On busyness and striving for balance

This semester has been rather hectic for me, hence my lack of blogging. Why? Mostly because of a combination of field season and flipping Intro Bio. Intro Bio here at Michigan is huge (over 600 students), and is a bit of a beast to teach, especially in the fall when many students are just getting used to college. And we’re overhauling the course this semester, which has greatly increased the workload. So, while I still am not working 80 hours a week, I have routinely been working ~55. I sneak in work at every available moment, and, when I’m not working, I feel guilty that I’m not. We’ve had a babysitter come for a couple of hours on the weekends so I can get a bit more work done. I have not seen or called friends nearly as much as I’d like, because I feel like I need to spend that time trying to get work done, because the deadlines for getting samples counted, quizzes written, lectures prepped, etc. are relentless. I’ve been working right up until going to bed*, and waking up early thinking about work. That lack of sleep means I’ve been making more mistakes, and that I’ve been more frazzled this semester. It’s not good.

I was recently re-reading this blog post by Chris Buddle, where he implores “Please stop telling me how busy you are”. I agree with the general idea that we shouldn’t wear busy-ness as a badge of honor. But, at the same time, there are times where there truly is too much to do. Should I have said “no” to more things? Apparently, but the things that have me overwhelmed are pretty important parts of my job. I knew that this fall would be busy (yes, I’m using that word), and so I started prepping my lectures in July. I didn’t give my first lecture until late October. At the time, it seemed a little extreme to be starting that early, but I am so glad I did. If I hadn’t, I really don’t know how I’d have gotten through this semester. And, even with that, I’ve been scrambling as hard as I can to keep up, and feel like I’ve just barely done so. The metaphor that keeps springing to mind is that this fall feels like I am trying to sprint a marathon. There have been weeks where things that needed to get done didn’t; I hate prioritizing essential tasks in terms of which would be the least bad to let slip, but that’s how it’s been this fall.

But, now that field season is over and I’ve gotten some of the workload of Intro Bio completed, I’ve found that I’ve defaulted to a routine where I feel like I have to be working all the time, and where doing other things (like writing this blog post!) feel like a luxury. But that’s not good. Chris is right that it’s important to take moments to enjoy the small things, and that evaluating one’s priorities is essential. Even during the busiest times of the semester, I continued to run regularly, because I know that that is essential for my mental well-being, so it’s a very high priority. But I’ve cut back on other things that are also important to me, and I need to start prioritizing those more. And I need to stop feeling anxious if I’m not working all the time. I am more than just my work.

I’ll say that again: I am more than just my work. I think I need to make that my new mantra. I don’t need to be a slave to my email.** And while it’s very tempting to add that cool new example to my lecture, I need to ask myself: Is including that new example in my next lecture more important than baking cookies with my daughter? No, it’s not. So, on that note, I’m going to hit “post”, then turn off my computer now and go outside to hang up Christmas lights with my daughter. This is likely one of the last warmish days we’ll have for a while — I want to enjoy it!


*I’ve decided that I need something like Microsoft’s Clippy, except I need him to pop up when I’m trying to work at night, saying “It looks like you’re trying to work late at night. Stop!”

** I was recently thinking about how nice it would have been to teach in the pre-email days. While I’m sure there were many challenges, right now, the idea that I wouldn’t be expected to be available every day seems really, really nice.

14 thoughts on “On busyness and striving for balance

  1. I’ve installed f.lux on my computer – it adjust the screen brightness and temperature to match whether you’re working by natural light or by indoor light. The screen gets darker and redder in the evenings, and by 11pm it’s more or less impossible to work – definitely a good way to ensure you stop work at a sensible time. Apparently it’s easier to fall asleep after as you haven’t been looking at blue light.

  2. I can relate very much to the idea that slowing back down is hard. Indeed, I’ve come to think one of the worst aspects of “ramping it up” to get through a crisis convergence of can’t put off deadlines is that I seem to change physiological/psychological states and I still keep revving at that rate weeks after the crisis is over. And there are very rapid diminishing returns – I’m exhausted, inefficient, ineffective and still trying to work too many hours. Haven’t really figured out how to turn it off so I’m increasingly working very hard at not getting to that place (but definitely not perfect at that either – sometimes life happens).

