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My advisory board

In the 2016-17 academic year, the College gave me more work than I could reasonably handle. Paperwork and responsibilities associated with being chair. A historically large number of advisees. Many students. And all the stresses associated with feeling under-resourced. I made the situation worse by continuing or adding other responsibilities, both at Grinnell and in my professional society.

Even though I stepped down as chair at the beginning of this academic year, in Fall 2017, I continued to be over-loaded, mostly because I said Yes to too many things or, worse yet, because I volunteered to do too many things. I had taken on more work than I should have, potentially more work than I could physically do, even in an eighty-plus-hour week.

I tried to cut back. But I didn’t cut back enough. Then I had a fairly significant disagreement with administration [1,2] and cut back some more. It still wasn’t enough. These were also short-term strategies. I clearly needed a longer-term strategy.

At some point, my family decided that I should have an advisory board to help me decide whether or not to take on additional responsibilities. And so Eldest Son, Middle Son, and A Friend of Sons appointed themselves my advisory board.

It’s helped. When I’m thinking clearly and someone asks me to do something, my answer is no longer Yes, of course. It’s Let me check with my advisory board. When I think to myself, I should volunteer to do this task, I next say Of course, I should ask my advisory board first.

What does it mean to ask my advisory board? I compose an email message in which I detail the responsibility, the benefits, and the drawbacks [3]. Sometimes, composing the message is enough. I realize that there are not enough benefits to make it worthwhile, so I throw away the draft and politely decline the responsibility. But most of the time, I send the message on and they respond with questions and actions. They do a pretty nice job of helping me think through things, and I generally don’t say Yes unless they agree (or at least two of three agree) that I should say "Yes.

They have not yet reached the point at which they always ask So, what will you give up in order to take on this new responsibility? It’s likely that they will soon [4]. Or perhaps I’ll just add a note to that effect to the email messages I compose. I still think that it’s okay to add a few responsibilities without giving some up [5], but I should make it my general practice to remove a responsibility of similar size each time I add a new responsibility [6].

I’m not perfect at this strategy. Sometimes I give myself a few hours of extra work without asking them. That’s reasonable; the advisory board process is designed for longer-term responsibilities. But I’ve said yes to a few large responsibilities that likely needed more consideration. Will you continue as SIGCSE SV Coordinator? Yes, of course [7]. Would you like to join the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics? Yes, of course [8].

But I’m getting better.

In the end, it’s a technique I’d highly recommend. Form an advisory board. It could be a few senior colleagues. It could be family members. It could be a few friends from other institutions. It could be a combination. Once you’ve formed the board, each time you are asked to take on a non-trivial responsibility, say I need to ask my advisory board [9]. Or maybe you can just learn to say No by default [10].

Postscript: If I’m going to make it a practice to give up something every time I add something, I’ll need to make a clearer list of my responsibilities. I wonder if I’ve mused about that already. [Sam does a quick search.] Nope. Although I’ve written about sets of tasks for particular points in time and even written lots of materials about my work for my triennial review, I do not seem to have made a public list of my professional roles and responsibilities. I should. Stay tuned for a future musing.

Postscript: In looking for prior musings on responsibilities, I stumbled upon my insanely long and disorganized [11] commentary on work-life balance, written more than a year ago. While I’m not sure everything belongs in that musing, there’s some good advice there. Here are two notes that particularly resonate.

Foremost [among your responsibilities [to others] is being clear about what you are and are not able to contribute.

That is, you do no one any favors if you take on more responsibilities than you can fulfill.

Have at least one workload mentor. Having someone who you can talk to about your workload and can help you think through relative importance of tasks is really important.

I guess I’ve taken that advice to the next level and in a slightly different direction. My advisory board serves as a kind of workload mentor. And it turns out the mentor just has to be someone you can trust and asks good questions, even if they are not someone who would regularly serve in a mentoring role.

[1] It’s not a disagreement that I think can be repaired.

[2] It’s also none of your business.

[3] The drawbacks are usually time.

[4] Particularly since all of them read these musings.

[5] I hear a little voice saying No, it’s not!

[6] I could also remove a more time-consuming responsibility each time I add a new responsibility.

[7] When I accepted that responsibility, I assumed it would be a two-year responsibility. I’ve done it for one year; I should do it for another.

[8] I had already started doing some volunteer work for COPE; joining is tied to an interesting opportunity for my students, so it seems worthwhile.

[9] You need not say it out loud. You can say to yourself I need to ask my advisory board. You can say something like the following to others: I have a lot of responsibilities. I very much appreciate your thinking of me, but I need a few days to consider the impact.

[10] I always see opportunities in responsibilities, so I am nowhere close to mastering the skill of saying No as regularly as I should. But the advisory board has proven a great intermediate step.

[11] I’ll let you judge whether insanely modifies only long or also disorganized.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-28.