The Absentminded Professor

I’m not sure when I became “that professor”… you know, the one who can’t be counted on to answer emails, be prompt at meetings, or follow through in a reasonable amount of time. We all know one or two – we tell our students not to bother emailing them or ask them for a letter of recommendation, and we tell our colleagues not to start collaborations with them. It’s not because they aren’t smart, or congenial, or even effective researchers and teachers… by and large just have way too much on their plate, and haven’t figured out how to juggle it all effectively.

This past fall semester, after two years mostly focused on prepping new classes and trying to get a handle on teaching and academic advising, I was finally able to take a breath. That peace only lasted until I started giving all of my other responsibilities the attention they deserved. My service load has increased and I’ve joined multiple department and university committees. I’ve tried to get back into writing and research with collaborators who I kind of ignored for two years. Most importantly, I’ve been focused on getting student research projects underway, designing their projects and finding funding (applying for over a dozen small grants this year). All this meant that although some parts of my job had started to feel manageable and sustainable, all of the new pieces meant that I was feeling even busier.

Things started falling through the cracks. I forgot to send one (or two) letters of recommendation. I was late to a department meeting. My inbox grew with things that deserved my attention, many of which didn’t even need a lot of my time. I could tell I was holding back colleagues on collaborative projects. I missed a review deadline by enough time the journal un-requested my review. Any one thing could have been a blip, but eventually it dawned on me that I was on the road to becoming that unreliable, absentminded professor – the one nobody wants to collaborate or work with. I’d seen a few of my peers accidentally burn bridges by being terrible collaborators, and I didn’t want that to be me – and I also didn’t want to lose the trust of my students or mentees because of my inability to keep track of details.

I tried a variety of ways to get things under control, some of which worked and some of which didn’t.

  • Tougher student email policy: The first thing I tried was telling students that I wouldn’t respond to emails about class outside of business hours and that email was strongly discouraged. I figured this would have two benefits – I would get fewer emails, and students would need to think (and perhaps look in the syllabus) before they sent me an inane question. I certainly got fewer emails! However, I relaxed this policy after one semester (see below).
  • Close the ‘open door’ office: I think it is a great idea to have an open door policy, where students can stop by and ask questions outside of official office hours. In my department it’s mostly open doors, particularly with the younger professors. However, I figured that removing constant interruptions would make me more efficient. It did, but combined with my email policy students felt I was not helpful or available and my student evaluations seriously suffered. I’m not sure it was worth the mild boost in productivity.
  • Weekly meetings with all of my research students: My advisor in graduate school was very hands-off, so that’s the way I started with my mentees. By the beginning of the Spring semester I realized that I was having a hard time keeping track of everything. Weekly meetings has had the dual benefit of giving them more face time with me and also reminding me what’s going on in the group and how it all fits together.
  • Asking for everything in writing: I feel like a broken record every time one of my students asks me for something or reminds me of an obligation. I immediately say “send me an email with what we just decided”. I suppose if I had a better day planner I could write it all down, but email is available everywhere, all of the time. This has really helped with my forgetfulness.
  • Reducing my access to email: It turned out that for me one of the best ways to keep on top of email was to check it less often.  I only check my work email when I am either waiting for something specific to come in or know I have time to respond to emails. I removed the app from my phone so it’s a pain check my work email (also good for work-life balance!).
  • Answering emails right away: If I have time to read an email, I have time to respond if that response is going to take less than one minute. No procrastinating, period. Probably THE most important thing I did for making sure things don’t slip through the cracks. I clear my inbox quickly, and leaving only difficult or time consuming emails that then stand out. As an added bonus students and other people get very timely responses.
  • Keeping a to-do list: This is a no brainer, but I found that having a to-do list keeps me focused and on track. I tried a few different apps that categorize and highlight and send reminders, but in the end I’ve found a simple Word document has been sufficient.
  • Use of a calendar app (with reminders): Putting everything in an online calendar that sends reminders to my phone has been helpful, although not perfect.If I forget to move something from a students’ email I’m likely to still miss it. I also need to figure out how to set it up for earlier reminders… the default of ten minutes isn’t really cutting it when I’m in a different city and realize I have a meeting.

Overall I think I’ve made strides, although it’s going to be challenging to stay on top of everything as I keep getting thrown new balls to juggle. I keep hearing that expectations and obligations will be even higher after tenure. I have a few mentors that inspire me with how they manage to do it all AND keep track of the small things. How do you?

8 thoughts on “The Absentminded Professor

  1. You could have your students set up calendar events and invite you via the calendar. Then when you accept the invite it will go straight onto your calendar. A lot of people at my current institution do that and it is really helpful to just click one button and be done with it.

  2. I led a similar life in a different field of work for a long while. Whith the urgent always crowding out the important. Until I made a decision: no more piles of stuff that hasn’t been dealt with. Since then I sift through everything incoming daily, throw away or delete the unimportant, deal with quick and easy stuff immediately and put everything else on a to-do list, to be dealt with one after the other. Works quite well. The only thing, that doesn’t stick to my fine routine, is people, of course. They come at any time to see me with their problem, which they always rank “urgent”, whereas I might file it away in the “delete” pile. But then again, you can’t do that with people, unfortunately.

  3. One thing I do that I find helpful is to schedule student meetings back-to-back. Then I tell the first student we’ll meet at 1, the next that I will come and find them between 1:15 and 2 and so on. That way I don’t end up with a lot of short periods of downtime, and I don’t meet with a student for an hour if we don’t have an hour’s worth of stuff to discuss. Also if someone needs a bit of extra time one week it just runs over without someone else hanging around my door.

    I find it useful to have my work mail on my phone and I use the 5 min before meetings etc or when I’m waiting for something to quickly answer short emails (and delete them).

  4. Once, when I was a newby, I was really busy with a deadline approaching when a student knocked. I said “I’m sorry, but can we make an appointment for xxx time on yyy day”? The student looked taken aback, then respectful, and said “of course, of course, I’m sorry”. So I learnt my lesson, and forever after I would make appointments as mentioned above, to suit myself – 15 mins or 30 mins depending on the problem. It was such a relief for me to have more control over my work day, because at that time I needed to leave on time to collect kids.

    This falls apart of course, if there is a real emergency, someone in tears etc, but unless it is just an easy thing about extending a deadline for an assighment, I usually just offer kleenex and a kind word and phone the counsellor or the course co-ordinator or even the Chaplain to make an appointment for them. And hopefully these emergencies only happen occasionally.

  5. Pingback: Friday links: useful unrealistic theory, final papers vs. you, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  6. I just finished my 3rd year. I do a lot of what you suggest above. My graduate students are responsible for making a meeting with me twice a semester, and I take notes on those meetings to make sure they have happened. I tell everyone to email me to confirm anything we’ve just talked about. But most important, I had to curb my freakish tendency to say “yes” to every request. I found myself drowning and getting behind on so many projects that I was letting colleagues down. I have watched very closely who gets tenure and what they do, and I realized they’re not on a million committees. I do not accept committee memberships (aside from dissertation) I’m not interested in, and I do not agree to collaborate on anything that’s not in my research area. I feel much more on track now.

  7. Pingback: managing absentmindedness by slowing down | Stressful Times for Psyc Girl

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