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Focus time lets you do the work you’re obligated and committed to do

When I’m coaching and teaching academics, I recommend that they designate and protect four kinds of time: Free, Fixed, Focus, and Flow. Previously in this series, we looked at Free time and Fixed time. In this short article, let’s consider Focus time.

During designated Focus time, you deliberately design your half or full day to maximize what you accomplish from your task and project list. Before the Focus time block begins, you examine your upcoming deadlines, commitments, and progress milestones and then carefully decide what you will Focus on and for about how long.

While it is not necessary to have a strict schedule for the day, it is important to pre-decide, for example, that you will edit a chapter from 8:30 – 10:00, then turn your attention to an R & R you want to get back to your coauthor, eat some lunch, grade papers until about 2:30, and then work through your email ASAR folder (As Soon As Reasonable) until about 3:30, and then work on refining tomorrow’s class until the kids are dropped off from after-care at 5:15.

A key distinction with Focus time is pre-deciding what you will work on rather than simply allotting “Work Time” or “Writing Time” or some such on your calendar. Because focus requires intellectual and emotional energy, you want to conserve this energy where you can. Making decisions requires energy and it is easy for academics to burn through quite a bit of energy at the start of a “work time” by deciding what they will work on before they ever get to the work part! Sometimes the deciding takes enough time and energy that the person then has to go get a cup of coffee or do something else that will distract from the work, etc., etc. You’ve seen this haven’t you?

Focus days (or Focus half days) give you the opportunity for accomplishment and being able to be proud of yourself for what you get done. This is preferable to the kind of day where you feel like you’ve dithered it away with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but with nothing to show for it.

Focus time is mindful and planned. Imagine knowing throughout a weekend that you have a Focus day on Monday where you have no appointments, nowhere you have to go, nobody who’s set up a time to come to your office and meet with you, AND you have a list of tasks and projects that you’re going to be working on. You can enjoy your weekend knowing that Monday, you’ve made time to complete a grant budget so it can be proofread and checked; then compile and send out the agenda for the college-level committee you’re chairing; and then have additional time set aside to focus on required to meet another key milestone.

Focus time is time that academics desperately need, and yet often only hope it will show up rather than designating and protecting it. Assuming that you have been in graduate school and are now in the academy in one role or another, you have seen and experienced the steady stream of work that is coming your way. Although it is not always predictable exactly what the work will be (a revise and resubmit, a grant opportunity, a request to take over as lead on a large project, etc.) you know there is work that requires the ability to focus in order to get it done. You can plan for that even without knowing precisely what the work will be.

For example, recently, I was doing a workshop for deans, department chairs, and directors at a large Research I university. One of the directors was frustrated with trying to plan her week because of the work that comes down from “above,” meaning she has to put her other work to the side to take care of the work from the provost’s office.

Here’s the conversation that happened next in the workshop:

Meggin:  “But pretty much, stuff from “above” comes every single week?”

Director:  “Yes. I can’t think of a week where it didn’t. And then all my plans go out the window.”

Meggin:  “Have you tracked about how long it takes you to do the work you get from that office?”

Director:  “Definitely because I have complained about it to my boss and I wanted to be specific. It’s always at least half a day or a full day’s work.”

Meggin:  “Bingo. There you go.  You need the equivalent of a full day set aside each week for “work from above.” Should there ever be a week that you don’t receive any of this work, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of other tasks and projects that you want to Focus on but for now, you have to plan knowing that you need 6-8 hours of Focus time available just for upper administration work that lands on your desk.”

Throughout this series of articles about planning your academic calendar to include Free, Fixed, Focus, and Flow time, you are learning to acknowledge what is currently true in your calendar, to take control or at least exert influence over more of your calendar than you have in the past, and to designate and protect the time (Focus & Flow, specifically) that academics must have to sustain the work and life that matters most to them.

This week’s actions:

  1. Determine the key projects (and their milestones) on your mind this semester/quarter. Capture those in some way other than simply having them in your head.
  2. What is the work you need to do to meet your obligations and commitments?
  3. Using the 2:7 ratio as a guideline, begin shifting your calendar so that you have either 2 full days or 4 half days a week to Focus on your work (or 4 full days over a two-week period, for example). At the beginning, you may not be able to do this because you’re overcommitted on Fixed time, but get started or you’ll never get there.

Week by week, this can get better and better for you. Gradually, you become more peacefully and predictably productive. You are perceived by others and yourself as more professional. Your students, your family, your friends, and your health thank you for your efforts to make sure you have time to Focus.

Meggin McIntoshMeggin McIntosh, also known as “The PhD of Productivity®,” is professor emerita and founding director of her university’s Excellence in Teaching Program.  She is now an executive coach for high-achieving academics who are intent on making a difference through their work.  Whether she’s coaching, teaching workshops, or writing, Meggin’s mission is inspiring joyful work.  You’re welcome to explore and receive many of Meggin’s publications, videos, and classes through her hubsite  More and more of them are being offered freely each month so be sure to take a peek if you want more joyful work in your life.