Asking for Help

1 February 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

There have been a number of converging factors that have led me to this blog topic. The particular stories that are behind this post aren’t necessarily important, but what I found interesting by them is the question that appeared in each and every one of them.

Why is that we have so much difficulty asking for help?

I don’t know why that is, and since I’m not trained in psychology, all my answers would be bound up in my own reading, observing, and experiencing. Instead, I want to just talk about why it’s ok to ask for help and encourage you to do so.

So what do I mean when I say asking for help? Well, I mean that when you have a question or a concern or something that you can’t do alone that you take a breath and ask for someone to help you.

Let me just highlight some of the ways that I’ve asked for help this week, and I didn’t feel bad about it.

  • Sent someone read a really, really shitty first draft that had things like [insert example here that works as transition] and [trying to say this but I don’t know if I can say it based on the evidence I have]
  • Took a chance and had a conversation with someone I had never met and asked for help with a big data/computational project. Kind of like a cold call, but it was a warm call. But it was still sort of weird and scary, and it’s not something that I can do by myself.
  • Talked through some local issues about what I wanted to do about a particularly thorny issue
  • Spoke candidly with my dean about the ways I needed to be supported (and I realize not everyone has this sort of access, but for me and my situation, he’s an important resource and supporter. Just insert your chair or program director or trusted senior person)
  • Shared teaching materials in hopes of getting feedback on a new method I’m trying
  • Asked folks I owed things to be patient a little while longer cause I had to wrap something else up (that ran over in the schedule)

I could go on. Really, I could. Yes, all of these are regular aspects of my job, but every one of them was made easier because I was not afraid to ask for help

Asking for help doesn’t show weaknesses. In fact, it is a measure of strength. Now, I get how hard it is and that sometimes you’re not certain who to ask or when to ask. I get that some local situations aren’t really conducive to asking for help, but heck, that’s why we started #womeninTC to help with that.

Asking for help is also not as scary as you think, particularly after you do it a time or two, and it works out ok. . If you’re not asking folks for help on these sorts of small stakes things then it makes asking for help on the bigger things that much harder.

Asking for help also ensures that you can different views to be able to better position your own response and what you need/want in any given situation.

My point is to show you that it’s ok to ask for help. You have to ask people for things you need and you need to ask for help in understanding local and field wide issues. Lots of things are made easier when you ask for help and larger, field wide things are often cannot be navigated by yourself. You can’t wait until the year before you go up for tenure to start asking for help. That’s almost too late.

And here’s a news flash. The need for help doesn’t go away. In some ways, it increases because you have to figure out what to do next once you get tenure.

This leads me here. I can’t read your mind—using I here to stand in for all those faculty who’ve been around awhile that often get blamed for not telling people things. I don’t know what your concerns or questions are. So if you find out a hard lesson and then look at me and wonder why I didn’t tell you, I will kindly suggest that you look at your own behaviors first. Does that sound a little harsh? Maybe. But, I repeat, I can’t read your mind. Even if you don’t know the full question you want to ask, you have to actually have to contact someone and say, “I don’t really know what my question is but can we talk about something going on?”

And you know what, I would say, “yes.” I would also not give you suggestions based on just my own view. Believe it or not, I talk to lots of people and collect their wisdom to synthesize and try to pass on to help you.

The one thing that I know—I know—holds people back from asking for help is that they don’t want to be a bother. I also know that some folks say, in an almost rote fashion, to just send things along (to read) or call anytime. I’m sorry for both of these. Really, I am sorry for that.

Because there’s a number of us where that is simply not the case. If the words come out of my mouth, I mean them, and you are not a bother. And I can point you to a number of people (many of which you may know through #womeninTC) who would be happy to talk with you so don’t think you’re stuck with me 🙂

Here’s the time that our schedules start to feel a little stress and we just got done with annual reviews or may be doing (re)appointment paperwork or starting to compile dossiers for tenure or we get a full view that we have over-committed or admin and committee work starts to ramp up and all that is on top of thinking about the spring conference season.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed or if something comes up and your have questions or concerns, just know that there are people you can talk to. It’s really ok to ask for help, but you have to make the first move.

And I’ll be waiting to take your call.

