Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Taking a Real Summer "Break"

Happy SummerIf you've ready any previous posts on this blog, then you're likely familiar with my perpetual goal of taking a real break/vacation at some nonspecific point in the future. After the Spring semester I had (i.e., gave myself), I need a break more than ever. I spent last summer managing and analyzing data, writing a solo-authored manuscript, and drafting a related grant application. I also traveled for events that did not allow much relaxation time; two weddings, a project trip, and two weeks in Brooklyn for a training program. I'm guessing that I worked at 85-90% of academic year effort, which is not a break. As this summer approached - my second summer on the tenure track - my mantra was DO NOT REPEAT.

Unlike my work goals, though, my break goal is the definition of vague. What? When? Where? How will I know whether I did what I set out to do? What is it that I'm trying to achieve, exactly? Even when it comes to not-working, clarity is helpful.

My kiddie pool in the backyard.
Getting it right. My first priority for the summer is to rest. Easier said than done, as many of us know, and what does that really look like? For me, rest means taking evenings and weekends completely off, and spending that time either lying in the sun with reading material or binge watching Netflix/HBO. (Also sleeping at least eight hours per night.) I started on this path as soon as Spring grades were submitted. I slept; I watched all available episodes of Marvel's Daredevil and quickly moved on to True Blood. (Neither is typical for me, but I loved both. Which is cool in its own right.) I'm now on season four of Veep AND season two of True Detective. And I bought a kiddie pool to stay cool outside.

But the relaxation was broken up by nagging guilt about not-working. I should be writing X paper or drafting Y section of my upcoming grant submission! Think of everything I could get done if I worked just a little more! I was on the path to self-sabotage already, and beating myself up for it wasn't helping. So step #2 was clarifying what needs to get done this summer, what I'd like to get done this summer, and ongoing work that likely will not get done this summer. This also meant planning around some deadlines and travel and coordinating with summer RAs to maximize work time. 

Seeing this plan helped me realize how much I'll be able to do even as I work less than usual. Having a major deadline early in the summer also helped, and I used extra time off as a reward for meeting that deadline. (I submitted days in advance, actually, and I didn't experience the stress frenzy that usually comes toward the end. Planning works even better than I anticipated.)

Step #3 involved creating an intervention for those times when guilt still nags at me. We can't stop ourselves from having negative thoughts, but we can redirect them to more balanced, accurate thoughts. As a clinical health psychologist, I know very well that taking breaks improves efficiency and leads to higher quality work than does running yourself into the ground. This is something I help others realize and implement, but find difficult to do for myself. 

For example, recently I took a three-day weekend, just because. I worked hard during the week and I was ready to relax. As I sat on the couch or on the deck, relaxing, I found myself thinking you're being really lazy - you're really not going to accomplish ANYTHING this weekend? Sounds terrible when I say it like that. But then I called to mind my Spring-semester self: exhausted, irritable, and not incredibly productive. My current less-exhausted, cheerier, productive self then shifted to this is good for me (and the people I care about), and I was free from negativity for a good while. Breaks work wonders.

Also, non-work goals. If you ready previous posts on this blog, you also might remember that my "hobby" is running. I've run a bunch of half-marathons, six marathons, and an ultra-marathon (31+ miles). I'm slow, but speed isn't the point. I decided to run my first marathon in graduate school, simply because I needed a goal that was personal; not related to professional achievement and just for me. It was an incredible experience and I kept it up for years. 

But since I started my tenure-track job, I haven't been able to make the mental commitment to training. (That alone should tell me something.) I did a half-marathon in my third week on the job, which was fun but not great; it was a gorgeous day on a gorgeous trail and I finished in a respectable time, but I wasn't well trained due to recent illness. I wrestled with the idea of a fall marathon this year - as you have to plan months in advance - but I still couldn't pull the registration trigger. I kept up my usual running and strength training schedule, but it was more out of habit and fear of losing fitness than out of love or excitement. I renewed my subscription to a running magazine just to have some sort of running cue in my house. I needed a goal.

Having that running magazine around recently allowed me to pick up an issue when I felt particularly despondent. Reading about gear, trails, races, and other runners' enthusiasm brought me back up, and I committed to a fall event: a running "hat trick," or three races in two days. It's a back-to-back 5K and 10K on a Saturday, then a half-marathon (13.1 miles) on Sunday. It's a new challenge for me, and it really helped - I've enjoyed running more since I registered than I have in over a year. Together with rest, sun, and continuing to work on projects I care about, running is lifting the Spring-semester cloud.

