Two other tips that made me less productive were more surprising. Several sources I read disagreed on whether you should act immediately on phone messages/emails or shelve them for set times of the day. I tried both.
Acting immediately made me feel like Dug, the talking dog from Up. I couldn’t focus well on anything, while paying attention to the nearly constant pinging of my three email accounts. And responding only at set times almost caused a student stampede to my office as they had urgent questions that needed to be answered before their papers were due. For me, responding whenever I transition from one task to the next seems to work best.
The suggestion of having someone keep you company during unpleasant tasks was also a disaster. No teacher enjoys hours of grading so the possibility of chatting with my dear friend and fellow teacher online (she’s a professor in Michigan) proved too great a temptation. We’re better off sticking to our tried-and-true method: during grading crises, we pace each other with brief check-ins each hour to make sure we stay on task.
What Might Potentially Work
Starting new practices during a highly stressful couple of weeks probably isn’t the best idea. That’s what I’ve discovered with the establishing good habits tip. If I want to inhale a stack of Thin Mints at noon to help me get through the next seven hours of student presentations and club moderation, I go for it, even if I crash at 9pm from all the sugar. I also wish I could say I tackled the small stuff first, but nothing feels particularly “small” to the students I work with during finals week. I also couldn’t fully plan ahead because I needed to finish my work first before even thinking about editing syllabi for next quarter.
However, I did remind myself of two main habits I used to follow more religiously: stop multitasking and don’t sit at your desk all day / exercise. I tend to get obsessed with trying to do multiple things at once, like when I nearly spilled my fresh cup of tea all over the handouts I had just pulled from the machine as I tried to wave at a colleague. Lesson learned: not everyone can walk and chew gum at the same time. Especially not me.
Despite horrible allergies and the worry that taking a 30 minute break might make me stay up too late, I still managed to drag myself out for a quick walk / run around the block twice. I felt happier, moved faster around my classrooms, and was more willing to have productive “butt in the chair” time in the afternoons after my workouts. While I don’t think I’ll be signing up for another 10k anytime soon, it was a nice reminder that I need to continue to take care of myself...
What Proved Semi-Useful
…which was the most useful lesson I got out of the productivity tips. Sure, I was smart and found ways to mechanize repeated tasks (i.e. I sent a class email instead of copying and pasting the same answers to individual students) and kept myself organized so I didn’t waste time looking for things like my keys at the end of another 13 hour day.
But, mostly, I focused on making sure I was a happy and productive instructor. I set a timer so I could see progress on tasks when I felt like giving up for the day. And treated myself afterwards to more than one well-deserved episode of Parks and Recreation before bed.
Overall, I tried to channel my inner Oprah and be mindful. Sure, I didn’t enjoy the seemingly-endless line of students growing outside my door as my office hours were ending, but I realized the larger goal: helping students grow. I didn’t exactly have time to keep a gratitude journal, but I did find and repeat a mantra to myself (a slightly different one than in Dead Poets Society) as I worked, which helped keep me sane.
What was it?
“We'll always have summer break.”