Sarah A. Forbes, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Research on academic advising has demonstrated a positive impact on many student success outcomes, including grade point average, retention, and graduation rates (e.g., Kirk-Kuwaye & Nishida, 2001; Molina & Abelman, 2000; Swecker et al., 2013; Vander Schee, 2007). Knowing this impact often compels advisors to approach the task of advising with as much effort as possible. Unfortunately, for professional staff advisors, high caseloads can quickly lead to exhaustion. For faculty advisors, advising is only a small part of their workload. In both cases, advisors need strategies to make advising more sustainable.
In his pivotal book, Essentialism, McKeown (2014) teaches individuals to focus their efforts on the highest priority in order to have the biggest impact. In essence, say yes only to the essential and say no to everything else. McKeown’s (2021) follow-up book, Effortless, guides individuals towards making it easier to do those essential tasks. First is creating an effortless state, followed by engaging in effortless action, and then achieving effortless results. With increasing workloads and decreasing budgets, not to mention the emotional strain of a global pandemic, the concept of effortless advising has appeal.
An effortless state is “one in which you are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in that moment. You are able to do what matters most with ease” (McKeown, 2021, p. 26). To create an effortless state, advisors can invert, enjoy, release, rest, and notice.
To invert as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• How am I making academic advising more complicated than necessary?
• Where is my focus—on the minutiae or the relational?
• Are there tools that could make my advising tasks easier or more efficient?
To enjoy as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• How can I make advising feel more like playing?
• What rewards could I pair with advising meetings?
• Am I restricted in where I conduct advising meetings?
To release as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What is my current attitude towards advising?
• How does my attitude change throughout the term or from year to year?
• In what ways have I tied my sense of self-worth or achievement to advising statistics?
To rest as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What is the actual timeframe for advising meetings, not just the ideal timeframe?
• How often do I pack my schedule to meet with one more student?
• How often do I schedule intentional breaks?
To notice as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• Is my environment supporting my advising goals?
• How do I focus on what’s most important?
• How often do my opinions and judgement take precedence in meetings with advisees?
The goal of academic advising has evolved over the years from compliance to whole person development to student learning (Drake et al., 2013). These changes have brought added responsibility to the role of an advisor. Advisors must cut through the noise to focus on what is most important: the student. Once that happens (i.e., once an effortless state is created), advisors can engage in effortless action that leads to a more sustainable practice.
With effortless action, the goal is “accomplishing more by trying less. You stop procrastinating and take the first obvious step. You make progress by pacing yourself rather than powering through. You overachieve without overexerting” (McKeown, 2021, p. 143). For effortless action, advisors can define, start, simplify, progress, and pace.
To define as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• If I begin with the end in mind, what does the end look like?
• With limited time each day, what would constitute meaningful progress?
• What internal boundaries do I need to set?
To start as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What do I think is the first step and how can I break that down into smaller steps?
• How can I turn thoughts and ideas into physical actions?
• What is the minimum viable product or the minimum viable effort for this task?
To simplify as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What steps in the advising process can I remove?
• Where am I putting in extra effort for no return?
• Where am I expanding an advising task unnecessarily?
To progress as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• In what areas of advising am I trying to be a perfectionist?
• What, if any, are the consequences for having a terrible first draft?
• What markers of progress can I establish?
To pace as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• In what ways do I need to approach advising like a marathon rather than a sprint?
• How often do I tell myself to just push through?
• What is my ideal range as an academic advisor (e.g., at least X but less than Y)?
Once advisors can focus on our essential tasks, effortless action makes it easier to accomplish those tasks. The goal is to avoid negative returns, “the point where we are not merely getting a smaller return on each additional investment, we are actually decreasing our overall output” (McKeown, 2021, p. 96). Once effortless actions become routine practice, advisors can focus on achieving effortless results.
According to McKeown (2021), to achieve effortless results, “exert effort once and reap the benefits again and again. Results continue to flow to you, whether you put in additional effort or not” (p. 149). For effortless results, advisors learn, lift, automate, trust, and prevent.
To learn as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What are the overarching principles that will guide my work with advisees?
• What knowledge could I gain from advisees or experienced advisors?
• What unique knowledge could I bring to our advising office?
To lift as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What advising tasks could advisees learn to do for themselves?
• How can I craft advising messages that are easy to understand and hard to misunderstand?
• What repeated advising questions could become a user’s guide or video?
To automate as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What advising tasks do I perform on a repetitive basis?
• What advising processes might lend themselves to a checklist approach?
• Which areas of my advising work are the most complex and therefore most prone to error?
To trust as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• How can I establish and strengthen trust and rapport with my advisees?
• Am I collaborating with the right people to support advising?
• How can I bring my advising goals in line with the goals of my advisees?
To prevent as an academic advisor, consider these questions:
• What aspects of the advising process are routinely frustrating?
• What advising problems am I repeatedly managing as they crop up rather than solving?
• What early indicators of student problems can I incorporate into advising discussions?
Many academic advisors are in their positions because they want to help students succeed, and many times that includes going above and beyond expectations. While that is commendable, advisors need to be able to maintain that level not only throughout a term but throughout their career. Consider doing a review of formal and informal processes to see where these Effortless concepts could be applied. If “the advisor is arguably the most important person in the student’s educational world” (Lowenstein, 2005, p. 72), it is crucial to ensure that advisors can sustain their responsibilities. Effortless advising can help reduce advisor input to increase advisor output. Afterall, “burnout is not a badge of honor” (McKeown, 2021, p. 7).
Drake, J. K., Jordan, P., & Miller, M. A. (Eds.). (2013). Academic advising approaches. Jossey-Bass.
Kirk-Kuwayne, M., & Nishida, D. (2001). Effect of low and high advisor involvement on the academic performances of probation students. NACADA Journal, 21(1-2), 40–45. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-21.1-2.40
Lowestein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal 25(2), 65–73. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-20-90
McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. Currency.
McKeown, G. (2021). Effortless: Make it easier to do what matters most. Currency.
Molina, A., & Abelman, R. (2000). Style over substance in interventions for at-risk students: The impact of intrusiveness. NACADA Journal, 20(2), 5–15. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-22.2.66
Swecker, H. K., Fifolt, M., & Searby, L. (2013). Academic advising and first-generation college students: A quantitative study on student retention. NACADA Journal, 33(1), 46–53. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-13-192
Vander Schee, B. A. (2007). Adding insight to intrusive advising and its effectiveness with students on probation. NACADA Journal, 27(2), 50–59. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-27.2.50