David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: It’s About Time — or Rather, Time Management

Full vitae admin101

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

Once you start your run in campus administration, figuring out how to manage your schedule is critical. There’s always more to do — or, to do well and on time — than there are hours in the day. It’s all too easy to burn out or fail as a higher-education leader if you don’t learn and practice effective time management.

The Admin 101 series explores both the public and the unheralded components of trying to succeed in college or university administration. Now let’s take the time to think about time itself. What can you do to manage your work commitments so that you can (a) still have a personal life, (b) maintain your sanity, and (c) keep your job?

Appreciate the value of time. In his book Saving Alma Mater, James Garland employs a clever device to highlight how we neglect to value time in higher education. Garland, a former president of Miami University of Ohio, calculated the cost of a committee meeting by adding up the participants’ salaries and dividing that number by how long the session lasted.

The result was startling: That meeting — in which nothing was decided, discussion wandered, and everybody restated their positions (again) — cost roughly $10,000.

Whenever I’m in a meeting, I try to visualize Garland’s insight. It reminds me that what’s going down matters — because of both the topic and the minutes ticking by.

When you become an administrator, you have to force yourself to think of time — everybody’s, not just your own — with a hint of urgency. Time spent on a task, without progress toward accomplishing it, is wasted. Time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. As a regular faculty member you might face a dozen deadlines of various kinds in a year; the average provost, however, will have a "must do" list every day.

Here are some steps you can take to remind yourself regularly of the significance of time:

  • First, never hold a meeting unless all parties involved have agreed not only on a specific agenda but also a timeline for finding a resolution on each item. Note the deadlines and the due-by dates, and perhaps provide annotation as to why they are serious.
  • Second, in leading a meeting, navigate between being respectful of people’s opinions and avoiding perpetual irresolution. Here is where you have to develop your cat-herding skills. There are gentle ways to get conversations back on track. Offer variations of statements like "Thank you for that contribution. Now in terms of what we need to decide …" Or "Good. We now have a lot of the context we need to move forward on making a decision." Proceed with caution: This is academe, after all, so woe to the administrator who regularly employs corporate methods, shuts down discussion, and demands action.

Establish protocols, patterns, and playbooks. College administration can become a giant exercise in trying to plug 100 leaks. Your day as a department chair might consist of "chronic" matters — ones that cycle predictively, like planning the course schedule and roster for the summer. Then there will be acute matters — like an instructor’s announcing his intention to resign a few days before the semester starts.

The key to surviving the maelstrom:

  • Plan for what you know will happen as well as what might happen — and when. Consider the full year: What days, weeks even, do you need to set aside for recurring tasks? Develop projections of what you need to know before you start such tasks, and what you must have in hand in order to finish.
  • Follow the rules of crisis preparedness. You must be prepared for some things, even if they rarely happen. For example, major budget cuts are infrequent, but a good administrator will keep a running list of "things I could cut without hurting anyone." Another example: If someone gets sick in midsemester and can’t teach, you need to know what steps to take to find a temporary replacement.

Schedule — and try to limit — your digital time. When you write advice essays, you run the risk of being judged against them in real life. In actuality, the counsel may be sound, but the execution is difficult. The blizzard of emails (and now texts and IMs) that afflict every campus administrator is a case in point.

The principle is simple: Check your email only at certain times of the day. If you want further rigor, create appointments on your calendar to do so. I find that advice in line with the insights of Cal Newport, in his new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

That said, I’ve never actually segregated the digital world consistently. The gravitational pull of my email is just too strong, especially when I have pressing matters looming. But scheduling your digital time remains good practice — in theory.

Devise a set of plug-and-play answers. A vast amount of what administrators do is repetitive. The same tasks come up again and again, and so do the same questions and issues. One timesaver is to create a glossary of standard responses you can send out quickly.

For example, about 10 percent of the email I get as a dean involves a request to meet with me. Sometimes I have to answer a specific question, but generally I can cut and paste a stock reply: "Sure, that would be fine. Let’s set up an appointment for us to meet at a date and time of mutual convenience." Spread over thousands of emails, this can save you lots of time.

One caveat: It is tempting to fall into the habit of treating every similarly framed request as identical. But try to actually read the details and make sense of when you need to personalize a response — even if that takes time.

Be wary of too much focus on one task. An early lesson for faculty members is that achieving work-life balance does not mean the balance will be 50/50 — and on the work side of the equation, you will be balancing teaching, research, and service. Likewise, stepping into a leadership role involves balancing a mix of major demands on your time. You may spend a week obsessing about end-of-year budget reports, another week on fund-raising trips, and two days dealing with a delicate personnel issue.

The danger is that in fixating on a "biggie," you will let other things (and people) slip off your radar.

Take, for instance, the widely quoted statistic that deans should spend about 40 percent of their time on fund raising. Certainly, development is crucial in an era of tight budgets, but if you spend that much of your time — week after week, all year long — on fund raising, you will face a faculty vote of no confidence in a year.

And I have seen and heard of that happening: A dean is hugely popular with alumni and donors but is eventually fired because faculty members feel neglected. Conversely, a dean who is too fixated on internal issues not only will fall short of fund-raising goals but may also, ironically, face charges of "micromanagement" internally.

I offer no universal wisdom to overcome that dilemma, except to quote Silvio from The Sopranos: "It’s not good to get too hung up on any one thing." Tunnel vision creates blind spots.

Accept that you will never get everything done — on time. Earlier this year a rare event occurred for my deanship: I cleared my email. For one brief, glorious moment, around 4 a.m., I had zero messages in my inbox. Alas, the only witness was one of my cats, who had other concerns. Nevertheless, I went back to sleep, and when I checked my email again, at 8 a.m., I had 27 new messages.

Don’t get too stressed about time management. Yes, some deadlines really matter, but many are rolling, or could be. You will never be at the top of your game for anything if you work yourself into a frenzy over everything. Just accept that you will always be behind on some aspects of the job — and that you may get further and further behind the higher you move up the ranks.

Plenty of good books are available on time management, with lots of best practices, but they’ve been honed in a nonacademic workplace. They won’t necessarily work in academe, which has a distinctive work culture.

Power in academe, for example, does not necessarily flow in the same fashion on the organizational chart as it does in the corporate world. If you are a department chair, yes, you should pay attention when your dean tells you, "I really need this report by Friday." But a plaintive cry for help from an assistant professor in your department may turn your attention from the dean’s report. At the end of the day, you must try to fulfill your responsibilities, distinguishing on a case-by-case basis what matters right now and what can wait another day.

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