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Back to School and Having the Best Year Ever
Our students don’t know that as the start of the school year approaches, we teachers are as nervous as the students. What to wear, how to make a good first impression, or whether the revised syllabus will work in our most difficult course are all giving us back to school nightmares about showing up to class in our pajamas with the wrong class notes.

In addition to worrying about the first day of class, we also have some anxiety about the rest of our job duties such as how to find time for our research and how to fit in advising and committee duties. Here are some tips to help you lower that anxiety and look forward to this next school year as perhaps your best year ever.

Tally Your Brags and Nags
Look back over last year and enumerate a brag/nag list.

  • What things worked well for you and what things did not?
  • In the coming school year, how you do to do more of what went well and to decrease the things that did not go as well?

    Starting a brag list now for this coming year will give you all the information about your accomplishments for your part of that departmental end-of-the-report without launching any archeological expedition into your calendar or PDA.

    It is important to milk the lessons of the past. Most people set goals in motion before they review the events of the past year. As an academic, you get two chances to set New Year’s goals: the academic year and the calendar year. The brag/nag list also allows you to do a semester or a quarterly review asking, “How have I done since the beginning of the semester (or during the first semester)?

  • Nag list. Items not crossed off became your “nags.” Ask yourself which ones really mattered and which ones could have been completed with help or other resources. Then focus on the important items and consider dropping, delegating, or deferring the less unimportant.
  • Emerging themes. Leadership research from the Gallup organization has shown that the ability to play to your strengths is an essential leadership quality. The brags can tell you the strengths to develop and the nags might tell you what you need to delegate, ignore, or outsource.
  • Reviewing your accomplishments at the end of the year gives you a great feeling and motivates you on the bad days filled with interruptions and temptations. It doesn’t seem like you are accomplishing much from day to day, but at the end of the year, you will be amazed. Many action oriented professionals are on to the next task or deadline and fail to enjoy and celebrate accomplishments. One of the findings of the positive psychology research is that happy people savor their good experiences. What nice things happened in the past year that you need to pause and celebrate before you move on to the new year?

Dream Big; Think Small
A dream is what you would love to see happen but don’t have total control over. A goal is a set of action steps that you determine and control. For example, a dream might be to publish three articles but all you can control is researching, writing, and submitting the content of those articles. At the end of a year you can evaluate whether your goal led to your dream being realized.

In addition to work dreams and goals, personal dreams and goals for the year need to be acknowledged also. Work life balance is half about the work and half about the life. Maybe this year you have a watershed personal experience coming such as the birth of a baby or a move and can’t predict what life will be like until the water cascades down the other side of the big change. So this might be a year to set goals prior to the watershed and then set new goals after the watershed.

  • Select a theme for the coming year to focus your energy on one area of your work life. A theme does not exclude goals in other areas of your life but it helps to give a focus for setting your priorities. All demands on your time can be evaluated relative to the theme. A theme might include:
    • Preparing my tenure application.
    • Improving my stalest course.
    • Revising and submitting my next article.
    • Reorganizing the lab so that students have a better space to do their research.
    • Getting the nursery ready for the new baby.

Tracking Goals
As a busy professional you need a simple tracking system to keep from getting overwhelmed by your complicated life and multiple roles. Here in one that is simple to set up but rich enough to track all your projects in one place.

Use a simple word processing or spread sheet to see how your goals are going. Labels the rows wit the names of your goals or projects. Label the columns with time units such as weeks or months. Type the subgoals of the projects into the cells. Horizontally, you have all the steps to completion. Vertically, you have a to-do list for tasks per week. Thus, you can tell at a glance which weeks are too full to commit to any other projects.

When you complete a subgoal, highlight it in a color so you can see at a glance when they are done and to celebrate its completion. Cut/paste any incomplete tasks as nags and move one cell over. Strip off each column as the week passes. The stripped off column can be archived so you can do a quick annual or quarterly review. Add a new column to the back end of the working table.

If incomplete nags keep moving over each week as, stop and think about whether they are tasks worthy of your time or need to be deferred, delegated, or ditched. Presuming they are things you really want to do, break them down into 15 minute sub-subgoals and list those sub-subgoals in the cells under their deadline. You will probably discover that most leftover nags are things you don’t really like to do but need to do to complete a project that you do care about. Now you can whittle down the sub-subgoals. The time management experts refer to this trick as “eating the elephant, bite by bite.” (Why the experts use that analogy is a mystery to me.) Consider making yourself accountable to a colleague or coach that you report to by email, or phone when the pesky nags are completed.

The above tips sound deceptively simple. Applied week in and week out they will add up to less stress, increased productivity, and more personal time. You might just have your best year ever.

One of the participants in a faculty development workshops this summer said he was afraid to even dream about “having the best year ever.” He wasn’t specific whether he was more afraid of failing or succeeding. Finally, he announced that he had decided to try to have a “good year.”


Best wishes for your best year ever ­ or least a “good year” whichever you choose.


Jinny S. Ditzler. (1994). Your Best Year Yet: A proven method for making the next twelve months the most successful ever. New York: Time Warner.

Marcus Buckingham & Clifton, Don. (2001). Now Discover Your Strengths. NY: The Free Press.

© Copyright 2006 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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