Episode 3: Time to Refocus

“This is not a busy time. This is your life.”

Hugh Kearns has written extensively about time management in academia and the above direct quote from one of his workshops might resonate. Do you ever hear yourself saying ‘Yes, it’s just a bit nuts at the moment but things will be better next week when I’ve worked late every night to get task X over the line’? Not surprisingly next week comes along with a whole new set of needs ready to suck up all your time and headspace again. What is surprising is that many of us think and work like this constantly. A constant stream of busyness and scheduled activity is very much our daily life except it’s not how we might have hoped to find ourselves living.

Add Covid to the mix, when so many people in universities have had to either ‘pivot’ their teaching online or support those who have had to rework their teaching rapidly. The volume of additional work and time that this entailed has been enormous. And while the transition has certainly had some positive effects for students and academics (e.g less time commuting, increased flexibility) there’s no doubt that space has been squeezed. It is hard under these circumstances to engage with any activity that does not relate to immediate demands or needs as many of us have experienced for ourselves.

So what to do? It is important to acknowledge that many factors affecting our space and time are external.  Examples include excessive workload expectations and potentially a growing culture of managerialism and performativity (Ball, 2012; Kolsaker, 2008). If the workload is too high and under-resourced, no amount of time management savviness is going to solve the problem. However, there are certain time management techniques that might help you make a plan to create some space and bring more of an equilibrium into your work/life balance. The following graphic adapted from Covey, Merril & Merril (1995) First Things First may be worth revisiting: are you spending too much time in the Quadrants of Waste or Deception? Should you spend more time in the Quality & Personal Leadership Quadrant thinking about values and long term goals? An hour thinking about how you might spend more time on the bigger picture stuff – and making a realistic plan for it – may be a valuable investment. 

There are other steps that might be useful, some of which are within your gift but some of which which you might need to encourage others to enact:

  1. Support teaching conversation spaces: Informal and non-formal learning spaces – where staff have the opportunity to meet with colleagues and talk about teaching – matter now more than ever. As discussed in episode 1, staff value having a space to talk, share ideas about teaching, and commiserate on things that don’t go according to plan. Whatever form it takes, these spaces should be requested (if none exists) and supported by management. In one surprising silver lining of pandemic restrictions, moving these sessions online at Dublin City University has led to significantly increased numbers of full- and part-time staff attending and sharing and there is evidence that other institutions are finding the same (AISHE, 2020; Mihai, 2020). At University of Roehampton, one department has started to run regular ‘coffee and croissant’ sessions online, where colleagues come together to mull over challenges and successes in their work. While it’s fair to say that these are not the same as the on-campus original and it should be acknowledged that conversation spaces do take time to run and attend, they can offer opportunities to check in with colleagues in a way that is not easily available otherwise.
  2. Reflect, reflect, reflect: This may seem like a time sucker but it’s a time saver in the long run. Whether it is a few hastily scribbled notes on a post it, a short audio recording on your phone, or an ePortfolio entry, the value of capturing a snapshot of your thinking on a situation is invaluable. Not only will it help to make sense of events, some models can encourage you to remember the positive in a situation (when we are all too inclined to focus exclusively on the negative). This could help you to avoid repeating the same mistakes and/or losing perspective, one of the biggest time wasting culprits there is.
  3. Try to avoid filling your diary entirely with meetings: Because meeting rooms do not need to be booked and we are all working online, the increase in web conferencing meetings has mushroomed exponentially. This is exhausting for everyone and Zoom fatigue is clearly a real deal. It also raises a question about how much time is being spent on preparing for meetings – either all the preparatory work is being done at night and weekends or the ‘in between’ thinking is not happening at all. This all raises questions about sustainable work practices and it would be great to hear more about what guidance is being offered in this respect. For example, are any institutions offering guidelines (or better still policy) on:
  • An appropriate lead-in/notice time for online meetings?
  • Communicating about expected length of online meetings?
  • Breaks during and in between meetings?
  • A maximum daily or weekly amount of time that should be spent in meetings online?

Cultural and institutional change is required to implement best practice guidelines in a way that can be fully felt across an institution – a conversation and commitment to supporting best practice for online meetings would be a welcome start.

  1. Above all, slow down and see what happens because this speed and hyperactivity is neither healthy nor humane. This requires the ability to say ‘No’ at times, which is admittedly much easier said than done and frankly, is not always possible given various power dynamics. While some institutions are working hard to offer a range of physical and mental health supports – and these are appreciated – there are other conversations that also need to be happening about new ways of working in the longer term. ‘We’re in this together’ has been the mantra of the year – let’s just make sure we can all last the pace.

Click here for Episode 2

Click here for Episode 1


AISHE (2020). ‘The Impact of Covid-19 on Irish Higher Education (Part 1)’ AISHE-J Special Issue. Available at: https://www.aishe-j.org/archives/2020-2/vol-12-no-3-2020/

Ball, S. J. (2012). ‘Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 60(1), pp. 17–28. doi: 10.1080/00071005.2011.650940.

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. Simon and Schuster.

Kolsaker, A. (2008). ‘Academic professionalism in the managerialist era: a study of English universities’, Studies in Higher Education, 33(5), pp. 513–525. doi: 10.1080/03075070802372885.

Mihai, A. (2020). Building Faculty Learning Communities.


Jo Peat is Head of Educational Development at Roehampton University
Judith Broadbent is Principal Lecturer and Learning and Teaching Lead in the Department of Media, Culture and Language at Roehampton
Clare Gormley is an Academic Developer with the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit

3 thoughts on “Episode 3: Time to Refocus

  1. Such interesting ideas – and very scary to think how long we spend in the ‘waste’ quadrant…
    I genuinely feel that working full time in this new mode is just too much, I would add as a suggestion in terms of workload: consider switching to a 4 day a week contract if at all possible.
    Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

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