Field Notes: 4 ways to find time for your "If only we had time" project list

May 10, 2019
  • Competencies
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Well-Being
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"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO  Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Jennifer Neufeld, Medical School Registrar, University of Minnesota

You know what it’s like:

You just get the beginning-of-term tasks done and suddenly it’s time to start chasing grades and calculating SAP...
You just finish with orientation and it’s already time to start planning commencement...
You have a list of projects you think you’ll have time to tackle next summer, but then summer comes and your staff start taking vacations, leaving you short-handed while more and more students are taking summer classes and need your attention...
Then, before you know it, the leaves are changing color and the new school year has begun.

Whether your project wish list includes digitizing old paper records, getting all your office procedures documented, or finally getting a solid emergency response plan figured out, it’s easy to push off until later those projects that don’t affect the daily operations of the office. There is plenty to do just to keep the office running, and many of us are doing it with fewer resources and not enough staff.

Here are a four tricks to start making headway on that ever-growing ‘If we only had time. . .’ project wish list:

1. Break the project into bite-sized pieces and take regular bites
When I first started at the University of Minnesota Medical School, all current students’ records were digitized, but that left about 100 years’ worth of alumni paper records. The paper records were split up into three different locations and were not organized in any consistent way. My goal is to get them all digitized eventually, and I decided to start with the most recent graduates and work backwards. I asked a student employee to locate and sort the most recent few years of alumni records and then I just started scanning. I am committed to scanning two students’ records a day, every day that I’m in the office, no matter what. That’s a small and manageable bite for me. At this rate, I can get about 2 years’ worth of records scanned every year. That means it will take 50 years to get them all done, but at least I am making steady progress!

2. Put it on your calendar
When I have a meeting or appointment on my calendar, it serves as a visual reminder of an obligation. The pop-up reminders are indicators that there is someone else waiting on me, expecting my presence and participation. I don’t worry about not answering emails during that hour, and I’m not thinking about all the catalog updates I still have to do, because I am focused on the agenda and the purpose of that meeting. I am in the moment. So why not set an appointment with your project list? Put an hour a week on your calendar, and commit to working on the project during that time, no interruptions.

3. Re-purpose a regular team meeting
Regular team meetings are important for checking in, providing updates, and good old team building. If you have weekly team meetings try using one meeting per month to concentrate on the project wish list. Maybe there is a project the whole team can work on during this time, or maybe each individual team member has their own project. The point is to make this protected time for this specific purpose – don’t make it “free” time or “catch up” time. Procedure documentation and cross-training are common wish-list projects that are particularly achievable using team meeting time.

4. Set benchmark goals and regular check-ins
This is really an extension of the small, regular bites approach. Yes, my goal is to scan and digitize all of the medical school’s paper student records, but if I only stopped to think about how it will take 50 years to get them all scanned, it would be incredibly demotivating. And since I plan to retire in about 25 years I won’t get it all done anyway so why even waste my time? So instead I focus on my daily goal of scanning two files, and my six month goal of scanning one entire graduating class. It is much more manageable and feels good to meet those small goals.

Remember, you are in charge of how you spend your time. You get to decide what you are going to work on and for how long each day. If you decide to prioritize that lower-priority project it is more likely to get started, and if it gets started it is more likely to get finished. Any progress is better than no progress at all.