When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

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I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.

Book writing: I wrote a book!

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!

It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.

Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.

This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.

The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.

The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.

I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.

None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.

Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.

I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have Sam her, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles, and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.

When you hate your writing and everything sucks

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stopping being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

What I learned about being a writer in 2019

As I sit here at my desk, on the first day of what promises to be one of my busiest work years yet, struggling to keep the writing mojo with me, I am pausing to reflect on what I have learned about being a writer over the last year. Indeed, what I have learned over the last decade. What lessons can I learn, and what inspiration can I take forward into this new year and decade? What small nuggets of pithy writing wisdom can I share? Well, if you will permit me to try and share what writing wisdom I have gained, here goes:

1. The only thing that actually leads to finished papers and books is writing.

Profound, right? The thing is, I have spent a lot of time over the last year doing some serious procrastinating, and talking to my students about their lack of writing being done and sent for feedback. There has been a not-so-small amount of panicking, for me and peers and students, about the writing not being done. Yet, when it comes down to it, sitting down to write gets pushed further and further down the to-do list, and all the top spots on that list are filled with e-mail, and tidying, and faffing around. If you want finished writing, you have to write. Even if you hate every word, even if it feels like you press save at the end of each sentence. Even if you think it’s the worst thing you have ever written. You have to just do it, as often as you can – every day is best, but at least 4-5 days a week if you are working on a big project like a book or a thesis. You can’t really expect to produce a big piece of writing if you are only getting yourself to sit down once a week or less. So, you have to make your writing time a priority and protect it, from yourself and from others.

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2. Your writing is part of you; it needs your time, and you and your time are important and should be prioritised.

Too often, I have pushed my writing away because I have told myself that it is less important than the work other people have prioritised and are paying me to do. While I have to make a living, and pay the bills, I am not just a worker. I am a writer. This is part of my scholarly and personal identity, and as such it is important, valuable, worthy of respect. But it takes a lot of time to be a productive, competent writer. You need to read, make notes, plan, draft, revise, redraft, find the courage to seek feedback, use that feedback, redraft again. That time is too often given away to other tasks, big and small, important and unimportant, mostly because I devalue my writing, and in so doing, de-prioritise the time it needs and also the development of this part of my self. This is a version of balance, but rather than work-life, I have been trying to learn about work-writing balance. Rather than veering from one extreme to the other, which is not really sustainable (all writing and no work, or no writing and all work), I have been trying to create days that have both: writing first, before the email and busy-work, and then email and busy-work after. The days I get this balance right are few, so far, but they feel so good that I am motivated to keep trying.

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3. Writing is also work, and work is only one of the things that defines me.

This world of academia that I work in is hella competitive these days, and pressured. It is scary, as someone without tenure, to consider saying ‘no’ to offers of work: who knows if that offer will come around again, or if there will be another piece of work (and salary) behind it? There are so many people like me, looking for work, competent, driven. So, if I say no and they say yes, I’m out. That’s the fear, anyway. So, I tend to say yes to far too many things, and overload myself, and then struggle to find time and headspace to write. Making writing work, and not a special indulgence, helps: along with seeing it as a valuable part of my self, seeing it as valid work enables me to make it part of my work day and week, and not (always) feel like I’ve done nothing productive if all I have done is read or write of a day. Just because it doesn’t earn me money, doesn’t make it not-work. But, between all the writing-work and paid-work, there is a not a lot of time left over for life, especially if I am always competing and scared to say no. This year has been a big learning curve for me in terms of learning to say no, let go, and not panic or feel bad for doing so. Work of any kind is just one thing – an important thing, but ONE thing – that makes me, me. I am also a mother and a wife and a friend and a baker and a surfer and a reader and a person who likes weekend lie-ins. I have learned that I can be just as, if not more productive, if I learn to stop every now and then and have a day in my pjs doing nothing much, even in the middle of the week. That balance, between all the work and me and what I need to cope with my whole life, has been hard to strike consistently, but I’ve done more writing this year than any other since my PhD, and I have managed to be more balanced too.

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4. Writing can be enjoyable if you stop trying to create perfection.

This is my final nugget of wisdom from 2019. I spend far too much time trying to write The Most Awesome Paper/Chapter Ever Written, which is, of course, impossible. Perfect writing does not exist. But good writing does – great writing even. This writing is considered good or great because people can actually read it and judge it so. This means it is finished, published, out there in the world and not stuck in my head or my laptop. This quest for perfection is paralysing, and it makes writing too hard and too painful. If you want every word, every sentence to be exactly write on the first or second go, you are just going to hate your writing and sitting down to do it will feel like a punishment. In trying to get this book finally finished (and I have about 3 weeks left now), I have consciously let go of this push for perfection. Every single time I sit down, which is every day now, I tell myself out loud: “Just write. Get the words on the page and tomorrow you can re-read, edit and reshape this thing. It just has to be written for now”. What I am finding, as I let myself do this and get into a groove is that, even though I know some of these words and sentences will get the chop, or be rewritten, I am actually enjoying the process of creating these final drafts. I am enjoying this more than the earlier drafts, where I put way too much pressure on myself to write the definitive text on teaching in higher education. Seriously, what was I thinking? Any piece of writing, big or small, is just one argument, one contribution to knowledge, one grain of sand on the vast beach of knowledge we humans are creating. If I can’t have any fun doing this work, why would I want to keep going? I want to enjoy writing, even when it’s hard, and I don’t want to feel like it’s a punishment. So, I’m going to keep learning this lesson far more consciously, and look for the pleasure rather than the perfection.

