[FEATURED MEMBER] Keeping chaos at bay: Deliberate strategies to improve your productivity and sanity

Meggin McIntosh with MicMeggin McIntosh is a Professor and Director Emerita of the Excellence in Teaching Program at University of Nevada, Reno. In 1996 she founded Emphasis on Excellence, Inc., a company dedicated to providing productivity and organizational resources to faculty, individuals, and the private sector. With topics ranging from writing productivity and professional development to children’s and young adult literature, McIntosh is widely published with nearly 50 scholarly articles, two academic books, 29 curriculum publications, 14 instructional guides, textbook and scholarly book chapters, a teaching guide, and more than 1,500 blog and online articles.

Here McIntosh shares deliberate strategies to help improve your productivity and sanity.

TAA: You were Director of Faculty Development Programs at University of Nevada, Reno before transitioning to private sector to become a writing and productivity coach. What inspired you to make that change?

Meggin McIntosh: “Through my work with professors in my role as Director of Faculty Development Programs at UNR, I was struck by the sheer overwhelm that faculty expressed feeling. It was clear that being overwhelmed was hindering their productivity, relationships with students, connections with colleagues, and health. I kept being drawn to helping faculty deal with the overwhelm rather than helping them learn more about teaching strategies. So I left my tenured full-professor position and made the leap to working with faculty in new ways. It’s fascinating and fun.”

TAA: In your opinion, what are the most common barriers that academics face in terms of writing productivity?

MM: “In my work with faculty around the country, the four most common barriers to writing productivity I observe are:

  1. Writing is not a priority. For most faculty, writing doesn’t feel deadline-driven the way that teaching and service commitments do. It tends to get shunted off to ‘next week’, ‘next summer’, ‘after _____.’ Time goes by, and then either they arrive at the promotion and tenure deadline or even to the end of their career, not having written what matters most to them. It’s very sad and I hear it all the time.
  2. ‘Managing’ time feels impossible. It turns out that managing time IS impossible. You can’t stop time going forward and you can’t s t r e t c h out time when you need more for a particular project or task. What IS possible is acknowledging how much time there is, what’s needed, and how you’ll use that time.
  3. Having a mindset for thinking about projects and planning for them. Very few of us ever took a project management class. It is one of the many reasons that it’s not surprising how few people who finish their coursework actually ever finish their dissertations. A dissertation is a project and students flounder without project management skills. As academics, each course is a project; each article is a project; each grant is a project; collaborating on a textbook is a project; and so on. Being able to view oneself as a project manager is required if you’re going to keep the academic chaos at bay.
  4. Knowing what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to. Wow! Talk about a dance that most people never learned the steps to! This is it. Because of the talents, skills, and abilities that academics bring to their community (defined broadly or narrowly), they are asked to do far more than is humanly possible, even if they could clone themselves! People want them on committees, boards, and panels; to review manuscripts; offer advice; write letters of recommendation; and to attend meetings. Plus, a professor’s own brain generates multiple ideas for projects, collaborations, and areas of research. It’s the blessing of being bright and highly educated and it’s also what gives academics trouble when it comes to determining how to choose between and among all these possibilities.”

TAA: Since you talk about “keeping the chaos at bay”, what specific strategies can be implemented to effectively manage the demands of teaching, writing, and other daily life demands?

MM: “Assuming that an academic wants to ‘keep chaos at bay’, and more effectively manage the demands of teaching, writing, and the rest of life, five straightforward strategies would be:

  1. Make sure you have a planner system that you love and that serves you. It doesn’t matter if it’s paper or digital or a combination. Use the tools and practices that help you stay calm.
  2. Keep your email off at least 50 minutes of every hour and preferably longer than that. This means Gmail is not open, your phone isn’t flashing emails as they arrive, and your tablet isn’t making a sound when an email comes through. Watch your productivity soar.
  3. ‘Perfect’ takes twice as long as 90%. Sometimes, it’s worth doubling your time investment to get something to ‘perfect’ but most of the time, 90% will work fine and will serve you and others far better than procrastinating while you fiddle with small things that don’t matter.
  4. Clear off your desk. I wasn’t born organized and in fact, it was out of sheer desperation as a beginning assistant professor that I started reading books, listening to tapes (yes, tapes) about organizing and time management. I was drowning in work—and stuff—and had to make changes. Getting my desk cleared off was one of the earliest tips I ever put into practice, and it is definitely a struggle, but it makes all the difference in the world—even 25 years later.
  5. Make a list of every single thing you need to do—today, next week, next semester, after you retire. Just write it all down. You may feel sick. That happens. You aren’t making more work for yourself; you are simply acknowledging what was already there. Work with your coach, a mentor, an accountability partner, or that very honest friend I hope you have, to figure out what to do about what’s on the list. Writing it all down lets you start to sift and sort and strategize. If you only have it in your head, you can’t do that, no matter how brilliant you are!”

TAA: What one thing can people do that would have the biggest impact with the littlest amount of effort?

MM: “That’s a hard question, but I would say that they need to fill out their calendar COMPLETELY as far out as they are able to do so, but at least for the next 3 months. You do this by referring to your paper or digital planner as well as your to-do list. If you have multiple calendars and to-do lists, gather all of them together to be able to complete this portion (and, I hope, get them consolidated into one system rather than a series of scattered calendars and lists).

Most people—even those who maintain a calendaring system—only have a partially completed calendar when they really begin to examine it. To create a completed calendar, think about commitments in the following categories (these are just prompts and is not an exhaustive list): classes; trips & travel; meetings, including project meetings, community involvement meetings, religious/spiritual meetings, client meetings, etc.; appointments with your doctor (or someone else’s); office hours; family obligations; scheduled phone time (coaching, clients, technical training); children’s games, music lessons, practices, school events, carpools, etc.; meal functions you plan to attend; neighborhood or other social gatherings; self-care (massage, hair, therapist, etc.); exercise/wellness activities.

Oh, and what about your committed work time? Do you have particular times that are set aside (designated/protected) for the work that you do? Make sure you have that noted in your planner. It doesn’t matter that you are not going to forget to go to work; it’s that you need to recognize it as scheduled and as (maybe?) non-discretionary time. You are preparing a visual of your ‘stage.’

When you have done this, you’ll be ready to make some adjustments because it will become clear that you are overcommitted, and likely also overwhelmed. You can face the truth and take the steps necessary to calm your chaos, or ignore your reality and suffer the consequences.”

TAA: What is your favorite TAA benefit?

MM: “It’s very hard to choose, but I must say after attending the conference this last year, that benefit jumped up to the top of my list. I love the webinars and other resources offered through TAA, but getting to meet people at a focused, intimate, incredibly well-managed conference makes this a benefit that will keep me as a member for a long time. And you should know I’m saying this as an introvert who would rather not attend conferences!”


Listen to the recording of McIntosh’s 2015 TAA Conference session, “Marketing? You’re Kidding Me! I’m an Academic! Marketing that Matters (Lessons from a Puffin)” in TAA’s library of Presentations On Demand. Join TAA to listen to this and other great presentations!

About Maureen Foerster

Director of Institutional Memberships & Meetings / Newsletter Editor
Text and Academic Authors Association