Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities
As an online teacher, it’s very easy to be distracted while you work, which can reduce efficiency and throw off your work-life balance. In the third and final part of this mini-series, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares strategies to help online educators improve time management priorities and stay focused by minimizing interruptions. Learn about the importance of determining a physical workspace, establishing work hours, and communicating that work plan to family and friends. Also learn about strategies to stay on task like using Pomodoro timers to establish work time and breaks, downloading limiting programs that don’t allow you to visit distracting websites, and more.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’m very happy to be with you here today. This is the last of our three work-life balance episodes in our mini-series. Episode number 54 was about engaging with students first, as your first priority. In episode number 55, we talked about creating assets that will help your students be self-directed to help you with work-life balance even more. The more your students are able to be self-directed in the learning activities you give them, the more you can focus on your teaching and stop worrying about putting out fires and spending a lot of time answering questions.
Today, in episode number 56, we will talk about setting priorities and your online teaching time management. This will bring you a better quality of work-life balance as an online educator.
There’s no question that we have a lot to do when we’re working and teaching online, and this can stretch into a lot of different areas in our lives. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to meet our students’ needs in the best ways possible.
So in today’s episode, I hope that you will find some tips and strategies that will enhance your time management for a better sense of your work-life balance as you meet your students’ needs and do it in the most efficient ways possible.
Anytime we try to make a change like this, especially in our time management or the strategies we use, it’s going to take a little bit of a stretch outside your comfort zone to try something new. It might be something challenging to try or something that just takes a small adjustment. In the end, your efforts and the time invested will be well worth the effort as you work toward your goal of increasing work-life balance as an online educator.
In the first two episodes of this mini-series, we talked a little bit about andragogy. Andragogy is a theory of adult learning. It’s going to help you prioritize the task that you choose in your online teaching. The term andragogy first originated in Germany in the 1800s when Alexander Kapp wrote about lifelong learning. And just like we might work with all kinds of lifelong learners in our online teaching, as educators, we too are lifelong learners throughout this process of education.
Time management practices can be learned and all of us can improve our time management while we’re working and teaching online. And of course, the more we do that, the more we practice the principles of andragogy in our own learning, ourselves. All of this happens at the same time, while we’re focusing on what matters most in our online teaching.
In those first two episodes of our mini-series, we also talked about the community of inquiry framework. The community of inquiry framework is a model. It gives us the ideas of teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Anytime you can focus on these three areas in your online teaching, this will lighten your load by making your work more clear in what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it. Of course, all of this hinges on what you’re doing to meet your students’ needs.
Are you able to build the kind of relationships that you really want to have with your students? Are you able to see them as human beings on the other end of that computer screen and meet them where they are and guide them in this journey? Maybe you even view yourself as a co-learner who is learning alongside your students.
Even though you might already be a master of the subject matter you’re teaching your students, there is a lot we gain and learn while we’re teaching others. You might even have a new insight this coming week.
Along those lines, I’d like to share a quote from “Eat That Frog!” by Brian Tracy. And here’s his advice:
“Your ability to select your most important task at any given moment, and then to start on that task and get it done both quickly and well will have more of an impact on your success than any other quality or skill you can develop.”
Basically, when you prioritize your work activities, and then you use great time management strategies to keep these efficient, you can use all of the essential skills, balance your workload, and accomplish all that you’re trying to do as an online educator.
So let’s dive in to the priority of time management strategies. Maybe you’re wondering what does all this have to do with work-life balance? For some of you listening out there, the connection might be obvious. For others of us, maybe it’s a little bit of a stretch and not as clear.
I want to reassure you that when you’re able to manage your time efficiently and effectively, this directly impacts your work-life balance and allows you to have the power to accomplish all that you’ve set out to do.
And when you set boundaries around your work and life, especially separating what you’re trying to do in your online educator role, this will increase your quality of life. It will help you keep things balanced the way you’d like to. Time management will especially help you in your work along your main goal of connecting with your students. But wait, there’s more. Not only will setting limits around your work life give you the boundaries for good work-life balance, but you’re also going to be able to find the time to enjoy more of the other parts of your academic career. You can find the time to present at a conference. You can write curriculum. You can begin to do a lot of things you find important that are not otherwise urgent, and schedule those
in so they fit into your work time. And all of this can give you this space for a more rewarding personal life. So here we go. Let’s review your time management style.
A great way to get started is to reflect on your priorities and make an action plan. And this is how you can transform your time management. What are you already doing right now? What is working for you in managing your teaching online? What kind of strategies are you already using that are getting you great results? And where would you like to make some changes?
What kinds of strategies are not working for you? Are there any areas of your teaching where some limit-setting strategies might be useful or some boundaries to reduce interruptions to your work?
