Sunday, August 18, 2013

Start the Semester off Right: Make a Weekly Template

How are you feeling about starting the semester?


One strategy I find useful to allay anxieties about the semester is to take some time and plan out how my workweek will look. Doing this allows me to feel as if I am in control of my semester and makes it clear that it is possible to have a cool and calm semester. (I explain the importance of taking control here.)

The end of summer usually involves a shift in the daily and weekly workflow for academics. During the summer, most of us have fewer commitments and many of us do not teach. Personally, I have always made a point to avoid the lure of extra income and not teach during the summer. As for administrative responsibilities, these accrue as one advances in one’s career. However, I try to keep those to a minimum during the summer months. Because of my research interests, I also usually spend nearly all of my summer outside the United States.

This past summer, I traveled to Guatemala and Mexico - which also explains why I have not been posting to this blog all summer.

This August, once again, I find myself looking towards the fall semester and thinking about how I am going to organize my time. My children start school on Monday, and I teach my first class on September 4. This gives me some time to get used to the rhythm before the semester starts in full force. During this time, I plan to try out a new schedule and see how it works for me.

The idea is that I will create a weekly schedule that has my fixed appointments for the semester and also carves out time for things I need to do but could do at any time: prepare class, read, write, exercise, eat, and respond to emails.

Kerry Ann Rockqeumore calls this schedule your “skeleton.” She suggests making one each week. Mine does not look like a skeleton at all, so I prefer to refer to it as a template. I find it useful to make a template at the beginning of the semester and setting up repeating appointments in your calendar so that your template is ready each week when you decide on your specific goals.

How to make a weekly template

When making my weekly template for the semester, the first thing I think about is teaching, as teaching has a fixed schedule and I need to set aside time to teach and to prepare for class. I am fortunate to only be teaching one class this semester. Thus, I block out the time I will teach as well as a few hours to read and prepare for class. I am teaching a graduate seminar and we will be reading a book each week. Thus, I need to set aside time to ensure I finish reading the book. I will have time to read for this class in the evenings, after the kids go to bed, but, from experience, I know I also have to set aside time during the day to read and think about the books before class.

The next thing up is office hours. I have set those on Thursday afternoons.

Up next is writing. I know I write best in the mornings. My children will leave the house by 8:30am each morning. And, my goal is to write for two hours each morning. From experience, I know I need to set aside two and a half hours in order to get in two hours of writing, so I will set aside 8:30am to 11:00am each morning. Once I do that, I remember that I need to be more efficient on Wednesdays when I teach, so I cut Wednesdays back to 10:30 and give myself some extra time to prepare class.

I need to go up to campus on Wednesdays to teach and on Thursdays for office hours. I usually bike to campus, and it takes me about 45 minutes. So, I set aside an hour to get to campus on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Biking to and from campus also counts as exercise for those two days. Once I do that, I remember that I often don’t finish all of my administrative tasks during office hours on Thursdays. So, I decide I should go to campus on Fridays as well and take care of business. I can use Friday afternoons to write reports, submit receipts, review materials, and clean out my email inbox.

We all know how time-consuming email can be. So, I set aside another hour before lunch each day to take care of email. If I focus on email and avoid being sucked into the Internet vortex, this should be enough time.

Then, I remember I also need to set aside some time to read. As I mentioned earlier, I do find time to read in the evenings. However, I also need time during the day to download articles, order books, and select what I will read. So, I decide to set aside Monday afternoons to select readings and to read for the week.

I also need to get in my daily exercise. I will get in enough exercise from Wednesdays to Fridays by biking ten miles back and forth to work. So, on Mondays and Tuesdays, I set aside an hour for exercise each day.

I color-coded my schedule so that I can see at a glance how much time I am dedicating to writing (red), admin (green), teaching (orange), and self-care (purple).

The Weekly Template is a Model, not a Mandate

As I make this schedule, I know from experience that probably no week will go exactly like this. However, it helps me to have a structure. It also is a reminder that I am very busy and have lots of things to do, even though I am only teaching one course.