    • Yes, agree with both you and Meg that if you have to crank away on work for a while, it becomes a sort of default state. It does for me, anyway. You have to work to reacquire your old habits, so that things like exercise, attending seminars, blogging–or baking cookies with your kids!–once again become part of your routine rather than feeling like they’re taking time away from work.

      • I think part of the problem (for me at least) relates to what habits you acquire. For me, work is easy – it just means going to my laptop and picking up something to do. After months of working nights (although thankfully not so much weekends – I still manage to keep those for the kids) its just a habit. Doing something else would take… planning. It would actually take more work than working.🙂

      • Yes, I agree! It’s hard to realize “Oh, hey, I have a little free time” and then immediately find a friend to go for coffee with.

  3. Great post, Meg. Yes, finding the balance is extraordinarily difficult. And, i think, ‘being busy’ changes from term to term, month to month. There are times when I can do *nothing* but buckle down and there is very litle work-life balance. In fact, I was in that state for several weeks now, but it’s calming down a little bit now. I think the real trick is that when that busyness is over, it’s critical to slow down instead of keeping up that pace. In other words, I think it’s sometimes tricky to recognize when intense busyness has actually passed.

    And, I like your “mantra”. It’s excellent and needs to stated. Your comment about keeping up the running also resonates with me: I try to keep up the exercise no matter how busy I am. Over time I’ve realized that when that starts to slip, everything starts to slip.

    Anyway, terrific post, Meg. Good luck with the rest of the term.

    • “I think the real trick is that when that busyness is over, it’s critical to slow down instead of keeping up that pace. In other words, I think it’s sometimes tricky to recognize when intense busyness has actually passed.” Yes! This is exactly what I was trying to get at. There are times where we really will need to go all out, but the trick is to recognize when that time has passed, and to correct back to a better balance.

  4. It sounds as though we’ve been having very similar semesters. For me the real problem is when ‘permanent crisis’ becomes the default status; you’ve deferred the non-urgent tasks until they became urgent, so even when the immediate panic subsides, something else has already taken its place, and stopping becomes impossible.

    My way around this is to schedule ‘minimum accomplishment’ days. Set a task that can be comfortably completed within a day. If you procrastinate to fill a day with it, then you probably needed that slow, inefficient time for brain recovery. If you do complete it ahead of schedule then do some fun or non-essential work, like blogging or catching up on the literature, instead of moving on to the next urgent task immediately. Ticking five things off the list per week is no mean feat and seems to work better for me than trying to do them all at once or in rapid succession, which just ends up in total burnout.

  5. I find it to be super important to take a break after very busy times. Basically, I need to break the bad habit of over-working, and so stopping work entirely for a while (ideally at least a couple weeks) really resets everything and makes me realign my priorities. It’s hard to get out of the perspective of work_is_very_important until you *really* put it aside. And then you get to realize it’s not all that important after all. “I really wish I had put in a few more hours of preparing lecture slides,” said no one on their deathbed ever.

  6. I wonder how faculty with kids, especially early career ones, find the time and energy to keep up with work, remain physically and mentally healthy, and be a loving and involved parent. I know there are many who can and do do this, and those folks impress me more than any others. Maybe this was the subject of some earlier posts?

    • ” Maybe this was the subject of some earlier posts?”

      I vaguely recall an old post or comment thread in which Meg talked about how people ask her how she manages to juggle everything, and how her answer is “I don’t know”. But just did a quick search and couldn’t find it…

  7. I found an interesting way to avoid overwhelming busyness this summer. My main project this year required one day in the field each week at a local site from May 15 to Nov. 5th. Thus, no matter how busy I was, I needed to go out that outside on the prairie. Remarkably, looking back over that time my productivity (writing accomplished, lectures prepped, administration dealt with etc.) was no different then if I had been in the office five days a week.

    This suggests to me that even though I feel very busy in the office, I am actually wasting a fair amount of time. Giving my brain a break by leaving the computer screen behind, was likely enhancing my productivity the rest of the time.

  8. Pingback: Late-semester thoughts on flipping the classroom | Dynamic Ecology

  9. Pingback: How I plan to use my research leave | Dynamic Ecology

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