Tools for Change

29 November 2017

 

Tools for change.

I have been struggling to focus since the summer. And as I have been working hard to reboot my life, I saw an image (at the left) that resonated with me. I saw this early in November, which is the time of the year where #acwrimo** happens.

Between the accountability of academic writing month and this image, I took the time to reflect on how to re-shape my work life. In many ways, November and academic writing month has been a success for me.

Please know when I say success that I recognize that success looks and feels and is different for each of us, and also know that I am not advocating for the overproduction that plagues higher education. But what I am saying is that we do need to think carefully and strategically about how our work lives and reflect on ways to make that happen.

So over the course of November, I’ve been more deliberate in my work schedule, and I have taken to heart these tools for change. Here is how they played out for me.

 

Practice

I had gotten out of the practice of writing (and the related tasks that fit with writing and count as “writing”). So without doubt, everyday I did something that was attached to a project. From reading, to editing, to drafting words, to coding data, to gathering data, to analysis…..you get the idea. I worked hard at re-learning—at practicing—the art of writing and research. And I hope this practice stays with me into the spring as I head back to the classroom!

Mistakes

This month (as well as the ones before and no doubt after) I made a ton of mistakes. All sorts of mistakes. From forgetting things, from not responding as soon as I should, from drawing incorrect conclusions, from collating data incorrectly and having to re-do thousands of entries, from “that’s a great section” to understanding it had to be deleted….you get the idea. Having the courage to admit that mistakes are part of our lives (and often our daily lives) is a free moment. It opens up space to laugh at yourself, admit it, and then find ways to move forward. My mistakes this past month have helped me realize it’s all going to be ok.

Love

I was reminded of the joys of life through this month as friends and colleagues near and far took time to read or comment or just talk to me to work through a problem. There is a love in this sort of giving and receiving, and often, we forget to acknowledge how important this sort of help and support is not only to the work but to ourselves and well-being. Feeling the love and support of others—which in part can’t be accomplished unless you ask for help—offsets the day to day grind.

Adversity

Life is filled with adversities. And it’s no secret that this job can be challenging. As I approached trying to re-learn how to do this job, there were new challenges and difficulties that I had not face before. I learned new strategies for focusing; new strategies for revising; new strategies for reading. You name it and I worked toward a new practice or an improved old practice to get anything accomplished. The constant feeling of walking uphill (not quite like Atlas but close) reminded me that adversity brings with it its own rewards. Just the simple fact that I kept trying and found some success made it all worthwhile.

Vulnerability

Writing and research and teaching are all vulnerable moments (whether we acknowledge it out loud or not) because they open us up for being judged. For most of this month, I have walked around feeling like I was partially flayed open and it was disconcerting and at times, disheartening. But part of the success of this month was found in the fact I pushed on through. I reminded myself that I as definitely not alone in the feeling of vulnerability. (see above about love and friendship.)

Patience

My entire life I have wished I was more like my mother. The reasons for that are legion, but one that I often refer to is the fact my mother is a model of patience. Working this past month has been a testament in patience. I have had to consciously be patient with myself and refuse the impulse to be too hard on myself when things didn’t go right or it was taking too long to do things.

But patience circles us back to practice. We have to be patient and kind to ourselves as we practice new things because we will make mistakes and face adversity and feel vulnerable, but hopefully, through it all we can find and share the love with one another.

As we all finish up this term and start to contemplate what we’ll do over the “break,” I encourage you to think through what your tools for change may be. The opening image spoke to me and helped me reflect on this month where I was consciously and deliberately trying to invoke a change in my own work life. It is important to our own professional development to give ourselves the space to reflect on our own practices. What would be your tools for change?

Wishing you health, joy, and peace in your own reflection processes.

** acwrimo = academic writing month which occurs in November. It’s the academic equivalent to the creative writing month to write your novel. Its aims are to provide a source of accountability and focus to get writing projects moving forward.

 

Summer Sunday

6 August 2017 by Lisa Meloncon

The beginning of August has always signaled the end of the summer. Even though school doesn’t start for most us for another 4 or 5 weeks, the pre-term meetings will begin within the next week or so and the slower pace of summer starts to shift into the regular flow of the fall.

