7 Ways Academics Can Protect Their Time

Good planning and discipline can keep interruptions under control.

by Teri Saylor

August 8, 2017

For Timothy Fogarty, CPA, Ph.D., J.D., practicing good time management techniques is essential. Three days a week, he makes an hour commute each way to his job as a professor of accountancy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He also works with doctoral candidates who are under pressure to get their dissertations completed by deadline, and they are frequently at his door seeking advice and answers. These conditions mean he sometimes struggles to complete his own work in a timely way.

However, Fogarty still maintains an open-door policy.

“My job is a people job. Communication is essential, and closing the door is seen as a hostile act,” he said. “When I’m at the office, I’m always available.”

Fogarty is hardly the only faculty member who struggles with demands on his time. Constant interruptions from students and colleagues in person, online, on the phone, and in emails go along with teaching and doing research at colleges and universities. While the situation can be frustrating, there are ways to balance the demands on your time with your need to get your work done. Here are a few winning strategies used by Fogarty and other faculty members:

Redirect interrupters when necessary. Don’t be afraid to speak up if a student or faculty member drops by your office when you are in the middle of a project. Schedule a time when you are not as busy, or ask the person to come back later.

“I work with 35 faculty and staff members, and they know they can come in and talk anytime,” said Rebecca Shortridge, Ph.D., chair of the department of accountancy at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “If I have something on my plate that can’t wait, I’ll ask them to come back in 30 minutes to an hour. It’s challenging, but it keeps people from interrupting my workflow.”

Choose your commitments wisely. When you are asked to participate in a project, take time to make sure it is a good fit for your skill set. Anthony Curatola, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is a prolific writer and editor who is under constant deadline pressure and often struggles with demands from colleagues and reporters requesting his attention.

Curatola accepts appointments or volunteer assignments only if he believes he can bring value to them. “Evaluate a proposed commitment before you agree to take it on,” he said. “Ask for as much information as possible to determine if you can really add value, and if you can derive value from it as well.”

Take a triage approach. Fogarty recommended evaluating email and voicemail messages to determine if they merit an immediate response. “Don’t go fully into the habit of providing immediate responses because you may get swept away into them,” he said. “We must learn what is important and what is not. Sit back and wait. Sometimes problems resolve themselves over time.”

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Shortridge recalled a time when she was fixated on the volume of email sitting in her inbox. “I used to be obsessed with having zero emails in my inbox,” she said. She discovered it was impossible to maintain that standard.

Shortridge has created a system for filtering email messages and storing them in folders. “I have folders organized by topic, and I drag and drop related emails into the folders,” she said. “I also segment emails into those I need to deal with immediately and those that can wait.”

Turn the tables on technology. Using voicemail and out-of-office email responses can help create safe zones of uninterrupted time. Curatola does not hesitate to screen and block calls when he’s not in his office. “I don’t answer the phone if the caller ID says ‘unknown,’ and I don’t take calls at night unless they are from family members and friends,” he said. 

Tune out and turn off. If you have work that requires your undivided attention, work around normal office hours, or sequester yourself away from distractions. In Curatola’s department, there is less activity in the office before 8 a.m. so he goes in at 6. “That gives me two hours of quiet time when I can get some things done,” he said. “If I have a big project or a tight deadline, I just work at home.”

If you simply can’t keep yourself from checking email or voicemail, or answering your mobile phone, set specific times for checking in and, between those times, turn notifications off or just shut down your devices. 

Work in chunks. Because Fogarty is not in his office every day, he has developed some strategies to ensure his time is well-spent. When he doesn’t have long interrupted blocks of time available, he finds that breaking larger tasks into smaller portions helps him maintain progress on his to-do list.

“I have figured out how to make five to 10 minutes useful,” he said. “I break down tasks into small chunks, and over time, those chunks add up.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.