Inevitably, someone will ask to have a meeting with me during one of the times I have set aside for something else. That will be fine, though. Having this visualization of my ideal week will allow me to see what I need to move around in order to make time for a meeting.

If I need to have a one-on-one meeting, my first suggestion will be that the person come to my office hours. If that does not work, I have also set aside time on Thursday and Friday afternoons to meet. If neither of those times work, I will move things around. For example, if I need to meet on Tuesday afternoon, I will have to spend some time on Monday preparing for class. Or, if we meet on Friday at 11, I will have to get an early start on my writing and pack my lunch to take to the office. If the meeting is casual, I can suggest we meet for lunch any day of the week.

If I am asked to join a group meeting, I will suggest that the meeting happen on Thursday or Friday afternoon. My next preferred time will be a different afternoon. As usual, I will do my best not to schedule meetings during my writing time, as I know from experience that mornings are my most productive times for writing.

Student Biking

What about you? What will your ideal week look like? Do you find making this kind of schedule helpful?


  1. I love this. I'm better about my weekly planning than my semester planning. One added benefit of doing this is that it helps you be really clear about how busy you are and how full your schedule really is when you add in all of these things. For people who have a hard time saying NO to things, this definitely helps because you can see how full your usual schedule is with one quick glance!

    1. Yes! This became very clear to me as I did this. I have the great privilege of teaching just one seminar, but, once I filled out my schedule, it was obvious that I still will be busy.

  2. I will add here that I wrote this post based on my past and present experience. This semester, I am teaching one class and that is a great privilege.

    If you are on leave and are not teaching, it can be very useful to make this sort of schedule as you will see that you do not have "all the time in the world" to do things. Instead, a rhythm and schedule will keep you on track.

    If you are teaching four classes, making a schedule like this will help you be realistic about when and whether or not you can write. Can you squeeze in 30 minutes each day? If not, then decide NOT to do it now and don't stress about it. If you can, then figure out when and do it.

  3. What did you use to create the template? I have iCal, but I'm for some reason not very good with it.

    1. This time, I used iCal. I created repeating events to have them happen each week. I use different calendars to create the different colors.

      I can do the same with google calendar - it just doesn't sync as well to my iPhone.

    2. I use google calendar, and it works perfectly for the same reason as iCal, and does sync to my phone (I have an Android). Also, I can "share" my schedule through the invite feature, which means my family knows my schedule for planning airport arrivals, etc. I can see my partner's and my schedule on the same calendar as well, color-coded. I like the reminder feature too, which you can set as computer and/or phone pop-ups or email.

  4. Thanks! I have an Android, so I should get something that syncs with it too!

    1. Yes. Gmail calendar should work best with Androids.

  5. Great post - and great inspiration. I'm transitioning from PhD student to the combination of assistant professor in Ecuador and (part-time) post-doc in the Netherlands, and I'll need some good planning tools (more than ever!) to keep all projects and teaching moving forward.
    Looks like I'll be using Google Calendar some more...

    1. Congrats, Eva! Yes - it does sound like planning will be even more critical than before.

  6. haha, this is exactly what i do, although i pretty much never follow it. homework always ends up throwing things off, as do those meetings and admin work requested by supervisors. but when things get really hectic, it's nice to go back to 'the plan'.

    my friend l. trenton marsh wrote about a similar method, called the 'sun up - sun down' principle. he makes his schedule for the next day every night before going to bed. i've sorta taken to hybridizing the two methods: i have a base schedule that helps me maintain a sense of stability each quarter, but i update that weekly (daily, if necessary).

    also: YAY, COLORS!

  7. Love this, too. I think about my priorities and responsibilities for each week, but not as much about the TIME that I need to allot for all of my responsibilities. It's true - once the required stuff is filled in, it makes you realize just how much we DO!

  8. Even if you stay organized this is a hell of a tight schedule. But it is certainly the way to go. Still, there will be days...

  9. What qualifies as "writing?" I'd like more help in listing out the tasks that could fall into each of the categories. Maybe this is too specific... I love blocking out my time, but now I'm confused as to what I should actually be DOING during those times.