This end also signals another moment where many academics experience a wide range of emotions related to what they did (or did not) accomplish this summer. A common problem is making a summer to-do list that is too ambitious and thus totally un-achievable. And not achieving it all often leads to all sorts of anxieties and emotions, which isn’t the best way to end the summer and get ready (emotionally, physically, mentally) for the fall term.

So while we may be lamenting the final days of summer, I want to encourage everyone to take this time now to plan and strategize for the fall (and even into the spring). Since there is still is a semblance of slowness to these early days of August, it gives us the opportunity to honestly think through what we want and need to accomplish this fall.

I am a broken record about making reasonable and doable work plans. The big question that most people have is how to do that. There is no magic bullet and there’s tons of advice out there on how planning and such. So I’ll just give you an overview of the major steps that need you need to do to make a term plan.

You can write these down in a variety of ways. When I first started my full-time job, I did this process in a spreadsheet because that same excel workbook also had a manuscript/project sheet. Now, I’ve evolved and do this process in my planner (which is an action day at the moment). You can also do this on a large erasable, monthly/yearly whiteboard or on hard copy calendar pages. In short, you need to do this process in a way in which you’re comfortable and familiar and/or a way that makes sense to you and the way that you work.

Start by writing down all the dates that are confirmed

  • Start and end dates for the term (including exams if you do them and including grade due dates)
    conference dates (including travel days and an extra day after you get back)
  • teaching times and office hours (for graduate students include your classes as well)
  • regular meetings (like faculty meetings, meetings with advisees/advisors, etc.)
  • self care (regular gym times, weekly dinner or drinks with friendsfamily obligations (all of those dates and times that you need to take care of in the process of taking care of and being part of your family)

All of these things typically can’t be moved nor negotiated. Once you have all of these things down, then you need to carefully and strategically think through when you can carve out some writing/research thinking time. (And keep in mind when I write writing and research this is a stand-in term that can also mean time you’ll need to accomplish large administrative tasks or whatever else that your specific and unique job requires.)

Now, for your sanity, you need to find a couple of hours in the schedule that you block off with nothing written in them. This becomes your wiggle room for when things go awry and helps you move things around without the whole world falling apart (or feeling like it is).

Block off writing and research time

You need a couple of blocks of time a week or shorter blocks every day. You need to make sure that you have time scheduled to the do work you need to do based on your own preferences and writing/working style. For some people that means writing some every day. For other people that means three big blocks of time. For others this means that they get up early or stay up late and then make other allowances in their schedules. In other words, the when and where you block off your writing time is as personalized as our writing styles. The point is to block of the time.

Make a project list

Then make list (on just some other paper) of the projects that you’re currently working on that are not finished or projects that will need attention during the fall (e.g., those those conference papers). List these in order of the most important (based on whatever criteria you choose). I use project here deliberately and also not in the typical academic sense. Project could be a large service project that means a lot to you and your career goals or it could be working on a new class in the fall that you’re scheduled to teach in the spring. It can also be a committee report that you know you’ll have to complete for a committee you chair. It can also mean a research project. Our projects will vary based on our jobs and our own personal goals.

Now that you have your major projects written down in priority order, then you need to get down to the hard business and accepting that you won’t get all the things done that you want to get done because even the best laid plans will go awry. So take a deep breath, and now, mark through everything on the list except the top two or three things. (This number is slightly arbitrary, but for most academics without an RA or not part of a large collaborative team, that’s about all that a person can get accomplished well and with your mental and physical health intact.)

Create project deliverables

Now with some workable projects fit into a reasonable and realistic plan for the term, you need to go about breaking down the projects into manageable, doable chunks. ‘Writing on X” is not a doable item. Writing the analysis for X is a doable. By breaking down projects you can put them into your calendar into those times you already blocked off AND more importantly, it gives you the flexibility to shift chunks into and out of the scheduled times depending on the ebbs and flows of your life and your health and your department/colleagues.

And if you put everything into the term and you see that there’s not a whole lot of down time, then I would strongly encourage to be more strategic in saying yes and no. I want to repeat my other mantra: we don’t have to work all the time and to shift the culture of needless overproduction, we have to be kinder to ourselves and say no.

