My experiences this semester will have a lasting impact on my relationship with time management and personal productivity systems.
I’ve been a tech nerd for most of my life. I’m firmly a millennial, and came of age with the internet, which we got at home when I was in middle school. Part of what I’ve found so fascinating about the internet is the independent media it enables, particularly in the form of podcasts and blogs. While independent blogging seems to have been largely on the wane over the past few years in favor of social media platforms, the recent explosion of (paid) newsletters on platforms like Substack has reinvigorated longer form written media. (See below for some of my favorites.)
Concurrently, in my day job as a mathematics professor, I’ve been thinking about ways to do more public scholarship. Years of teaching university mathematics, combined with some of the new tools I’ve learned to facilitate teaching during a global pandemic, has made creating mathematical resources for public consumption a reasonable activity. I will do this! (And probably share some of what I make in this space, like this open source abstract algebra textbook.)
However, this space also affords an opportunity to write about other things I’m interested in: learning, (higher) education, the nature of work, and working well in the 21st century. “So,” I thought to myself, “I could write about personal productivity.” After all, I’ve benefited from reading what others have written on these topics, and have iterated systems for managing my work I’ve learned elsewhere.
But (and here is the confession): it’s a lie.
I earnestly set this site up in Fall 2020 and gave myself a deadline of early December 2020 to start writing about personal productivity. I was a few weeks into teaching “flexibly” during the pandemic and things seemed to be going OK.
But the intensity and pressure has mounted. Chronic illness has flared up. Exercise and sleep are harder to come by.
Some of this was probably predictable. I’m teaching 125% of a full load, with three committees tacked on. Most of my students are in their first semester of college in a high-stakes course, and so I’ve bent over backwards to design a learning environment that offered grace and flexibility, with the consequence that I am stressed nearly to breaking. Due to a desire to maintain a small social network my wife and I made a choice to limit childcare, resulting in neither of us having enough time to work during a typical week day, thus cramming our work into nights and weekends as we are able.
Many of these choices will be corrected in the spring. My overload will be less. Some course material can be reused. Course designs will be modified, and some grading assistance is in the works. But my experiences this semester will have a lasting impact on my relationship with time management and personal productivity systems.
A way forward
It sounds silly and obvious, but the larger lesson I’ve learned over the past three months is that there are limits to what even the most well-considered productivity systems can do. Additional time cannot be created. Incomplete tasks still nag at my attention.
On the other hand, I see the value of well-considered systems for managing my stuff more than ever. Despite the barely controlled chaos, things would be much worse without the systems I’ve put in place. And it’s probably true that if I spent even a bit more time managing my work, I could probably work even a bit more efficiently. But to what end?
Complicating matters, I recently read Anne Helen Petersen's excellent new book, Can't Even. I'll have more to say about that book here and in other spaces soon, but suffice it to say that I have rarely felt more seen by a book. (I was particularly convicted by her push against optimizing everything, including leisure time).
So why start a newsletter about productivity in higher education? To start, I love getting to do what I do, and I want to look for ways to improve my experience of my work. I've also learned a lot from people on the internet, and want to contribute whatever meager offerings I can, and hone my writing while I'm at it.
I don't want to bullshit you or waste your time. And obviously, if you don't find this worth your time, you won't read it! So if you've made it this far in this first post: thank you. I hope you'll consider starting a free subscription and join the conversation via email.
I aim to write 2-4 long, free posts/month. These will be spaces for me to work out thoughts on a topic related to working and flourishing in higher education and beyond. I'll also aim for an additional shorter/linked list post per week, usually to highlight something someone else has written/done that I think is worth your time.
At the moment, there are no paid plans. With enough subscribers I will enable comments and open biweekly threads for paying members. We're a long way from that, though. In the meantime, feel free to reply to one of the newsletters or find me on Twitter (@mkjanssen) if you'd like to continue the conversation.
The Good Stuff
I want to end every (long-ish) post with something that's bringing me some dose of inspiration or joy. For the first few, I'll highlight some newsletters that I enjoy reading, and that have partly inspired this publishing adventure of my own.
First is the aforementioned Anne Helen Petersen's, Culture Study. In addition to her cultural commentary, she and Charlie Warzel are working on a new book on modern work, and sharing new ideas and readings as they work through them. Highly recommended.
I'll also highlight Tips for Teaching Professors, by Breana Bayraktar, which shares tips, tech tools, and general articles of interest for those working in teaching-focused positions in higher education (which I am).