Level up!

The spring semester was rough. I was constantly going full-tilt and couldn’t find time to stop and breathe. This fall couldn’t be more different, though I’m busier than ever. I’m teaching an overload (15+ contact hours), wrangling four research students on three separate projects, picking up more service work for the department and university, and chasing a toddler at home. Yet somehow I feel more like I’m surfing on top of the wave of work and not getting dragged down into it. I've joked that I’ve leveled up from “well, nothing's on fire, so it must be fine” to “I got this.” In short: I feel competent.

That’s not to say that I feel like I’ve mastered everything. I’m still forgetting things, making mistakes, and bumping into knowledge I don’t have that I wish I did. But it doesn’t knock me off my feet like it did before.

Experience takes time

Some of the calm comes from practice. I've taught the more time-intensive courses in my schedule at least once before. I know my way around the building better than before, so when I prep a lab or need to grab an extra flask, I can usually get it myself. I know most of the upperclassmen this year because I've been around long enough to have taught them in previous semesters. I know the cycles and rhythms of the university administrative work: when to expect certain forms and announcements, when work will be due and where to send it, who to ask for assistance and who is perhaps less than helpful. All of these things took time.

My best friend from grad school is in her first post-post-doc job, and at the beginning of the semester she said she wished she could fast-forward to the fourth week of classes or even her fourth year, when that institutional knowledge had been built up. I don’t know any shortcuts there, though mentoring from understanding colleagues has certainly helped. I am grateful to a colleague hired the year before me, who helped lead the faculty mentoring program my first year. She knew the quirks of the university, but hadn’t been here long enough for them to be “the way things have always been.” (We joke that you have to be careful what you start on campus. One year is a pilot. Two years is still temporary. After three years, it's tradition.)

Finding time

Familiarity with the university isn’t the only thing that has made life easier. I live about 25 miles closer to campus now than I did at the start of the year. I’m close enough that I can run home for lunch, if I want to. Since daycare is now close to home and along his way to work, my husband does the morning drop-off. I also no longer nurse my daughter in the middle of the day. These three changes mean there are about 12 more hours available in my week now than in the spring. Some of that time has gone toward getting more sleep, which helps everything.

Getting organized

I've also tried a few different things to stay organized. I take various handouts, note-sheets, worksheets, quizzes, etc. to my classes, which I had been carrying in manila folders. I always seemed to forget a folder I needed or take the entire stack everywhere (so I couldn’t forget any). Now they're color-coded by course, which has significantly improved my ability to bring the right papers to the right place without carrying extra stuff. (Shifting more and more things from paper to digital has also helped, but I still generate a surprising amount of paper.)

I like to use calendars to plan my courses, but I didn’t want to crowd my work calendar with course details, and no calendar system I know of lets you view all your notes when zoomed out to a week or month view. Back in August I got a giant 12-month laminated calendar and stuck it to my wall. I have a colorful collection of wet-erase markers for noting quiz and exam dates, the lab schedules, upcoming meetings, deadlines for proposals and reports, and other benchmarks. I use small sticky notes to make notes for things that are upcoming but don’t yet have a set date. I also have one with TODAY and an arrow that I move so I can orient myself at a glance. It really helps to see that big picture view so I can plan ahead.

Another new thing for me this fall is Trello. I received an invitation to a campus workshop on digital tools for research that mentioned Trello, and I decided to take a look. I have used OmniFocus and the GTD system for almost 10 years, with varying levels of success and frustration. Since I started using Trello, I’ve hardly touched OmniFocus.

In GTD everything is organized in projects. Projects (things you want to achieve) are made up of tasks (things you will do). Both tasks and projects have contexts (people, places, or things you need to do the tasks). My mental model for teaching does not lend itself well to the GTD framework (is grading a task or a project?) and aspects of OmniFocus's design have frustrated me (projects/tasks that repeat but aren’t identical, e.g. the prep and grading for weekly labs, are tedious to set up without writing custom automation scripts). Nevertheless, they worked better for me than the other systems I tried, so that’s what I used.

A few weeks ago I set up a Trello board for work. In Trello you have boards, which contain lists, and within lists you have cards (tasks). (I believe Trello was based on [kanban], which also has boards, lists, and cards, but I'm not sure.) My lists are Completed, Today, and then separate lists for each week (the current week and the next week or two). I also have lists that are similar to GTD projects (i.e. all the tasks you’d need to do to complete the project). What I really like about Trello is that I can view multiple lists at once and easily move items from list to list. I look at the upcoming week(s) and decide what I’m going to do that day.1 When I complete a task, I move it to the Completed list, which I archive (clear out) at the end of the day. Since so much of my work is intangible, it’s nice to be reminded by the growing Competed list that I’m actually accomplishing things.

Competent & content

The result of all this experience, newfound time, and improved organization is a noticeable boost to my mental health. I'm busy, yes, but I’m not too busy to play with my daughter, snuggle on the couch with my husband, or do my morning crossword puzzle. Teaching work in particular has a way of behaving like a gas: it will fill up whatever time and space you give it. I am getting better about caulking up the cracks so it doesn’t seep into my nights and weekends as much as before.

1 OmniFocus has a calendar view, but only things that are due (or deferred) on those days show up, and moving things in and out of a today project from other projects is tedious. Some people use flags for that purpose, but I still find it tedious (just slightly less so).