Friday, June 23, 2017

Where On Earth Did Year 3 Go? And Other Mysteries

It's been almost a year since I wrote a blog post. I bet you can guess what happened! The short version is that I thoroughly enjoyed my summer (while still being productive) and then was quickly swept away in what often seems like a complete blur of a year. Oh I remember every agonizing moment (and some positive moments), but it went by FAST, and there was always something pressing that needed attention. That should have been my first clue - an entire year with no lulls in the pace of work? Bad news. And bad planning. I admit that I emerged as a person I don't want to be: irritable, negative, overtired. Generally not my best self, and I committed to addressing that as soon as grades were submitted.

What did I learn from this unpleasant experience? Probably nothing that I didn't know already, but apparently I needed a harsh reminder. First, it's not as easy as "learn to say no." That's excellent advice and academics should follow it. But I said no, often. I turned down manuscript review and guest lecture invitations and I let students know that the lab couldn't support anyone new. I passed on some opportunities to participate in professional society and university committee activities and was relieved when someone else was selected for a particularly time-consuming position. Despite multiple requests, I said no to a large set of responsibilities that required summer work. In fact, I might have said no more than I said yes, but the pace was worse than ever. And it wasn't as though the opportunities I said yes to were just the wrong ones to choose. 

Me, giving the keynote address
at my university's Wellness Day
for faculty and staff.
I'm not certain about what went wrong. My hypothesis is that the balance was off - that there were too many recurring, long-term, or ongoing commitments (e.g., regular meetings, being available/not writing during RAs' work hours, organizing and promoting upcoming events) and not enough one-off/short-term tasks, or too many of the latter interspersed with the former. Definitely too many commitments that required me to corral other people; great service if you do it one at a time, but more than one at any given time is a recipe for frustration. And definitely not enough scheduled, protected writing time.

Why was the lack of writing time particularly harmful? Probably not for the reason(s) you'd guess. Sure, not sitting down and "slapping my mitts" against a keyboard (as Paul Silvia would say) made me a bit anxious about my productivity level, and the anxiety was warranted; I submitted fewer manuscripts this year than last, and thus, have fewer acceptances to date. But the difference really isn't that big, and the manuscripts I did produce had some important consequences for me. (For example, one of them got me a consultant position with a fantastic research institute.) Plus, I gave lots of talks (at professional conferences and invited talks on campus/in the community), got highly involved with my primary professional society (which has been great fun and has introduced me to wonderful people), and did A LOT of service. All of this is expected and needs to get done, and I still managed to get a few papers out. 

The problem wasn't just that I wasn't as productive as I wanted to be. It was that I genuinely missed writing. I have to work hard at it to generate high-quality products, as most of us do, and of course, that process isn't always enjoyable. Neither is the review process, most of the time. But the process of sitting down with a cup of coffee, putting ideas to paper, finding new published research that informs what I'm writing/finding ways to integrate it, and coming up with new, exciting hypotheses as I go - I really, really missed it. I didn't realize how important that is to me, or how happy it makes me, until I came back to it at the start of the summer. The difference was startling.

I have lots of ideas about how to address this problem, and I've already put some of them into action. First, absolutely no email or other work-related activities on weekends or after 5:00pm on weekdays (except for true emergencies, which are rare). I'm increasingly intolerant of the expectation that I'll respond during these times, even during active semesters, but especially in the summer. Second, I committed to a personal goal of completing my 7th marathon in the fall, and I'm training correctly by taking extra time to cross-train, build muscle, eat well, and keep a log. (Much more on this later.) Third, I make space for "quiet time" every day - reading, logging, and/or just thinking about the things I enjoy. The latter can include work, if I choose, but it doesn't have to. 

Finally, keeping up with this blog. I don't pretend to have sage advice or answers to life's most pressing problems. But writing these posts keeps me organized and accountable, and it fits well with item #3 above. As a preview, here are some topics you can expect to read about this summer:
- Summer lab management at an undergraduate institution
- My faculty summer writing retreats
- Running and research, Parts 2-X (see here for Part 1)
- Organizing the personal (in a healthy way)
- Reading as downtime

Stay tuned!

This is your life moment of the year: "Whatever we pay attention to is what we become." - Alanna Kaivalya. For me, this means paying more attention to aspects of my life other than work, and being fully present during these times. And when working, giving it my full awareness. Otherwise, I become that person I really don't want to be.

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