Thriving Amidst Academic Chaos
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
By Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD | Originally Posted: Vitae
something about the start of a new term in January that has a way of
feeling quite abrupt! One day you're celebrating the holidays and
enjoying a loose schedule and the next thing you know, you're right back
into classes, meetings, deadlines and the full-throttle stress of daily
demands. While there’s plenty of blog posts, articles, and advice out
there on how to survive during
a busy semester, there’s very little on how to actually thrive. By that
I mean how to be highly productive in your research and have a full and
healthy life beyond campus. This month, I want to invite you to imagine
how it would feel to make significant progress on your writing and
grant projects while also taking the weekends off, sleeping eight hours a
night, and being fully present with people you love (instead of
physically present and constantly checking your cell phone).
As someone who runs an independent faculty-development center
that serves over 40,000 academics, I know that learning to thrive in
academia is a process. The good news is that there's a well-documented
set of behaviors that contribute to thriving. The bad news is that the
behaviors that help people thrive are the opposite of how most academics
work and how most of us were socialized in graduate school. That said,
you can become more productive by making small changes in your daily
behavior and you can start that process today.
though, it’s critical to understand why so many tenure-track and
tenured faculty are NOT thriving. It all boils down to the structure of
academic work: Teaching and service have a high degree of built-in
accountability, but your scholarly work (what matters most for tenure
and promotion) has next to none. For example, having a room full of
students waiting for you in the classroom several times per week ensures
that you’ll show up and teach them something. Likewise, service
involves meetings, reports, events, and so on. If you don’t attend, or
don’t complete the paperwork, there will be consequences.
when it comes to writing, there’s no built-in, daily accountability, so
faculty often wait until the last minute and then engage in
binge-and-bust writing to meet their deadlines. Unfortunately, it’s easy
to fall into the trap of over-functioning on teaching and service while
under-functioning on research and writing. The problem with this
pattern is that it leads to feelings of guilt and anxiety about not
writing, not to mention exhaustion and disappointment at the end of the
term. Once you realize that this challenge is a structural one,
you can start creating your own accountability mechanisms for the two
things that are essential to your long-term success: maintaining your
personal health and wellness, and producing and publishing your
There are plenty of ways to move toward those goals. Here’s a five-step plan that works for me:
Step 1: Eliminate electronic distractions
most common complaint I hear from people is about electronic clutter:
They feel overwhelmed by how much email they receive, and by how much
time they spend answering it. You can’t control everything that comes
into your inbox, but you might be surprised how much you can control.
for a lot of e-mail, there’s an off switch: UNSUBSCRIBE. Pick one day
this week and spend a little time unsubscribing from the listservs and
daily e-mail updates you don’t read anymore. In December, I removed
myself from 97 mailing lists (most of which I had never signed up for).
It's shockingly simple and it's reduced the amount of email I receive by
more than half.
Of course, e-mail
is just one example. You may want to consider whether other areas of
your work life have "off" switches that you might have overlooked. For
example, if you’re overwhelmed by service commitments, say "no” to
taking on additional ones this month. Or if too many people are stopping
by your office with last-minute requests, close the door (even if only
for a little while).
Step 2: Create a plan for your writing and your personal goals
academics automatically plan for the things that have built-in
accountability (you make a syllabus for your teaching, create deadlines
for grading, etc.). As you start a new term, you've planned your courses
and you've got your committee meetings, events, and various functions
on your calendar because you have to do these things.
But what if you had a plan for your writing and your personal goals? It’s simple: Spend 30 minutes deciding what you want to accomplish, how you will accomplish your goal, and when you
will do the work. If you aren't accustomed to planning your writing and
personal goals for the term, why not join us for most popular core
workshop: Every Semester Needs A Plan.
Step 3: Pay yourself first
may seem counterintuitive to schedule daily time for writing when
you're busy, but carving out 30 minutes (or more) per day to move your
manuscripts forward is critical to maintaining your research
productivity and starting the term in a position of strength.
you’ve followed Step 2, you'll have a plan, so you know what tasks need
to get done. Start every day by getting down to business. Don’t check
your email first, don’t get on Facebook, and don’t do other low-priority
tasks right off the bat. Just get your butt in the chair, your fingers
on the keyboard, and start writing. And if you want to turbo-boost your
daily writing, add an accountability mechanism.
Most people who experiment with writing accountability find it not only
results in greater productivity, but it makes daily writing sessions
Step 4: Rethink old habits
I was a tenure-track faculty member, one of my greatest stressors was
grading papers. I would spend hours line-editing papers and making
exhaustive comments because I imagined my labor-intensive grading led to
better student outcomes. Finally, a
mentor pointed out to me that I assume there's only one way to grade
papers and that the way I was neither effective or efficient. Instead,
he suggested I use a grading rubric, a radically simplified version of
comments, and invite those who want to improve their writing to utilize
the services available on campus and submit revisions. Needless to say,
experimenting with these suggestions not only dramatically reduced my
grading time but also improved my student's learning.
I use the example of grading to get you thinking about what practices you habitually engage in, simply because I’ve always done things this way or because that’s just how things have to be done.
Instead, ask yourself: Does this work matter? If it doesn’t matter,
stop it. If it does matter, then ask: How urgently do I need to do this?
And will "done” be good enough, or does this need to be completed to
the highest standard? Consider how you can complete tasks in a way that
leaves you time to invest in the high-priority activities that will
contribute to your long-term success.
Step 5: Listen to your body
you’re reading this, pause for a minute, take a few deep breaths, and
think about what you need. So many of the academics I work with are
sleep deprived, stressed-out, and haven’t seen the inside of a gym in
years. How can you be productive if you’re ignoring your body’s basic
needs? You may be surprised by how something as simple as getting more
sleep, experiencing electronics-free down time, engaging in regular
exercise, receiving a massage, eating healthier foods, and/or spending
more time with people you love can increase your productivity,
creativity, and innovation.
all these suggestions boil down to the same principle: identifying the
areas we can control and making choices that contribute to our long-term
success. In other words, a little planning and prioritizing go a long
way. And exerting your ability to still the waters in your environment
can enable you to have a more balanced and productive life.