How Theme Days Can Support Your Professional Goals

The following article is a guest post by Dr. Leigh Hall of Teaching Academia. More details about Leigh and her platform can be found below the article.

Throughout my academic career, I have found that it's easy to get overwhelmed with a variety of tasks. And, honestly, most of these tasks are things I enjoy and want to do! But the more I say "yes" to things, and the higher the pile becomes, the greater stress I begin to feel and the less enjoyable everything is.

Sound familiar?

It's hard to focus on writing that manuscript when I know I have a pile of papers to grade.

It's hard to focus on grading papers when I know that manuscript needs revisions.

And it's hard to focus on planning for my classes when I know I need to be designing a study.

I realized that when I started doing one thing my mind skipped ahead to all of the other things I needed to do. Yet, when I got around to one of those other things, my brain started running through the laundry list of still more things I needed to do.

Yep. I had a focus problem.

How Theme Days can Support your Professional Goals | The Academic Society for grad students and academics

But all of that changed when I learned about the concept of theme days while reading the book Make Time: How To Focus on What Matters Every Day.

What Are Theme Days?

The idea behind theme days is simple. You begin by assigning a theme for your day. In my case, a theme would be research, teaching, or service. Each day then has specific goals and objectives that I am working towards as well as its own schedule.

The beautiful thing about theme days is that it helps manage the thoughts that creep into my head and attempt to distract me. For example, if I am writing a manuscript, and thoughts pop up about teaching, I know that I can (usually - barring an emergency) ignore them because I have a specific day and time set aside to contend with those issues.

How Do You Create Theme Days?

What your days look like will depend on your job description. My job breaks down as follows:

  • 60% research; this is things like writing grants and publications as well as collecting and analyzing data

  • 25% teaching; I teach one class each semester

  • 10% service; this is all the stuff you would expect

  • 5% advising; I advise masters and doctoral students

So, to start, find out what percentage of your job falls into research/teaching/service.

Next, convert your number of hours worked per week into percentages. I know we all work more than 40 hours per week. But, for this example, I'm going to stick to 40. You should adjust things as needed.

In a 40-hour work week, those percentages above translate into:

  • 24 hours per week (minimum) for research activities

  • 10 hours per week (minimum) for teaching activities

I left service out of the equation for now because I have found that it's not a set percentage that needs to be attended to in any given week. It fluctuates. More on that in a minute.

For a 40 day work week, this means that:

  • research activities, at 24 hours, should be assigned to three eight hour days

  • teaching activities can be split into two five hour days

Obviously you can configure this a number of ways. All of that adds up to 34 hours. This gives me six hours to plug in service and/or create content for my youtube channel which is directly tied to my job.

Setting Your Theme Days

Now that you know how your job breaks down, and how much time you are expected to devote to each category, you can assign each day a theme. For the upcoming academic year, I have done the following:

  • Research: Monday/Tuesday/Thursday

  • Teaching: Wednesday/Friday

  • Content Creation: Wednesday/Friday

Service is still missing from here, and I've added in a new theme: content creation. As much as possible, I try to schedule all my meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays. This includes committee meetings and advising meetings. I'm not always in control of when committee meetings get set. This means that, every so often, a research or teaching day might get interrupted with a one hour committee meeting. However, this is rare and, overall, not too disruptive.

Content creation, like service, fluctuates in terms of how much attention I need to give to this. Some weeks I can get by with very little time and other times it takes more. I put it with teaching because teaching also flexes in terms of how much time it demands. The start of the semester will be a bit slower. The middle and end are typically busier. The amount of time I need for both teaching and content creation activities is not as consistent as the time I need for research.

Now that you have your days set up let's drill down into what you do on a given one.

Creating Goals & Objectives For Your Theme Days

For any given day, you want to have one-three goals you are working towards accomplishing. Goals are going to give you the bigger picture. They can include:

  • Submitting a manuscript

  • Revising and resubmitting a manuscript

  • Writing a grant proposal

  • Writing a conference proposal

  • Revising a program

  • Creating an advising philosophy

You get the point. These are big ticket items that cannot be completed in a single sitting.

Once you have your goal, let's use writing and submitting a manuscript as the example, you then want to set a deadline. For each day, you want to have specific objectives that move you towards completing your goal and meeting your deadline. I might do the following in starting a new manuscript:

If I'm starting a new manuscript, I might say that I'll be ready to submit it by December 15th. How will I accomplish this?I know that on Monday/Wednesday/Thursday I will, for some of that time, be working on writing it. There's a number of ways I can create objectives for each of those times. Here are some examples:

  • Draft the methods section

  • Revise the methods and findings sections

  • Read the literature that will support my theoretical framework

Notice that I didn't just say, "Write for two hours." While I will have set aside a specific block of time for my writing, I will also have specific things I am going to focus on during that time. I always know what I'm going to do when I sit down to write. When the time is up, I assess what I did/did not get done and write my objective(s) for the next session.

For example, drafting the methods section might take me three days. I don't assume that I will meet the objective in one sitting. However, having that objective gives me a purpose for my writing and allows me to hone in on what I am doing. If it is not completed I will roll it over.

Managing Your Time On a Given Day

Finally, map out how you will structure your time on a given day. For example, recently my research themed days went like this:

  • 7:00-11:00 am (writing)

  • 11:00-3:30: Data collection/analysis/research team meetings

I can break that down even further:

  • 7:00-9:00: Working on manuscript

    • Draft methods section

  • 9:00-10:00: Grant proposal

    • Read feedback and start revisions

  • 10:00-11:00: Conference proposal

    • Review the call, identify proposal type, and sketch out an outline

  • 11:00-11:30: Break

  • 11:30-12:30: Research Team Meeting

    • Each meeting will have an agenda based on where we are with the project

  • 12:30-2:30: Data analysis

    • Continue coding surveys

  • 2:30-3:30: Analysis Write Up

    • Write up what I have learned from the coding, questions I have, things I noticed, and next steps

The Benefits of Theme Days

I love using the concept of theme days in my work. It has helped keep me focused and made life more manageable. When thoughts creep in about other work I should be doing, I know that time has already been accounted for it so I can relax. It's easy to push the thought of, "You should be grading," aside when I know I have time specifically set up for that.

Finally, keep in mind that you can adjust this approach as needed. For example, you could have Monday mornings be about research and your afternoons might be devoted to teaching. The entire day doesn't need to be assigned a theme, and you may find that doing so won't work for you. But having large blocks of time devoted to a theme, and then goals/objectives and a schedule in place, will help keep your attention directed at what needs to be done.

Want a handout that will support you in designing theme days? Get it here.

Did you find this blog post extremely helpful? Then you will love other articles by Dr. Leigh Hall from Teaching Academia.

Leigh Hall received her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis on literacy, from Michigan State University in 2005. She’s now a Professor and Endowed Chair of Adolescent literacy. .Teaching Academia focuses on helping you navigate academia to make your best impact. On this site, you will learn how to elevate your scholarship, teaching, and service activities in ways that help you have the career you want. You will learn specific tools and techniques you can use right now that will allow you to make an immediate impact.