Strategies to Limit Interruptions and Distractions
Let’s talk about strategies to reduce interruptions. When you’re working from home, interruptions from other people you’re living with can be pretty common. This would be a barrier to effective time and task management for any online instructor. Sometimes we have interruptions, distractions, large student counts, multiple courses running at the same time. If we identify the barriers that are affecting you most specifically, and then we target the solution for your situation, this will help you limit and prevent those interruptions or those other challenges to help you set the boundaries on your teaching time.
There are a few specific strategies to reduce interruptions I’ve personally employed over the years, but also, I’ve had some other faculty share with me that they’ve used with a lot of success, and there is some research supporting all of these practices as well.
Interruptions might seem important or urgent when they occur. Someone runs into the room and wants to talk to us right now while we’re in the middle of grading some essays. It makes it very difficult for us to focus and manage the time that we spend teaching online when other people are at home or in the room with us.
These distractions might include online things. Maybe social media messages pop up or email messages pop up. A lot of virtual things can threaten our attention span and take our attention off the task we’re working on.
Some interruptions are physically present, like people in the room, or time-demanding intrusions like a visitor stopping by or the phone ringing, maybe friends and family members want to check in on us. Most of the interruptions come from the lack of the physical or relationship boundaries that come with working remotely in the home.
Interruptions might be more than multitasking. Now, if you’re multitasking, this has been referred to as task switching because there apparently is no such thing as real multitasking. Instead of thinking about two different activities at once, we’re really switching gears between two activities rapidly, and this makes it really hard to refocus quickly every time we shift our attention to one of those tasks.
Some of the effective ways to limit interruptions could be to set up a physical workspace you can teach in, establishing some working hours and strictly sticking to those, and communicating your plan to family members and friends.
Set up a Designated Physical Workspace
The first one, setting up a physical workspace, means to control interruptions by setting aside an actual space in the home where you’re working. It’s going to be a space where you expect to work uninterrupted. Even if you have a small space, side of the kitchen table, corner of the living room, it can be a designated location where you always do the work. You should be able to turn off the phone’s ringer, or set your cell phone in a different room and let voicemail answer it in order to limit the interruptions that might happen from that.
And while working in your space that you have selected, help others to know you can’t really be disturbed. This is going to give you a lot of boundaries and clarity about when you’re working and when you’re not.
In my own online teaching, I used to carry my laptop everywhere with me and log in whenever I had a spare moment to lead the class. I would also check my messages on my phone. I wanted to be really available, approachable at all times, super responsive. If you want to do this and it works for you, I applaud your flexibility doing it. It started to overwhelm my time and my attention, and pretty soon I wasn’t able to really be fully present anywhere else.
The research supports this idea that people with different traits or styles might actually successfully manage the blend between work and family life, but most of us don’t manage it very well. Over time, I decided that I would separate those things. So I have a space that I work online and a space where I live, and those two are not the same space. I don’t want to feel like I’m always working without any mental space or personal resources left for my family and my other commitments, and I don’t want that for you either. I want to advocate for you to have the space to have a rewarding life outside of your online work and feel like you can recharge and rest and be ready to go for the next week once you’re done.
If you work intermittently all day, every day, pretty soon your quality of work and your physical and mental exhaustion are at odds with each other. So the quality of work goes down and your physical and mental exhaustion increase.
In essence, when you set up a physically distinct workplace in your home or wherever you’re doing your online teaching, you’ll be able to focus more fully and conduct your teaching activities using this physical boundary as a signal to your brain so that while you’re in that space, you’re fully present and working and focused on your online teaching, and then you can turn that off when you walk away.
Establish Clear Working Hours
The second tip to reduce interruptions is to establish clear working hours. Interruptions can really be managed by establishing working hours when you expect to complete your online teaching. If you set boundaries on your work time, then you can have personal time and family time, and space to do all these other things that are important to you, including self-care.
This is going to fight the temptation to be online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s also going to give you non-working time so that you can relax and focus on other priorities without feeling guilty.
Just like setting up a physical space is going to tell other people when you’re at work at the computer, if you give specific working hours for your online teaching, this will give you some boundaries around your time and help it be clear to other people in your life as well. It’s also going to make it obvious to you that you do have time available for other activities outside of the work time.
Communicate Your Plans with Family and Friends
And then lastly in the strategies to reduce interruptions space, communicate your plan. Communicating your workspace and work hour plans to your family members and friends helps them support you when you’re teaching online. If you stick to these plans and you tell other people what your hours are and what you’re doing, the people in your life get a sense of your boundaries, and you’ll be able to approach the work with more focus and more energy. That alone is going to improve your work-life balance and give you time to anticipate doing something else outside of working online. Any definition you can give your online teaching is going to help you feel empowered to do it when you’re in the working time and to feel relief and space away from that work when you’re not working. That physical space and set time–definitely communicate those clearly to the people in your life, and
ask for their support and ask for their help. It’s going to give you the resolve to adhere to your plan and strengthen what’s really going well in your life.
