“Seasons” in the academic year

On a recent Mikes on Mics podcast with Erik Fisher (host of the Beyond the To Do List podcast), they briefly explore the idea of repeating and recurring tasks that are sometimes related to the seasons. For example, they talk about the fact that in the northeast U.S., you need to hire a snowplow in the fall so that you’re ready for the winter snow. Ideally, you set up a repeating reminder on say October 15th each year to remind yourself to hire a snowplow. For those tasks or projects that you can anticipate happening at regular intervals, it can be helpful to set up these reminders in advance so that they are out of your head, but not completely forgotten. This notion of capturing tasks and placing them in a trusted system is one of the hallmarks of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to productivity, and one that works very well for me.

Even though in the podcast they only touched on this notion of seasons dictating certain tasks and projects, it made me think about the rhythm and seasons of the academic year. The start-up tasks that occur at the beginning of each year are fairly predictable. One needs to develop/revise syllabi, obtain class lists, set-up a class Web space or other way to diffuse information, and do the careful planning for the first few class sessions. This is true for the Fall and Spring semesters. In the Fall, though, there are probably additional, predictable tasks. I know, for example, that I need to attend to program reviews that are due in early October, circulate the spring class schedule, and do the requisite travel authorization forms for fall conferences. These tasks are as predictable as February 15th (tax day in the U.S.). And yet, every fall I tend to plan for project development work, writing, and a myriad other generative tasks that are simply less urgent than the aforementioned recurring tasks. In reality, no matter how motivated I am to plan the next research project, it probably needs to wait until I get these other (less engaging) tasks completed first. It is hard for me, though, once these generative tasks are on my radar to let them go until I complete the other tasks.

What if, though, we were more forward-thinking in our planning? What if we blocked out time (a realistic estimate of time) to attend to the recurring tasks that have hard deadlines and slotted in some of the more generative tasks at a more appropriate time (or season) of the semester? I have three two-week blocks of time during the semester that I know my preparation/feedback work in my courses is going to be slow. What if I organized my calendar to focus on the generative tasks during these time periods instead of trying to cram them in around the inevitable beginning of the semester tasks? There will be the inevitable unpredictable diversions, but they can be more easily absorbed into a more deliberate planning approach. Of course, I think of this every Fall about this time and fail to act on it. This time, though, I’ve set up some recurring tasks for each Fall semester going forward as well as the Spring and Summer. I’m hoping that in doing so, I’ll be more realistic, productive, and satisfied during these busy times of the semester.