There is no such thing as caught up

11 March 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

As we embark on spring break sometime this month, our Mentor Monday topic asked what y’all would be doing on your break. Many of the responses had the theme of using the time to get caught up.

all_this_work_imageWith much affection and respect, I have to say that I laughed out loud. Caught up, indeed!?!

Years ago, probably in my second-year on the tenure-track, my academic yoda gave the best advice. He said, “There is no such thing as caught up. When you recognize that and stop trying to achieve it, life gets a lot better.”

You know what? He was right. While there are many things in our academic work lives that have set timetables (like semesters begin and end), a big part of our life is driven by our own agenda. Even with the tenure or promotion clock, we’re still setting up our schedules and agreeing to what we want to do. This flexibility in scheduling and choosing projects and deciding where to spend our time often leads to an increase in stress where we feel we are always behind.

We constantly feel as thought with just a little more time, a little more space that we can get to all of those things. But the secret is that it will never happen.

First, there are almost always consistent demands on our time that are mostly inescapable such as
• pop-up meetings
• paperwork/reports regarding curriculum or committees
• last minute requests by administrators
• requests from colleagues to give a “quick read”
• picking up a task because someone slacked off on it
• request for a recommendation letter for that really great student who waited until two days before a deadline

The list here could go on and on and on. All of these things add to our stress because these sorts of things push our own work—some of those things we want to do whatever they are–further down the to-do list, and we feel even further behind.

Thus, we feel we need to catch up.

Second, we often put so much pressure on ourselves about how “our own work,” which usually means research, is languishing as it is unattended as we deal with all these other things. We feel stress because we started the project because we wanted to do it, but find we have so little time to get it done.

Thus, we feel the need to catch up on research (as if you could be behind) or to clear all the other things so there is space to research.
Just writing this I felt the unhealthy and unhelpful circle that it puts us on.

So here’s what I want to throw out to you. It’s a series of questions for you to think about that seem to intersect with this ongoing feeling of being behind and needing to catch up.

Am I over preparing and over working in one aspect of my job?

For example, are you spending way to much time preparing for classes? If so, why is that? Are you taking on too many service commitments? If so, is it because you like the work or the pay-off of feeling like you’re doing something.

Have I over committed?
Does it seem like that no matter how hard you work you never check anything off the to-do list or never move any project (teaching, research, or service) substantially forward? Have you over committed? Talk with a trusted mentor to see if you need to try and get out a few things.

Am I suffering from feelings of insecurity (aka imposter syndrome), inadequacy, or fear?
Consider taking some time to seriously reflect on what may be the root of these feelings. It could be these underlying issues that lead to over commitment and over preparing. (It can be a vicious cycle so it’s important to try and find out the core causes.) These feelings too can get in the way of productivity for fear of not measuring up. It’s important to try and figure out what may be driving these.

Do I have a network of people who can help with specific questions?
All faculty need a network to help them in different aspects of their jobs. Most importantly, this network can you prioritize what is really most important for your own goals. In other words, are you spending your time in the right place. This network can also help you figure out when to say yes and no.

Closing thoughts

You don’t have to be caught up to be successful. You have to simply be ahead of the curve on the important tasks. And let me remind you that important tasks are the ones you’ve decided are important and that follow the guidelines on how you will be judged for tenure and promotion and merit and annual reviews. (Thanks, Max, for this perspective.)

I can assure you that as of this minute I am not caught up. Not at all. I have stacks of things I could be doing. I have a project that is near and dear to my heart that I won’t be able to get to until early next year. (Yup, next year. You read that right.) I am desperately trying to finish this longitudinal project about programs in the field so y’all can see the data. But in the meantime, I’ve had to prioritize and shift things around to accommodate local service requests that are important and re-adjust my schedule because of delays and such with an edited collection.

In other words, the only thing that comes with experience is being able to recognize that you’re never really caught up and figuring out ways to do the academic work shuffle. (It’s a special kind of dance 🙂

For the sake of playing along, go ahead and say it with me: There is no such thing as caught up.There is no such thing as caught up.

It’s a freeing…once you start believing it.

Now go out there and do something fun and relaxing. Just for you. Because we all need to put the break in spring break because the work will be there when we get back.

Balancing Acts

28 February 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

A week or so back I posted a link on Facebook to an short Chronicle piece my friend Scott Warnock wrote. It’s a quick read, but the gist of it is exactly what the headline tag line says, “no one, it seemed, wanted to talk publicly about work-life balance.”

Then there was this piece from an academic in the UK who walked away because of the combination of work and life. And then there were these suggestions that I posted  on how to feel less busy (thanks to my great friend, Agata,  for the heads up).

balance_failureIt was interesting too that this image has also made the rounds. Simply replace change “grad school” to “grad school and faculty life” and swap out “clinical skills” for “service,” and you probably have a visual depiction of how many of us feel at different times.

That’s something we want to change. One of the goals of #womeninTC is to talk about things out loud and publicly and to make aspects of our jobs visible. (Public here can take on a number guises because we understand some things shouldn’t ever be “public.”) This publicness and visibility is meant to shift how we do our work and to help one another do it.

And most importantly, the ultimate goal is to achieve a good balance. We’ve had discussions on the steering committee that calling it a work-life balance isn’t an accurate depiction of it. Work and life are often intertwined in such a way that there is no way to differentiate it. By trying to make them too separate it seems to make them at odds with one another even more, as if you have to choose one or the other. The key is simply to balance the different aspects of our lives better.

It’s not easy juggling everything and figuring out when and where to put your time. One of the challenges of this job is that it can dramatically shift from week to week (or even day to day) what one needs to focus on or put her energy toward. That’s a challenge with no easy solutions. Here are three that seem to be the most important.

A recent Mentor Monday discussion was around different ways to organize our lives. (This is the link to the storify of those suggestions.) Organizing is the first, and best, step to achieving balance.

balanceI would suggest that the second step is to be consciously reflective. Take the time each morning and make an accurate assessment of what needs to be done. Included in this conscious reflection is reminding ourselves of something that is positive. This job is often about the negative so it’s equally important to reaffirm the positive things going on in your life.

It’s important to keep the parts of your job that you find to be the most unbalanced (the parts the seem to consistently ooze over into everything else and bring you down) in perspective. By that I mean, recognize that a particularly busy time will pass or that it is possible some of the things that may be really bothering you aren’t as big or as important as you may think. Reaching out to folks you trust to talk through these things that really seem to be overwhelming you is always a good idea!

Finally, we have to stop the culture of overproduction (and too busy syndrome). That’s where we get ourselves into the most trouble because we feel have to say yes to everything. You don’t. We don’t. Say, yes, to you instead.

There are no easy solutions to finding balance. It starts with talking out loud and bringing to the forefront the idea it’s ok—it really is—to have a life outside of our academic jobs. Talking about balance shouldn’t be a lonely table and behind closed doors. So this me talking about it out loud. If you want to talk more go on over to Slack or Twitter or anywhere and let’s talk about it.

Now, go on out there and enjoy the day. Do something fun!




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.