So that’s how I go about scheduling my term (year).

Wishing you joy, peace, and health as you close out the summer!

Summertime’s 3 Rs

21 May 2017 by Lisa Meloncon

I have grown to love the academic year cycles, and like most of us, I look forward to the breaks we have between terms. I’ve had the germ of this blog rolling around in my head the last few weeks, but I had trouble pairing it down to the most important things to do in the summer. So finally settled on the three Rs.

As move into the first part of summer (or wrapping up the last couple of weeks for you quarter term folks), it is the perfect time to rest, reorient, and to plan realistically.

Rest

Yup. It’s been a long year and the more relaxed pace of the summer gives you the perfect opportunity to replenish your mental and physical energy. Take some time to rest and relax to help you to rejuvenate. Without this, you’ll find yourself starting the fall just as depleted as you are now. Don’t forget to have lots of fun, which is something that we all need to do more often (cause can you have too much fun?!) It’s really ok to do nothing during the summer. That’s what resting and rejuvenating is all about. (And there’s a “psychological importance” to wasting time and taking breaks.)

Summer should definitely afford you the time and space to create more balance in your life and hopefully, to start to build some new habits that may carry into the fall. For example, I have to recommit to a daily exercise routine. I hope to have that habit rebuilt by the time the fall term starts. I am also sleeping as late as I want and not giving myself a hard time about it!

Reorient

Maybe it’s because I’m feeling a bit nostalgic or the fear of moving to a new academic home, but this summer I’m going to be taking some dedicated time to reorient. In this sense, reorient means to think through what it is that you want out of this job, to think through a strategic plan to achieve it, and to figure out ways to get rid of those things that are causing stress and angst.

For many of us, we sometimes get caught up in the day-to-day of work and the real and assumed expectations that we lose sight of why we wanted to do this job. Being deliberate and reflective about what you like and what you want out of this job is an important summer task. It can help clear the mental debris so that planning for the summer is easier (and realistic) and hopefully, it helps you form a strategic plan for the upcoming year. I know I talk about strategic planning a lot. The reason is that it provides a material way of tracking goals and ensuring a sense of control over your life. There are so many aspects of this job that we cannot control. The one thing we can control is our attitude and approach to it. A summer reorientation can help.

For example, I know that my new job will be different in some ways, with different responsibilities. That means I need to reconsider some of the things I do now to determine if the passion for those things still remain and if I’ll have time to do those things. Framing these internal discussions through the lens of what I want out of (and need from) this job is a useful exercise to reduce stress, to make a plan, and to not over commit.

During a Mentor Monday earlier in May, Sarah Singer shared this:

With her permission, I include it here as a way to help you think through how to reorient your own lives and psyche. What would make you happy? This is not a frivolous question, but one that is directly connected to how we interact and to how we do our jobs.

Granted, we can’t get rid of every stressor, but we can definitely take the time to reorient how we think about those things and react to them. For example, many of us serve on committees that are ineffectual, but we also know that we have to sit on certain committees. Even though we cannot change the necessity of it, we can change our attitude toward it. It’s also possible if the situation is truly toxic to research potential replacements, that is, to give up one committee but offer to sit on another.

Realistic planning

Let me go ahead and be the spoilsport. You probably won’t get all the things you want to do done this summer. That leads to the often-unhealthy cycle of working too much and then being too hard on yourself when you don’t get things done (that were probably not totally realistic in the first place).

So I beg you. Make a realistic plan. What does that look like? Well, it depends on the person and how you work, but typically, you’re only going to make headway on one thing and maybe some progress on two smaller things. These things can be any number of tasks from drafts, to final revisions, to reports that you know will be due, to new classes you’ll be teaching.

A good rule of thumb is to make a plan and then delete at least half of it. Yup, half. And if you’re resting and reorienting, delete 2/3 of it. What’s left is probably a realistic plan on what you’ll get done.

This realistic planning means you can spend more time celebrating your achievements and getting things done.

Good luck with your summers!

Wishing you joy, health, and peace!