep for course delivery 3.5% 5.2%
Review of student projects (writing intensive) 17.7% 14.0%
Answering student emails/class business 3.5% 3.8%
SERVICE 24.0% 28.0%
Department: Prep & attendance at department meetings 0.9% 0.2%
Department: Reading/answering emails & impromptu meetings 3.5% 1.6%
Department: Prep & attendance at CRAC meetings 1.3% 2.0%
Department: CRAC chair duties 2.4% 11.6%
Department: Other projects 2.4% 1.5%
School: Communication & meetings 0.6% 0.2%
Institution: Academic Integrity Standing Committee 0.9% 0.1%
Institution: Academic Senate 1.3% 1.3%
Institution: Facilitating Faculty Learning Community 3.5% 2.7%
Institution: Prep & Attendance at Faculty Learning Community meetings 1.9% 1.7%
Institution: Attending facilitator’s meetings for FLC’s 0.6% 0.0%
Institution: Bias Education Response Taskforce 0.3% 0.6%
Institution: Communication 2.4% 0.9%
Institution: Other Projects 1.3% 3.6%
Other communications & projects 0.8% 0.0%
SCHOLARSHIP 15.1% 11.2%
Reading to keep up with my field 7.1% 1.9%
FLC research work 5.7% 3.7%
Miscellaneous science publication & other research activities 0.0% 0.3%
STEAMplant work 2.4% 5.4%
OTHER 3.5% 4.7%
General organizing 2.4% 3.8%
Working on my website & social media 1.2% 1.0%

A big issue for me has been going over or under time budget on the activities I do each semester. As I consider the over-budget activities to be the guilty parties, I have highlighted all the categories and activities that exceeded my time budget in blue.

What can we glean from these results?

The great thing about time budgeting and tracking is that it lays bare what the problems are. And if you look at the table above, these problems are really apparent. Starting with the major categories, you can see that my effort for Teaching is just a bit short of what I expected, a slight difference that was compensated for by the fact that activities in the Other category went slightly above time budget. But the real tradeoff can be seen in the comparing Service and Scholarship: once again, my effort towards Scholarship was cut short by excessive allocation of time to Service. Even though my allocation of time to Service was rather generous — actually far more than I would like to allocate, as I would like to get Service and Scholarship to about 20% each —  my various forms of service still consumed more than I wanted them to. This is a constant problem for faculty, and now that I am tracking my time I can see just how much of a problem this is.

Why did Service go the most over budget of any category? Interestingly, it was not because the number of service commitments that I have is too great (although obviously doing fewer things on campus would lower my overall time budget allocation to Service). For most forms of service, I ended up spending less time than I had anticipated. This is good, because a few forms of service ended up being incredibly hungry for my time. The move from one to two meetings per semester for the Bias Education Response Taskforce doubled the time spent on this activity, but this was a relatively small increase in the use of my time. The need to attend a large number of talks and other events related to the search for a new Dean in our school also ate up a lot more of my time devoted to the institute as a whole. But by far the biggest consumer of time was our departmental Curriculum Review and Assessment Committee (aka CRAC).

What’s going on with the CRAC? How did I end up spending over 13% of my time on CRAC activities when I intended to spend less than 4%? The answer to that question is two-fold. First, I certainly under-estimated the time that it would take to perform the basic CRAC chairperson duties. Chief among these duties are shepherding course proposals through the review process and setting up our department’s yearly assessment activity. Course proposals are hard to budget for because it is not easy to know how many proposals will be submitted or how much attention each proposal will require, but I certainly should have allocated more time for this activity. Assessment is a somewhat predictable activity and one that also should have been allocated more time. The second issue was that I (voluntarily) chose to help spearhead a departmental effort at re-envisioning our curriculum. I could have chosen not to get involved in this project, so in some sense I chose to reallocate part of my time mid-semester. To some degree I am at peace with that decision, and the time tracking allows me to see the consequences of this change in plans.

What was lost when I over-did it on Service? Not just Scholarship in general, but particular forms of Scholarship. My intentions for Scholarship during the Spring 2019 semester were rather unambitious, but I still managed to fall short of the low bar I set. I actually spent more than twice the amount of time I wanted to on the two STEAMplant projects that I was involved with, which left two other scholarly activities neglected. The first was my work on research emerging from the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) that I have been involved in for the past three academic years. This was a minor shortcoming, and perhaps okay given how much time overall I have devoted to FLC activity over the past three years. The real tragedy was that I spent so little time on reading to keep up with my field. This is a form of scholarship that’s crucial to maintaining my continued viability and vitality as an academic, so this is a time budget shortfall that can’t be repeated in future semesters. It’s good to know what a problem this is, even as it is frustrating that I can’t seem to protect time allocated for this activity.

On a positive note, it seems as though I have gotten to the point where my Teaching time allocations are pretty spot on. A few categories went slightly over and a few categories were slightly under budget, but overall I was pretty close. This is heartening, because it means that I know how much time it takes to be an effective teacher and can therefore be realistic about “what’s left” for other activities. Getting those other activities into balance — both in terms of the relative amount of time I allocate to each of them and in terms of getting Service to “behave” — is my remaining challenge.

Actually hitting my goal for work hours spent

As I mentioned in my analysis of last semester’s time tracking exercise, one issue I experienced was over-estimating the total number of work hours that could actually put in over the course of the semester. Being too optimistic about how many work hours you can put in is a problem for a couple of reasons:

  • If you over-estimate the number of hours that you can work, you set yourself up to neglect some activities that you intend to spend time on; and
  • It is demoralizing to set overly-ambitious goals and then consistently fail to meet those goals. If the whole purpose of time budgeting is to set intentions and then be at peace with following those intentions, over-estimating just sets you up to not honor your intentions, creating stress rather than clarity around what can actually be accomplished.

For the Spring 2019 semester I set an overall work hours goal that was consistent with the actual effort that I was able to put in for Fall 2018. And, lo and behold, I was actually able to exceed my expected work hours by a little bit. It is so much better to have a little more — rather than a little less — time to work with, both from a practical and emotional perspective. Obviously my ability to put in work hours is going to change slightly from semester to semester, depending on what my home responsibilities are (and how much time I am willing to surrender to work), but it is good to know what an achievable work hours goal looks like at this particular moment in my life. Hitting that overall goal feels great, promoting a sense that I did what I could do.

Concluding thoughts on the value of time tracking

The more I do time tracking and budgeting, the bigger devotee I am of the practice. Although it remains impossible to accurately estimate how much time various activities will take and budgeting certainly does not prevent some activities from robbing time from other activities, I can feel and see that just the act of setting intentions is getting me a lot closer to my goals. I feel that I am now being honest with myself about what I can actually accomplish in a way that’s unprecedented in my many careers. A lot of that honesty involves truly confronting how limited I am, and the resulting finite nature of what I can accomplish. But by ending the practice of over-promising and under-delivering — to both myself and to others — I am getting a little closer to manifesting aspirations in my actions. Being on a time budget also relieves a lot anxiety that used to occupy the uncertain space between what I wanted to get done and what I was actually capable of accomplishing.

A Major Post, Higher Education, Research Projects, Teaching

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