Focusing

17 January 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

In the Army, you run a lot. Or at least I did. And to the Army’s credit, they start you running early in basic training. It was the Saturday of our first full week, and we’d been slowing increasing the distance we ran to prepare us for the final physical-training exercise that would help determine if we’d graduate from basic training. Once we’d formed at 5:00 am, one of our drill sergeants told us we would run eight miles that day.

We started off by winding our way through the wooded areas close the base; then we headed back toward the barracks. One drill sergeant—in perfect cadence to chants—announced that we still had two miles to go. After the first couple of loops, the entire company began to slow as if we were running through mud, and heads craned for the barracks as we passed it. The drill sergeants would, of course, admonish us for our pace and tell us to keep our eyes forward. And so it went: slowing when we glimpsed the barracks, admonishment to pick it up, back on pace, and then it would all repeat. It took ten laps to finish the run. Even for this runner, that was one of the hardest two miles of my life. Why?, you ask. Because being tired and ready for the run to be over all the while seeing the finish line without being able to stop was torturous. And, of course, it was planned that way.

focusWhen we assembled for our classroom session later that morning, the instructor explained the psychology of our morning run and what it meant to our careers as soldiers. You have to attend to the task at hand, said the instructor. So instead of slowing and longing to be inside the barracks, we needed to remain focused on the run. You may have guessed by now how this basic-training anecdote ties into our academic lives. It’s hard to stay focused sometimes.

I think of that run from so many years ago quite often. Because it’s a physical and material and embodied reminder of trying to focus and stay focused on the things that matter, whatever those things are that matter to you.

Many of us are winding down our first week of teaching and getting back into a semester’s groove while others of us are trying to stay focused on specific tasks and objectives, but all of us I would imagine are trying to simply focus.

Focus can be the center of attention of activity or it can be to pay attention to. I’ve always found that the multiple and competing demands of this job make it easy to lose focus. It’s easy to know what to focus on when there’s a deadline or someone right in front of you, but we have to have focus when we’re not faced with these pressures.

Admittedly, lately, this is one of my biggest problems, and it stems from a combination of personal and professional factors. So for me, I’m working hard on focus and reminding myself of that run so long ago. I am trying

  • limit my distractions
  • force myself to start with the hardest (ickiest) task first
  • make reasonable to-do lists so as to not feel overwhelmed and to feel and be successful in a day
  • incorporate more fun things
  • work on being more selective to those things I agree to

In each of these, I hope my focus will return or at the very least, I have more focused days than not. These are all small things, but sometimes they can make the most difference.

And if all else fails, maybe I’ll take up running again!

End of year Re-focus and Resolutions

posted on 31 December 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

As we’re winding down a year, it’s of course time to think through our plans and resolutions for the coming year. I’ve always thought of the winter break as my “do over” time because not only does it bring with it the new year, it also brings it with the chance to just re-focus and re-prioritize what I need and want to do. If done correctly, the spring plans can launch you successfully into a summer where projects move forward instead of languishing.

So here’s some of the things I do during the “break” to set myself up for successful spring term and yes, even a successful summer.

Make to-do lists

For me that means making 5 different lists.

  • Teaching
  • Service local (all the committees I sit on that are active and will be meeting)
  • Service national
  • Research commitments (these are the things with due dates, submitted, or committed collaborations)
  • Research (these are my own self styled projects with no firm, as of yet, deadlines)

In the spirit of getting things done philosophy, I write down every task associated with each thing on the different lists. Once I have everything written down, I start to figure out what can actually be accomplished and what can’t so I can start to make peace with that AND to let others know.

Log everything into a planner or schedule or electronic something or other than you will use (the last part is key)

Some of you have heard my sob story of when I tried to join the 21st century and go electronic, which turned into the most unproductive time of my life. So in the middle of the year, I finally went back to the old fashioned, book like planner, and my life has just now started to gain more stability and focus. I use the Passion Planner and I like it a lot cause of the way you can log lists and reflect on the past month. Just as important, I can still use my sticky notes (which I sort of have a problem with #postitnoteposse FTW)

I log into my planner all the confirmed meetings from teaching to service so I can start to see my spring schedule unfold. I plug in conferences and then immediately back date to put in time where I will work on the conference presentations and papers. Then I log in teaching times, office hours, and course prep times.