Establish Limit-Setting Strategies
Now, we’ve talked about reducing interruptions by setting up your workspace and your work hours and telling people about these plans, and then sticking to them. The next area is to have limit-setting strategies. Distractions are just part of the game here when we’re working online and teaching online. These could be emails, social media messages, pop-up news ads, anything that interrupts the focus of your teaching tasks or whatever you’ve scheduled into your workday.
Improve Focus by Not Multitasking or Task Switching
Multitasking is tempting, but as I’ve mentioned, multitasking isn’t really multitasking. It’s actually task switching, and it makes it harder to refocus every time you change the subject in your brain. Although you might want to multitask, focusing is going to give you the space to get things done faster and be more fully present while you’re doing it.
When your focus gets interrupted, it takes time to reorient and refocus, and this can actually lead to mistakes, lost time, lower energy. There’s a lot of research around that, and I believe it. I’ve experienced that in my own life, and I think increased focus comes from not shifting between the subject.
Plan Work Sessions and Breaks
I have three tips for you in the limit-setting strategies areas. First, plan your work sessions and breaks. When you plan your work sessions and your breaks, this is going to reassure you that even though you have to focus intensely for a little while, a break is coming. You can get up, walk around, have a snack, do something else for your break, and then get back to your online teaching. This increases your efficiency and it reduces distractions when you are working, and the break gives your brain space to process what you were doing so you can be ready for the next work session.
There’s an awesome strategy called the Pomodoro Technique. And it was developed by Francesco Cirillo. This was an engineering group that used it to create serious focus and a lot of breaks in between so they could be more productive than they had previously been.
The idea is that you give yourself 25 minutes of focused work and five-minute breaks in between. There are all these online timers called Pomodoro Timers, or you can go down to the store and buy a tomato-shaped timer and set it for 25 minutes and it’ll tick down and ring at the end. I have one of those, and I also have the online version, and then there’s a Google Chrome browser add-in that’s a Pomodoro timer that you can put there.
Regardless of the way you use this, after four sets of 25-minute sessions with five minute breaks, then you get to take a longer break of 30 minutes to do something else. Maybe you’re going to have lunch, take a walk, or otherwise focus on something besides the work.
When you do this and stop the task at the end of each planned working period, then you start to trust yourself. That might sound a little strange, but when we tell ourselves we’re going to stop working and we don’t do that, we start to not believe ourselves, and it makes it hard to focus. So giving yourself the space to believe your own plans will increase your energy and your focus and help you feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re working.
Use Timers to Manage Work More Effectively
The other idea is to use timers. Now, I know I mentioned a timer with the Pomodoro Technique, but timers generally are very helpful in reminding us to take a break and setting real boundaries on our time. It also gives us permission to ignore distractions, not shift our attention to other things begging for our attention, and stay right on top of our teaching.
You might use a timer to manage your work or calculate how long it’s going to take to complete different tasks. I’ve done this myself when grading essays. I’ll take a timer, like a stopwatch, and just set it to run until I’m done grading that first essay, and then I’ll look at that time and try to beat it by just a little bit when I grade the next essay.
Sometimes I just like to read slowly and think about it and I take way too long. But I could still give the same focused attention to that student’s work without taking as long. So a timer can bring out your inner competitor and help you to manage your work even more effectively.
Use Limiting Programs or Apps
And then the last idea here is to use limiting programs or apps. There’s one called Focus Assist. I forget whether it’s on the computer or the phone, but there are a lot of others as well, one called Keep Me Out. It’s a distraction limiting website. It lets you bookmark different web pages and provide warnings for visiting a site too frequently. And its goal is to reduce addictive site-checking. So hopefully that’ll help you manage your interruptions. And there’s another one called Stay Focused, and it can actually block websites and interruptions and notify you when it’s time to take a break, and then it’ll open up the next program or the next folder for whatever task you planned. That sounds like it’s going to help you manage your schedule and your task list as well.
In summary, we’ve got a lot of distraction strategies and interruption strategies, and I’m just going to recap these for you now. The distractions could be managed by planning your work sessions and predetermined breaks. You could try the Pomodoro timer method. You could also use the online Pomodoro timer at tomato-timer.com. There’s a bomb countdown timer.
You could use limiting programs or apps like Keep Me Out or Stay Focused, and you can manage your interruptions by designating a physical workspace, establishing work hours for your online teaching and strictly sticking to those, avoiding answering the phone during your work sessions, and communicate your plan and stick to it.
The more you do these things, the more you will have amazing time management strategies. And I think you’ll find over time, you can adjust to get the work done in a way that fits you best. So trying the strategies is a good start, and adjusting and adapting to what works best for you would be a great way to keep going.
And then lastly, reflecting on your plan and thinking about whether it’s working for you. As you reflect on it and keep track of it over time, you’re going to be able to determine whether you’ve improved your strategies, made things better for your students and for yourself, and managed your work-life balance a little bit better.
Well, I hope that this mini-series of work-life balance priorities, engaging with students first, producing assets to guide them, and today’s episode of using time management strategies, I hope these have been helpful for you. Thank you for joining me and I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.
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