This is your life moment of the week: Overall, I'm happy to report that this summer is going well on all fronts. I had to plan for this and commit to it, and I've been able to strike the right balance for me. So if you're struggling, try focusing on these for the second half of the summer, identify relaxation/hobby goals. Put those academic skills to work for non-work!

Share how your summer is going and how you're taking a break this year!

Monday, May 23, 2016

It's MAY?? Spring Semester, Conference Season, and Keeping Up

Wow. This was both the shortest and longest semester in the past 10 years, and it taught me a lot about my professional habits. Not just about a tendency to take on more than a human can manage (as many of us do), but how it happens, how I handle it, and what happens to me as a result. The short version is BAD - as in, I've already made many public commitments to avoid ever putting myself in this situation again. A good deal of reflection has led to some useful conclusions, including the meaningful rewards of all that hard work.

Conclusion #1: When presented with an opportunity to begin a new project, I focus solely on the potential scientific benefits (including "that sounds so cool!"). Unfortunately, I don't attend to the details of how the project will be carried out - whether anyone has generated a list of all relevant tasks, who is in charge of which tasks, how long each one will take, and what the standard is for completion. Which is strange, because I'm a planner! I schedule my activities carefully and I've rarely had difficulty keeping up with ongoing tasks. But without soliciting all of the relevant information above and/or making key decisions ahead of time, my plans get blown up regularly, and I lose hours on tasks that I thought would take 30 minutes. That means something else just isn't going to get attention. 

Poster #8 of the Semester
Similarly, when it's time to prepare for my favorite conferences (or for our internal student research day), it sounds like a great idea to submit 7-8 abstracts at a time. It's only when preparing posters and presentation slides (or making multiple rounds of edits to student posters) that I remember "I didn't have to do ALL of this." Tired much, academic in this photo? ---->

As many academics suggest, it would be useful to have a clearer long-term plan and concrete targets to hit. Then I can reference the plan when new opportunities are presented: does this fit, and does it help me meet my target? If it will put me beyond the target, is it enough to justify the time and effort of the project?

Conclusion #2: I'm a perfectionist/control freak. This is a tough one for me to admit. I have high standards and there is a right way to do much of what I do, so I tend to insist that it be done this way. It's easy to see the problems that such tendencies create, such as making more work (and possibly, friction) for myself than is absolutely necessary. And of course, it's just generally uncomfortable to doubt that you're a good collaborator.

At the same time, there are good reasons to insist that work be done in a particular way. Junior investigators, in particular, have to be aware of how we're building our reputations and whose standards we use to evaluate our work - especially if we work on multidisciplinary teams, as norms differ across fields. This feeds back to #1, in that potential difficulties can be avoided with thorough conversations up front. 

I'm still in the process of deciding whether to focus on changing this tendency or accepting it and adapting to it (e.g., with early conversations and the attitude that not everything is worth doing). I suspect that there is a happy medium.

Conclusion #3: I hit my limits before I expect to. I can tough it out through busy, stressful times - I have a lot of practice and I hate to be a complaint factory. So I expected to be okay for the first few months of the semester, and to feel the effects in the last few weeks. In truth, I was burnt out two weeks before spring break (i.e., five weeks in). I had little energy for socializing, which usually invigorates me, and my work didn't quite meet those high standards of mine. 

I didn't realize how spent I was until I traveled for a conference and friends inquired about my well-being. They didn't think I was on the verge of a meltdown, but they could tell that something was off. Then it hit me pretty hard. In response, I took the opportunity to rest and see the sights more than I originally planned. It helped a lot, and probably saved me some sanity down the road. As a result, I'll be more careful to take breaks (always a downfall), check in with myself, and communicate realistic time frames for completed work.

Conclusion #4: Staying mindful of positivity and the power to change can get me through. Throughout this crazy semester, I prefaced (or added the caveat to) any complaining with the acknowledgements that (1) everything on my plate was good, and (2) I made my own bed. I'm fortunate to have the opportunities I have (people want to work with me, yay!), and I have some ability to modify my schedule and commitments as I see fit (flexibility, also yay). As a clinical psychologist, I know that most people can handle difficulty if they know that it's temporary. Hope and optimism are pretty powerful; it's the lack of confidence that circumstances will improve that really gets us. My little reminders - which were accurate - kept me from getting lost in negativity. So I'll keep up those mantras whenever staying afloat seems more difficult than it should be.