I then prioritize the research projects (starting with those with deadlines) and lay out days to work on specific tasks that I have identified. I’m doing several projects that involve interviews and observations so I know when some of those things are scheduled so I add those.

I, also, mark out time to exercise just as if it were a meeting. I’m doing that right now! I’ve also marked down a weekly get together with some friends that we’re all trying to commit to.

Then I put in the priority service items that have set meeting times, and I also know that I need to block out some time to do work associated with some of those commitments. For example, Mondays are basically set aside for service. I do nothing other have meetings or do actual tasks associated with different service commitments.

Being Realistic

Now that I have many things logged in, I can start to eliminate things that I know I will have no chance of getting accomplished during the term or even in the summer.

So how do I know this?

Well, partly out of experience, and partly out of a growing understanding of the true amount of time things take. I have four conferences and a couple of invited talks. There’s no way in hell anything extra is happening so nothing on the Research list that isn’t committed is going to get done. I also know that I can’t say yes to any new service commitments until I get rid of one. That’s my deal with myself.

Much of my research now is pretty labor intensive since I’m in the collecting data phase (on certain projects) and analyzing and writing it up (on others). Both sides are hard and messy and time consuming. Throw in dealing with people (research subjects, collaborators, other stakeholders), and it takes more time. I’m not complaining because that’s just how research goes. You just have to account for these things. A good rule of thumb is to add 1/3 to every task. So if you think it will take a 3 days, add a day, and that’s a conservative estimate. We tend to always underestimate the time it takes for all sorts of reasons. Experience helps you begin to get better at these things, but no amount of experience can offset those days where you truly can’t say no to things and you have to set aside your time to take care of other things.

I also know looking at the big picture that I need to have a conversations with a series of people (my Dean, whom I work for in a partial administrative role, my Head, some collaborators)  because there’s no way some things are going to get done if I’m going to get other things done. So I’ve already sent messages requesting those meetings. The point is in laying it all out and then being painfully realistic about it I know that I have to make some changes and make some decisions for the spring and summer.

Resolutions

And finally, at this time of the year, I do write down some resolutions. I put them on an index card and I include three personal and three professional things that I want to accomplish. Often times, at least one of these things, is something that no one else knows about; it’s like a secret resolution to help encourage me or challenge me or comfort me. These resolutions I put in a sealed envelope and I open on the following New Year’s Eve. I’ll be opening the ones I wrote last year later today.

So in 2016, here are some of my resolutions:

  • take care of myself
    There’s nothing specific about exercise or eating or anything. Just the overall need to remember and to remind that we all need to focus on self-care.
  • focus on the things I can control
    It’s hard to re-wire ourselves not to worry (if you’re the worrying kind) so it may be easier to try and focus on those things that you can control. You cannot control reviewers, but you can control what you send them. You cannot control the toxic colleague, but you can find ways to limit your interaction with them so that their toxicity doesn’t wear off so much.
  • be thankful
    my passion planner has a spot on each weekly spread to write down “good things that happened.” In a job in which we have to deal with so much rejection, it’s good to have this reminder that lots of good things happen too. Writing down the things we’re thankful for and being certain we thank those people who have been kind and generous to us really goes a long way to better mental health and happiness.
  • be mindful
    A dear and wise friend of mine told me once that she every morning she asks herself, “what can I do to make myself happy today?” This sort of mindfulness can be useful to help us focus on what we need and want to do.
  • pay it forward
    there is much to be said for finding a way to give back. Be it in a professional capacity or for a personal cause. Making time to pay it forward does bring with it so many rewards.
  • be kind
    Kindness costs nothing and goes a long way to building goodwill and building good relationships. (Or to follow the old rule our parents told us: if you can’t say something nice….)

I am especially thankful for this community (and those others that I belong to, looking at you #medrhet) and all those members that have inspired and encouraged and supported me and each other throughout this year. It is humbling and amazing to see the support networks.

With that, here’s a virtual toast to each and every one of you:

To endings and beginnings, and may 2016 bring you all that you can imagine and just a little bit more!