Dr. Workload, or: How I learned to be more productive and put self care first

Being a grad student is hard work, being a post-doc is hard work, being a professor is hard work. I remember the constant state of stress, lack of sleep, concerns about deadlines and massive workload I carried as a doc student. Now, looking back five years later, I can say with certainty that it did not get any lighter but has been a learning process in how to juggle fifty things at once, sometimes successfully, sometimes eh, not so much.

The pressure to be successful, to find funding, to publish, to get results, it is just as much if not more with each change in level. Factor into that equation that I am a single mother of two maintaining the schedules of a 6 year old and 17 year old and the mental image is hair-raising. At any given moment you are juggling 50 things, from the household chores and dinner to the next NSF proposal and four publications that are in progress. It is more than enough to make any one person crash and burn and honestly, I did.

But in that crash I came out with something amazing, I found myself again after years of living in my workload. Forget corny advice and rays of sunshine, you won’t find them here, but you will find my candid reflection on how putting self-care first has completely changed my life and, in turn, made me a better mother, friend, and academic.

As much as we try to prepare, starting an academic career is so multi-dimensional that it is impossible to walk in the door and really have your stuff completely together. You literally spend years setting up your research, your lab, building relationships, learning the culture of your school, and building your way into service, scholarship, and teaching.

The first semester is a blur honestly, as I was in a survival mode with all the new information, training, and planning for my courseload among other things. It was very easy for me to slip into work mode, however, I began to find it harder and harder to slip back out of it. It became common for me to spend twelve or more hours on work each day, to not put it down on the weekends, to be attached to my laptop always working on something.

Although I had great friends at work and support from my family, I allowed myself to become isolated by putting everything into my work. My focus cost me personally while I began to thrive professionally. It became harder to say no because I was afraid of slipping out of productivity and because, like most junior academics, I was eaten alive with imposter syndrome.

In my second year as a professor, I felt more confident in my teaching and my courseload had become more balanced. Luckily my institution allowed for first year faculty to forego major service to learn the system, but in year two I found myself on multiple major committees at the university level and college level while also navigating a consolidation between my school and another.

The work load nearly doubled that year and within two months of the start of term my anxiety levels had reached full-blown panic mode. It was at that point that I completely broke down. It was my turning point as I balanced weeks of crying and panic-attack inducing stress with trying to hold together my household and be there for my sons. It was at that point that I could no longer ignore that I was hurting my health and that I couldn’t be good for anyone if I didn’t take care of myself first.

Fast forward to year three and I am busier than ever but happier than I have been in over a decade. What changed? My focus and my goals. I put down my work on the weekends and at night, I don’t answer emails at all hours, I have put a focus on finding myself again and doing the things that I loved but had given up over the years in pursuit of being more productive as an academic.

I spend the weekends with my boys fishing, out on the water, in the woods, and on adventures to build memories with them while I have them at home. I spend my nights cooking and goofing off and letting my mind and body recover from the workload of my day.

Good mentors had been telling me things about self-care for ages, but it just seemed so counter-intuitive to getting things done and my Type A perfectionist personality struggled to process the concept. I have realized, however, that they were all right. Taking care of myself has made me more focused when I do work, made me a better manager of my time, and given me new purpose in what I am doing.

What works for me might not be a good fit for you, but in hindsight, it was a collection of all the advice, stories, and observations I had made about those around me who were happy that led me to take the steps that I did. I am sharing them in the hopes that all the support and love that was shared with me can help others find their balance.

  1. Set a fixed schedule – Time management is a bear in academia because our schedules tend to be more “open” in terms of fixed hours.
  2. Stick to the schedule – Many of the things I stopped life to complete really were not so life-threatening that they could not wait.
  3. Prioritize yourself and those you love – It is so easy to become an island if you don’t put work into yourself. Stop working and do what you love, you will feel better and when you feel better you can focus more clearly and get more done.
  4. Get organized – I am organized to a fault but had to put more effort into setting up blocks of time to contain my work. I keep a yearly schedule where I set up all the major events and then block in time for myself to prepare manuscripts, etc and create deadlines for myself.
  5. Reach out – The hardest thing to do is ask for help and support because we don’t want to feel like we have let ourselves or others down, there is nothing wrong with help and nothing gets done in a vacuum. There are SO many awesome people out there (in real life and our pocket friends) who are willing to listen, share support, and just be there for you when you need it.

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