Clinical Health Psychology Lab
Conclusion #5: It's all worth it. Really. I had some important successes this semester. I had a first-authored paper accepted in a great journal and my first NIH grant received a decent score. Another grant was reviewed very favorably by a mock study section. I made some critical connections at conferences. I gave many guest lectures. And I finally recovered from surgery and got back to my normal exercise routine.

Most important of all, though, were my students' successes. One was accepted at a prestigious medical school and one at an ideal masters program for her. I supervised three undergraduate Honors theses, which were my first; one of them received an Honorable Mention for our Library Research Prize and that student won two awards from our department. I mentored five additional students to posters at our research day (See photographic evidence, and #1....) 

Our Lab at Senior Awards Night
Seeing my students do well was hugely rewarding. It was the first time that I got to feel true pride in someone else's accomplishments (rather than just happiness for them), as I knew the role I played in each. And, unsurprisingly, it shifted my perspective on the long hours, sleep deprivation, and decreased socializing. I love the work for its own sake, and I'm so grateful that I get to share this with students. (Stay tuned for more commentary on this process.)

This is your life lessons of the semester: Know thyself, ask questions, and keep your eyes on the horizon.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Year, New Outlook?

Three weeks in. Though we've had almost three weeks to get used to writing "2016," I'll admit that I still have one foot in my 2015 mindset - the one that served me well as a trainee, but now shows diminishing returns. Namely, a mindset that pushes me to take on as much as humanly possible in order to squeeze out as much useful information as I can. There's just so much to be learned about the topics that I care about. But so far this year, I'm paying attention to the costs.

For example, I know that it's perfectly acceptable (and possibly desirable) to attend a conference without submitting to present at it. But when conference season rolls around, I don't even consider this option. Partly because I'm in the habit of gearing my projects toward conference deadlines, but partly because.... why the hell not? Conferences are such a great way to get the word out about my work! 

Me, presenting at a
conference last year.
But it's always the same. I start with one or two main submissions; as I prep abstracts, I get ideas for other submissions; I want students to present, of course, so there's a few more. Before you know it, I'm presenting a talk and five posters, plus three posters that I'll co-author (across two conferences). And just for fun, these conferences are within two weeks of each other this year! That's a lot of conference prep. On top of teaching, supervising honors theses, service, and running a four-month intervention study. (At least two of these activities also could go in the "probably not necessary" bin.)

WHY?? This product-focused mindset was not born merely of ambition, CV building, or the desire for tenure. I love what I do, and I want to discuss it with my clever peers (some of whom I only see at conferences). But this mindset has drawbacks: I spend little time on leisure activities,* I don't read for pleasure very often anymore, I don't travel much,** my house could be a lot cleaner. And I could be healthier. Healthy is the one that gets me these days.

As a clinical health psychologist, I'm well aware of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and I do pretty well. I practice a lot of what I preach; I run, I watch what I eat,. But I don't always attend to problems in a timely fashion, which can make the problems worse. Case in point: I've had a chronic, low-grade health problem for years, and in August, I finally went to have it checked out. After a five-month whirlwind of doctors and tests, I recently underwent a (minor) surgical procedure to fix the problem. My first surgery, in fact, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The short version is TIRED. VERY TIRED, NEED TO LIE DOWN, CAN'T GO FAST (physically or mentally). I've had to admit to myself that I cannot, and should not, push myself like I usually do.

What am I doing instead? I leave work by 4:00 and I nap a lot, which still is difficult to believe. I walk on the treadmill, rather than run. And I read. How glorious it is to have time for reading again! Honestly, I forgot how much I love to read. And I joined a reading group - my first one! For the group, which is meeting next week, I already tore through Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist and started Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. Gay's set of essays was particularly familiar, as it articulated something I've long felt but couldn't put words to (a subject for another post). I'm also doing preparatory reading for courses, including texts on gender and illness, neuroscience, and psychotherapy supervision. 

This is your life moment of the new year: Forced relaxation serves as a great reminder to make time for LIFE during the semester.*** One of these days, that message will stick. Let's hope it's in 2016!



*Other than watching Netflix, of course.
**By "much" I mean "at all," unless you count overnights to Philly for work (2 hours away).
***To be fair, all of this (including the surgery) is possible because spring semester hasn't started yet.