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Thriving Amidst Academic Chaos

Wednesday, January 8, 2014  
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By Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD | Originally Posted: Vitae

There's 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.


First, 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.


But 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 research.


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

The 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.


Remember, 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

Most 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

It 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.


If 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 more enjoyable.


Step 4: Rethink old habits

When 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

While 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.


Ultimately, 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.

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