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I’d love to hear your nuggets of writing wisdom gained over the last year – won’t you take a moment to share one for other readers in the comments? I hope 2020 is a productive, happy, balanced year for us all. Happy new year!

Taking a break: how long is long enough (or too long)?

Every year while I was working on my PhD I would struggle to get back into the reading and writing after the December holiday break. I took around 3 weeks off each year before Christmas and then into the new year, and it was so hard to come out of idle speed and back up to work and PhD speed. I wrote about the need for a break, acknowledging the challenge of making this break neither too short nor too long. Too short and you are not rested enough to get going again with fresh energy and drive. Too long and you may get stuck in holiday mode for too long, leading to writing and research paralysis and anxiety.

I find myself, right now, in desperate need of a mental and physical break. But, and this is a big but, I cannot take one because my book manuscript in its entire, finished form is due in mid-January to the publisher. I cannot ask for a new deadline, because I have already done that. Also, I don’t want another extension. I want to move forward with a new project next year and I need to complete this one first. So, it needs to stay on schedule. Hence, there is no break this year for me – not really. I will be writing over Christmas and new year, not lolling about all day by the pool or on the beach, reading holiday-for-my-brain chick lit on my Kindle.

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That said, it has been a long and exhausting year on the work front, and if I work too hard over this supposed break time, and then launch myself right out of the book and into 2020 work, I may well be burned out by Easter. This would be a poor plan for a productive start to my new research, not to mention all my 2020 teaching, supervision and writing development work planned. So, I do need some sort of plan for rest in amongst the writing, even if that rest is more physical than mental.

Ideally, your end-of-year PhD or Masters or work break needs to be both: physical and mental. You need to actually not turn on your computer, or check email, or write or read anything, or be near your office. You need to physically and mentally change the scenery, reading fiction, going for walks outdoors, binge-watching a new series, spending time with family and friends, drinking a G&T in the swimming pool under a wide-brimmed hat (that last one might just be mine). This change of scenery, I have learned, is important for putting work in its place, and for rebalancing your energy after a long year. There is no rule for how long is too long for a break from email, research, writing and thinking here, but I think there is a rule that breaks are important and need to be properly taken when they are needed.

Work is just one of the things that we do and that shapes us, it cannot be THE thing otherwise that work-life balance will be quite skewed to the detriment of physical and mental wellbeing. This has been a hard one for me over the years, and something I have only gotten better at since my late 30s, when I stopped trying to push myself to ridiculous lengths to be the Best Ever at Everything. I think all (over) achievers can perhaps identify with a struggle to slow down, delegate, turn the out-of-office email on without the fear that something will go down while you’re not looking and leave you out.

I certainly have struggled, and while I am by no means over all of this, I do now find it easier to realise that my own physical and mental health, and emotional wellbeing, is so much more important that being online and available to anyone who may need my help 365 days a year. That is neither possible, nor desirable as a work-life goal. I can say ‘no’, the world will keep turning, and I don’t have to feel terrible about putting myself first. I think there is something in this about learning to put ourselves first, and seeing that as selfish in a positive, rather than negative, way.

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There is a certain kind of humility, perhaps, in being selfish like this: realising that you are tired, and need a rest, and may even need help to take a rest properly. As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty jug. If you are depleted, then what will you have to offer your peers, colleagues, students, not to mention your family and friends? Not very much. And the result of spreading yourself too thin for too long, apart from burnout, may also be feelings of resentment towards those peers, colleagues, students who keep asking for your time. In my experience, pushing myself too hard for too long has also lead to writing paralysis, and then guilt and shame after neglecting my writing because I was just too tired to face it.

So, this year, stuck as I am writing like a fiend now because I procrastinated too much a few months ago, I need to take little mini-breaks and make them count. Obviously, I will have Christmas day off, and probably will have to rest off the champagne on new year’s day. But, in between I have to write and write hard. My plan is simple: a few good hours or more of writing every day, and then a proper rest. My novel, or a game of Wii tennis with my boys, or a swim in the sea, or a surf with my son, or a walk with the dog. And then back to writing. I am hoping, with a conscious balance between important writing time and important resting time, I will reach this particular finish line with enough energy intact to keep the work going until I can take a longer rest later next year. And perhaps, I will learn enough from this year’s “break” to achieve a better work-life balance in 2020.

Thank you all for your support, likes and comments this year. I am looking forward to sharing more writing ups, downs, advice and journey in 2020. Happy holidays to you all!

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