How do I manage to do all the things?


Women so often are asked: “How do you juggle family, career, and everything else?” But men are rarely asked about balancing family and career, with the implicit assumption that they aren’t spending substantial time or effort on family affairs. I think this doesn’t represent the actual state of affairs in many households, though it is still true that the average guy doesn’t do his fair share of parenting and household work.

Women-in-science who are parents are typically cast as moms by public and professional eyes, while men-in-science who are parents are not cast as dads. This sets up unrealistic and unfair expectations.

While I never get the “how do you do it all?” question about being a parent and a scholar, more often get asked how I juggle blogging and professoring. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but I spend much much more time doing parental things than I ever spend for this site. (Which, of course, is how things should be.) I take this to be an implicitly gendered interaction, because I’m rarely cast as a dad in the public eye. After all, raising a child has far more impact on my time to be a professor, compared to the decision to write an occasional blog post, and this is because of my public identity as a scientist and not as a dad.

So here I attempt to answer the question, “how do I juggle it all?” involving the parenting and the work and the blog and everything else*.

In search of a generalized and accurate answer, I think the best I can do is: I prioritize things, operating within my constraints. If I don’t have a specific need to be on campus, I stay at home for the day, and I often get more done that way, because my time doesn’t get divided. This often allows me to meet parental obligations while getting work done.

I can’t really write about any systemic approach to “time management,” because I don’t employ any time management philosophy. I just put stuff on the calendar and do my best to do it before it needs to be done, and to say no to things that I think I can’t do. Is this working out for me? Well, sort of, because I get stuff done, but then again, I am stressed out about the things not yet done. Like most academics. Would it better if I used a formalized time management system? Sure, maybe, fine, send me a brochure, tell me more about The System.

I consider my work time as both a great and finite resource. One thing I often keep in mind is something my colleague Nate Sanders once told me (though presumably he was not the first to say it): “Your greatest resource is your own time.” This does not mean that I am selfish with my work time — but it means that if I’m spending time supporting others, that this is a conscious allocation of time as a chosen priority.

As for the parental stuff, I handle this, I imagine, the way that any other responsible parent does. There are huge upsides to the flexible schedule of a professor, and there also also huge downsides, as I’ve written about before. I’m committed to supporting my spouse’s career as much as my own, and to being just as dedicated as a parent. (Which should merely be the norm, and not cause for praise.) While our kid is now in high school, their needs are evolving, and this does give us more flexibility. Nevertheless, we all have responsibilities to support one another in various ways. We rely on The Village big time, and I can only hope The Village regards us as highly we regard our friends. Some days are easier to get through than others. Both I and my spouse travel regularly for work (though my trips tend to be longer and more frequent). If you scroll through our calendar for the next year, there are substantial blocks when one of us is gone.

Another thing about time management and parenting: Every Single Day of my life, I’m conscious of the fact that kids grow up faster than kudzu with fertilizer, and before I have a chance to accept this reality they’ll no longer be living with us, and every day is an absolute treasure, even the days that don’t go so well. Family is my priority in my schedule. Period. I might put other things on a ranked list, but this is in a tier above the others. I realize that this means not just hanging out with my kid and my spouse, but also doing my fair share of domestic work, cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry, and all that.

To explain how I personally allocate time to work, I conceive of this as two kinds of divisions. The first is when I am working and when I am not working. The second division of time is what I work on when I’m working.

When I do work and when I do not work? When I’m on campus, I’m working. Anything related to teaching, I do on campus. (Except for marking, which I think pairs well with a comfortable chair and a robust red or a porter.) The same for campus service work, I tend to keep that in the office. I also try to keep my campus service obligations at work. If I’m lucky enough to have done what I need to do for campus teaching and service obligations, and I don’t have other meetings with research students, then I might work on a few research tasks that are easier to do with the huge monitor at my desk. This includes sparring bouts with R.

I often work when I am not on campus, aside from travel. I have cooked my schedule so that there is at least one day per week I don’t have to be on campus, and when the ebb and flow of service is pleasant, it’s more often that I’m not in my office. I’m doing my best to regularly appear in the Department of Entomology at the Natural History Museum of LA County, where I’ve been a research associate since my sabbatical last year, and where I am growing new research projects.

My home isn’t close to my campus, and the distance varies with time of day, which is a geographic feature of Los Angeles. (If you know LA, I live in Pasadena, and my campus is in South Bay, near where near where the 405, the 110, and the 91 intersect. When I moved back to LA 11 years ago, we chose here for a big variety of reasons, involving family, personal history, mountains, and I can go on and on.) It makes sense to work from home, instead of spending 1.5 hours in a car or 3.5-4 hours on public transit. When I’m at home during normal business hours, then I’m likely to focus on research-related activities (doing analyses, writing manuscripts, writing grants, interacting with collaborators). The reason I focus on research at home is that I have a hard time getting anything done without substantial blocks of time for focus. And when I’m at work, my time is often divided among various scheduled items, as well as interactions with everybody there. When I’m at a desk at the museum, I focus on writing.

I’m on campus somewhere between 16 and 50 hours per week, depending on the week.

I realize that a lot of other science professors don’t have the flexibility to be away from campus like myself. If I were working at an expensive liberal arts college, then I’d have to be on campus far more often just to get in general face time, it would be an expectation of the campus culture. If I were running a big research lab with grad students and postdocs, then I’d have to be around more often to keep the lab running. I schedule a weekly meeting with students who work with me and that often does the job. I realize that if I were to be on campus every day, that I’d probably run my lab differently. But things evolved this way when I was parenting a very young child and ended up home more often, and things have continued this way, and I think it’s been working.

