Workload planning: a quick thought

I’m well ahead of you in appreciating the irony of not having more time to write about this subject, but let’s make a virtue of it.

Workload is the bane of our lives: people wanting stuff from us, all the time, making it impossible for us to focus on – errm – the other work we’ve got.

In all my various mangerial functions, dealing with your workload is the most frequent issue that colleagues raise: they’d love to do X, but they haven’t the time.

Given my opening sentence in this post (and the contents of my inbox), I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, but I have suggest some things that have made it less bad for me.

Idea 1: think about timescales

My teaching is essentially about preparing materials on a multi-month schedule now, so I’ve had to become much more mindful about this.

As a result, I not only keep my diary up-to-date, but I also have a planner that runs out at least six months.

In that planner, I note landmark deadlines, for research and teaching, plus the likely timeframe beforehand to do that work, so I have a sense of when’s particularly pinched [right now, as it turns out].

That longer-term view helps me to make better decisions about more short-term obligations.

At the end of each week, I mark up the next week in my diary, defensively marking out slots for the big stuff, but also aware that things are likely to pop into my email that I must do, so I might have to flex on that.

It’s not an exact science, but with time I’ve gotten better at judging where the margins are, allowing to keep on track with the different lines of work.

Idea 2: remember to say ‘no’ to stuff

One of the best suggestions I even got was to say ‘no’ to one thing each day at work.

That might be an invite to write a guest piece, to participate in a collaboration, to do a thing. It might be as little as not ducking out early for a drink, or as big as not joining in that huge funding bid your colleagues are doing.

But importantly, it’s not about saying ‘no’ just to hit your daily quota, but about being mindful of what you can carry as workload.

If I get asked to write an article, or give a talk, or join a bid, I always ask myself whether the benefit is worth the investment I’ll have to give to it.

That time needed to write something up is time you can’t use for another project that matters. And if that bid comes off, then it’s even more time you’ll have to give.

The calculation of cost/benefit is very personal, but be frank with yourself about what you need and what you want. It’s nice to be nice, but it’s also good to be thinking about yourself, not least because relatively few others will be.

The best way to keep workload manageable is to avoid picking up any more work than you have to.

And don’t be an arse about saying ‘no’: be prompt and polite and maybe it’ll come back round again when you’re able to say yes.

Idea 3: know when to bail

Let’s say you said ‘yes’ to a thing a while back and then stuff happened.

Now you’re off schedule and unlikely to get back on.

Start off by telling the people you committed to about it: often there’s more flex than they first said (probably because they’ve worked with academics before and know about ‘deadlines’).

If that doesn’t solve it, or isn’t going to solve it, then be willing to cut the cord on the work. You’ve holding them up and you’re holding yourself up.

Again, doing this sooner rather than later is best, so they can try to get someone else in. And this is very much a point not to be an arse: it’s definitely on you, so accept that and work with them to try to find a mutually-acceptable solution.

Of course, bailing is really only possible in certain circumstances: it’s very unlikely to be an option for your regular internal commitments. Hence the other two ideas.

Like I say, these are just ideas and ones that I follow imperfectly (as some of you will know). If you’ve got suggestions, then I’d love to hear them.

Whenever you’ve got the time to. Obviously.