I also work irregular hours. I am on dropoff or pickup duty for a bunch of high schoolers on a regular basis, which means being near home, instead of on campus. Also, more often than not, my teaching duties have involved an evening class once per week (our graduate courses are evening classes), and on those days, I might choose to make that a 14-hour day, or a 6-hour day, on campus.

I’m so used to working from home, that to be honest, I have a blurry line between when I’m working and when I’m not. I realize that the party line for work-life balance dogma is that this is a Bad Thing, but as far as I’m concerned, if I’m happy doing this and it’s okay with other folks in my life, then it’s fine with me. So, yeah, I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon. Which given what’s happening with other family members at the moment (and the fact that I just took a 3-week vacation), is just fine with me. Do I work too much? I surely don’t think so. I have time to read novels aplenty, I have volunteered with my kid’s public school, I spend lots time with my family doing fun things, life is good. I won’t be looking back at my life thinking, “I worked too much.” But do I work more than 40 hours? Most weeks, probably. But I don’t feel like I have to. And sometimes I don’t work more than that. I wouldn’t say my weekends are always work-free from Friday night to Monday morning, though that sometimes happens.

How do I juggle my blogging and social media interactions with other work? Depending on the task at hand, I might have tweetdeck open in a window in the back. I have turned off all notifications. If I want to look at my email or to look at twitter, I will, but they aren’t going to tell me to look. It does take a bit of time each day. In the end, I think it’s been a great use of time.

I should add that I don’t think I’m a prolific writer here. I’m just consistent. Most weeks, I’m probably below a few thousand words. (This post is almost hitting 3000 words. That’s an outlier. And you might notice, I haven’t spent too much time editing it.) The past few weeks have been the first, I think, when I’ve failed to post on Monday morning. If you want to see a prolific blogger, check out my fave, Female Science Professor, who had a solid post nearly every weekday, between 2007 and 2011. She’s not my fave because she was prolific, but because she had wisdom and a useful perspective.

I’m consistent here because I’ve placed the site as a high priority. If it’s late Sunday night and I realized I don’t have a post for Monday yet, I say ‘holy crap,’ and even if I’m exhausted, I knock out a post within an hour and get to bed late. (And, oddly enough, those are the ones that seem to get the most traffic.) The same for recommended reads every other Thursday night. There is other writing that I have reprioritized because of the site (for the public and for the scientific audience), and I’ve scaled back to leave time for other writing.

Unless it’s one of those nights when I work on campus late (because I have a late commitment on campus), then I’m the guy making dinner. If I have the luxury, I might do something that takes a little while, and I think I make tasty and wholesome meals quickly with the aid of a pressure cooker. More often, I’m in some kind of time crunch so everybody gets fed before it’s extraordinarily late. After dinner, I’m particularly in a time crunch for some work-related task, or if particularly excited about something, maybe I’ll work on it in the evening, but that’s pretty rare. I’m more likely to read a novel or watch an episode of something.

If I go more than a night or two without 7 hours of sleep, then things fall apart. So I don’t compromise on that. If I go more than a few days without some serious aerobic exercise, then I work far less effectively. Creating a time for a run in the morning at least a couple days per week is important.

Here’s something that I don’t bring up, that might seem like a secret or a revelation, but I actually don’t teach a mountain of contact hours as suggested by my base teaching load. The base teaching load for faculty my campus is 24 Weighted Teaching Units, which essentially boils down to eight lecture courses per academic year. However, I haven’t spent all of those 24 WTU in the classroom in a long while. Using external funds, I can reassign my teaching time to research, and I also receive reassigned time for a variety of substantial service obligations. (I suspect this probably ends up with me doing more work rather than less work, given the quantity of reassigned time and the associated tasks.) The bottom line is that, especially in recent years, I haven’t been in the classroom so much. (And this upcoming academic year, my service is growing even more, so I’m in the classroom even less). If I was teaching four lecture courses per semester, then I wouldn’t be able to submit papers on the regular, write for the public, serve as an editor, and all that stuff.

Another aspect of how I spend my time is dealing with the steady (if not rapid) flow of requests for information, support, advising, and mentorship. It’s flattering beyond simple words when people who I don’t know in any way approach me with this kind of thing. (Aside from the ranters and the haters, of course. I just don’t read the long unsolicited diatribes.) In general, I do my best to briefly and politely say that I don’t have time to do personalized career advising. This could quickly occupy all of my time if I went down that road, and I owe it to my students to put them first.

I don’t feel that I’m particularly effective at time management. If I get a lot done, it’s because I play to my strengths and choose to do things that I am confident that I can do well and efficiently. I also know when good is good enough. A grant proposal, for example, has to be great. But for a memo about campus governance, or this blog post, good will have to be enough. My research productivity in the last few years has taken a big hit, because the decision to switch over to R has gummed up the gears. I should be submitting five first-author papers this summer — but I’m just getting just one out, hopefully this week. Maybe I can get the second one out before the academic year starts? Probably not. That’s a whole new set of code I’ve got to get my head around. I’m still waiting for the investment of using R to kick in with that productivity dividend that people promised. Not there yet. Meanwhile, there are a ton of  PIs with my seniority who are most often farming out this kind of work to their lab members. The only way my lab will develop that proficiency is if I teach them. That’s not happening tomorrow either.

So, that’s my mostly-stream-of-consciousness account about how I juggle it all. In all, I think I’m doing quite fine. Though I realize I’ll have to give some things up to start new projects. The hard part isn’t the work, it’s the decision about what to prioritize. Where is my career going? Every time I starting something new, or say yes to something, or say no to something else, I’m choosing that direction. I make these choices with purpose.


*If it feels like I’m holding out on you, I am. I can’t provide a complete picture because this involves other people who deserve their own privacy, and it’s not my place to discuss their stuff in the public eye. Suffice it to say that I have a number of family-related obligations and challenges that are impacting my professional life that I’m not mentioning here.

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